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George R.R. Martin on Magic Vs. Science

Bestselling fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin tells WEIRD TALES senior editor Darrell Schweitzer in an in-depth interview: “I think that for science fiction, fantasy, and even horror to some extent, the differences are skin-deep… The ice-cream can be chocolate or it can be strawberry, but it’s still ice-cream…”

George R.R. Martin / photo by Josh Rehman

George R.R. Martin / photo by Josh Rehman

George R.R. Martin’s first story appeared in 1971. Much of his early work was science fiction — and very successful science fiction at that, winning him two Hugo Awards in 1980, one for the now classic “Sandkings” — but there has always been a ghostly and horrific strain in his work. Even “Sandkings” is very much a horror story. Martin’s Fevre Dream (1982) is a notable novel of steamboats and vampires. The Armageddon Rag (1983) combines rock & roll with the supernatural. His “The Pear-Shaped Man” (1987) won him a Bram Stoker Award for from the Horror Writers of America. In the 1980s he was deeply involved in television writing, first for The New Twilight Zone and then as story-editor of Beauty and the Beast.

But his superb fantasy saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, has raised Martin to a whole new level of success. He is now a mega-bestseller, and this can only continue as the series — which critics and fans alike agree is one of the best fanasy series ever written — is now being developed for television by HBO.

WEIRD TALES: You’ve made quite a transition from being an Analog science-fiction writer to the writer of a multi-volume epic fantasy. Is this something you planned or even expected? I am sure there are some guys in the hard-science camp who are grumbling that George Martin is this traitor to the cause…. Have you given this much thought?

GEORGE R.R. MARTIN: The truth is that if you go back and look at my career, you’ll see that I have written in all these genres and sub-genres since the very beginning. My first story was a science fiction story in Galaxy, my first professional sale. But my second professional sale was a ghost story in Fantastic. I published a couple epic fantasy short stories in Fantastic during the 1970s as well…. The stories in Analog got more attention, but the other stuff was there from the beginning.

I read all this stuff growing up and I read it pretty much interchangeably. I never made these distinctions between genre. I read H.P. Lovecraft. I read Robert E. Howard and I read Tolkien, and of course I read Robert A. Heinlein and Eric Frank Russell and Andre Norton, so I have always loved all three genres of science fiction and horror and fantasy; and I have moved between them pretty freely. I don’t think I’ve gone anywhere. I am in the middle of this very large project right now, which is epic fantasy, but when I am done with it, the next book, whenever that comes, could be science fiction or horror or even something else entirely. A mystery novel. Who knows? I just tell the stories that I want to tell.

WT: Do you find that the writing or the conception is different if it’s going to be science fiction or not? Is the imaginative process any different?

GRRM: No, it’s not different at all for me. I think that for science fiction, fantasy, and even horror to some extent, the differences are skin-deep. I know there are elements in the field, particularly in science fiction, who feel that the differences are very profound, but I do not agree with that analysis. I think for me it is a matter of the furnishings. An elf or an alien may in some ways fulfill the same function, as a literary trope. It’s almost a matter of flavor. The ice cream can be chocolate or it can be strawberry, but it’s still ice cream. The real differences, to my mind, is between romantic fiction, which all these genres are a part of, and mimetic fiction, or naturalistic fiction.

WT: There was a Heinlein argument that science fiction is a form of realism. Did he know what he was talking about?

GRRM: I don’t think so. [Laughs.] And Heinlein wrote fantasy himself, for that matter, from time to time; not very much of it, but he was perfectly capable of doing something like “Magic Incorporated,” or even Glory Road, which has many of the trappings of a fantasy within a science-fiction framework.

WT: This raises a point which others have raised before: that science fiction is a kind of language. You can have a fantasy novel within a science-fiction framework, as opposed to a fantasy novel not within a science-fiction framework. This implies a science-fiction discourse which can handle fantasy material. Wasn’t that the whole point of the Unknown Worlds school, fantasy written as if it were science fiction?

