Friday, July 19, 2024

GRRM’s This Tower of Ashes further explores truth and lies

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Part of the GRRM Reading Project.

In 1974, amidst heartbreaks and personal disappointments, George R. R. Martin (GRRM) wrote This Tower of Ashes. The short story would be published two years later on Analog Annual, an anthology designed to attract new readers to the famous science fiction magazine.

After re-reading this story a couple of times, I still don’t know what to make of it. Sometimes you know where a narrative is trying to go even if doesn’t quite take you there, but in this case I’m not even sure of the intended direction. It does, however, make sense with the themes that Martin was and is still exploring in his stories, making it an interesting addition to understanding his bibliography.

So let’s try to unpack this acid spider dream.

Cut-rate dreams and secondhand rainbows

This Tower of Ashes is part of the Thousand Worlds universe, the shared setting for several of Martin’s sci-fi stories like The Hero and A Song for Lya.

The narrator and protagonist John Bowen lives isolated in the titular tower of ashes, a gloomy ruin in the mainland of Jamison’s World. Among the fantastic fauna of the mainland are the dream spiders, creatures whose poison can induce vivid hallucinations in their victims. Dream spider venom is also a popular drug, so John exchanges poison sacs with dealers for supplies. He has been living this way for a few years, but he recounts a story that happened shortly after he arrived in the tower.

John used to live in the city of Port Jamison with his partner Crystal, until she fell in love with Gerry. Unable to handle his feelings for the new couple, John self-exiled in the tower with his cat Squirrel. Crystal and Gerry find him a month later and try to convince him to return. The trio spends the night together, with John going back and forth between trying to win Crystal back and realizing it’s just a fantasy. He’s constantly clashing with Gerry, and this leads him to offer the couple a tour in the beautiful forests near his tower.

Things go especially wrong when he takes them to the spider-chasm to see dream spiders in their natural environment: Gerry accidentally slips and gets caught in the spider web, with dream spiders approaching both him and John. John flirts with the idea of not saving Gerry, but in the end choses to do so, at the expense of being bitten by a spider. Crystal and Gerry nurse him back to health, but leave shortly afterwards. Crystal had a different and possibly more accurate recollection of the events of that night, and it’s implied that John is slowly losing his grip on reality.

Down and sinking

In several aspects, This Tower of Ashes reminds me of The Second Kind of Loneliness. They’re similar stories in terms of tone, structure, themes, and characters.

Both stories have a male protagonist who lives in a self-imposed isolation in a surreal place. This isolation was largely motivated by a romantic rejection and the female figure is heavily idealized. We also know very little about the protagonist’s inner life besides this rejection, but their feelings on the matter are extensively explored.

Just as in Loneliness, the narrator of This Tower of Ashes has conflicted feelings about this rejection. He’s aware that he isn’t entitled to the love of his ex and that pursuing a relationship with her is fruitless, yet at the same time he still desires this relationship. Both stories are stronger because this conflict happens entirely in the protagonist’s head, without any external forces weighing in on the issue. Martin is a fan of writing the human heart in conflict with itself, after all.

The romantic rejections are also at the center of the protagonists’ loss of touch with reality. It’s never implied that Crystal or Karen were at fault, but the fact that they didn’t correspond some dude’s feelings was directly connected to this dude going insane. I’m not sure how I feel about that choice, especially now that it’s repeated across two different stories.

On the other hand, this is an opportunity to criticize toxic masculinity, something Martin would come to do very well in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve complained a lot about lack of diversity in his early writing, but those two stories wouldn’t work the same way without a male narrator. They deal with a very specific kind of entitlement, and while we’re invited to empathize with the protagonists, their feelings are far from endorsed. Or maybe I’m just giving Martin too much credit on this one.

Last but not least, the protagonists of both stories mistake reality and illusion, something that becomes apparent for the reader only at the end. The final twists make us reconsider everything these narrators told us so far, what we thought we knew about them, and how much we can trust their account of events. Yet This Tower of Ashes takes those questions further, exploring the fine line between lies and truth.

Bright and many-colored are the webs the dream-spiders weave

It’s no secret Martin loves unreliable narrators and likes to play with our perception of them. By the end of This Tower of Ashes, John he suggests he’s been drinking dream spider poison for a while. How much has that affected his memory of the events he just told us? What prevents him from having dreamt the whole story with Crystal and Gerry? Did Crystal and Gerry really visited him at some point? Are we even sure those two people exist, by the way?

In fact, tumblr user joannalannister takes these questions to the next level and has an intriguing theory about John not even being human. I have to confess this never occurred to me while reading the story, and I’m not entirely sure I believe Martin intended this interpretation. Yet it would explain a couple of elements that otherwise don’t make sense, like Squirrel, and there are definitely hints supporting this view. Actually, just the fact that this theory is plausible should hint at the mess Martin creates in our heads.

The relationship between fantasy and reality, truth and lies, is by far the most interesting aspect of This Tower of Ashes. It’s also a recurring conflict in Martin’s bibliography and it’s fascinating to see how his works, when considered together, complement each other in exploring these themes.

In The Second Kind of Loneliness, Martin warns us about the dangers of not engaging with real life for fear of its risks. As I argued a little while ago, With Morning Comes Mistfall reads as a love letter to fantasy. It’s Martin telling us that stories matter, even if they’re not real. Even A Song for Lya deals with these themes, placing Robb’s choice as a flawed, but human reality. There’s also ASOIAF, obviously. The conflict between truth and lies, songs and reality is present in several characters, although Sansa has to be the most obvious example.

Martin brings this conflict front and center in This Tower of Ashes. Almost opposing his thesis in With Morning Comes Mistfall, here he seems to criticize being lost in fantasies. As John drunkenly muses that the people in Port Jamison are stories, Korbec disagrees:

‘Don’t fool yourself,’ he said to me then, his face flush with wine and darkness, ‘you’re not missing nothin’. Lives are rotten stories, y’know. Real stories, now, they usually got a plot to ’em. They start and they go on a bit and when they end they’re over, unless the guy’s got a series goin’. People’s lives don’t do that nohow, they just kinda wander around and ramble and go on and on. Nothin’ ever finishes.’ ‘People die,’ I said. ‘That’s enough of a finish, I’d think.’ Korbec made a loud noise. ‘Sure, but have you ever known anybody to die at the right time? No, don’t happen that way. Some guys fall over before their lives have properly gotten started, some right in the middle of the best part. Others kinda linger on after everything is really over.’

John clearly endorses and values those words:

The weary realism that he offered me then is the only antidote there is for the dreams that spiders weave. But I am not Korbec, nor can I be, and while I recognize his truth, I cannot live it.

Given the status of truth placed in Korbec’s words, what I feel the story is telling us is this: lives are not stories, so living stories is not the same as living actual lives. This Tower of Ashes, as The Second Kind of Loneliness before it, sounds almost like a cautionary tale. Be careful with stories, it says. Yes, we all love dreams, even the spider’s victims would die without a fight because that’s how sweet fantasies are. But we pay a high price when we’re unable to let go of our fantasies and we have to be aware of that.

This is one of the moments I feel happy about reading Martin’s stories together, because because each of them brings a different piece to the puzzle. It’s a fascinating exploration of fantasy and reality that started decades ago and culminates with the multi-layered reconstruction of fantasy that is ASOIAF.

Next time: we’ll still be in the Thousand Worlds for “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man,” which has to be one of the best titles of anything ever.


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