I’ve got a lot of time for good people. If I can choose who I spend my days with, I’ll always pick the good people over the evil, murderous, power-hungry ones. Life’s just nicer with good people. But good people are also – and no offence intended towards good people; like I said, some of my best friends are good people – not always very interesting. That’s why fictional worlds quite often feature not-entirely-good people: they’re just better at drama.
Bad people do bad and stupid things that move the plot forward. They’ve got a cruel side that works for comedy, too. In Margaret Atwood’s Oryx And Crake, the narrator (Jimmy) goes to meet his friend Crake, who has genetically engineered a breed of perfect, conflict-free humans. “Do they make jokes?” Jimmy asks Crake. “Not as such,” answers Crake. “For jokes you need a certain edge, a little malice. It took a lot of trial and error, and we’re still working on it, but I think we’ve managed to do away with jokes.”
The Crakers, in other words, are pretty boring. That’s why the novel is about the flawed, dangerous Crake and not his pure and beautiful creations. Atwood’s responsibility as an author isn’t to devise a glossily aspirational version of what people could be; it’s to entertain the reader enough to earn their attention.
In the process of doing that, she can be provocative and intellectually testing. She can explore and map human cruelty and unpleasantness too, in a morally useful way. But if she can’t snag your attention first of all, she’s failed. It wouldn’t matter how many intelligent things she had to say about human nature. If Oryx And Crake was nothing but a portrait of placid, pretty humanoids eating grass and stroking each other (that’s what the Crakers mostly do) nobody would get through ten pages.
And that’s why Laurie Penny’s complaint that Game Of Thrones is “racist rape-culture Disneyland with dragons” isn’t just daft and unfair: it’s anti-art. Penny writes:
If the creator of a fantasy series can dream up an army of self-resurrecting zombie immortals he can damn well dream up equal marriage rights, and if he chooses not to do so then that choice is meaningful, as is our assumption that the default setting for any generically legendary epic must involve really rather a lot of rape.
It’s quite the challenge to George RR Martin. If you can make any world you like, how come you haven’t made a socialist, feminist utopia, huh? Did Penny watch the TV shows under the impression it was going to be Sweden with wizards? (Wizards who’d never get to unleash any wizardy powers, of course, because in magic Sweden there’d be no conflict to necessitate the big fiery smackdown.)
It takes a particular sort of not-really-watching to come away with the idea that Game Of Thrones is setting up Westeros as a social ideal. Westeros is clearly a horrible place to be a woman, but Martin’s female characters are a surprisingly smart guidebook to negotiating patriarchy – if you bother to look at what they do, rather than just what’s done to them.
From Cersei’s machinations behind the throne and in the bedroom, to Brienne and Arya’s outright defiance of female roles to become warriors, the women of the Seven Kingdoms are doing an awful lot more than getting raped, even though they live in a gruesomely repressive culture. Penny’s spent plenty of her career noting the way sexism works in our society. Why can’t she credit Martin with making a similar analysis? (Only his is better, because it’s got dragons.)
Despite Penny suggesting that there’s a simplistic goodies-vs-baddies moral schema, one of the reasons the books and the TV show work so well is that they’re both deeply cynical about power and legitimacy. It doesn’t throw its lot in with any of the pretenders – something that’s reinforced in the books by the use of free indirect narrative, so that each chunk of story comes from a different character and forces sympathy with them.
The Lannisters are ruthless deposers, but preferable to the madmen and sots they’ve nudged off the throne. And the Starks are good and noble, but their failure to play politics means that their most admirable quality – dedication to the people they rule – is compromised by the fact that they end up dragging the people they rule off to be hacked to pieces in far away fields.
While the plot is driven by the power-plays of the rich and highborn, the voice of the peasantry constantly murmurs underneath the clang of swords and drip of poison. Far from being a fantasy about the good ruler, as Penny claims, Game Of Thrones is pretty clear that most people in Westeros think the question of who exactly rules them can go to the Others. All they want is to get the crops in.
Martin could have written a fantasy novel about a peaceable agrarian society, it’s true. But I’m pretty sure that Game Of Ploughs wouldn’t have won quite the same audience. And it definitely wouldn’t have had a lick of anything to say about the brutal and unequal real world in which Martin creates his hyper-brutal, ultra-unequal fictional world. A perfectly egalitarian Westeros would be even more of a fantasy than the dragons. And more than that: it would be dull.
Update: the comments are now full of spoilers, so if you’re avoiding them, stay above the line.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012