GRRM: Yes, and Unknown Worlds was a particular subset of fantasy, driven, I think, by Campbell’s very deep rationalism, his desire to make magic obey the laws that engineering might obey. So you could discover the seven principles of magic and apply them. To my mind the ultimate Unknown Worlds stories were always the Incomplete Enchanter stories — the Harold Shea stories — by Pratt and de Camp. Harold Shea is always going into these worlds, and there is magic at work, but it’s not mysterious. It is strange to him at first, but when he works out the underlying principles, he can easily become a magician, because he is basically an engineer. That was an amusing and, I think, an original take on it all at the time, in the 1930s and ‘40s, but it’s certainly not my take. I find myself more in sympathy with the way Tolkien handled magic. I think if you’re going to do magic, it loses its magical qualities if it becomes nothing more than an alternate kind of science. It is more effective if it is something profoundly unknowable and wondrous, and something that can take your breath away.

WT: It’s a matter of control. If you can retro-engineer Sauron’s ring, it isn’t as magical anymore. It’s a matter of the characters getting control of the material, as opposed to being in a situation or universe where this is not really possible.

GRRM: Yes. That’s certainly part of it. Understanding is part of it. Of course you can go to the horror slant, too, with Lovecraft and his suggestion that if we understood some of these things, they would drive us mad, because the truths are too profoundly disturbing in what they tell us about the hostile or inimical nature of the universe or the strange and arcane forces that surround us.

WT: Do you find yourself more drawn to the magical approach, even with science fiction?

GRRM: Yes. I think that if you look at my science fiction, even my so-called Analog stories, they were never comfortably Analog stories. I do think it’s significant that my association with Analog that was very strong… all came during Ben Bova’s editorship, which I think was Analog’s golden summer. If John W. Campbell had lived another decade, I don’t know that I would ever have sold a story to Analog, or if, after Campbell died, Stan Schmidt had come in and became his immediate successor. Bova had a much more liberal approach as to what he would accept than either his predecessor or his successor.

WT: Let me guess that you are a writer who draws the story out of emotion and image rather than idea.

GRRM: Yes, I think that’s true. And if you believe in all this left-brain/right-brain stuff… but certainly the power of my fiction comes from the emotional side of things and not the rationalist side of things. I prefer, for example, not to outline. I did outline during my Hollywood decade, because it’s required of you there, but on my own stories I have usually a general idea of where the story is going, but I do not break it all down and design it ahead of time. I just sort of fill in the blanks during the writing. The characters come alive and they take me to that destination, if the story is working.

WT: When you started A Game of Thrones, did you know you were going to write a multi-volume epic? I am thinking of how Gene Wolfe’s remark that The Book of the New Sun, which ultimately ran five volumes, began as a novella for Orbit. Did you have some broad plan of creating this whole epic, or did it just sort of grow?

GRRM: A bit of both. To tell the truth, I read that novella. It was called “The Feast of St. Catherine.” Gene presented it to the Windy City Writers Group when I was a member of it. In my case, when I wrote the first chapter of A Game of Thrones, I didn’t really know what I had. In fact I was writing quite a different book, a science-fiction book; and this chapter just came to me so vividly that I put the science fiction aside and wrote it. At this point I didn’t know if it was a short story or a piece of something bigger; but by the time I’d finished it, which only took two or three days, I was fairly certain that it was a piece of something bigger. It led to a second chapter and a third. I think that by the time I was four or five chapters in, I had some idea that, yes, I was working on a fantasy. I thought it was a trilogy. It was initially sold as a trilogy. Three books, three quite large books, mind you, but it grew even larger in the telling.

WT: How is the creation of an imaginary-world fantasy setting different from creating a planet in science fiction? For example, in Windhaven you and Lisa Tuttle created a world, but it was a planet, not a fantasy setting. Is it a different kind of creation?

