George R. R. Martin is in his element. Pen in hand, wearing his signature wool flat cap, he’s seated in a corner of the cavernous San Jose McEnery Convention Centre, site of this year’s Worldcon – the World Science Fiction Convention, held annually since 1946. A long line snaking around stanchions inches forward. A hundred people, maybe more. A member of the convention staff stands near the table, explaining ground rules: one book at a time. If you want multiple books signed, you must return to the back of the line.
Martin, 70, chats with the young woman standing across from him as she proffers a hardcover bearing his name, her demeanour part reverent, part sheepish, the latter perhaps owing to the fact this is her fifth or sixth time through the line. I’m trying to maintain a loose orbit around the author, the optimal distance to watch him without being creepy. His publicist takes me towards the queue. We wait until the book-bearing customers have exhausted their requests. Then all of a sudden, I’m standing in front of the man. “Don’t be a fan boy,” I tell myself, trying to keep my cool as I explain I’m observing him for this story.
“They took my picture in front of a rock,” he says, and then shows me the photo on his phone. He laughs, as he does often, and I see his eyes shift towards a person in line behind me. Before I know it, Martin has politely and effortlessly moved on to her. “Hello. Back again?” he says, teasing her with a smile, while at the same time putting her at ease.
At some stage this northern summer, sales of the first five books in Martin’s eventual heptalogy, A Song of Ice and Fire, surpassed 85 million copies sold worldwide. Available in 47 languages, the series is also the basis for HBO’s Game of Thrones, by many measures the most popular television show on earth, airing in 170 countries.
A significant portion of Martin’s massive readership was already onto him well before April 2011, when the program first aired. Although the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, was published in 1996 to modest expectations, as the enthusiasm of early readers and booksellers spread (the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth), there was a sense that Martin’s story was special – more than special, even: perhaps unlike anything fantasy readers had ever seen. When the fourth book in the series, A Feast for Crows, was published in 2005, it went straight to the top of best-seller lists. After the HBO show premiered, the world Martin created became a global phenomenon, and his readership reached heights few authors have found. His American peers now include other household names of genre fiction, such as Tom Clancy and Stephen King.
The plot of ASOIAF, as fans call it, is concerned largely with events unfolding in and around the continent of Westeros around the year 300AC (“after conquest” of the seven kingdoms in the books). The inciting incident of the series is the death, under suspicious circumstances, of Jon Arryn, who had been serving as hand of the king (chief of staff, basically) to a royal named Robert Baratheon. Arryn’s demise sets in motion a chain of events leading to the death of King Robert himself, which in turn creates a power vacuum, destabilising the prevailing political order. After centuries of relative calm, chaos erupts into war, involving several of the realm’s great family houses.
This war and its aftermath represent the titular game of thrones, which is played as much through court intrigue and council meetings as it is on the battlefield; where the most powerful moves involve not only the unleashing of dragons but strategic marriage proposals; where the key players include assassins, sorceresses and zombies – a game in which the most important pieces are people. ASOIAF is a fantasy series, but to call it that is an oversimplification, because it is also a story about power, family, ambition and history, on both a micro and macro scale, a myth that, however fantastical it can get, always resonates in our temporal world.
Throughout the books, Martin depicts a society simple enough to understand but complex enough in its dynamics to be a model and mirror of our own. His output seems calibrated to optimise depth and breadth. “We know not only what characters think and feel, but what they eat, wear, see and smell – even the sex of their horses,” says Anne Groell, who has been Martin’s editor at Bantam Books for two decades. “George’s characters feel like people because they are people, with all the foibles and doubts and internal contradictions that every one of us contain. We can relate to these characters because we are these characters.”
Those granular details, however, never come at the expense of narrative propulsion. For in Martin’s vast creation, sprawling in both space and time, there is an ever-present drive, an orienting polestar: Who will emerge victorious and sit on the Iron Throne? Having this kind of compass gives both writer and reader latitude to enjoy Martin’s numerous digressions and discursive wanderings with the security of knowing everything is somehow connected to that question. The stakes matter, and they are clear.
