So, HBO’s Game of Thrones…
Politics, sex, treachery, violence, more sex, more politics, urinating off the edge of the world, intrigue, betrayal, Sean Bean dead yet again, yet more sex, and then a lovely sexual torture scene to round things off. (Look, are you sure there was this much sex in A Game Of Thrones, because…? Well, yeah).
HBO’s Game Of Thrones, from the bestselling novels by George RR Martin, is a massive hit. It’s also aimed at adults (even if, disturbingly, it featured a lot of children) – and at the heart of its massive appeal is the fact that that it doesn’t pander to toothless faux-medieval escapist fantasies, the kind that had ’80s teenagers LARPing around woodlands shouting “Have at ye with my Triple-Bladed Claymore of +3 Chafing”, pretending the world (in the form of Destiny or some kind of prophecy) revolved around them. The world of Game Of Thrones world is very different. It doesn’t give a toss about its inhabitants. If you were in it, you’d probably die. (Or worse). Destiny is no protection, and neither is innate goodness, honour or benevolence. In fact, they’d probably get you killed quicker. This isn’t escapist fiction – it’s escape-from-ist.
Part of the reason Game of Thrones is proving so popular is that the public doesn’t expect this level of bleak, messy unfairness from fantasy novels. Fantasy is, in the words of the holy script laid down by Tolkien in 1954, all about Evil that cannot possibly win, Good that will eventually triumph, and short people in helmets quaffing tankards of ale and singing about gold. It’s formulaic. It’s meant to make you feel safe. And Tolkien Did It Best.
Putting aside the fact that JRR Tolkien, like JK Rowling, took a whole bunch of traditional narratives and wove them (brilliantly) into the mother of all mongrel stories that too many people subsequently assumed was original….putting that aside, let’s turn to real-world history. Game of Thrones is brutal and savage and says some miserably pessimistic things about human beings – and yet it’s probably a fairly accurate metaphor for, say, the Renaissance Wars of Italy or the battle for Stalingrad. In this respect, it probably doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.
Adult fantasy literature more accurately reflects what real human beings are really like. And that’s why it gets a wider readership – because people want to read about real people.
So why the recent shift towards “realer” fantasy? It’s not just Game of Thrones, although that’s a big part of it (but even GoT is pandering to a niche market – in the case of the TV series, it’s acting as a flagship for the HBO philosophy of pushing the boundaries of good taste to enhance the storytelling. Arguably, that’s going a little awry right now). Is fantasy fiction finally “growing up”. That’s either unfair or just plain wrong. If you looked in the right places, it has been this challenging, edgy and unchildish for decades. But it is, arguably, mainstreaming into something that the average well-adjusted adult can read in a public place without feeling like they’re opening a Spiderman comic in a board meeting.
So when you’ve caught up with events in Westeros, try out the work of the following three authors. They write about real imaginary people.
We left. Walking uphill and into the wind. That suddenly seemed a metaphor for my whole life.
– Fitz, Assassin’s Apprentice
Fitz is a bastard. Hence his nickname. In full, he is FitzChivalry Farseer, illegitimate son of the King in Waiting. Fitz is unceremoniously dumped on the doorstep of his father’s brother, Prince Verity, and transferred into the keep of Chivalry’s stableman. True to his name, Chivalry is a man of honour, and upon hearing of his son’s appearance he abdicates the throne, leaving a power vacuum that will plague the royal court and draw Fitz into intrigue, treachery and a new role as a royalty-endorsed assassin…
I came to Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy at a time of enormous disillusionment with fantasy fiction. I’d just thrown myself at the first of the Terry Goodkind Sword of Truth novels, and after 100 pages ended up throwing the book instead. (I can still see the mark on my bedroom wall in my Mum’s house. I must have been furious). I’d had my third and second-to-last attempt to enjoy The Belgariad by David Eddings, and I was at the stage where the merest hint of wizardry would send me into a rage.
So much of the genre baffled me. I didn’t get why it took 10 pages for someone to remove one of their shoes and shake a stone out. I couldn’t understand why it was all so…civilized. And there was so much mashing of the reset button. One moment the stalwart heroes were hewing at Evil and skirting chasms with no clear way out, and the next, everyone was sat round a fire, having the swords & sorcery equivalent of a nice cup of tea and a biscuit, and laughing the chapter out, Naked Gun style. It felt like some authors were so in love with both Moria and Hobbiton that they kept flip-flopping from one to the other, from Dire Peril to Cup Of Tea. Sometimes this literary rinse-cycle would take entire books to get everyone back to square 1…
One thing that Tolkien really nailed was that adventures take their toll. They hasten old age, they accelerate the progression to a wiser, more cynical state of mind, and they monkey with a character’s sense of self. They change people. JK Rowling did a great job of evolving Harry Potter into a Voldemort-vanquishing machine but she did it at his cost, leaving him weary and damaged. Tolkien did the same with Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut:
Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Robin Hobb is awful to her lead characters.
