Time magazine, that putative arbiter of popular taste, once called George R.R. Martin “the American Tolkien.” But what the copywriter responsible for that blurb fails to realize is that Got/ASOIaF is not in any way a “Tolkienesque” fantasy. It’s not about purely good people fighting evil forces. It’s about antiheroes of varying stripes, including some genuinely evil and psychotic characters, all vying against each other for the sake of dominance, revenge, or ideology, all the while totally oblivious to the actual threat looming in the background. Nobody is a chosen one or messiah. If they think they are, they’re probably doomed, or destined to commit atrocities in the name of their self-esteemed righteousness.
That’s a total departure from the sort of cookie-cutter bestselling fantasy that was popularized in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s by the likes of Terry Brooks, Davud Eddings, Robert Jordan, and many other writers who are now forgotten. And if you read the first three books in that context, you realize that in the first novel in the series, A Game of Thrones, Martin is messing around with the expectations of the epic fantasy genre circa 1996, particularly the “Brave Little Tailor” trope of the unassuming hero who rises from an humble background to save the day. The focus character of the prologue is a character named Will (good heroic name, Will), who’s a basically decent guy who was forced to join the Night’s Watch for poaching on a lord’s estate. He’s all the things those ‘80s fantasy heroes were — young, sympathetic, plucky; he probably looks like some ‘70s teen idol. Most people reading AGoT in 1996 or thereabouts would automatically assume he was going to be the protagonist — after all, he’s not some bystander, but the POV bearer! Nuh-uh. He’s dead by page 15.
Then the focus shifts to the Starks, who are clearly the good guys of the story, being castle-dwelling royalty and all. They even find some adorable direwolf puppies that appear to be part of some prophecy! There’s Bran, who’s brave, clever, and resourceful. Is he the hero? Nuh-uh, he gets pushed out a window about a hundred pages in, and ends up getting Hodor’d around for the rest of the saga. Okay, but surely Ned Stark is going to get to the bottom of things down in ol’ King’s Landing, right? Nuh-uh, he gets decapitated on the orders of a psycho kid a hundred pages before the end. How about Arya? She’s always being underestimated, but she’s sure got spunk! Nuh-uh, she can’t save her dad’s life in time and has to witness his execution firsthand. And the other Starks don’t fare so well as time goes by. Sansa is engaged to a monster, then cruelly cast aside. Rickon goes feral. Robb gets dismembered and Catelyn becomes a rage zombie. Jon Snow, he’s gonna pick up the mantle of Chosen One, right? Nuh-uh, he gets shivved by his own men, and in the books, he’s still dead as a doorknob. And so it goes. All the while this is happening, at least a couple of those loyal, cuddly direwolves get turned into horsemeat.
Fun, right? Well, it’s worth remembering that in 1996-2000, when the first three installments were published, these were not popular books. (A Storm of Swords, published in the US in late 2000, was the first installment to hit the New York Times Bestseller List.) Martin had been writing for 25 years but he was largely unknown outside science fiction fandom. A Game of Thrones got coverage in magazines like Locus, but it wasn’t a mainstream publishing event. I remember seeing piles of the hardcover edition sitting unsold at bookstores. It was supposed to be Martin’s big comeback, but it wasn’t, really, because hardly anyone knew who he was, not least of all your typical fantasy reader, who likely didn’t have old paperbacks of Fevre Dream or the Wild Cards series lying around.
And if you read the vintage Amazon reviews from the late ‘90s, lots of people flat-out hated it. They saw a thick paperback with a generic looking cover and thought it was something in the vein of Jordan or Terry Goodkind or Forgotten Realms. Instead, they got murder, rape, incest, betrayal, and all manner of horror. Plus lots of fucking and “fuck”s. AGoT was not the first “traditional” fantasy novel with R-rated language in it — there was Peter Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song from 1993 (it also had a pretty steamy threesome — and this from the guy who wrote The Last Unicorn!) — but that sort of thing was pretty much unheard of in epic fantasy before Martin. And some readers were not ready for it. “Throw this book out the window into a steaming volcano,” starts one review from March 2000. “Attracting readers with rape scenes,” begins another from 1998. A Clash of Kings also had its share of detractors, who’d presumably made it through AGoT: “Too disgusted to finish the book.” “One of the Worst books I’ve ever read.” “Waste of Time and Energy.”
