So Game of Thrones is the new HBO stab at genre fiction—and I do mean stab. Filmed on a budget roughly equivalent to the GDP of a small country or a continent on the World of Warcraft, Game of Thrones is a lavishly realised adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series of fantasy novels.
The trailer gives you a fairly good idea of what to expect:
Now, George R.R. Martin began writing these novels back in the 90s, but the show so far has struck me as peculiarly attuned to the collective unconscious of the United States at the moment – bleak, foreboding doom, and a vicious culture of death. The fantasy window dressing is extremely sparse with this series; here’s some ominous hints of supernatural baddies in the White Walkers, and some dead dragon’s eggs which are presumably going to spring to life at some point, but basically the “fantasy” boils down to a made-up Ye Olde Medieval Country, a focus on the aristocracy, and some silly names. So far, so bog standard.
What is patently missing from all of this in terms of mood is any sense of wonder. Fantasy and science fiction tend as genres to be as much about setting as plot—we admire the scenery, the magic, the bending of the rules of physics etc—it’s a kind of popculture sublime. Something like Harry Potter features all those increasingly clunky scenes of Harry gaping in wonder at Hogwarts or whatever, something conspicuously absent from Game of Thrones.
Martin’s own twist on the fantasy genre is to use it as a setting for political struggles so vicious they make the Borgias look like Harold and Lou squabbling on Neighbours (note: this is an Australian reference and thus incomprehensible to most of you. As you were.). There’s a million characters in this plot, but basically, apart from our sourpuss hero Lord Eddard Stark, everyone appears to want to kill each other to gain power, and because it is HBO, there are also a lot of boobs and, for some reason, incest plotlines.
Now, Game of Thrones has been marked with one of those persistent meme about SFF that really annoys me: namely, the idea that fantastic elements are adolescent and “politics” is Srs Bsns (this, incidentally, is one thing that annoys me about the way people talk about Battlestar Galactica). Because of course, imagining life as different, as otherwise than it is, as it could be, is trite, but Borgias on horses is the mark of mature genre.
But it’s this move from wonder to social Darwinist political wrangling that makes me think about how conservative this text really is—there is no space for utopian yearning or change. Instead, what we have is the aftermath of a successful revolution which is clearly going horribly awry, a corrupt ruling class, and the disposability of those few peasants who get in their way (so far, peasants have mostly appeared only to be topped off several scenes later). The kingdom’s broke, so the king’s borrowing money from his wife’s family to fund his lifestyle of wine, women and hunting. Eddard Stark, medieval deficit hawk, was very frowny about this on Sunday’s episode.
The gender roles, needless to say, are pretty much horrible. There’s a plotline for one character being sold off into marriage, raped by her new husband, learning to seduce him, then joyous pregnancy (and all in three episodes), while the Queen is bloodthirsty, scheming against her husband and having an affair with her brother. I don’t think GLBT people exist in this world, conveniently (phew!).
Basically, what I’m saying is, Game of Thrones is Tea Party world, Tolkien remixed by Ayn Rand. Everyone against everyone, no sense of the common, just sovereign individuals competing in the marketplace of arseholery for a pointy throne. Despite its genre position, it is as Mark Fisher would call it, a supreme piece of neoliberal “capitalist realism.” It’s not mature or sophisticated by playing out this Hobbesian society tearing itself apart, it simply confirms the reality principles of kyriarchical neo-liberalism. This is supposedly how people are.
Honestly, despite all of this, I actually enjoy this show, because I have low standards when it comes to SFF. But part of me thinks, of all the stories in the world, is this particular one really what we need more of?