She clearly loves them. Even the twisted ones that you want to slap senseless. She loves everyone she conjures up. But she’s fearlessly awful to them. Like George RR Martin, she’s making the point that when the stakes are high, people tend to suffer – and since real life isn’t always fair, good people suffer just as easily as bad. That’s what “high stakes” really means. It’s the risk everyone takes when they pretend to be heroes, and when an author denies the reality of that risk, we can tell. The story feels fake. It’s why the Game Of Thrones series feels so deliciously (or horribly) real. Because shit happens.
WHERE TO START…
Assassin’s Apprentice (1995)
Ship of Magic (1998)
Thus I knew nothing, as the coin dropped into my pocket, of the dogmas of the movement Vodalus led, but I soon learned them all, for they were in the air. With him I hated the Autarchy, though I had no notion of what might replace it. With him I despised the exultants who failed to rise against the Autarch and bound the fairest of their daughters to him in ceremonial concubinage. With him I detested the people for their lack of discipline and a common purpose. Of those values that Master Malrubius (who had been master of apprentices when I was a boy) had tried to teach me, and that Master Palaemon still tried to impart, I accepted only one: loyalty of the guild. In that I was quite correct – it was, as I sensed, perfectly feasible for me to serve Vodalus and remain a torturer. It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne.
Severian, The Shadow Of The Torturer
He’s the finest living male American writer of SF and fantasy – possibly the finest living American writer. Most people haven’t heard of him. And that doesn’t bother Gene in the slightest. He just gets on with writing the next book.
Most narrators are believable. It doesn’t matter how fantastical the setting or how outlandish they might behave – and it doesn’t matter how much you believe in the story itself. You trust the narrator, whether it’s the author or a character the author is using to tell the story. They tell you something, and that’s just how it is. After all, how baffling would it be if they lied to you?
Gene Wolfe wants to baffle you, and he will tell you lies. His protagonists are like real people. They obfuscate, omit, distort and tell flat-out porkies to make themselves sound good, or at least sympathetic. They cannot be trusted. Much of the time, you don’t get the story from their words – you get it between their words, noting inconsistencies, the things they’re not saying, your knowledge of how people really work. It’s demanding. It will demand much from you.
But the payoff is spectacular.
You know that moment in really good mystery novels where everything unlocks and what really happened unfolds in your mind, and your jaw drops and a shiver goes right through you because hell, it’s so damn perfect? And that delicious feeling of being right on the cusp of that kind of revelation – almost like your subconscious knows but is sitting back with a smug expression and a “go on, keep reading” air about it?
That’s what reading Gene Wolfe is like.
It’s exasperating. It’s confusing. It’s hard on the mind. It often requires repeat reading. It’s so wildly unconventional that you will sometimes have no clue – really, no clue – what will happen next. And occasionally, no clue what just happened. Sometimes you’ll have to keep reading out of sheer faith that that author has a plan for explaining all this madness.
And yet it does indeed fit together. It’s like Lost should have been. Everything fits, even the really, really loopy stuff – you might not get it first go, but it’s there. And it’s all so beautifully written that the writing will tug you through an apparently impenetrable fog of confusion to where everything starts to clear and you can see your feet again.
I may have let slip by now that I’m a fan. Consider me a compromised source. Pour scorn. Whatever. Just as long as you read something by Gene Wolfe and let it bounce around inside you, working its strange, gnarly magic on your mind and on your heart.
But be warned: you may never want to read a reliably narrated story again.
WHERE TO START…
The Shadow Of The Torturer (1980)
The Knight (2004)
Ursula K. LeGuin
When it rained Ogion would not even say the spell that every weather-worker knows, to send the storm aside. In a land where sorcerers come thick, like Gont or the Enlades, you may see a raincloud blundering slowly from side to side and place to place as one spell shunts it on to the next, till at last it is buffeted out over the sea where it can rain in peace. But Ogion let the rain fall where it would. Ged crouched among the dripping bushes wet and sullen, and wondered what was the use of having power if you were too wise to use it.
– A Wizard of Earthsea
I’ve always hated cheap magic.
Grandunclewilf the Sorcerer turned to face his foe.
