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The Truth about George R.R. Martin, Women and Rape

Alyssa Rosenberg over at Think Progress has a must-read essay in response to claims that George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is too brutal towards women. She deconstructs feminist writer Sady Doyle's critiques of Martin's narrative with amazing elegance, and along the way she also delivers a great lesson in how to write about nerd entertainment in a constructive, rather than pointlessly sneering, fashion. Well worth checking out. [Think Progress]

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Let's face it: Most epic fantasy (and a good deal of SF) is basically YA fiction. That's not to say that it's badly written, or that fans of those genres are childish. One of my favorite novels is Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which fits the definition of an all-ages book. It's simply that, if you were an enlightened parent or a school librarian (as opposed to a wacko fundamentalist who thinks that anything "magical" reeks of the Devil), you wouldn't feel many reservations about recommending Tolkien or Terry Brooks or David Eddings to a preadolescent kid. There are bad guys, but at the end of the day, they aren't bad guys, just cartoon villains and monsters, or pathetic misunderstood creatures. The sole exception is Saruman, who by the end of LotR is well on his way to turning the Shire into a concentration camp. The rest of the Big Bads are so abstract as to be cooly grandiose. Christ, Donaldson's Covenant books had some truly nasty bits in them, but at the end of the day Lord Foul was like one of those Care Bears villains who gets defeated by the power of l-u-v.

Martin isn't someone you'd recommend to a little kid, plain and simple. The badness isn't safely out there in some remote mountain fastness, it lives in the hearts of evil, and good, and once-good men and women. It manifests itself through the same forms it does in the real world: greed, fear, lust for power, atrocity, violation. By contrast, the occasional outbursts of magical forces feel like mostly indifferent, indiscriminate forms of destruction, like a plague, an earthquake, or a storm. Conversely, no one is protected under a magical, Hero With A Thousand Faces-style aegis of having been chosen. Not women, not children, not friendly magical animals, not even the "heroes." This, I think, really freaked people out when the first couple of novels hit: fantasy readers saw the covers, and thought they were getting an adventure story about a young man fighting evil with the help of his loyal wolf. That's in there, but also a whole mess of non-supernatural violence, horror, sex (consensual and otherwise), and politics. A lot of politics.

With that in mind, you have to read/watch GoT in context of the "safe" fantasy that characterized the genre from the '70s through the '90s: good vs. evil plots, unrealistic societies with naively egalitarian values concerning race and gender (except for orcs: kill 'em all! Morgoth will know his own), the notion that magic could act as a pure substitute for advanced technology, science, or medicine, an inability or unwillingness on the part of writers and readers alike to acknowledge how truly distasteful monarchy really is. (That goes double for all the space operas with feudal civilizations — nice to know that Paine, Jefferson, Lincoln et al. died ultimately in vain so Muad'Dib could go worm-surfing with a bunch of war-crazy jihaidsts.) Martin started out in SF around 1970, and with ASoIaF he's basically using the tools of post-Vietnam War science fiction to interrogate the unstated assumptions of fantasy fiction. In the simplest terms, Martin is not creepy; he's progressive in the truest sense.