It is no secret that those who imagine themselves to be serious literati tend to despise the science fiction and fantasy genres. While it is increasingly true that there is a lot to be despised about the present state of SF/F literature, it is not at all difficult to discern that there is a big difference between those contemptuous critics who are actually familiar with the genre and those who are not. Strangely enough, the literary contempt for SF/F, which was originally based on the thin characterizations and juvenile appeal of Golden Age science fiction, has apparently now expanded into the cinematic world as well. This is a little strange given the way in which the same historical deficiencies of classic science fiction literature clearly apply to the cinema, to say nothing of the present state of television drama.
The New York Times review of Game of Thrones, which begins tonight on HBO, is remarkable for the reviewer’s complete lack of familiarity, not only with George R.R. Martin, with the last 30 years of the fantasy genre as well. Consider the article entitled A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms:
The imagined historical universe of “Game of Thrones” gives license for unhindered bed-jumping — here sibling intimacy is hardly confined to emotional exchange. The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. 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.
Since the arrival of The Sopranos more than a decade ago, HBO has distinguished itself as a corporate auteur committed, when it is as its most intelligent and dazzling, to examining the way that institutions are made and how they are upheld or fall apart: the Mafia, municipal government (The Wire), the Roman empire (Rome), the American West (Deadwood), religious fundamentalism (Big Love).
When the network ventures away from its instincts for real-world sociology, as it has with the vampire saga True Blood, things start to feel cheap, and we feel as though we have been placed in the hands of cheaters. Game of Thrones serves up a lot of confusion in the name of no larger or really relevant idea beyond sketchily fleshed-out notions that war is ugly, families are insidious and power is hot. If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.
Setting aside the obvious absurdity of declaring that HBO’s take on the Mafia, much less Mormon polygamy or the Roman Empire, can be reasonably described as “intelligent”, (to say nothing of “accurate”), it is eminently clear that the reviewer has no idea that women have been the dominant force in both writing and editing fantasy literature for at least the last 20 years. Epic fantasy of the sort that Martin writes is one of the few areas where male writers are still the leading figures; one would imagine that even the most erudite connoisseur of cable television would be at least peripherally aware of the likes of J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, or Laurell K. Hamilton, each of whom have spawned a legion of imitators and none of whom happen to write in anything that can be legitimately described as “the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic”. Indeed, much modern fantasy bears much more similarity to the Oprah book club aesthetic than it does to the classic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien. If Game of Thrones is mere boy fiction, as the reviewer sneeringly declares, then one can only conclude that the fantasy genre could certainly do with considerably more of it and rather less of the tedious girl fiction that revolves around the supreme importance of being strong, independent, and true to yourself when not being penetrated by animate corpses and seductive were-seals.
Now, I don’t know if HBO’s cinematic version of Martin’s novel will be worthwhile or not. I certainly hope so. But there is only one way to find out, which is to watch Game of Thrones tonight. And if the reviewer’s dislike of True Blood is a reliable guide, I imagine that Martin’s fans will not be disappointed.