As a fan of fantasy fiction, it’s been entertaining watching mainstream cultural critics’ baffled responses to Game of Thrones, which has surprised many by becoming the biggest show on TV this year. Gina Bellafante of the New York Times was among the first to come a cropper when she made the rash statement that no woman could ever enjoy the show, only to find herself hounded across the internet by legions of female fantasy fans.
A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire saga. (Now perhaps better known as A Game of Thrones for the HBO TV adaptation from the original books.)
It is rare indeed for a fantasy novel to receive either the attention or thecritical acclaim heaped upon A Dance with Dragons. Among all literary genres, epic fantasy is surely the most widely reviled and ignored. And it can be hard to identify the genre’s best and most original works when they are surrounded on the shelves by hundreds of third-rate knock-offs.
But in the hands of authors who understand their potential, the secondary worlds of fantasy provide a lens that can bring to sharp focus truths that the chaos of modern life obscures. JRR Tolkien crafted a mythology for the modern world from ancient teutonic sources, a mythology that expressed many people’s deep fears about industrialisation and world war. Mervyn Peake created a dark and painfully accurate reflection of the oppressive British class system in Gormenghast. And China Miéville transfigured Dickensian London and showed the daily exploitation of the poor and vulnerable that still powers the modern city in Perdido Street Station and his Bas-Lag novels.
George RR Martin also draws on historical sources to build his fantasy world. Westeros bears a startling resemblance to England in the period of the Wars of the Roses. One throne unifies the land but great houses fight over who will sit upon it. With no true king the land is beset with corrupt, money-grubbing lords whose only interest is their own prestige. Two loose alliances of power pit a poor but honourable North against a rich and cunning South. And the small folk must suffer through it all, regardless of which side wins. Many things change over the course of five centuries, but not politics it seems.
But if Martin had only transposed a historical and political context to a fantasy world his books would never have achieved such staggering popularity. Their author’s real strength is his compendious understanding of the human stories driving the grand political narrative. There does not seem to be a single living soul in the land of Westeros that Martin does not have insight into, from the highest king to the lowest petty thief. Martin does not compartmentalise evil on one side of the map and good on the other. It is a world of high stakes, where the winners prosper and the losers are mercilessly ground under heel. Against this tapestry every one of Martin’s characters is forced to chose between their love for those close to them and the greater interests of honour, duty and the realm. More often than not, those who make the noble choice pay with their lives.
Beheading, dismemberment and being roasted alive have, perhaps fortunately, become less common punishments for the losers in our modern games of ego. And while the throne itself is no longer up for grabs, the same human dramas still play out every day between those who vie for power in the elite spheres of business, politics and the media. The scandal engulfing News International is just the latest example of those archetypal dramas bubbling up in to public view.
Take Rupert and son James. What words pass between the reigning monarch and the heir apparent in private we can only guess. We might think of Odysseus and Telemachus. Too noble perhaps? Hamlet and his ghostly father then? Closer. But the portrait of a father manipulating a son that George RR Martin paints between Tywin and Jaime Lannister seems closest of all to me.
A Game of Thrones has captured the imaginations of millions for the same reason the archetypal dramas of Homer, Sophocles or Shakespeare have lasted for millennia. They show us the conflict between self-sacrifice and self-interest, between the human spirit and the human ego, between good and evil. And when we look up from the page we recognise those same conflicts in the world around us and in ourselves.
A wealthy dynasty brought to its knees by popular revolt, the highest in the land caught in a web of corruption, and at the heart of it all a powerful woman with remarkable hair. If you see the Murdoch clan, Chipping Norton set and Rebekah Brooks in these archetypes then you have clearly been spending too long watching the news. If on the other hand you recognise the Targaryen kings, Small Council and Cersei Lannister then I accuse you of reading A Dance with Dragons, the fifth volume in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga.
So. I’m trying to get an Advance Reading Copy of A Dance With Dragons, because everyone is excited about it and Vandermeer has one and I feel left out. So far, no luck, although I’m told I’m on the list as soon as any arrive in the UK. Which is cool.
So why are so many people so excited about A Dance With Dragons? BECAUSE GEORGE R R MARTIN IS A MASTER OF PULP…that’s why. Yes, having your own HBO mini-series helps. But that would never have happened if the books weren’t hot shit in the first place. Which they are. And it also helps that GRRM is writing in to a pulp field with almost no competition at the moment.
