I’m so out of touch with popular culture that it’s only a lucky happenstance for someone to mention a mainstream phenomenon that I’m familiar with (a funny example was when I had drinks with Moe Tkacik maybe three years ago and she mentioned Lady Gaga as a role model for young women, and I had no idea what she was talking about).
Despite my general out-of-it-ness, I have not only heard of Game of Thrones, I’m actually working my way through the novels, a big reason being I can read them a bit at a time on the treadmill. I’ve not paid much attention to the brouhaha over the launch of the third season of the HBO series, but I was struck by a Big Think piece by David Berreby using the books as an anchor to bring up the sci-fi v. fantasy divide:
When I was a teen-age consumer of cheap paperbacks about worlds more interesting than this one, I noticed a clear and sharp split between readers who loved SF (spaceships, time travel, robots) and those who loved fantasy (lanteen-sailed boats, mystic quests, elves)…
The Game of Thrones universe is a world without science….To we who prefer the robots and spaceships, this world feels sad and suffocated. What is there to talk about, that hasn’t been said before? Which noble house has the throne, which dynast is truly nuts. Same things they talked about 500 years ago, with, now and then, a bit of dragon overflight to make this decade a little different from the preceding hundred and fifty.
I’m aware in reading Game of Thrones that it’s not my genre, yet I find it sufficiently well done for what it is (an ambitious pop novel) to hold my interest despite that. And as sci fi fan myself, there’s always a nostalgia for the favorites of your youth. But as much as I enjoyed a lot of the “hard” technology oriented sci fi, I was much more interested in writers who used technology or alternative worlds to explore human behavior in conditions or social structures that didn’t exist in our history.
But I’d also hazard that what Berreby really hankers for is the optimism about the future that suffused sci fi, at least that of the 1960s and 1970s. What is striking about Game of Thrones is how restrictive a feudal, meaning highly class/role stratified society is, and how scheming his characters are. The conniving is expert level, a perverse type of artistry.
The fact that his series has become so wildly popular isn’t just a function of his storytelling (it took years for Lord of the Rings to win recognition and popularity), it’s how it reflects contemporary anxieties and preoccupations. It isn’t just that no one is good in the usual action/sci fi/fantasy novel good versus evil frame; even the more likable figures are put in situations where they have lousy choices and are caught between conflicting obligations, like family versus honor. Some of Martin’s most carefully crafted characters are the most scheming and immoral, and even the well-intentioned one find it hard to map courses of action that result in good outcomes. But the picture emerges loud and clear that doing right for the subjects of the various kingdoms, or even their immediate circle, is a tertiary concern at best, well behind improving or securing your position and gratifying personal appetites.
The perspective in Martin’s books is a medieval reflection of the world envisioned by neoclassical economics, of isolated individuals working for their own self interest. There’s no real community in war-torn Westros, but even before the struggle broke out, the court was a hotbed of plots, spying, and ambition. Given the way, say, the Ptolemys plotted against each other, this isn’t necessarily that far removed from the dynamics of some pre-modern courts. But this is the through line of the series, the juice that carries readers forward. And sadly, this seems to be the juice that drives the world we live in now.
Before you get cynical and say, that’s just the way it is, that’s simply not accurate. The current level of corruption and cynicism is hardly inevitable; it’s a social construct. Look at Linux, where developers collaborated to produce code, for no money, out of pride in craft. Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor, therapist and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, would often start out by asking patients, “Why haven’t you killed yourself?” His experience was the things that people lived for were either people they loved or creative work (Lambert’s “Do what only you can do”). Similarly, psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has made a study of happiness, has concluded it comes through a state he calls flow, where one is deeply engrossed in an activity (for instance, the famed “zone” in sports).
But we can always remember the wisdom of Harry Lime:
Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.