Permanent state of frenzy
As impressive as Martin’s universe is, his fans’ engagement with it is perhaps even more so. In the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community, people often refer to “fanac” (short for fan activity), which takes many forms: cosplay (costume play), fan art, fan fiction, even filk – a musical genre comprising original songs, parodies and covers – all shared and celebrated at local meet-ups or conventions. Technology has increased the number of venues, including podcasts, wikis, websites and message boards, for nerding out over a particular topic or piece of arcana, which previously may have occurred in the back of a bookstore or game shop but now takes place largely online.
In Martin’s case, this fanac seems to be in a permanent state of frenzy. The fan-maintained westeros.org has become the foremost clearinghouse of information about his world. The process of readers attempting to predict the release of the next book in the series has its own name – Martinology, practitioners of which include the political analysis site FiveThirtyEight. Martin journals regularly on his so-called Not a Blog at his eponymous website, where he ends each post with a description of his mood: melancholy, say, or bouncy. All told, it’s possible that more has been written about the fictional kingdoms of Westeros than about some actual countries on Earth.
This conversation sometimes takes place in real time but also continues for years and decades – in the long wait between books (seven years after the last book, A Dance With Dragons, was published, the series’s sixth book, The Winds of Winter, still doesn’t have a publication date), or between seasons of the show. For years, fans obsessed over such mysteries as the possible lineage of the bastard Jon Snow, one of the main characters, forensically marshalling textual evidence in support of the theory (recently confirmed, at long last) that Snow was not a bastard and, in fact, might be the rightful heir to the Iron Throne.
The cumulative effect of all this activity has created a meta-layer, or perhaps a para-layer, a kind of atmosphere that exists above, next to, under and all around the fictional world created by Martin. This para-layer doesn’t actually change or otherwise affect the canon: it is crucial to the integrity of both the fans and the author himself that the boundary between the two is impermeable – there is no feedback loop, and even some of the readers refer to their contributions as “fan labour”. Theories are just that: theories, until they’re proved correct. Martin is the creator, we are the fans, and we rely on him for an underlying text that is coherent and internally consistent, unchanging and unchangeable. And this is the way we want it. For one thing, it’s more fun to argue about theories when you believe there is objective truth.
I’ve read the books, and books about the books, and watched the show, and read recaps of the show, and listened to podcasts about the show and gone deep, deep down Reddit holes, discussion threads that start at the level of trivia and descend into minutiae. None of this would be possible with a lesser series, one without the complexity and consistency to support all of this geekery. In fact, this para-layer is essential to contemporary fandom and ASOIAF in particular: the two domains, canon and fanac, validate each other, strengthening the power of each and improving the structure as a whole.
Sometimes this validation happens in tangible ways: Martin is adept at rewarding true fans. When he is visiting a city for a convention, he makes it a habit to go for a drink or a meal with the local chapter of the Brotherhood Without Banners (a multinational fan collective named after a group of characters from the books). At August’s Worldcon, he threw the after-party he has hosted on and off for more than four decades, where he gleefully danced to Daft Punk, mingling with fans, artists, editors and fellow writers.
Then there is Elio M. Garcia jnr and Linda Antonsson, a married super-fan couple based in Sweden who, in 2007, started an unofficial fan-generated website (now called A Wiki of Ice and Fire) that has become the authoritative resource on the books – charting everything from the history of religion in Westeros to the flora and fauna of other continents in the books – that Martin now consults to fact-check details in his own writing process. “I know for a fact that some errors have escaped into the printed book,” Groell says, “because dedicated fans have pointed them out.”
Together as a group, these readers – not just of the books but of the ephemera surrounding them, which now comprise official family histories of the characters and graphic novels – possess more information about ASOIAF than any individual, creating a kind of permanent book club supporting the author. The result, conceived of by Martin but transcending his text, bridges the time between novels and the space between people: it is a hybrid literary beast (a fictional environment, a shared universe that overlaps with our own) sustained by a modern kind of authorship and the sheer force of its fans’ will.
Martin was raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, the son of a longshoreman and a factory worker. He has talked about his childhood growing up in a federal housing project, gazing across the water at Staten Island, watching ships coming into port, imagining them travelling from distant lands he would never see.
