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A-Game-of-Thrones-Bantam-Spectra On January 23rd of 1999 I had just finished Paul Gottfried and Thomas Fleming’s The Conservative Movement. My roommate was pretty high, as usual (it was a Saturday). A few weeks earlier I’d gotten a paperback of a fantasy novel, Game of Thrones. I read a few pages, and then went to sleep. The next morning, Sunday, I began to read more. I did not finish until very late Sunday evening/Monday morning. I happened to have had a midterm in a biochemistry course the next day. I did not do so well. In a month the first edition of the sequel, Clash of Kings, came out. Satisfaction! In the year 2000 the British edition of the third book, A Storm of Swords, was published a few months earlier than the American one. I special ordered it from England so I could read it ahead of time. After I read Game of Thrones I emailed George R. R. Martin, and he actually responded, though it took about a year. He apologized for being responsible for my difficult midterm. He also confirmed that Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronciles were similar in feel, if not directly influential, to his series.

Like many I was patient, though frustrated, by the delays after A Storm of Swords. Like many readers I also believe that A Dance with Dragons and A Feast for Crows were somewhat inferior to his first three books. But I understand that the “middle books” of such an expansive series are often the least interesting. Bridges between the past and future. I am patient. When I first encountered Martin’s series I was a callow youth. I am now a father. Much has changed.

But now I read this post at FiveThirtyEight, We’re Going To Learn How The ‘Game Of Thrones’ Books End On HBO. I haven’t much paid attention to the show because I do not watch television, and film or television of science fiction and fantasy are usually inferior and compromised products. But the math is compelling. I had assumed that A Song of Ice and Fire would conclude in the early 2020s. But if the television show has nearly caught up with the books, and is already through 4 years of its run, it seems implausible that it won’t race ahead. I’m at a loss for what I can even say to this. Is our patience and forbearance for naught? Apparently.

I agree with the suggestion o some: the HBO series and the books should explicitly “fork.”

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Fiction 
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ACACIA_Cover There’s a rather boring but predictable complaint in The Washington Post, In the land of make-believe, racial diversity is a fantasy. We’ve been here before. The author of The Washington Post piece seems angry that his black child can’t identify with the white characters that dominate in fantasy films. But what this has to do with fantasy, as opposed to films, I don’t understand. The visual media aims toward the biggest American (and now Chinese) audience, and is averse to diversity because it thinks it doesn’t pay. I don’t know if Hollywood’s estimation is right or not, but it is no surprise that they turned the Filipino Juan Rico of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers into a Nordic superman archetype Johnny Rico in the movie (granted, this was partly a function of Paul Verhoeven’s “artistic vision”).

While fantasy fiction tends toward a Northern European setting because of the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, you can find a fair number of works which don’t fit this well-worn template.* Recently David Anthony Durham in his Acacia series of books has crafted a world where people of African-like features are prominent. The plot lines exhibit some aspect of symbolic inversion in terms of the conventional racial framework which we see so prominently in the world of Tolkien, where European-like peoples contribute the protagonists and assorted colored peoples are easily swayed to the side of the dark lord (the historical origins of this are explored in The Silmarillion). In Acacia the antagonists are the people of the north, though in the end amity is achieved.

Wizard_of_Earthsea Of course you don’t need to even look that hard to find something with breaks the mould, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea series consciously inverts conventional racial motifs. The civilized people of the world are dark skinned, while the barbarians are clearly substitutes for Europeans. I find Le Guin’s tendency to be rather explicit with what she’s doing in terms of inversion as a “teachable moment” rather ham-handed when it comes to how the ideology interleaves with the plotting. It occupies the foreground a bit too much for my taste. But she’s an acclaimed stylist and world-builder for a reason (I like to think of her as Jerry Pournelle’s mirror image, though his strength is more in world-building than prose style). It also has the virtue of being relatively friendly to children in comparison to Acacia, which is clearly part of the boom of more realistic novels which were published in the wake of A Song of Ice and Fire.

51m3VYrezBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ Finally, I need to mention Judith Tarr’s Avaryan Rising series. I won’t describe it in too much detail, but despite the illustration on the cover there really are no white European-like protagonists in the whole series, first to last. But the peoples depicted in these novels are far more exotic than those in either Le Guin or Durham’s universes, and it is somewhat difficult to find easy cognates for them in our world. At the end of the arc of books Tarr actually anchored her Avaryan novels back to our universe. I wonder if that was partly because her own creation in a standalone sense was too exotic to be a plausible secondary world for too many.

