Fantasy and Science Fiction in Game of Thrones: Playing with Genre

Recently, I sat myself down to re-watch the entirety of Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit television series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, and in truly experiencing the scope of the show, I realized why I fell so deeply in love with the story in the first place: George R.R. Martin’s real, unfiltered representation of humanity.  

“I’ve always agreed with William Faulkner—he said that the human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing worth writing about.”

Most of the characters in Game of Thrones, no matter how they fall on the spectrum of good and evil, are working with a set of motivations and values that lead to inner turmoil and conflict with themselves or opposing forces. A perfect way of showing the human heart in conflict with itself is with the introduction of power, or in this case, political power.

So, what is happening with the writing in Game of Thrones season seven? Beyond the nonsensical pacing, poorly executed contrived conflict between siblings, immersion-breaking celebrity cameos, and romanticizing some shaky relationships, season seven loses some of the political banter that Game of Thrones is known for. Trading in-depth character arcs for action scenes came at a price. However, I would argue that the newest installment in the series does not entirely take away from George R. R. Martin’s vision of writing about the human heart in conflict with itself. Rather, adding elements of science fiction, this season explores a whole new range of anxieties and conflicts that a fantasy is not capable of covering alone. The politics have always been a mere distraction from the real impending existential threat that alludes human understanding: the White Walkers.

The fantasy genre, although much of the time lumped in with sci-fi, is more historical. George R.R. Martin wrote novellas that take place in the  same universe before the events of Game of Thrones to expand upon the history of his world. Although the great houses are concerned with the future of their families, many of them lack the foresight and empathy to care about humanity as a whole. Tywin Lannister’s main concern is having a family that can withstand the tides of time, but this stemmed from his hatred and shame towards his own father dragging the Lannister name through the mud. He pushes his family to succeed for dowry and legacy more so than the Starks, for instance, who are concerned with survival above all else. It is not enough for the Lannisters to exist; they need to be great. The Starks, however, remain a constant reminder throughout the series that Winter is Coming. Daenerys seeks the Iron Throne because her family had a dynasty that lasted centuries and she feels entitled to it. The Targaryen dynasty was chronicled and mentioned consistently because of their impact on the world. When Daenerys and Jon meet in season seven, they attempt to reconcile with the past and their fathers’ mistakes. Dany distinguishes herself from the cruelty her father, referring to him as an “evil man,” and Jon does not blindly follow a ruler because his ancestors swore their fealty.

Image result for daenerys and jon

Sci-fi addresses ideas such as the future of the human race and advances in technology. It is overall more speculative as a genre than seeking to solidify a mythos. The characters in Game of Thrones are afraid of being exterminated by “the Others.” I view the White Walkers as catalysts of a science fiction story rather than a supernatural one because even though their existence is not rooted in science, per se, their creation can be explained within the laws of nature of this world, which happen to include magic. The White Walkers are the blue-eyed horsemen of the apocalypse and the wights are the creatures that are being controlled. Despite their humanoid appearance, the Walkers are too cold and foreign to relate to, and represent the unknown—something alien to humanity.  The White Walkers are not here to play the game of thrones, nor do they talk or communicate their feelings to the human characters in any way. If mythos is inherent to fantasy, the Walkers barely have any. Before season seven, most people refused to acknowledge that they ever existed (with the exception of Wildlings and men of the Night’s Watch.) Unlike dragons, whose skulls were sitting in the throne room during the Mad King’s reign, White Walkers were not part of the historical backdrop.

Perhaps, George R. R. Martin sought to create a world in which the characters are compelling, flawed, and in conflict with one another, just to point out how little any of their petty squabbling means on a cosmic scale. I am not sure who will sit on the Iron Throne. I am not even sure if it even matters. Game of Thrones is not a science fiction story. It is a fantasy story that is using elements of sci-fi to expand its emotional capacity. It pushes the limits of genre in order to place its characters against a force that alienates their humanity. For once, most the characters are valuing human life over the concept of sitting on a throne, and I find that compelling.

But dammit, that ice dragon is cool.