Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: George R.R. Martin
Why he’s daunting: Author, editor, and TV producer George R.R. Martin has been writing since the early ’70s, but given his niche-y slot in the canon of fantasy and science-fiction literature, the majority of the mainstream still hadn’t heard of him even after he became a bestselling novelist in the ’00s. That changed in 2011 with the runaway popularity of the HBO miniseries A Game Of Thrones, based on the first novel in Martin’s continuing A Song Of Ice And Fire series. New readers are coming to Martin in droves, and his books have recently rocketed back up the New York Times bestseller list. But Martin first-timers are facing roughly 3,200 pages of epic fantasy in the four extant Song Of Ice And Fire books, with a new thousand-page volume hitting bookstores (really, for sure this time, right?) July 12. That’s a staggering commitment, and for readers not already used to epic fantasy—i.e. readers who didn’t already know that Martin has been one of the biggest influences on the genre for the last decade—it likely doesn’t help that those 4,200 pages are ultra-dense with complicated politics, battles, and intrigue, across an immense cast and a sprawling world.
It also doesn’t help that the first Song Of Ice And Fire book, A Game Of Thrones, published in 1996, was Martin’s first novel in 13 years, and it starts off fairly rough, with a number of awkward moments and limp clichés. The style improves noticeably throughout the novel, and hits an expansive stride by the beginning of book two, A Clash Of Kings, but Thrones’ first few chapters aren’t Martin’s strongest work.
Once beyond that series, readers who want to dig deeper into Martin will have to contend with decades of past work, written in diverse styles and tones, none of it remotely like A Song Of Ice And Fire. So how to slip into his worlds without immediately signing on for a gigantic investment, or starting with work not remotely characteristic of the material that made his current name?
Possible gateway: The Song Of Ice And Fire novella “The Hedge Knight,” from the 1998 anthology Legends (also reprinted in the Martin anthology Dreamsongs: Volume II)
Why: When iconic science fiction/fantasy author Robert Silverberg originally curated, edited, and published Legends, Martin was the odd man out. The other participants—Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, Anne McCaffrey, Raymond E. Feist, Orson Scott Card, and many others—contributed new novellas set in their most iconic fantasy worlds, which in most cases had been established over the course of decades of writing. Martin told a story set in his at-the-time-new fantasy world, which had only a single, just-published novel to its name. He was the upstart, waltzing in to announce that his newly designed land of Westeros could stand alongside the likes of Gilead, Pern, Majipoor, and the Discworld. He was right, as it happened, and “The Hedge Knight” proves it as much as A Game Of Thrones did.
“The Hedge Knight” shares a setting with A Game Of Thrones, though its events happen nearly 100 years earlier. It was written after A Game Of Thrones, once Martin had solidly found his novel-writing voice again, but it takes place on a much smaller scale: It’s largely concerned with a single knight named Dunk, a man at loose ends after his mentor dies, leaving Dunk without household, employer, finances, or prospects. So he sets out to compete in a tourney to make his name, but finds the odds—and more significantly, his society’s conventions—stacked against him. The story is in all respects a bite-sized, perfectly accessible, stand-alone dollop of A Song Of Ice And Fire: It dips into the world’s larger politics, covering allegiances between the great ruling houses, but it keeps the focus on a relatively simple story about a relatively simple man with small, direct goals. It also cleanly exposes some of Martin’s characteristic obsessions: For a man whose writing is so often ruthless and uncompromising, he has a hell of a sentimental streak when it comes to questions of injustice, honor, nobility, personal dignity against long odds, and wrongs that need to be righted at any cost.
It’s also, like so much of the Song series, grounded in meticulous detail, both in its description of the world and in the inglorious economics of being a medieval knight. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about Martin’s fantasy world: It’s a place of blood, sweat, muck, power imbalances, and casual cruelty, rather than a place of unicorns and moonbeams, or even princesses in chiffon. And yet there’s a deeply buried sense of humanism at work in the story, a desire for things to come out all right in the end, even if cynicism and realism both say that every bit of poetic justice tends to be earned at terrible cost. Reading “The Hedge Knight,” it’s possible to see both the world of Martin’s most popular creation and his most characteristic interests writ small. It’s essentially an appetizer, and readers who enjoy it are ready to leave the shallows and head out into the big pool with all the other Martin fans. (Side note: “The Hedge Knight” has been adapted as a graphic novel that sticks remarkably close to Martin’s content and dialogue, but it naturally strips all the depth from his writing. While it’ll give readers the basic storyline, it won’t let them in on what it would be like to read more of his work.)
Next steps: The story of Dunk and his squire, Egg, is continued in another novella, “The Sworn Sword,” from the 2003 anthology Legends II, and in “The Mystery Knight,” from the 2010 anthology Warriors. Those are the obvious baby steps, but really, anyone who enjoys “The Hedge Knight” and is interested in getting the full story after the abbreviated, simplified TV version of A Game Of Thrones might as well launch themselves into the full series. It’s Martin’s most ambitious and most accomplished work by far, and some of the best fantasy available right now. Of course, once new readers get caught up, they get to join everyone else in the frustrating, years-long wait for a new volume of the series, but that’s the price of admission.