But Martin wasn’t writing for those people. In fact, I think you can make an argument that, by the standards of “epic fantasy” as it was written in the 1990s, ASOIaF is not an epic fantasy at all. It has elements of epic fantasy, as well as sword and sorcery and historical fiction, but also cosmic horror and apocalyptic literature, and even trashy bestsellers of the Mario Puzo variety. It’s a series written by a guy who’s clearly read a ton of books that aren’t Eye of the World or Fellowship of the Ring with the serial numbers scraped off, and back in the day, that made Martin stand apart from most of the authors working in the field. Still does, probably.
And there’s one genre I left out, because I want to expand on it, and that’s SF. Martin spent most of his previous career writing science fiction stories, but they’re not the technical variety, even though a lot of them were published in Analog, the home of hard science fiction. They’re full of dreamlike landscapes that blur SF and fantasy elements, much like Martin’s greatest influence, Jack Vance, whose novellas about corrupt regimes and internecine wars fought with strange magic and weird beasts can feel like ASOIaF in miniature. The characters often possess eerie powers that are rationalized as “psionic abilities” but are basically magic. They feature spaceships and aliens, but they tend to be about societies or individuals in jeopardy, either of their own making or someone else’s. And these are exactly the same themes underlying ASOIaF. Martin took what William Gibson calls the “cognitive toolkit” of science fiction, and applied it to post-Tolkienesque doorstop fantasy. And under that level of scrutiny, epic fantasy melts like a Frappuccino in the August sun. Why do we assume that people are good and wise because they’re kings? What would being an average person in a feudal economy really be like? What does it mean when an entire species, society, or ethnicity is considered “evil”? At the beginning of the series, most of the main characters think they have the answers to these questions written in stone. Five books later, a lot of those characters are dead.
If you want to find the closest parallel to A Song of Ice and Fire, your best bet is not Joe Abercrombie, nor Patrick Rothfuss, nor Steven Erikson. It’s another long-running series about a fantasy world, though it’s one many people would consider the diametric opposite of Martin’s Westeros: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Like ASOIaF, the Discworld series depicts a feudal kingdom in transition, though in Pratchett’s case the agent of that change is discovery, not magical apocalypse. (Though it does have its share of those.) In both cases, the world is divided between a small minority who see change coming ahead of time and embrace it, like Varys or Vetinari, and those who deny it, like Cersei or every Pratchett villain, and the vast majority of people caught in the middle who have no choice but to accept those changes. The key difference is that in Pratchett, the results tend to be comic, and the new technology or philosophy makes the world a better, if slightly more complicated, place to live in. Pratchett died believing in this vision, at least as it was expressed in his fiction. In Martin, such change is always tragic. It’s almost certain that before the ASOIaF ends, millions of people will die, with one or more (or all) of the protagonists among them.
And that’s what using the cognitive toolkit of SF brings to epic fantasy, formerly the most conservative of fantastic genres: uncertainty. It does not allow, as Tolkien’s fiction does, for the possibility of Recovery, Escape, and Consolation. Readers, agents, and editors used to hate that. Back in the ‘80s, you just knew when you started Pawn of Prophecy that li’l Garion was going to face down the Evil God Torak at the end of the saga and win, or that whatever Terry Brooks hero represented on the Hildebrandt Brothers cover as a Shaun Cassidy lookalike was going to be alive and well by page 700. Epic fantasy was many things, but never left the reader feeling unsettled or weird. That doesn’t fly today. Kings can be bad. Heroes can die. Nations can fall, not from invaders, but their own blindness and stupidity.
Fantasy has become reality.
NOTE: This started out as a reply to aerokel in a separate post, but then it “grew in the telling,” as fantasy writers are wont to say. So thanks to aerokel for sparking the flames of my fevered imagination. And thanks to Ross Douthat, of all people, for all the bonus hits on my initial post!