George R. R. Martin in The New Yorker

By Razib Khan | April 4, 2011 1:28 pm

A friend mentioned last night that he was watching a bit of A Game of Thrones, the new HBO series based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I’ll probably wait until after the DVD version comes out, if I watch it at all. I’m not generally impressed by visual media adaptations of science fiction and fantasy literature, and have even less use for film & TV only science fiction & fantasy. I’m not a snob, I’m just easily bored. In any case, George R. R. Martin has gotten The New Yorker treatment. I had to laugh at this sentence from near the end of the piece: ‘Martin hopes that, after he surmounts the particular thorny problems of “A Dance with Dragons,” the final two books will come much faster.’ Of course he he said this after the last book. To be fair, there wasn’t that much of a gap between book two and book three.


I still remember the cold January day in 1999 when I picked up a paperback version of A Game of Thrones. My roommate at the time was baked and passed out in front of the television, as was his usual Saturday night ritual. I read the first chapter of A Game of Thrones after having finished Paul Gottfried’s A Conservative Movement. I went to sleep after I got tired, but then finished the book the next day. Lucky for me I had to wait only one day to read the sequel, A Clash of Kings, which had just been published (in hindsight obviously they were pushing copies of the paperback f A Game of Thrones to coincide with the hardcover publication of A Clash of Kings). As someone who had read some of the other “heirs” of Tolkien, such as Robert Jordan, Martin’s contribution put me in the mind that the time had come to put away childish things.

Martin had a friendly relationship to Robert Jordan, who passed away before completing his series, The Wheel of Time. He has asserted that The Wheel of Time set the groundwork for the panoramic post-Tolkien epic fantasies which A Song of Ice and Fire is an exemplar. In short, no The Wheel of Time, no A Song of Ice and Fire. I think this is probably not totally accurate, insofar as it posits a Great Man model of fantasy literature. But, Robert Jordan’s success clearly was a signal to both writers and publishers about the possibilities of the genre. Yet The New Yorker article also addresses the fact that The Wheel of Time is an elaboration of a formula meant to appeal to twelve year old boys. The repertoire of the various reactions of the characters to the exigencies of life are very limited, and after a few books you become rather tired of the flat personalities on offer. Jordan’s aim seems to have been to make sexual tension intelligible to a twelve year old boy. Unfortunately that makes much of character development ludicrous to those of us who have passed the first blush of puberty. Additionally, the world-building in The Wheel of Time exhibits a tendency toward shallow flash and gimmickry. It has none of the rich historical thickness of Middle-earth or the earthy realism of Westeros.

Though the philosophy of Epicurus has been caricatured by the ignorant as a byword for excess and gluttony, like most ethical systems he argued for the importance of moderation and balance in the aim of the full appreciation of the hedonic experience. The problem with much of heroic fantasy is that it lacks such balance, and does not manage to negotiate the knife’s-edge between the banal world that is, and the fantastical that could be. The juvenile aspect of much of fantasy literature is exhibited in its gluttony for the black & white aspects of the world which a fictional world can give full reign to. The Dark Lord who is the apotheosis of evil. The teenage farm-boy who is good, naive, and also handsome and gifted with incredible powers beyond imagining (and, who at the end of the series finds out that he is in fact the son of a king!). Martin’s great insight, which he clearly shares with other writers such as Robin Hobb, is that writing within the fantasy genre is not a license to engage in every wish-fulfillment. It is a liberty to enchant, and surprise. At least if you aim to appeal to adults who have lived enough life to have experienced enough to intuit that the sweet life is to a large extent given color only by its contrast with the bitter. Perfection does not move.

As for George R. R. Martin and A Song of Ice and Fire, I will probably keep reading. For now. I’m not a public hater, there are more important things in my life than a fantasy series. The first books of his grand vision are the standard now, for me and many others. That’s an achievement in an of itself.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i emailed martin a few questions in late 1999, and he got back to me a few months later. he might be a slow writer of his novels, but he seems like a genuine and nice person. so wuteva.

  • sv

    I once accompanied a friend to a genre convention. Mr. Martin was the only author present whose work I had read, but I got to talk with him, and it was a delightful experience.

  • Dragon Horse

    I saw the 14 minute preview online, looks alright, but not like anything I have not seen before. I don’t care for the genre to be honest. I don’t want to harken back to the old barbaric days of Europe. I especially have never had an interest in “magic”and other such nonsense. I do like sci-fi quite a bit, but that is because I’m somewhat of a futurist. I hope that one day the things I read and see in sci-fi will be possible. I know the stuff I see in Tolkien-like media HAVE NEVER existed and will never.

    Also as you correctly cited, the predictable story line. It does seem though that all these writers, and likely Dark Age peoples, believed in HBD. They are always going on about “blood lines of warlor…I mean ‘kings'”. Hell this likely goes back to proto-Indoeuropean myth concerning those having the “blood of God’s” and do miraculous things, only to find out their father is a god (usually a rapist one) or was a just king (murdered by someone evil), etc.