GRRM: It’s not terribly different in the way I do it. I know how people like Gordy Dickson and Hal Clement in his day would go about creating worlds by figuring out what type of star it was and how far the planet was from the sun and what its axial tilt was, its rate of rotation, its chemical composition. Then they would work things out from that. But I don’t have that kind of background. Mine always came more from the effect. In the case of Windhaven, we wanted flying human beings. We said, “How can we get people to fly and make it plausible to fly about on hang-gliders?” Well, a planet should have lighter gravity; that would help, and a lot of wind, etc. So we worked backwards. We didn’t design the planet to see what it would be like. We looked at the effects we wanted and tried to retrofit a planet to that.

In the case of fantasy, of course, it’s a little different. The most conspicuous aspect of the world of Westeros in The Song of Ice and Fire is the nature of the seasons, the long and random nature of the seasons. I have gotten a number of fan letters over the years from readers who are trying to figure out the reason for why the seasons are the way they are. They develop lengthy theories: perhaps it’s a multiple-star system, and what the axial tilt is, but I have to say, “Nice try, guys, but you’re thinking in the wrong direction.” This is a fantasy series. I am going to explain it all eventually, but it’s going to be a fantasy explanation. It’s not going to be a science-fiction explanation.

WT: In a fantasy you have to have a supernatural or mythic core to the story, rather than a scientific one.

GRRM: Right. Yes. Exactly.

WT: Did you start Fevre Dream with just the image of a vampire on a steamboat?

GRRM: Actually, I started Fevre Dream with the image of the steamboat. I was living in Dubuque, Iowa, for a number of years in the late ‘70s, teaching there. Dubuque is an old river town on the Mississippi. It’s got a very strong sense of its own history, which included a period as a steamboat town. They manufactured some steamboats there. It was an important port on the upper Mississippi. I started reading about the history of that time and became fascinated with the steamboats and the river culture to the extent that I decided I wanted to write a novel about that. It seemed like a colorful sort of alien world.

Interestingly enough, John Brunner over in England was getting interested in steamboats at just the same time. But we went at it very different ways. Brunner decided to do a straight historical; and he produced that, a novel called The Great Steamboat Race, which was, I think, quite a good novel, one of the better novels that Brunner in the last period of his career. In my case, since I was a science-fiction and fantasy writer, although I had the steamboat era, I never really considered doing just a straight historical. It had to have a fantastic element in there; and somehow vampires, which I had always been interested in independently, seemed to go with steamboats. The whole Dracula thing. There was a dark romanticism both to vampires and to steamboats. The two of them had to go together. Of course the fit wasn’t precise, because there were certain elements of the vampire legend that are inimicable to the steamboat culture. The can’t-cross-running-water thing was a big problem. So I decided very early on that I would do an almost science-fiction version of these vampires. I would try to justify them scientifically as best I could and figure out how vampires could actually live and work. I developed them not as your traditional mythic vampires, but more as a secondary race preying on us and living among us since the dawn of history. But the steamboats were the actual beginning of that book.

WT: I assume you could go back to writing more horror any time. You have at least one horror collection, The Songs the Dead Men Sing. Have you felt the inclination to go back and do more?

GRRM: I never think in terms of genres like that. I never say, “I’ve got to do more horror.” It’s more, “Okay I have this story idea. I am enthused about this.” Then I consider whether it’s horror or science fiction, however it falls. If I have an idea that gets my juices flowing, I would love to do it. I do have ideas for various sequels to things that I have done in the past, including a sequel to Fevre Dream. But I’ve had that for years, and whether I will ever get around to writing it, I don’t know. There are unfortunately a lot of ideas and things I would love to write, but only so many hours in the day and so many days in the year.

WT: It seems that what’s hot right now are books that might be described as vampire lifestyle novels — whole series of vampire lifestyle novels. I don’t know if your sequel could fit in, a floating vampire lifestyle novel…

GRRM: Vampires, unfortunately have been done…. At the time I did Fevre Dream in 1982, Anne Rice had done the first of her books. There were a few other vampire books out there, but there was not nearly the glut that there has been today. I am tempted to return to the world of Fevre Dream, but I have reservations about it too simply because I think that vampires are on the verge of being done to death, so to speak. It’s hard to think of anything original to do. Maybe I should return to “The Skin Trade,” my werewolves. They haven’t been done quite as much.