Let’s place GRRM in context. First, he isn’t Tolkien. Lord of the Rings exists on a whole other level, a work of modern mythopoeia so important that Tolkien had to invent the term himself. Our modern age needs myths, and Tolkien’s is one of the few truly great ones. Neither is A Song of Ice and Fire (I wonder how long before the rename the whole saga A Game of Thrones?) in any way a great work of literature. His books have been called Shakespearean. Beyond the fact that lots of people die, they aren’t. GRRM isn’t even attempting to dissect human behaviour as Shakespeare did. And that is a good thing.
Because what GRRM is doing is producing absolutely masterful pulp fiction. Stories where every character leaps fully formed from the page in all their archetypal glory. Where the plot careens forward through murder, revenge, war, incest, more murder, more revenge and on and on and on without apparent end. And it’s GREAT. Pulp fiction, done well, is an absolute joy. MORE I say MORE, MORE, MORE.
George R R Martin is a master of pulp fiction, a mastery achieved over decades as a Hugo award winning SF novelist then a jobbing Hollywood screenwriter. And that mastery shows when you compare GRRM’s writing to almost any other writer attempting to make pulp fiction within the SF & Fantasy genres. Publishers are flooding the market with pulp fiction across every sub-genre of fantastic literature, but there are very few, if any, writers who can match GRRM. And most fall far, far short of the mark. Wooden characters, incompetent plots, plodding and overwritten prose. Not only are most of the authors too inexperienced to have any mastery of the tools of pulp fiction, they’re being corralled into churning out a book a year or even more. The results are an undending flood of mediocre or worse fiction that fails even at its pulp aspirations.
So come on publishers. Can we value our pulp fiction more please? Give authors time to master the tools on small projects before throwing them in to multi-volume sagas, and wait the time it takes even GRRM to produce a great work of pulp fiction.
There is a lot to like about the Gemmell’s. I loved David Gemmell’s novels as a teenager and was sad when he passed away. I can really enjoy a rollicking good heroic fantasy, mark my consistent praise of George R R Martin as evidence. And any award that harnesses popular opinion and gets 10,000 votes for its shortlist deserves mighty praise. Continue reading Gemmell Award Winner→
I saw Seamus Heaney interviewed about his translation of Beowulf tonight on the BBC documentary about the ancient epic. He said the most beautiful thing, that Beowulf was born into life as an intelligence and shaped by pain into a soul. An idea I must remember.
Its a tough life being a writer. Take poor old William Gibson. I read all of Gibson’s books obsessively in my mid-teens. I’ve traveled great distances to see him speak. I’ve even twice been compared to him in pseudo psychometric testing. But when I was less than gripped by his new novel ‘Spook Country’ I put it down and haven’t been back since. Thats the nature of fans. One minute you are the total centre of attention, the next you are just another unread tome of a bookshelf somewhere.
I will come back to ‘Spook Country’ when time allows. I am so busy with work, new freelance projects and my own writing at the moment that my reading has fallen behind, at least of books.
I have however found a new taste for short fiction in recent months. This began with a spate of excellent stories read in online magazines including Serendipity,Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld among others. I really believe e-publishing has come into its own in the last few years. E-books may still be emerging but for short fiction online outlets are now as strong if not stronger than their cousins in print. I’ve also been thrown into new realms of reading through The Fix. Their reviews are so good they have lead me to take out subscriptions for at least one more publication in addition to the four I already get.
Another revelation in the last few weeks have been audiobook’s. Realising I had less and less ‘quality time’ for full novels I decided to try out audiobooks as a way of squeezing reading into times and places it might not otherwise fit. I’ve become instantly converted, and currently have stories by Garth Nix, George R R Martin and Ursula K LeGuin loaded on to my Ipod. I think audio will become an increasingly vibrant area iver the next few years as its so well adapted for the internet and peoples bust, commuting lifestyles.
I am determined to get bakc to reading entire books though. I have a wonderful holiday to Egypt booked December, so between excursions to The Valley of the Kings I intend to get in some good quality reading time. The only problem is what to take with me. How about you well read lot help me out with some suggestions?
Writer. Columnist for The Guardian. Writing teacher.