A couple of weeks ago, I drove an hour north to a stranger’s home to play Dungeons and Dragons on tabletop for the first time in more than a decade. The invitation was extended to me by the game’s dungeon master, who I happened to meet at a mutual friend’s recent house party. I was all too eager to accept. These days, the opportunities to connect with new people and indulge my nerdy hobbies are, sadly, few and far between.
While preparing for a raid on a demon’s tower, the players and I chatted about the massive transformations that fantasy and science fiction have gone through since we were young. For one, back in the old days, finding other genre fans in our schools and neighbourhoods was difficult work – you kept your D&D Player’s Handbook and your 20-sided dice tucked securely in your backpack when you weren’t in a safe space with other players. For another, internet spaces hadn’t yet harnessed the financial and cultural value of the microtargeting that exists today. Without subreddits and Twitter hashtags, you really had to go looking for a place to argue with other passionate fantasy fans about the ending to the latest Drizzt book.
And then came Game of Thrones.
Eight years ago, the fantasy epic splashed down on HBO and immediately transformed mainstream perceptions of the genre. With the sheer number of fantasy adaptations now in film, as well as those in development for Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, it’s easy to forget that in 2011, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter were the most common frame of reference for the genre. In the popular imagination, fantasy was (even for avid fiction readers) escapist catnip for the type of people who attended renaissance fairs in full costume. Reviews for Game of Thrones often had to lean on fantasy-film references not to describe their similarities, but to tell audiences just how different the show was from the genre. To say it was darker than The Deathly Hallows was putting it too lightly; one had to imagine The Sopranos, but with swords.
In 2016, when musing on his path to success, George R.R. Martin noted that A Game of Thrones – the first volume of the Song of Ice and Fire series upon which the show is based – was not a very popular book when it was released in 1996. In fact, at one book-signing in St. Louis, Mo., that year, no one showed up. He went on to shoo four other patrons out of the bookstore “in order to set my all-time ‘bad signing’ record at minus four.” When the show was released, it went on to break viewership records, and his remaining novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series surged to the top of bestseller lists. Given the massive popularity that HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation brought to Martin’s work, it might be easy to assume that the fantasy genre as a whole has benefited.
That assumption wouldn’t be entirely correct. As reported by Forbes, print book sales in science-fiction and fantasy experienced a precipitous drop after 2009, falling by 50 per cent and failing to recover since. Book authors have also experienced a drop in income; a 2015 survey by the Authors Guild found their writing income has dropped significantly. But this is not to say that no new opportunities exist or that the genre is not growing. The slack has mostly been picked up via digital book sales; growing readership in the sci-fi/fantasy market has gone to authors who have opted for the self-publishing route. Genre fiction has grown in the digital marketplace almost as quickly as it has fallen in print, and with the gatekeepers of traditional publishing playing a smaller role than their previous monopoly, a proliferation of diverse authors has emerged.
In other words, the ever-shifting landscape of the literary industry hasn’t left Martin’s path to success intact. Reader interest in the fantasy genre is there, but getting books in front of eyeballs is still a dicey proposition. Martin has certainly pushed the genre’s ability to relate complex and multilayered stories, told from various (and often unreliable) points of view, but the fantasy genre has exploded into a global phenomenon since Ned Stark was beheaded before the Great Sept of Baelor. All of this left readers of all backgrounds hungry for more and sent them looking for a wider range of characters, narratives and worlds than the Eurocentric template that typically dominates the genre. While Game of Thrones the show has at least made modest efforts towards this end, A Song of Ice and Fire, so far, has not.
“I’ve heard writers who are lamenting their own book sales who will say ‘The genre is doomed,’ [which is] projecting,” says Minister Faust, an Edmonton-based urban fantasy author. "The big difference is a lot of us loved what fantasy offered, but had no choice but to buy stuff that didn’t have us in it.” Faust points to authors such as Maurice Broaddus (whose pitch for an Afrofuturist space-opera trilogy was recently picked up by Tor Books), as well as Tananarive Due, Daniel Jose Older and Nnedi Okorafor (whose fantasy novel Who Fears Death will be adapted by HBO, with Martin as executive producer) as examples of a burgeoning and rapidly diversifying market. “The whole idea is everyone gets to enjoy more of the whole human race.”
Until recently, that idea has generally failed to catch on in the fantasy market. The genre’s heavy reliance on allegories (for example, a dark elf named Drizzt Do’Urden who overcomes the evil nature of his subterranean race to become a hero on the surface world), rather than contending with the difficult conversations of the real world, run the risk of hardening the kinds of prejudices that are better left behind. “It’s one of the reasons why I don’t enjoy Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit,” Faust said. “The story says, quite explicitly, that the solution to your problems is genocide.” Faust refers to the fact that, depending on where in Tolkien’s lore one places their faith, orcs could be said to originate from mud and slime, or from elves corrupted by evil. The film adaptation quite explicitly shows orcs being birthed from muddy sacs, which, combined with the fact that the only people of colour to appear in the original Peter Jackson trilogy were cast as orcs, too closely validates for Faust the white supremacist myth that non-whites can be classified as “mud people.”
The inclusiveness criticism has also been extended to A Song of Ice and Fire, as well as the TV adaptation. In the books, there are few characters who are explicitly described as non-white, and none of them made it to the show. The show, on the other hand, has cast actors for roles that were not racialized in the books, but it wasn’t until the third season that a black woman (Nathalie Emmanuel, playing Missandei) was cast for a speaking role.
That said, the fantasy genre is much more friction-free for diverse readers than it ever has been. Many authors and publishers have been working to address the criticisms for quite some time. Martin himself addressed the issue in a 2014 blog post, claiming that he will add more characters of diverse backgrounds to his highly anticipated Winds of Winter, the next book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Authors such as Steven Erikson (of the popular Malazan: Book of the Fallen series) purposefully bake race and diversity into their storytelling.
As well, newer editions of Dungeons and Dragons have expanded their artwork to depict people of colour and to decouple human racial characteristics from skin colour and geography. All of these efforts are bookended by the boost in the digital and self-publishing markets, which allow new authors a greater chance than ever to break into the genre with rich and diversified storytelling.
The push by contemporary authors for a broader readership, one that is well-connected with other fans and hobbyists in online spaces, has probably had more of an impact than a single popular TV show. But Game of Thrones’s cultural contributions can’t be overlooked either. A side-effect of the show’s popularity, in addition to online fan fiction and newly published stories (which led Martin to call our current times a “golden age of epic fantasy”) has been a broad embrace of geek culture, according to film critic and self-professed fantasy fan John Semley. “We’ve been en route to this for a while. We’re in a post-taste, post-coolness culture,” Semley says. “This used to be the domain of kids that were stuffed in lockers, and now all things that were geeky have become cool, but it’s also cool to not care about being cool. The Game of Thrones phenomenon hits that sweet spot between high culture and being totally sensational, if not dorky.”
As Game of Thrones hurtles toward its final season with all the cultural impact of an ice dragon touching down on King’s Landing, there is plenty more on the way to hit that sweet spot. HBO is currently developing a prequel to the show (based on the darkest tale in A Song of Ice and Fire’s lore), Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf has been greenlit for a film adaptation, and there are a slew of films and TV series on the way to send more fantasy books to the top of bestseller lists.
Martin might well be right that we are, indeed, living in a golden age of epic fantasy. But when that golden age eventually abates, die-hard fantasy fans can be thankful to Game of Thrones for at least one thing.
It finally made the dungeon raid a conversation fit for parties.