He’s now based in Santa Fe. He moved in 1979 from Dubuque, Iowa, where he was teaching journalism at Clarke College. When Tom Reamy, a friend and fellow science fiction and fantasy author, died suddenly in 1977, at the age of 42, Martin was galvanised: “I thought, ‘Do I have all the time in the world? I want to write all these stories.'” He quit teaching to write full time in New Mexico, spending the next decade and a half as a well-received fantasy author. He lives with Parris McBride, his second wife. The two of them are ardent supporters of the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a non-profit organisation that rescues and provides sanctuary to captive-bred wolves. When it’s time for him to focus on his books, Martin heads to what he calls his “hideaway” in an undisclosed location.
In the 40 years since he began writing, a cultural tide has risen with him: the whole entertainment landscape seemingly picked up, moved over and sat down in a new realm, one where science fiction, fantasy and superheroes are at the epicentre of popular storytelling. Marvel, DC Comics, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have had much to do with that. But so has ASOIAF, bringing millions of people who previously wouldn’t have considered themselves genre fans or SFF readers (many of whom still might not, a form of cognitive dissonance that is its own topic, one for another day) to the fantasy aisles. The fact Martin, a lone author, can be counted among the significant factors in this aesthetic sea change says as much about his influence as the record-breaking television ratings or book sales.
Regarding those sales: among epic fantasy series, ASOIAF is second only to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (to which Martin’s work is often compared). Within this category, a distinction is sometimes drawn between “high” or “epic” fantasy, like Tolkien’s, and “low” fantasy, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Putting aside the existence of a school for wizards (and magic in general), Harry and his friends inhabit a land that is recognisably similar to ours, whereas the best high-fantasy authors – Terry Pratchett, Terry Brooks, Ursula K. Le Guin – invent new environments.
Lord of the Rings has sold more than 150 million copies since it was first published as a trilogy beginning in 1954, placing it among the best-selling literature in any genre of all time. Although widely beloved – a 2003 poll in the UK found it to be Britain’s favourite novel, besting Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – and praised for the genius of its storytelling, Tolkien’s writing on the corrupting influences of power has been criticised in recent years for lacking psychological depth and leaning on reactionary politics.
The same cannot be said for ASOIAF. Though the series is considered relatively high fantasy, one of Martin’s significant achievements was combining the two realms, creating a new genre that relies on the wide-open flexibility of a high-fantasy world but written about from a low-fantasy lens, with a realism that grounds the story in human emotion and psychology. Each of Martin’s chapters is told through a different character’s perspective, allowing the reader to follow the story not from an omniscient fairytale narrator but in a voice that feels true to the time. The locales of Westeros aren’t airy glades, fields or castles in the sky; they are brothels and ale houses full of dark and grimy corners. Even when there are castles, they are not abstractions – they are characters’ living rooms.
The edges of the world
This grounded quality is enhanced by Martin’s gift for succinctly evoking more than what’s merely on the page. He knows how to reveal the tip of the iceberg and let the reader’s imagination supply the rest, lending a pleasing verticality to his society: dozens of noble houses, lesser houses beneath those, then landed knights and even extinct houses, all of which are catalogued in exhaustive taxonomic detail on A Wiki of Ice and Fire. Not only has he convincingly laid out the map of Westeros over 3968 pages (so far), he’s also framed it, drawing a penetrable border around his world. At the edges of the story, both in a geographic and diegetic sense, we get hints of what lies beyond. The Others, for instance, terrifying undead beings who reside north of the Wall (a 200-metre-tall barrier made thousands of years ago out of magic and ice). These fringe elements provide perspective, a reminder that beyond our plot-driven sphere of concern lies a larger reality, one unconcerned with the Iron Throne.
It’s this kind of suggestively symbolic framework that mirrors Tolkien’s oeuvre. “I’m a huge fan of Tolkien,” Martin says, sitting upstairs in the Jean Cocteau Cinema, a movie theatre in Santa Fe that opened in 1976, which the author bought in 2013 and renovated for the benefit of the community. “Sometimes it feels like I’m criticising Tolkien when I talk about this stuff, but my admiration for him is huge. Nonetheless, sometimes I feel I’m in dialogue with Tolkien.