And lo! they were many! Hordes of Orc, ranks of Troll, phalanxes of Were-Triffids and one massive Frost Gerbil, 80 feet across, venting steam and crackling with eldritch energies that cannot be wot of. Behind him, Conancules the Barbarian turned white and made the sign of the Reluctant Eunuch. “Forsooth, I can never beat such odds, even wielding Manhood-Slicer and chanting all 27 of the Power Words Of Old Sod. Yea, I can split a boulder in twain with my face, yet I cannot surmount all that I see arrayed to meet us.”
Beside him Handy Jack McJack, Weapons Master, Pirate Captain and Mighty Lover Of Women And Horses, shrugged. “Avast, this is beyond even I. Splice me, I could bring down one hundred, maybe two hundred, but yank my barnacles, lads, sheer numbers would eventually overcome me and I would be forced to switch sides, betraying you all and dispassionately watching you die gratuitously violent deaths. A-harr! That it’d be.”
Behind them all stood Tanglearsed Bungo the Halfling, ready to deflect any lazy jokes aimed at short people and to thieve from his friends in an instantly forgivable manner. Absent-mindedly rifling through Jack’s trenchcoat pockets, he squeaked “oh DEAR, oi be thinking oi be no use ere, ‘Massurs” and started picking his nose in panic.
Clearly, this was the end of their quest.
Grandunclewilf turned and, with a smooth motion belying his advancing years, pointed a finger at the enemy, from which blossomed a fireball that immediately swelled until it was 7 miles across. It crashed into serried ranks with the force of ten million enraged quarterbacks. Then the wizard gestured lazily with his other hand, and everything still standing on the battlefield turned into a tulip.
“Fools”, he railed at his companions. “Do you still not understand my infinite power?”
Unpublished (and let’s hope it stays that way) – Mike Sowden
Magic is a dangerous thing to wield. Not just as a magic-user, but as a storyteller.
As soon as wizardry comes along, that gritty, tangible medieval world that’s so deliciously awful to imagine is under threat. Wizards can make mountains explode. (I remember this from a Michael Moorcock novel). Wizards are the equivalent of the USS Nick Of Time, popping out of nowhere when all seems lost to open a can of all-powerful whupass on the enemy. Wizards are usually so powerful that their continued presence in a story would nullify all the tension – which is why Gandalf is Away On Wizarding Business so much in Tolkien’s novels. Wizards so very easily unbalance a story. Get two magic-users in opposition and it’s easy for everything to devolve into an escalating series of boss-fights that don’t feel like anything to do with, you know, human beings. Wizards are superheroes. And too many fantasy writers are more Tim Kring than Joss Whedon.
But there’s another thing.
Magic should hurt.
When it’s easy and painless, when the author yawns and presses a button and everyone turns into tulips, it’s deus ex machina – the literary device where everything is neatly, conveniently fixed by something invented right then, just for that purpose. (Yes, Star Trek, I’m looking right at you, dude). It devalues everything the reader has put into the story. It’s borderline cheating. And if there isn’t a massive, massive cost to the person performing this miracle, it is cheating.
No fantasy writer knows this better than Ursula LeGuin. She’s spent a good slice of her career exploring the pain and misery that magic can bring. Her Earthsea series begins with A Wizard Of Earthsea, in which a young magic-user spends all his time trying to correct a blunder that nearly tore him to pieces and by book’s end threatens to consume him and split the world in two. It’s also a story about dread, about how that shadow in the corner of the room might indeed be everything you fear in the world – and it’s about how rebellious teenagers should shut the hell up and listen for a change. But most of all, it’s about how dangerous wizards are. How utterly ruinous to the health of the world they can be.
It helps that LeGuin is of the caliber of writer who can handle sentimentality and joy without collapsing into schmaltz, and uses a razor-sharp wit to stitch her dark, painful tales together.
A Wizard of Earthsea was the first post-Tolkien work of fantasy that I could take seriously. It’s still one of my favourite books. And I’m appalled that it’s still only available in paper format.
(Best you avoid the 2004 TV series Earthsea, which LeGuin famously washed her hands of – and Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea wasn’t an enormous improvement. It seems Earthsea is still waiting for its Peter Jackson).
WHERE TO START / ALTERNATELY…
A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) is the starting point for LeGuin’s most famous piece of worldbuilding, and she’s still spinning yarns in and around it today. The Left Hand Of Darkness (1969) is a very different kettle of fish – it’s science fiction (the start of another cycle of stories), but of the deeply human, political, planet-bound kind – and it tackles sexuality in a far more interesting and meaningful way than George RR Martin ever could. Imagine a world where there are no men, or women, just sexless, genderless citizens – except for the mating season, one month a year…