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What Influence Will George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Have On Contemporary Fantasy?

Welcome to the Anti-Tolkien, a world with approximately no unstained heroes.

by
Francis W. Porretto

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May 13, 2014 - 2:00 pm
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Editor’s Note: This is a thoughtful answer to last week’s PJ Lifestyle Pop Culture Debates Query from one of PJ Lifestyle’s smartest regular commenters. The question: Is Game of Thrones Good Or Bad For Fantasy? Click here for five more sci-fi/fantasy writing prompts to inspire more debate and discussion.

Many currents have run through the speculative genres — science fiction, fantasy, and horror — since they first made their appearance in the Nineteenth Century. When their readerships were small, the writers’ tendency to cater to their readers was muted by the restricted markets and relatively small amounts of money to be made. Many spec-fic writers saw the field as a playground, or, alternately, a stepping-stone by which they might someday enter the larger world of “respectable” fiction. However, as the genres gained acceptability among American readers, that implicit sense of limitation faded away. Writers who started in the genres largely ceased to aim at escaping them. Fledgling talents saw the genres as fertile fields in which to found a career. Even the critics began to pay attention, albeit grudgingly, to the leading lights in the genres, particularly those in science fiction, which was overwhelmingly the demesne of American and British writers.

Singular works by singularly popular writers:

– In science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein;

– In fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien;

– In horror, Stephen King;

…gave birth to significant sociological fads. Their immense commercial success and social influence stimulated the formation of sub-genres. We began to speak of “hard” versus “soft” science fiction; of “high” or “medieval” fantasy versus “urban” fantasy; and of a large number of varieties of horror according to the nature of the terrifying elements and motifs. Publishers’ editors paid much closer attention to those finer categorizations, to the markets they address, and to the peripheral materials that were appropriate to them.

Crossbreeding was inevitable, and inevitably brought us  works that straddled two or more genres or sub-genres. Heinlein’s Glory Road, Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade, and Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light all successfully blended science fiction and fantasy motifs, while Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher amalgamated SF with a particularly grisly horror motif. These accomplishments gave lesser writers new targets to aim at and publishers’ editors further headaches at categorization and marketing. As the crossbred offerings piled up, aficionados of those fields started to conduct lively arguments about where SF ends and fantasy begins, among other things. For a considerable time, the sense that boundaries were dissolving — that the spec-fic genres would eventually become one after some ecumenical synthesis — was strong.

Many writers tried their hands at variations and cross-fertilizations within the spec-fic envelope. As one might expect, not all such attempts produced good, readable fiction. Over time, the proliferation of experiments was dampened by a coalescence of reader interest around a compact subset. Still, the period of “genre diaspora” was an exciting time, during which it seemed that the variations that spec-fic would spawn were beyond enumeration.

Throughout, one genre, high or medieval fantasy, remained essentially pristine, its bloodline uncontaminated by admixtures from other lines of development. It wasn’t inevitable, though looking backward from here at the altitude of the seminal work in that sub-genre, it might seem so in retrospect.

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I think "Black Sails" (Starz original?) is an attempt to copy GoT, using a historical motif instead of fantasy.

I read the first four GoT books a month or so before the HBO series started. After what happened to Ned Stark, I found it difficult to read more than a chapter at a time because I was afraid to see who died next. I don't know how Martin makes it work, but I suspect there will be few attempts at imitation and none successful. The lack of heroism or even human scale foibles made the books so hard to read, I believe even moderately masochistic readers wouldn't want to subject themselves to that over and over.
15 weeks ago
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