    Keep in mind Razib…in Tolkien, all the bad stuff comes from the “”East””. haha Some type of genetic memory of Asian hordes? :-) My cousin once told it to me like this (someone who read a lot of this stuff as a kid)…”once upon a time, everything was peaceful, and Euro” then the “darkies” came and messed it all up from the East. haha That’s probably an extreme take, but I had a good idea that the past sucked, I like to hope that the future would suck less. :-)

  • David P

    I’m a huge fan of the series but I’ll probably totally avoid the TV series unless it gets amazing reviews. I am kind of skeptical of the ability to translate such a large multi character plot to TV. It’s like when you hear of plans to turn Steven Erikson’s malazian empire into a film…… 10 books, 1000 pages each and enough characters to populate a small European city…. Right

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Hell this likely goes back to proto-Indoeuropean myth concerning those having the “blood of God’s” and do miraculous things

    i think the divine-blood aspect is pretty much a cultural universal. any sufficiently complex society will result in a situation where the elite needs to deify itself to justify its just desserts. the aztecs and incas both engaged in this, and no one would claim indo-european predecessors.

    Keep in mind Razib…in Tolkien, all the bad stuff comes from the “”East””. haha Some type of genetic memory of Asian hordes?

    the racial aspect is pretty obvious in the silmarillion. tolkien asserted that his secondary world had no close correspondences with the real world of the time (e.g., is mordor industrial communism and fascism?), but he couldn’t help but be influenced. you see the same in c. s. lewis’ narnia. and it is totally understandable as a product of the time. doesn’t really bother me too much. if you want an extreme inversion, you can look at le guin earthsea or judith tarr’s avaryan rising. it’s fantasy, i don’t take it too seriously. i mean, i don’t believe in gods either ;-)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    interestingly many ppl seem bothered by the tendency of modern fantasy to use northern european motifs. or they can’t relate to it. but fantasy is just an updating of what used to be mythology with the aspects of the novel. LotR was tolkien’s attempt to give the english their own mythology, equivalent to the irish or norse cycles. but for those readers who want a bit “more color”, david anthony durhman’s series might be of interest:

    http://www.davidanthonydurham.com/

    probably just a coincidence, but the family at the heart of the cycle have a café au lait look which seems a reflection of the author, who is a light-skinned black american.

  • Dragon Horse

    That’s very interesting. I have never heard of Durham. I think you are right in that many people like to be able to picture themselves in myths, if not, they are not interested. To be honest, I have always like Greco mythology very much. I just don’t care for the Dark Age dragon-knight stuff, but I’m not sure I can tell you exactly why. Maybe I will give some of it a second look.

  • RafeK

    “the racial aspect is pretty obvious in the silmarillion. tolkien asserted that his secondary world had no close correspondences with the real world of the time (e.g., is mordor industrial communism and fascism?” RK

    Tolkien rejected an allegory to modern times but he imagined middle earth as prior age of this earth, with gondor, arnor and rohirrim roughly coresponding to modern europe in geography.

    Tolkien Described the orcs as
    “…squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.”

    Now I think a straight racist reading of this very much misses tolkiens point but there is certainly a level of ethnocentrism and even more so religiouschauvinism, the free men off middle earth are the antecendants of later day christendom which is probably more important to the devoutly catholic Tolkien then the racial differences he portrayed.

    On the subject of Martin I have to agree in a sense he signaled the rise to maturity of the fantasy genre and while I think other authors were moving in the same direction its interesting to see how many good authors in fantasy have been working in a similar direction. R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, J,V jones its a good time to be fan of fantasy.

  • Leviticus

    Is it racism or simply lack of originality? It seems that authors of the Fantasy genre tend to be far less imagintive or flexible then Sci Fi authors in regards to their characters’ ethnicity and race going back to Robert E. Howard and the Conan series. Even when you get non-Eurocentric plots, the cultures are still vaguely Asian or Middle Eastern. Fantasy writers tend to fix their main characters in cultures that are spin offs of Medieval Europe. The non-whites are then, by default, villains or, at best, secondary characters.

    Howard, btw, I’d argue was racist in an Gobineau kind of way, whereas Tolkien probably picked up his more gentile anti-Eastern bias from ancient and medieval laments over Hunnic or Islamic attacks. C.S. Lewis resembles Tolkien in this. Both are way too medieval to be Social Darwinians.

    Sci Fi writers, on the other hand, are far less earth-bound. I’m not just talking about Star Trek let’s add a skull protusion and make a new people kind of way or Star Wars. They seem to be more willing to experiment with believable hominid variations. Think Jack Vance or Frank Herbert. This is probably because they were more scientifically aware, and less hostile to Natural Science and more open minded than a tenured, luddite Professor of Anglo-Saxon literature. I love Tolkien and don’t mean to discredit the imagination he showed in creating his legendarium, but the guy’s ideas for a well-ordered society are unrealistic.

