Thursday, July 18, 2024

GRRM’s The Exit to San Breta invites questions on genre and outdated stories

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Part of the GRRM Reading Project

George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote The Exit to San Breta during the spring break of his senior year of college, back in early ‘70s. Published for the first time in the February, 1972 issue of Fantastic, the short story was Martin’s second sale. As he says,

“Your second time is almost as exciting as your first, in writing as in sex. One sale might be a fluke, but two sales to two different editors suggested that maybe I had some talent after all.” – George R. R. Martin in Dreamsongs, vol. I

We know several sales would follow those two, but it was an important career milestone for young Martin. Despite its shortness, The Exit to San Breta gives us a lot to think about on genre mixing, genre expectations, mystery and magic, and what makes a story outdated.

Spoilers for The Exit to San Breta below.

The haunted highway

In a not-so-distant future, the mass production of copters and personal gravpaks rendered the automobile obsolete. Highways have been abandoned, unless we’re talking about hovertrucks or the occasional car aficionado like our nameless narrator. He loves driving his old Jaguar XKL in those forgotten highways at night.

In one of those nights, traveling through Arizona, our narrator notices the highway is unusually well kept. The Jaguar is riding beautifully, since there are no cracks or potholes. The lights, the traffic signs, the white lines in the road… everything that should be long gone is in prime condition, as if the road had just been built.

To make everything even weirder, the narrator sees an old Edsel approaching. The Edsel had become priceless, but this one has a family inside and a kid behind the wheel. They ignore the narrator’s attempts to contact them, but before he can figure out why, the kid driver realizes he missed the exit to San Breta and tries to make a U-turn. It goes as awfully as expected and the two cars collide. The narrator leaves his car unscathed, but the family inside the Edsel is not so lucky. Their car explodes, burning them all to death.

Still in shock, the narrator follows distant lights to a small café, where he convinces a local cop to follow him to the crash site. To his surprise, there’s no sign of the Edsel and not a single scratch on his Jaguar. Confused, the narrator spends the night in San Breta trying to figure out what happened.

The answer comes from the owner of a large hobbyist garage: forty years earlier, there was a horrible accident on that road. Everything went exactly as the narrator experienced it, with a family inside an Edsel dying horribly afterwards. Over the years, everytime the conditions matched those of the original accident, a lone male driver would experience a similar phantom accident. There have been fewer accidents now that people no longer use the interstate, but the ghost Edsel is still there, forever looking for the exit to San Breta.

On genre mixing

GRRM describes The Exit to San Breta as a “futuristic fantasy”, adding it might even be classified as horror. Indeed, it’s hard to know how to label this story. Would you consider the ghost family an element of horror or fantasy? What about the tone? Does the futuristic setting make it necessarily a science fiction story?

What defines a genre? The presence of certain elements, of specific tropes? The mood, the tone? Is it the outcome? Or is it up to the reader’s interpretation? Maybe all of that together? I pondered about this before and I don’t think I have an answer for it. I can see elements of fantasy, horror, and science fiction in The Exit to San Breta, but I can’t point precisely where one genre ends and the other begins.

Nowadays GRRM is famous as a fantasy author, but this hasn’t always been the case. Years before the success of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF), he was already known for his work in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. He never really cared what was what:

“Is it a fantasy story, or just a tale of madness? Is it neither, is it both? You be the judge. So long as it’s a good story, that’s enough for me. Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword—Fantasy? Science fiction? Horror? I say it’s a story, and I say the hell with it.” George R. R. Martin in Dreamsongs, vol. II

Since the start of his career, Martin is more interested in creating compelling stories than fitting neatly in a box. This shows in how he juggles multiple influences and blends different genres to tell the story he wants to tell, rather than fulfilling our genre expectations. It’s open for debate if the resulting stories are engaging, but it’s always a pleasure to see him try and come up with something fresh.

A sense of mystery

My favorite part of the story is also one of my biggest complaints: the mystery of the ghost highway and its haunted Edsel.

I love how the road is presented to us, feeling wrong precisely because there’s nothing wrong about it. Simple elements like the lights are used to mark the transition between the ghost road and the real thing. Unfortunately, the uncanny atmosphere is lost once the mystery is revealed.

Your mileage may vary on this, but the supernatural in this story feels somewhat over-explained to me. The narrator discusses extensively with the garage owner what are ghosts and what could have caused this family in particular to be trapped in the exit to San Breta. He then looks for confirmation in the local library. Thus we spend a good part of the story not just solving the mystery, but attempting to explain it, to examine it… in other words, to remove what makes it supernatural. That could have worked if the characters came up with good answers, but sadly that wasn’t the case.

This reminds me of the old debate of hard vs. soft science fiction. There’s no problem in explaining the supernatural if you can come up with an elaborate and satisfying reason why it works that way. Here we are left in an awkward middle ground, that doesn’t allow the supernatural to simply exist nor grounds it in a stronger mythology.