WT: How about Lovecraft’s themes, horror stories of the larger cosmos? Have you ever given that any thought?

GRRM: I loved Lovecraft when I was younger. He was one of my favorite writers when I was in high school. I read everything I could get by him. I’ve occasionally played with Lovecraftian things. There is a character in my Wild Cards novel who is haunted by Lovecraftian sorts of dreams at a certain point. I wrote up several of those, when the character was dreaming, in my best Lovecraft imitation. I am not sure how well I did. I certainly tried to do my best to capture it.

I don’t think I could do a pure Lovecraftian story, because there is a certain passivity about his heroes that drives me crazy. Being driven mad by understanding the truth and giving in to it is not something I could do with my own characters. His view of the universe and the way he got horrific effects still could be effective, so maybe someday I’ll do something with that. It was really Derleth who organized and codified Lovecraft’s mythos, and I think that in some ways by doing that he did him a disservice.

WT: He basically wrecked it.

GRRM: Yes.

WT: I wasn’t talking about doing a pastiche, but extending Lovecraft’s themes. I am not sure Derleth ever wrote a decent Lovecraftian story.

GRRM: No. He certainly never captured the feeling. He could use the same names and books and dark gods and so forth, but never to anything close to the effect that Lovecraft achieved.

WT: We’ve been talking about novels here, but I can’t help but wonder if, after having written seven long epic volumes, you will feel an urge for compression and write short fiction.

GRRM: I think my work has gotten longer as I’ve gotten older and deeper into my career. I don’t think, when I finish Ice and Fire, that I am ever going to do anything on that scale again. I’m not immediately going to start another seven-volume mega-opus. I can be pretty certain of that. But I am not sure I am going to go back to writing short stories either. The truth is, I haven’t done a true short story in years. Even when I do write short fiction, it tends to come out at novella length. But I might very well, once Ice and Fire is done, do some novellas and maybe even a few novelets and certainly a stand-alone novel or two.

WT: Of course once The Song of Ice and Fire is done, the publisher could say, “This is so successful, here’s five million dollars. Write me another one.” What then?

GRRM: I do wrestle with that. I figure it remains to be seen what will happen to me after Ice and Fire, the reception the next book will get. In some ways you never know. Is your audience going to follow you when you do something different? I now have hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of readers, but are they Ice and Fire readers, or are they George R.R. Martin readers? Until I do my first new book after the series, I’m not going to know. You see examples on both sides in our field. You see someone like Stephen R. Donaldson, who can achieve huge sales with the Covenant series, but then when he moves to science fiction with the Gap series, it doesn’t sell very well. On the other hand, you see someone like Stephen King. He can do stand-alone horror novels and the Dark Tower series and they all sell equally well. So King readers are really King readers, not readers of a particular book or a particular series. But Donaldson’s readers were Covenant fans, not Donaldson fans. I don’t know. But it is certainly something that concerns me. I am not going to say that I am going to be done with Westeros forever, this world I have created, but it is certainly not the only thing I want to write. So once it is done, I certainly will attempt to do other things in science fiction or horror or even in other genres that I haven’t touched on yet, and the question remains, will my audience follow me there?

WT: Might you have to develop a series of pseudonyms and become several writers?

GRRM: Hopefully not.


Darrell Schweitzer is senior contributing editor to both Weird Tales and H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror.

  1. KnowledgeNut
    KnowledgeNut02-18-2009

    Wow Darrell, that’s an amazing interview with George R. R. Martin. Do you read a lot of his stuff? I’m assuming that since this interview was done back in 2007 he probably wasn’t working on his new book A Dance with Dragons and didn’t mention anything. Do you know of any videos/interviews that George has done where he has mentioned his new book?

    Have a great day,
    KnowledgeNut

    Pre order A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

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