Friday, April 15, 2011


The HBO series Game of Thrones is still two days away from actually airing, but early reviews have touched off an apparently internet-wide discussion about the fantasy genre as a whole. Some early reviews have taken the form of pure snobbery - witness this witless line from the New York Times:

While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
Others have taken a more engaged approach, if only out of curiosity, like reviewer Heather Havrilesky in the New York Times Magazine (motto: like our daily, but not as idiotic!):

All of which is very somber — and a little odd, when you think about it. Even with countless horrors on the way, wouldn’t there be at least one unshakable optimist in the bunch? Isn’t that how we, in the real world, get through life? Irrational optimism in the face of looming bleakness? Yet in this brand of fantasy (ed note: medieval fantasy, as opposed to superheroes or speculative fiction), grim-faced nihilism isn’t just a default philosophy; it’s a foundational religion.
Somehow this television series has become a referendum on literary fantasy as a whole, and what it means. I'll grant that this is understandable. I've even helped create this impression, having, in the past, described my excitement for Game of Thrones as being excited for the first-ever major television series in the fantasy genre - only Hercules and Xena have even vaguely attempted in recent years, and, well, I'm sure you'll agree that the comparison is slightly different. Yet the fact is that Game of Thrones and the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is not the entirety of the fantasy genre. It would probably be unfair to declare that any single book or series of books counts as that representative, but it's especially bad for Game of Thrones:

  • It's darker than most fantasy. Characters die. Life in pseudo-medieval Westeros is, as Hobbes declared, nasty, brutish, and short.
  • It's not magical. I first discovered the term "fantistorical" on the jacket of A Game of Thrones, actually. There is some magic, but it's mostly on the outskirts - ghoulish "Others" beyond a giant wall, or maybe dragons across the sea. The main story is all people.
  • It's political. The conflicts in the series are largely people in power trying to gain more, maneuvering in back rooms with occasional assassinations or coups. This is not Aragorn making a heroic speech as everyone charges with him into a mass of purely evil orcs and trolls.
  • It's a human conflict, both in the figurative sense of politics and grey areas (as opposed to ultimate evil or corrupt magic), and in literal terms. The characters are humans, not namby-pamby elves or conniving kobolds. It's not Dungeons & Dragons. Some reviews have mentioned that there are "dwarves" but this is misleading. The character in question is a little person, a human, not Gimli or Thorin.
  • Finally, it's really good. They're pulp novels, yes, and shouldn't be mistaken for high art, whatever that means. But they're remarkable at creating momentum, memorable characters and stunning plot developments.
Saying A Game of Thrones and the rest of the books of the series are representative of all fantasy literature is roughly akin to saying The Wire is representative of all television. There are differences, of course, GOT is popular within the medium where The Wire is a niche show, but both have such strong defenders in part because they do things differently than normal, and they do things better than normal. So judge Game of Thrones on its own merits. Judge fantasy in general based on a decent sample. But don't judge Game of Thrones, positively or negatively, because of fantasy as a whole. That's reductive, unfair, and almost certainly wrong.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I'll talk about the gender-based reaction to Game of Thrones and its reviews, since it keeps coming up, and you know, GENDER!!!


Djur said...

The NYT review also has the odd assertion that all the sexin' was somehow added in specifically to draw in female viewers. Both parts of that baffle me: the sex is in the book, and the idea that you can just add hot sex to anything and draw in the ladiez is new to me.

Unknown said...

Yeah, that's pretty hilarious, probably the worst part of a terrible, terrible review. Another interesting assertion that I've seen - that incest is part of the reason that the series is for boys. Wha?