It’s interesting to contrast this to how GRRM will approach magic later in his career, especially in ASOIAF:

“I think the handling of magic in fantasy is one of the genre’s trickiest aspects, one where we have to make a very important decision going in. I wrestled with this for a long time when I was first starting the books. […] If you make magic too explicit, it ceases to become magical. Magic should be wondrous and terrifying. It should be outside our realm of knowledge—supernatural, not natural. That’s the way I tried to handle it.” – George R. R. Martin in interview for Beatrice

Proof that writers are always evolving.

Mystery for the reader vs mystery for the characters

There’s another layer in how The Exit to San Breta handles mystery that we can apply to GRRM’s other works: what is a mystery for the reader and what is a mystery for the characters?

We know something is wrong with the highway as soon as the protagonist enters it. He doesn’t realize what’s going on, but we immediately search our genre archives to see what this could be about. Eventually we put the pieces of the puzzle together—it’s a ghost road!

We can solve this mystery before the protagonist because we know how speculative fiction works, we’ve seen ghost mystery tropes before, and we’re open to the most outlandish possibilities in fiction. The characters in a story are not, unless it’s a story where the supernatural is commonplace. It’s perfectly reasonable that the narrator doesn’t even consider the possibility of a ghost car until someone else suggests it.

This is an interesting aspect of mysteries: what is a mystery for the characters isn’t necessarily a mystery for us readers, and vice versa. Sometimes they know something that we don’t, sometimes we guess it long before they do, and sometimes we all learn the truth together.

It’s something to consider when analyzing works like ASOIAF, that invite the reader to come up with theories to its many mysteries and Chekhov’s guns. Fans often dismiss popular interpretations on the grounds that they’re “too obvious.” It’s worth asking: too obvious for whom? For us, readers? Or for the characters in the story?

Outdated stories vs. outdated storytelling

One of my favorite things about old science fiction is how the stories show their age with failed predictions about the future. Of course that doesn’t apply to alternative universes or alternative history, but stories set in our Earth in a not-too-distant future tend to have this zeerust. We know The Exit to San Breta was written a long time ago because it tells us that copters replaced cars in the ‘90s and sets its main action in the 2010s. That doesn’t match the world we live in, so those predictions must be old.

I don’t blame writers for their outdated futures, since speculative fiction is an exercise of imagination. Those failed predictions make the story outdated, yes, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They tells us about the time they were written and what were the expectations for the future in that time, and that’s fun too.

Other aspects can make a story outdated in a way that bothers me, such as lack of diversity and representation. I’ve complained about it before, but since this is our fifth story in this reading project I think it’s worth re-examining it.

So far GRRM’s worlds have been men’s worlds. Female characters were just background mentions: the nameless women sacrificed in Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark, the nameless wives in The Fortress, the ghost mother and the waitress now in The Exit to San Breta. In fact, I’m pretty sure the nameless waitress was the first female character to have any spoken lines.

The absence of PoC or LGBT+ characters is harder to tell, because in most cases we simply have no information about it. There’s nothing saying those characters are straight and white, just as there’s nothing saying they aren’t. The good news is that you can imagine them however you like, but I wouldn’t count it as representation.

One story in isolation would be fine, but five stories make a pattern and it’s not a good one. I insist on this because I know GRRM improves a lot over the years, but also because he doesn’t improve as much as he should.

Why do I consider this to be outdated storytelling when so many writers and creators still do it? Because the landscape of storytelling was even more biased towards white, straight, and male-centered stories five decades ago than it is today. That’s no excuse because marginalized people always existed and craved for representation, but I can understand why it would be harder for a writer to break this pattern.

In other words, the story feels outdated not because of its flying cars, but because it’s behind on a cultural conversation surrounding diversity and representation in storytelling. I’m afraid that’s where time has been most unkind with GRRM’s earlier stories.

Closing thoughts

With 2017 almost over, we leave the GRRM Reading Project in a good place for 2018. We covered the first steps of Martin’s career as a writer, now we’ll see some of the stories that earned him recognition, fans, and awards.

My goal with this project was to have a better understanding of GRRM’s journey as an author and to gain a new perspective on his choices as a storyteller. Exploring a single writer’s bibliography like this is a new experience for me, and it has been interesting even when the stories themselves weren’t.

If I have to be honest, I didn’t fall in love with any of the stories we’ve examined so far. If you did, that’s great! For me they still lack some of the complexity and skill that GRRM will be known for, especially when it comes to his characters. I can see some of his earlier themes, conflicts he enjoys exploring, elements that will come back in future stories… but he’s still maturing, growing.

That’s fascinating in its own way. Martin is human like the rest of us, and his earlier works show that all his talent came from a lot of practice and a healthy dose of failure. Some of his stories are better than others, as it happens when one has a long bibliography, but the stories that didn’t captivate me paved the way for the ones that did. That makes me appreciate all of them even more.

Next time: an intimate and disturbing tale awaits us in “The Second Kind of Loneliness”.

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