Vox has an interesting but predictable reaction to the finale of the show that much of America was watching, The Game of Thrones finale had a chance to break the wheel. It upheld the status quo. The show is obviously now its own thing apart from the books. But as someone who was reasonably immersed in George R. R. Martin’s original heterodox vision, it strikes me that the author of the Vox piece misunderstands (consciously?) the nature of the author’s transgressions (albeit, probably profitably for clicks):
Game of Thrones was initially built on a premise of subverting established high fantasy tropes, and surely one of the most innate fantasy tropes of all involves the idea that only men are fit to rule
Perhaps the television show is different but the above makes no sense in light of the thrust of what Martin was depicting and how he transformed the relatively stale high fantasy genre. Before A Song of Ice and Fire , the most prominent epic high fantasy of the late 20th-century was clearly Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (with perhaps an honorable mention to Terry Brooks’ highly derivative and mediocre body of work). Martin has admitted his debt to Jordan, but on the whole, I think the only way in which the latter matched the former would be in the grandness of vision. Martin’s world-building is superior, and Jordan confessed that every primary female character in the novels was somehow based on his wife (who, I presume, really enjoys standing with her hands on her hips and tugging her braids).
The Wheel of Time is a great series if you are a 13-year old boy, with the requisite amount of maturity and complexity to satisfy the early adolescent imagination. Though there is brutality galore implied in the world that Jordan creates, evil is drawn in more antiseptic terms than in Martin’s world, where someone like Ramsay Snow becomes the living embodiment of fecal cruelty upon the earth. In an email exchange with Martin 1999, he confirmed to me that he quite enjoyed Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, a Dark Age Arthurian historical novel which was vivid and unflinching in its description of brutality.
One aspect of Martin’s subversion of high fantasy tropes was tearing away the adolescent catering facade of a world of bright honor and chivalry pitted against pure evil. As Martin’s novels proceed the peeling away of the mask reveals a world regressive and cruel, where hope strives against the darkness in humanity. The medieval secondary world settings sometimes intersect with a darker and more exotic sensibility. Daenerys Targaryen’s explorations in the novels are redolent of 1970s DAW paperbacks, such as The Birthgrave, which are set amongst fallen civilizations where barbarians prowl ruined landscapes.*
What the author of the Vox piece echoes is a desire for the unjust premodern world to be as just as our own, in a manner that comports with the progressive sensibilities of 2019. That would certainly make it relatable, and easy for people to identify with. But this is literally the opposite of the way in which Martin was subverting the tropes, showing how brutal knights could be, how amoral political leaders were as a matter of course, and how false romantic histories often end up being when you understand the reality undergirding the myth-making. The more antiseptic fantasies which preceded his novels were easier for the core audience to take in, not harder.
A Song of Ice and Fire is a series which leverages the superstructure and set of expectations from formulaic high fantasy geared toward adolescents who want bright lines, flat characters, and role-playing game plots, and stuffs it full of the verisimilitude of realistic historical fantasy.** This means that though Martin can make a nod toward modern sensibility in character development and depth (e.g., both Sansa and Arya in the novels appeal to early 21st-century expectations of what a young woman in difficult circumstances can achieve with focus and determination), the framing social backdrop is often even more regressive and anti-modern than more imaginative and thinly drawn works.
Martin’s “smallfolk” are treated more badly because the ruling elite is just as selfish and cruel as they were in our own world.
Fantasy is a conservative genre. I wrote about this in Can We Make Tolkien “Woke”? (and got a positive comment from fantasist R Scott Bakker, whose own brutal series probably got some oxygen due to A Song of Ice and Fire).
But, if this makes you unsatisfied, I have a solution: science fiction. If you want to read speculative fiction of ideas which bend your mind and expectations and align with progressive and post-progressive sympathies, then everything is there for you. Just look. The Left Hand of Darkness was written in 1969! And it is entirely readable in a satisfying way in 2019.
You can’t rewrite the past to make it more palatable to the present unless you’re a political ideologue. But the future presents many more speculative opportunities.
Addendum: The anti-slaving passions of Daenerys in the books always struck me as one of the more unrealistic aspects of Martin’s plot elements, since slave revolts in the ancient world always focused on freeing the slaves themselves, not abolishing slavery. But A Song of Ice and Fire is a fantasy, so he’s allowed some liberties.
* Martin is a huge fan of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. The landscape of Essos in the wake of the collapse of the Valyrian Freehold and its imperial domains has a lot of similarities to fantasy and science fantasy set in these decadent and decrepit civilizations. Also, there are some similarities between the “protagonist” in The Birthgrave and Daenerys Targaryen that are striking to me. To name three, their physical appearance, the “white savior” motif, and incest.
** Brandon Sanderson extends the spirit of this sort of “boy scout” fantasy in novel directions in his work. It can be done better than it was, and Sanderson shows exactly how.