Between Song Of Ice And Fire books, there’s always Martin’s back catalog, which consists of only a few novels and a great many anthologies and edited works. Fans of Martin’s epic fantasy honestly might not be able to get into his past work, which is just as harsh, cynical, and balanced with a deep well of love and hope, but jumps around from genre to genre, focusing largely on the kind of science fiction where everyone seems to have names full of harsh consonants and apostrophes. The best litmus test is his debut novel, 1977’s Dying Of The Light: It showcases many of his strengths of plotting and especially characterization, but this time in the course of an airy, Robert Silverberg-esque science-fiction scenario about a man who learns that the love of his life is trapped in a complicated, tradition-bound shared marriage, which she didn’t understand when she committed to it, and which she might or might not be desperate to escape. The plotting and relationships are twisty, and the emotions run deep and powerful; the execution is all floaty, conceptual ’70s SF, with plenty of heady descriptions of crystal oceans and abandoned cities full of dead slidewalks and cobalt globes. It’s a far cry from Martin’s grim-and-gritty medieval setting, but it’s clearly the work of the same author working in a much different idiom.
From there, the 1982 novel Fevre Dream, about vampires on the Mississippi in the mid-1800s, is probably Martin’s best-known stand-alone work. Like Dying Of The Light, it’s obsessed with relationships driven by mismatched amounts of love, coercion, and need, and with people striving against each other more out of selfish drives than out of the nobility they sometimes profess. It’s as much historical novel as horror, but it’s a Martin relationship novel first and foremost.
It’s worth noting, though, that much of Martin’s strongest writing before this decade came in the form of short stories. His talent for characterization stood him in good stead when it came to telegraphically creating memorable protagonists for short works, and his comfort with dark subjects and ugly behavior tended to make his stories memorable. Some of the best are collected in the two-volume Dreamsongs anthology, which provides a solid overview of his early writing—particularly “Sandkings,” his only story to win both of speculative fiction’s top honors, the Hugo and Nebula awards. That one in particular is a gloriously nasty piece of work, about a bored connoisseur of exotic alien pets who lets his taste for violence override any semblance of humanity. Dreamsongs also contains the werewolf novella “The Skin Trade,” of interest because it was just optioned as a film.
Completists will have to dig up Martin’s many old paperback anthologies—Sandkings, Portraits Of His Children, and A Song For Lya are the strongest—to get some of the highly recommended deep cuts, like “Starlady,” about a woman forced into prostitution on an alien world, and the pimp who both takes advantage of her and falls for her. Again, like so much of Martin’s work, it’s a story about the sentimentality and tender feelings of love, but also about the hard truths of life, like the not-very-fiction-friendly reality that mere love doesn’t guarantee success, much less satisfaction.
Where not to start: Martin’s remaining solo novel, The Armageddon Rag—about a journalist investigating the murder of a rock promoter—diverges pretty widely from Martin’s usual themes, getting into his thoughts on ’60s rock and ’60s culture. It’s meant more for people who share those obsessions than for a wider audience. His collaboration with Lisa Tuttle, Windhaven, is pleasant but unexceptional fantasy. And Tuf Voyaging—billed as an anthology, though it’s a series of linked stories about one character, and reads like a novel—can be off-putting with its exceptionally unlikeable protagonist, a space trader with too much power for his own good, or anyone else’s. All three books have their upsides—Martin’s work is dense at times, but he’s a craftsman, prone to striking images and highly readable prose—but none represent his best work.
In addition, Martin spent much of the late ’80s and early ’90s deeply enmeshed in editing and sometimes writing the shared-world Wild Cards anthology. The idea behind these books was to see what comic-book-style characters and conflicts would look like in the “real” world—which meant they had to grapple with ugliness like prejudice, racism, grim violence, insanity, and death. The “real superheroes” motif is pretty common these days, and has matured considerably since the ’80s, and while the Wild Cards books have their strengths, they’re also a depressing, enervating slog. They center on the idea of an alien virus that mutates people, killing most victims, but leaving a few with superpowers, grotesque deformities, or both. The books largely treated the whole concept as an AIDS metaphor, complete with the hysteria and prejudice that greeted AIDS victims of the time; they tend to be grim for grimness’ sake.
Interested readers should probably start with the latest trilogy, 2008’s Inside Straight and Busted Flush, and 2009’s Suicide Kings, which reboot the series for a new generation and rescue it from some of the hyperbolic pain-wallowing of the initial 12-volume series. That new trilogy (still edited and curated by Martin) is entertaining, and it might push some readers to go back to the series’ 1987 launch for the full backstory, but again, it doesn’t represent Martin’s most personal material—it’s a shared vision. Given the uniqueness of Martin’s style and point of view, it’s best to start with the work that’s indelibly his, then work outward from there.