The concept of a secondary world is simple. It’s basically the setting for a fantasy novel, and is usually apart, and somewhat different in its basic rules from our own universe. Middle Earth is a classic case. The world of Song of Ice and Fire is another. But one thing about secondary worlds is that our ability to immerse ourselves within them seems to be optimal when they exhibit a fine balance between the lushly alien and the prosaically familiar. This is why this passage from The Washington Post piece is ridiculous:

…Why couldn’t the main characters in these films have been a panoply of diversity? The beauty and ease of diversity in fantasy is that it requires no explanation. It’s fantasy, after all. Just as you don’t have to provide a metaphysical explanation for the existence of a talking snowman, neither would you need to explain why one sister in “Frozen” was Latina, the other white and their dead mother Asian. A fantasy world just is. The strength of the story is all that matters.

No, the strength of the story is not all that matters. World-building is critical, and that needs coherency and clarity. Fantasy is not the same as magical realism. As I note above the most successful fantasy series tend to be those embedded within a backdrop with definite allusions to the lineaments of our world in its order and structure. Tolkien’s world-building was strongly derivative of our own, as is Martin’s. The human imagination has limits, and the reality is that most fantasy authors simply rearrange the cognitive furniture which we find familiar in a plausible but mildly exotic manner. Some barely make a pretense at hiding the origins of their secondary world as a shadow of our own. Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series which began with King’s Dragon is based upon 10th century Europe, with a focus upon Ottonian Saxony. She even creates social-cultural analogs to the Christian church, Islam, as well as historical events and personages such as the Byzantine princess Theophanu.

DiasporaEgan The key in a plausible secondary world is that the familiar is turned interestingly alien, but not too much. Elliott’s very familiar world has elves and assorted supernatural entities. In addition, the relations between men and women are much more egalitarian and complementary than they were in the real 10th century (the clerical elite of the quasi-Christian religion are generally women). This points to the reality that fantasy in literary form can be quite diverse in the way that it modulates and inflects its source material toward the unfamiliar or strange. The author Ricardo Pinto created a very exotic world which is hard to place in relation to our own in his novel The Chosen, but he specifically included a strong gay theme through the series. If you want something with a Christian tinge, Stephen R. Lawhead is there for you. And so on. Strange as it may seem, the best speculative fiction probably consists of minimally counter-intuitive ideas peppered through a conventional setting and story. That is why stories which are exclusively about non-humanoid species, such as in John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time, are not very common. And it is probably why a hard science fiction author prone to extruding very startling futures such as Greg Egan is often acclaimed, but is unlikely to become a bestselling author.

The subtle balance between these variables which lend exoticism and plausibility is why “race blind casting” in fantasy novels is probably not feasible. There are plenty of series with characters of different races playing leading roles, but because they are often pre-industrial secondary worlds all the individuals have to have their own ethnic back-story. It has to make sense in some way that is plausible to us as we understand the pre-industrial world to be. The fact is that it seems likely our native “folk taxonomy” is such that most people would find a “white” mother and father with a biological “Asian” child in a secondary world is ridiculous without some explanation. Fantasy can only be so ridiculous before it loses it allure.

* You might find this Brandon Sanderson piece about the downsides of Tolkien looming so large in modern fantasy interesting.

Note: I’d like to note that the correspondence of secondary worlds to our world holds for Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. It’s vaguely set in an Abbasid-like world.

• Category: Miscellaneous • Tags: Fiction 
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The New York Times has an obit. Found out via Fred Pohl. I read some of Harrison’s work, but probably most memorable to me was the series which began with Hammer and Cross series in particular captured my imagination. With hindsight it’s pretty obviously an inversion of Christian fantasy in more than just the plain sense. Where in much of Christian fantasy the revelation of the religious truths bleed into the story through a process of unfolding, Harrison’s rather conventional anti-Christianity is firmed up by an alternative and utopian vision of the early Middle Ages.

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Fiction 
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I haven’t watched most of the films (or video games, or T.V. shows) being parodied by How It Should Have Ended. But I have read A Game of Thrones. So I’m confused as to why this struck me as rather unfunny, in comparison to most of the others where I have to educate myself on what’s being parodied….

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Fiction 
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One of the aspects of fiction is that it serves as a Rorschach test. Over at Slate Nina Shen Rastogi has a post up, Is “Game of Thrones” Racist?:

The Dothraki are dark, with long hair they wear in dreadlocks or in matted braids. They sport very little clothing, bedeck themselves in blue paint, and, as depicted in the premiere episode, their weddings are riotous affairs full of thumping drums, ululations, orgiastic public sex, passionate throat-slitting, and fly-ridden baskets full of delicious, bloody animal hearts. A man in a turban presents the new khaleesi with an inlaid box full of hissing snakes. After their nuptials, the immense Khal Drogo takes Daenerys to a seaside cliff at twilight and then, against her muted pleas, takes her doggie-style.

They are, in short, barbarians of the most stereotypical, un-PC sort. As I watched, I kept thinking, “Are they still allowed to do that?”

