It’s been an exciting week for fans of science fiction and fantasy author George R.R. Martin — HBO greenlighted the pilot for A Game of Thrones, adapted from the first book in his long-running fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. People who don’t know the literary fantasy genre are almost certain to miss why this is such a big deal. Martin’s books aren’t a rehash of Joseph Campbell, George Lucas, or J.R.R. Tolkien, but are an adult reinvention of the fantasy genre, bringing with it a sense of realism, politics, character, mythology and brutality that are so often lacking in a field dominated by derivative knockoff’s of books written half a century ago.
In the 1970′s, Martin wrote a series of stories, including the novel Dying of the Light, which present a future where humans have spread out and colonized the stars. However, due to the vast distances between worlds, the colonists became cut off from the rest of humanity and over the centuries forgot their true origins. Due to local conditions on the ground, technology often degraded, and some of the colonized worlds fell into a pre-industrial state. Although it’s not explicitly stated, I believe that the world of A Song of Ice and Fire is such a colony.
The unnamed planet of the series suffers from an irregular orbit around its sun. As a result, its inhabitants experience long periods of summer, fall or spring, as well as endure winters that can last for generations. Because of the unpredictable seasons and devastating winters, the inhabitants of A Song of Ice and Fire are stuck in a state of technological development similar to medieval Europe. There are castles and keeps, armor, swords and bows, and a rudimentary understanding of science.
Just as in our world, magic, dragons, elves and other supernatural creatures are myths — there are no High Elf tree cities, or underground dwarven citadels. There are no wizards named Gandalf McMerlin who wield magical power with impunity — when supernatural elements appear in the series (which is not very often), it is surprising, unpredictable, unexplained and frightening. And while creatures called dragons did exist, they are now extinct, much of the facts about them lost in myth.
The first book in the series centers around the Starks, a family that rules over the northern territory of the continent of Westeros. Many years before the start of the book, the family patriarch Eddard (also called “Ned”) joined a coalition of rebelious noblemen in overthrowing the corrupt royal family that terrorized Westeros for years. His best friend and co-conspirator Robert Baratheon ascended to the throne, and Ned returned home with his new wife to have children and live in relative peace.
Ned’s peace is shattered, however, when his old friend King Robert turns up on his doorstep. Robert’s chief advisor, called “the Hand,” has died. Robert now wants Ned to take over the office of the Hand and return south with him to court. This seemingly simple job offer unleashes a series of events that will bring war, chaos famine and death to Westeros and the Starks. And all the while, signs of the coming winter loom ominously on the horizon, as do various supernatural horrors that the people of Westeros believe were just stories to frighten children.
With a sprawling cast, astonishing plot twists, high levels of sex and violence, and a “no one is safe” approach to killing off beloved characters, A Song of Ice and Fire offers a surprising take on the festering high fantasy genre. Important characters include Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow, sent to live in exile among a decaying military order charged with defending Westeros from the legendary monsters of winter; Ned’s daughters Arya and Sansa, who embark on separate, yet equally tragic paths; Ned’s young son Bran who discovers his true self after a personal tragedy; Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf (literally a little person, not a mystical creature) who despite physical handicaps is one of the most intelligent and humane characters in the series; Dany Targaryen, the surviving female heir of the old king, living across the ocean in exile and desperate to return home; Jaime Lannister, the reviled knight who at age 16 slew the old king and was forever branded a traitor and a murderer; Sam Tarley, the fat and craven son of a noble family who finds his own honor despite himself; and many, many others.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to the series than what I’ve said, but I fear that saying too much may spoil all the surprises. If you’re a fan of shows like Rome, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood and Lost, I think you would be an obvious fan of A Song of Ice and Fire. All those shows owe a great debt to the storytelling conventions of A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as Martin’s brave approach to plot and characters.
So what are you waiting for — go read the books! And remember … Winter is coming (to HBO).