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.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the most beloved of all works of speculative fiction. Tolkien’s motives in crafting this titanic work were several:
— To create a domain for the exploitation of his created languages, particularly Elvish;
— To craft an original heroic mythos for England, his adopted homeland;
— To express Catholic moral and ethical sentiments within an appealing fictional landscape.
Incidentally, Tolkien created a template for the medieval fantasy that subsequent writers who attempted that sub-genre found exceedingly difficult to escape. In part, that’s because Tolkien’s moral and ethical vision was so clear and compelling; in equal part, it arose from the scope of the trilogy, one of the largest and most imaginative works of its kind. Compared to the roughly contemporaneous works of E. R. Eddison and Mervyn Peake, The Lord of the Rings glitters with depth and invention. Indeed, it’s so rich that a writer of comparable gifts, Tolkien’s close friend Clive Staples Lewis, deliberately created a set of linkages to it in his Space Trilogy even before Tolkien’s books were published.
The influence of The Lord of the Rings has been so strong for so long that critics routinely speak of how much of some new high fantasy seems derived from it. Indeed, one of the denigrations most commonly thrown at a disdained work of high fantasy is that “it’s just a Tolkien imitation.”
Enter George R. R. Martin. This distinguished writer’s career spans four decades and has produced a great many excellent novels and stories. He’s won the Hugo Award, awarded by a vote of SF/fantasy fandom, and the Nebula Award, awarded by a vote of the Science Fiction Writers of America, on several occasions and has been a perennial contender for both. His originality and stylistic grace are watchwords in a field where, as Harlan Ellison said in speaking of the high repute of Philip Jose Farmer, “jealousy and the snide kris in the ribs are s.o.p.” among its practitioners.
When Martin decided to tackle high fantasy, he resolved upon a work of great length. A Song of Ice and Fire is projected to require seven immense volumes, of which five have already been published. There is precedent for even longer fantasies, as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time makes plain. But Martin wasn’t bidding for recognition on the basis of verbosity. He aimed from the first at a grittily realistic portrayal of a multifarious society riven by envy and unbridled ambition, whose supposed moral codes are honored overwhelmingly more often in the breach than in the observance. His depictions of the “nobles” and “royalty” of his fictional world provide us with approximately no unstained figures to root for. Every character of ongoing importance is a mixture of the fair and the foul, with the edge usually going to the latter. The most heroic of Martin’s nobles, Eddard Stark of Winterfell, has fathered an illegitimate son (Jon Snow) and imposed him on his unwilling and resentful wife Catelyn. Ironically, Stark is killed early on for striving to act on what he conceives as his paramount duty.
The cruelty, promiscuity, perversion, rampant envy, pervasive hatreds, and avidity for power of the ruling class of Martin’s Westeros are so vivid and unrelieved that only Martin’s excellent pacing and sense for dramatic irony make it possible to remain in the story — and the HBO videos being made from the books emphasize their dark aspects and intensify them in portrayal. By comparison with King’s Landing, Times Square before Giuliani looks suitable for a Girl Scouts’ outing.
Which makes the question of whether A Song of Ice and Fire will reorient fantasy along its own lines and motifs one of the hottest in speculative fiction.
Several of the critics of A Song of Ice and Fire have castigated it for “normalizing” cruelty, promiscuity, perversion, et alii. I find this to be inexact at best. Norms emerge as an epiphenomenon of the societies that adopt them, and Westeros is plainly a fictional landscape inhabited by men of low moral evolution. More, it has apparently seen little development of what we call the “intermediating institutions” that have tempered the baser aspects of our own natures over the course of the Christian Era. Martin has yet to write of anything resembling a Christian church or ethos. Though the series still has two books to come, I rather doubt he will. Such institutions and ethical codes don’t spring unbidden from the vacuum like the Higgs boson, and the introduction of an equivalent to Christ, Confucius, Buddha, or any other benign moral-ethical figure would be too difficult to integrate with the larger narrative.
That much of the action of A Song of Ice and Fire is ugly, even brutally so, is indeed among the most striking features of the story. But mark this: to this point, Martin’s series has spawned few if any imitators. That’s a measure of how hard it is to make such a tale appealing enough to garner readers, and so indicates what degree of skill Martin has brought to this work. When we revisit Martin’s earlier high points, such as the novelettes “A Song for Lya,” “Meathouse Man,” “Sandkings,” “Nightflyers,” and “The Storms of Windhaven,” and his tremendous breakout novel Dying Of The Light, it seems irrefutable that this is a writer acquainted with the finest of human emotions and motivations as well as the basest. George R. R. Martin did not need to write about ugliness and perversion to garner readers for his high fantasy; he did it consciously, and for a purpose well beyond titillation.
Conscious of this writer’s imaginative scope and skill, I will refrain from speculating about that purpose, or about whether its overall effect on fantasy will be “good or bad,” whatever those tendentious terms mean in the assessment of works of fiction, until the final strokes of A Song of Ice and Fire have been struck.
Concerning the HBO series founded on the saga, one could say a great deal more. Martin’s involvement with the series as one of its producers opens legitimate questions about just how heavily he weighs the darker aspects of the saga against its depictions of justice, morality, loyalty, duty, and occasional heroism. But a video series possesses imperatives and dynamics far distant from those of the printed word. All anyone can say at this point is that the cast and crew have created something striking and memorable. Whether it will spawn imitations is as good a question as that about the prose series. Given its success to date, and the far greater role of widely available video technology in that success, the probability seems high. But it does not follow that the channel it cuts must be pernicious. Neither does it follow that it will be pursued by many, or for very long. Imitation is repetition, and repetition, after all, is the murderer of entertainment. Even the most ardent couch potato is there to be entertained.