I wasn’t the only viewer who found the depiction of the Dothraki uncomfortable, to say the least. Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik, noting that the Dothraki seem to be made up of a “grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers,” wondered if it was “possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist.”

First, the author immediately notes that for every swarthy barbarian there is a depiction of another trope, the Evil Blonde Guy. Nina Shen Ragosti’s read the books. She knows that though initially you encounter a story which is framed in black-white Manichean terms that is the norm in the more juvenile sectors of epic fantasy, the development of the characters, and your perception of the world which they inhabit, quickly slouches toward many shades of gray.

The television show may be different, I don’t know. In any case, if you read the books I think you might seriously wonder what George R. R. Martin has against blondes! Not only is the family which is at the center of the web-of-evil-intent-and-action boldly blonde, but within the “good family” (the Starks) depth of character and nobility of purpose are usually aligned with the brunettes (petulant Sansa vs. persevering Arya, good-hearted but ultimately naive Rob vs. brooding but predestined Jon). The main caveat is that Martin is one who often sets up expectations which he turns upside down, so any coarse generalization may eventually land on the wrong side of the ledger.

There are several broader issues in the bigger picture in terms of the reaction of people to epic fantasy and speculative fiction. First, in a world where most people praise multiculturalism and diversity there seems to be a tendency to blanch and recoil when faced with genuine divergence of viewpoint and variance of behavior. In our own world many attempt to reframe differences of value as ultimately due to material conditions (e.g., intolerance is rooted in poverty, etc.). This misses the reality that despite our common humanity grounded in human universals which makes communication across the chasm of culture possible, there are also deep abiding incommensurable values even among extant societies! People recoil from a depiction of barbarism, but we have barbarism in our day! Sometimes I get a sense that the discomfort that people have with the depiction of barbarism in fiction is that it smashes the delusion that cultural diversity can be reduced to variety of dress, dish, and language. This was how cultural diversity was preserved in the former Soviet Union. One of the main criticisms of fantasy is that it is too often a simple and unsubtle morality play. The world of A Song of Ice and Fire in contrast has rich texture, but we need to be cautious about ruining our enjoyment by projecting our own contemporary preconceptions as we explore it. We need shift between enjoyment of the development of individuals with whom we identify, along with moments of epoche to take in the landscape without preconceptions.

Second, there are fantasy works which have veiled or unveiled anti-white sentiments you can find out there if you want to balance the scales. Ursula K. Le Guin has copped to this as one of her agenda’s in the Earthsea stories. It’s even more explicit in Judith Tarr’s Avaryan novels. Here’s a representative selection from Avaryan Resplendent:

Vanyi’s cheeks were burning. No doubt they blazed scarlet. It was all the color they ever had. Corpse-woman, people called her here, because she was as white as new milk, and they were all black or brown or ruddy bronze. Even the Asanians were, at worst, old ivory.

The are references to the “maggoty pallor” of people who seem equivalent to white Europeans in Tarr’s secondary world in A Fall of Princes. Judith Tarr herself is a white American from what I know, so I doubt she’s pushing a deeper agenda, but just changing the terms of her secondary world in a manner which makes it atypical for Western fantasy.

But the bigger issue is that authors can not help but inject their own perception of the world and biases into their works. Otherwise they’d be computers lacking real A.I. I’ve noted before that it’s pretty clear that Brandon Sanderson is a theist, or is speaking from a theist point of view, in his fiction. He has admitted as much. More precisely there seems to be a Mormon inflected aspect in his Mistborn series. Conversely, Ursula K. Le Guin’s atheism seems to have influenced the lack of theistic religion in Earthsea as anything but a deviation or abomination (in interviews she soft-pedaled the propagandistic nature of her execution of intent, but I think I’m being accurate).

There’s an easy way to even out the problem of Eurocentrism in fantasy fiction: more colored people should write. David Anthony Durham is a black fantasy writer. I don’t think his race influences his Acacia series too much. He does utilize the Evil Bonde Guy trope, but so do fantasy authors in general (see David Coe). One might suggest though that he gives a little more detailed description to the African equivalent populations in his secondary world than one might usually find in epic fantasy, which I found interesting even if it was marginal to the main story arc. Black science fiction writer Steven Barnes wrote an alternative history duology starting with Lion’s Blood which could, it is argued, be an Afrocentric “what-if.”

Much of fantasy literature draws from epic myths. J. R. R. Tolkien’s own work was an attempt to create an epic myth for the English people, because their own had been lost, unlike the Scandinavians or Irish (rather like the Kalevala). Most “high cultures” have an extensive epic myth tradition which can be mined, so authors who want a non-Northern European milieu have a lot they could work with. David Drake used a hybrid of Sumerian and medieval European motifs in Lord of the Isles.

Less criticism. More creation!

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Fantasy, Fiction, Racism 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"