    On a side note, Martin does show some genuine originality with his description of the Northern barbarians and non-humans.

  • Zach Kurtz

    So I love Game of Thrones, but is it COOL to compare any other fantasy novel disfavorably to LOTR, because (honestly!) while Tolkein’s ideas are certainly innovative, his writing style is certainly dull and not all that grasping. Love lord of the rings, but he wasn’t the first fantasy novelist, and probably not the greatest, even though he was loved by hippies.

  • http://www.farrellmedia.com John Farrell

    Razib, after reading this post, I’m going to have to give Martin another try. I can’t remember which one of the early volumes I tried some years back–but I put it down after a couple of chapters. It may be that I was unduly influenced by my just-prior reaction to another writer, Robert Jordan, whom I had just thrown at the wall.

    :)

  • EarthandIce

    As a reader of both Martin and Jordan, I have decided to wait until both series are finished to finish reading them.

    I guess I am not as up on politics as the rest, but I found the interaction of the characters in WoT fascinating and engaging. Making the attempt to figure out what was going to happen next, or what the little clues sprinkled through the text meant have kept many reader on their toes.

    Then there was several incidents that no matter how many times the books were read and discussed that we could not decide who the perpetrator was. (Who killed Asmodean was the major one for at least 6 books, and only answered in the glossary of the last one.)

    If you have not started reading Martin, a warning. Do not get attached to the characters. He has a tendency to kill them off.

  • Matt

    Martin’s a good author, but looking back on the first few books of Fire & Ice (which were all I read), while well crafted, feel in retrospect more like a strange kind of really detailed alternate world historical novel about feudalism, without much in the way of fantastic elements, and that I probably should have just read some historical fiction instead.

    I’m finding I’m increasingly preferring fantasy that is built on a base of reality but occasionally has more of a deep tinge of the fantastic and raw irrationality to it, like Gene Wolfe does at times (for all his intentional and often pointlessly obfusticating difficultness), and less tries to emulate the real world in terms of having a deep underlying logic (strange, as I’ve got a lot of interest in detailed historical chains of cause), while I appreciate all the maturity that Martin tries to bring.

    (I agree with the kudos to Robin Hobb as well btw, although I couldn’t read it past my teenage years – she basically took all the female and teenage girl centered Romantic Fantasy cliches and structures, swallowed them whole and gave them depth and made them something adult and worth it for reasonably emotionally mature teenagers and young adults to read, which is no small deal.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    historical fiction instead.
    I’m finding I’m increasingly preferring fantasy that is built on a base of reality but occasionally has more of a deep tinge of the fantastic and raw irrationality to it, like Gene Wolfe does at times (for all his intentional and often pointlessly obfusticating difficultness), and less tries to emulate the real world in terms of having a deep underlying logic (strange, as I’ve got a lot of interest in detailed historical chains of cause), while I appreciate all the maturity that Martin tries to bring.

    you are being confused by the aGoT. martin explicitly created a ‘low magic’ world. it will get more magical. he also explicitly disavowed attempts to rationalize/order magic via a set of rules, as you see in l. sprague de camp, or some of brandon sanderson’s stuff.

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    Re the Euro themes in fantasy, I have written a couple of fantasy novels. My main characters are certainly not Euro/Nordic what-have-you. On asking readers to describe the characters, they are described as Euro anyway. Doesn’t matter how many times a character is described as dark, black hair, black, or whatever. People see what they want to in a novel. Read sf or fantasy with an eye to details and you’ll find plenty of non-white characters, and not all stereotypes. But…Jordan’s mains, and Martin’s, are, to my memory White. I suspect they were writing for their expected audience, mainly White Americans. It’s a sales question.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    samuel delaney remembered the main character of starship troopers as black. but he was actually a filipino.

  • http://www.riverellan.blogspot.com Tom Bri

    Filipino? I thought he was Brazilian. Weird. An excuse to read it again, I guess.

  • onur

    Yes, he was a White Brazilian as far as I can remember.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    u can make recourse to wikipedia:

    In Starship Troopers, Rico was the son of a wealthy Filipino family who joined the Terran Mobile Infantry almost on impulse and over his parents’ objections.

    or control-f “tagalog” in google books. he mentions it as his native language.

    i guess u proved your own point about how people don’t always see what’s there….

  • onur

    My mistake is to do with the fact that Rico was a White Argentine (I wasn’t sure whether he was Brazilian or Argentine when I wrote my comment) rather than Filipino in the movie adaptations of Starship Troopers and the fact that I didn’t read the book but watched the first film (I wrongly assumed the films were faithful to the book in the choice of characters). Rico is played by Casper Van Dien, a pretty Nordic guy.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    i watched the film. the casting of van dien was pretty conscious by the director, who distorted a lot of the intent of the books. rico’s race was not in the foreground in *starship troopers*, but delaney relates a scene when rico looks at himself in the mirror, and mentions his brown skin. this delaney took to be a reference to rico’s blackness.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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