“Tolkien wanted to do a mythology for England. I wanted to make my world more complete and more realistic. Tolkien says, after the end of Lord of the Rings, ‘Aragorn [one of the primary protagonists] is the king and he ruled wisely and well for a hundred years,’ or whatever, but what does that actually mean? Many good men through history have been terrible kings. Many bad men have been good kings. Of course, now we live in a time where we have a bad man who is also a bad president.”
Martin, like Tolkien, says he is not writing allegory, although he does admit that influence is unavoidable. Still, he notes, his books are more inspired by historical events, such as the Hundred Years’ War in 14th-century France and Britain, and the War of the Roses that followed soon after. And while ASOIAF may not be intended as a cautionary tale, it resonates with our contemporary environment. Through the machinations of the various Westerosi houses, Martin can write about politics without writing about politics. Unlike the mostly clear lines of good and evil drawn in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the morality of Martin’s realm is not one of unambiguous heroes and villains. His characters, from royals to peasants, tend to be ethically mutable. So-called good people, like the noblemen Ned Stark, his son Robb Stark or the indomitable Daenerys Targaryen (“the Mother of Dragons”), make terrible mistakes – out of weakness, pride or an overly rigid sense of right and wrong. And horrible people, like Jaime Lannister, known as “the Kingslayer,” do terrible things and then, over the course of several books, reveal themselves to be capable of heroism and sacrifice.
As we’re discussing this in the theatre, Martin quotes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar from memory: “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” Then he adds his own version: “We shouldn’t forget about the evil that good men do. But we shouldn’t forget about the good either … I do think a society needs heroes. They don’t have to be flawless.”
A different story
Martin still has two books to finish. His delay is, unfortunately for him, one of his fans’ favourite topics. But when the final six episodes of Game of Thrones air in the spring of 2019, they will conclude the most successful series in HBO’s history. Shows of its scope, cost and ambition are, if not quite commonplace, not unusual any more: Game of Thrones sparked an era of television with budgets in excess of $100 million for a season (as the seventh one, which aired in 2017, is said to have cost) and huge ensemble casts split into three or four units sometimes shooting simultaneously in different locations, such as Croatia and Iceland. Thrones set the bar high, creatively and financially, garnering a record 131 Emmy nominations and changing visual storytelling forever.
But Martin began writing ASOIAF because he was tired of hearing the ideas he was pitching as a young television writer – stories that would require huge casts or expensive, realistic battles – wouldn’t be feasible on television (at least as it existed in the ’80s). Fiction offered him the chance to tell a different, more interior kind of story. Then, in an ironic twist, that story ushered in a new era of TV, full of tangled points of view: five, six, seven or more story lines in a single episode; threads woven together within episodes, then within a season, then over seven seasons. The resulting fabric is a dense weave that encourages and rewards obsession, the sort that requires looking up from your phone and viewing carefully, the Monday mornings after each episode devoted to argument and analysis. “George’s writing, and the world of Westeros he created, has universal appeal and something for every type of fan,” says Casey Bloys, HBO’s president of programming. “The series has created a community in the same way that the books did.”
The production has been called novelistic by critics, and rightly so. But as enjoyable as the HBO series is, there is a level of detail the books possess that can never be translated to television, no matter how much time or money is allocated. This richness comes from the care that Martin takes in cultivating his narrative and his community, both real and imagined. Ultimately, it’s this commitment that defines and explains the lasting power and popularity of ASOIAF. Westeros is undeniably bleak – you’d never want to actually spend time there – and even if you were lucky enough to be a highborn lord, it seems like a brutally hard, often miserable and perpetually dangerous place to live. But a writer’s true genius rests in allowing readers to perch tenuously at the precipice between his universe and ours, safely and curiously peeking over that gulf.
One of the complex pleasures of immersing yourself in Westeros is that – because it is fictional, and thus has fictional problems that seem bad but not quite as intractable as reality – you can glean something akin to world order (or the possibility of one) from this imaginary place. Despite the hopelessness of today, in this narrative, there is a clear vector of destiny, the possibility that someone, be it Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen or someone else altogether, will turn out to be the saviour. That is why we keep reading and watching and asking Martin to give us more: for the promise of an ending that means something.