Saturday night, as if attempting to destroy my fragile efforts at keeping my life together while my wife is off infiltrating the secret volcano layer of a clan of space ninjas, HBO ran a marathon of the first season of Game of Thrones. Like a 15 year old metal head in 1989 staring at album covers in the record store in the part of town that likes to think of itself as the bad part of town, I was immediately transfixed by the dragons and boobs before me. I watched four episodes before pathetically going to bed, just as Daylight Savings Time kicked in and, like a dark wizard, stole an hour of time from a sleeping world.
Even though I’ve read all five of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, and seen most of the first season of the show already, I watched again. The show is transfixing, absorbing, just like the novels, in part because the fantasy world in which it’s set is so well realized. Martin’s world is an easy world to step into and get lost in; except, unlike Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Rowling’s Hogwarts, it’s a world you don’t ever really want to visit.
If I suddenly woke up in a bed in the Shire or Gryffindor Tower, I’d be ecstatic. Wizards! Elves! Magic! But if I woke up in a bed in a grimy brothel in King’s Landing (grimy brothels seem to constitute something like 67% of the buildings in Westeros), I’d probably start screaming and begging any sorcerer or deity I could find to send me back to the real world before getting knifed for my boots. Martin’s Westeros, you see, isn’t just a fantasy world with a bad part of town. It’s a fantasy world that is the bad part of town.
I’ve only encountered one other fantasy world I’d never, ever want to spend any time in, and that’s China Mieville’s New Crobuzon, specifically as written in Perdido Street Station. An ancient, decaying steampunk police state, New Crobuzon is a fantastically realized nightmare world. To give you an example: in New Crobuzon, there are giant, omnipotent, insane spider gods called Weavers that exist in multiple levels of reality at once and will sometimes randomly eviscerate passersby for the aesthetics of it. And they are among the more benign residents of Mieville’s dystopian nightmare metropolis.
If I woke up in New Crobuzon, I’d just start weeping softly and wait for one of the many unimaginably horrific trans-dimensional monsters in the city to come and lobotomize my soul with its slime-dripping mandibles.
Martin’s world and Mieville’s world come from very different fantasy lit genres (epic fantasy vs. weird horror), but I can easily imagine New Crobuzon sprouting up in the Victorian future of Martin’s medieval Westeros. It’s not just because both worlds are realized and described in such breathtaking and disturbing detail as to make them seem as real as the worst parts of Detroit. It’s not just because their authors have names comically appropriate for fantasy (how could a man named George R.R. Martin NOT end up being an epic fantasy writer? And how is “China Mieville” NOT already the name of a character in a China Mieville novel?)
It’s because both Westeros and New Crobuzon are infused with a deep suspicion of, and even antipathy towards magic.
This is sort of startling when you think about it. Martin and Mieville are fantasy writers and magic is the very foundation of fantasy literature. It’s the defining feature. And while magic is present in both Westeros and New Crobuzon, it’s an almost inherently malignant presence.
In most fantasy worlds, magic is wielded by both the forces of good and evil, and the very abuse of magic for personal gain is the ultimate sign of moral corruption. Gandalf and Sauron. Harry Potter and Voldemort. Ged and Cob. Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (please feel free to wage fiery genre definition wars in the comments over that one).
But in Martin’s and Mieville’s worlds, magic is largely the province of the shady and wicked. In Westeros, magic was waning in the world, but was revived with the rebirth of dragons. It is mostly used by assassins, witches, and worse. At one very memorable moment, a magic-wielding woman literally gives birth to a shadow-creature that assassinates people.
There is a suggestion in the novels that magic has played a nefarious part in Westeros’s unique history. While Martin’s continent is primarily known for its wacky seasons (decades-long summers and lifetime-spanning winters), it’s also one that is shockingly stagnant. The Starks of Winterfell have ruled the North for close to 8,000 years, and the other noble houses have similar longevity. The technological levels have, it seems, barely progressed in that time. Human civilization has existed in Westeros for the same length of time it has existed on our earth, and yet Martin’s world is still quite literally stuck in the Dark Ages.
The stagnation is due to magic. Magic has prevented technological (and thus social and political) progress. It is both a technological crux, and also a weapon used by the powerful to keep power. How else could a single family, in an otherwise realistically-painted political and military world, rule an area the size of Brazil for 80 centuries? In fact, the Maesters (a sort of monkish academia) seem to have made it their explicit mission to eliminate magic from the world in hopes of establishing a society based more on logic and reason. In other words, magic is inherently anti-progressive.
The idea of magic as a weapon of the powerful to keep power is used more explicitly by Mieville. In New Crobuzon, magic is more common than in Westeros. Most people can perform simple magic, and thaumaturgy, or magic manipulation, is a branch of hard science. But it’s mostly used, or most visibly used, in the police state’s legal system, to punish criminals by making them into Remade: people mutilated into half-animal or half-machine beings. A sort of Scarlet A(ardvark Face). It is a largely a weapon of the State to impose its tyrannical will on the populace.
I said it’s easy to imagine New Crobuzon as the Victorian phase of Westeros’s history, as King’s Landing in 3,000 A.D. (After Daenerys). This is because New Crobuzon seems like the 19th Century of a medieval fantasy kingdom like Martin’s, one where a few remnants of old fantasy tropes still linger (like animal familiars), magic is harnessed in university labs, and power/magic has shifted from a few feudal families to the State, oligarchical corporations, and vicious crime syndicates.
Martin and Mieville are both justly famous for creating more realistic psychological, political, sexual, and economic takes on the fantasy genres, and it should be no surprise that their versions of magic would be similarly complicated. There’s no white or black magic here, just gray with splashes of red blood.