Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Heirs of Scheherazade

by J. D. Popham

The other day my wife turned to me and, not quite meeting my eyes, asked, “Do you think I’d like Game of Thrones?”

The question caught me so flat-footed that for a moment it didn’t quite translate.   I mean, she might as well have asked “Do you think I might enjoy shooting heroin?”, or “Would you object to a threesome with Scarlett Johansson?”

Early in our relationship it was established that fantasy and science fiction (F&SF) were, for Susan, NMG (‘Not My Genre’).  My occasional suggestion that she approach F&SF as a logical extension of the magical realism literary genre were, one might say, dismissed.  Good soul that the is, she had tried on occasion to humor me and watch a Science Fiction movie or television show, but was simply unable to engage.  On one occasion she left the room saying, “I’m not drunk enough for this”.  And so, F&SF have been my private, albeit somewhat looked-down-upon, domain.

This isn’t to say that she restricts herself to Masterpiece Classics, foreign documentaries and black and white arts films. She is not without her own guilty pleasures when it comes to movies and television. She takes unashamed glee in watching such shows as Scandal, Revenge and Damages: US telenovelas steeped in estrogen and unabashedly over the top.  I suppose if they held out some expectation of gratuitous nudity I might be persuaded to watch an episode with her now and then.  Sadly, Kerry Washington persists in revealing little more than plot points, and so these shows remain NMG for me, and Susan’s exclusive bailiwick.

For some years this has been the way of things. Usually we only indulge in our respective ‘reprehensible television’ genres when the other is not around. Thus, harmony has been maintained.

So understand that, when Susan asked about watching Game of Thrones, it made evident a neigh-seismic shift in the cultural milieu.  Cracks have begun to appear in the walls of the fantasy and science fiction ghettos.  fantasy and science fiction have gone legit.

It has been a long time coming.  The fantastic and unworldly have been inseparable from the art of fiction since, in some dark and ancient past and in a language long forgotten, the words 'Tell me a story' were first uttered.  Gilgamesh, Scheherazade, Beowulf, The Odyssey, all hailing from separate oral traditions, bear witness to the human fascination with tales that transport the listener beyond the banality of our day to day.

However, during the latter part of the nineteenth century, a more structured literary culture and associated business model began to coalesce.  Not surprisingly, it took on the values and structures of the culture in which it emerged, and this was an industrial age: a practical time. While the lower classes might squander their time and money foolishly on 'penny dreadfuls', gentler folk of higher station and reasoning abilities (if they must read fiction at all) were expected to read respectable 'literature'.  Gods, monsters, alien worlds and other elements of the fantastic were, in general, consigned to the outer darkness of 'popular' fiction.  Literature, would have no truck with them.

As complex, insightful prose could not compete for "Joe's beer money", the turn of the century found the heirs of Scheherazade reduced to cadging for nickles in the pulp magazine trade.

Happily, The Golden Age of Science Fiction, emerging in the late 1930s, rescued Fantasy and Science Fiction from bug-eyed monsters, gizmos, women in brass brassieres and the other trappings of pulp space opera.  The New Wave movement of the 1970's pushed the genre further along toward the borders of literature's high gardens and gated communities. However, despite these advances and a number of works given grudging respect by the guardians of respectable fiction, fantasy and science fiction as a larger genre has remained a literary ghetto. 

Until the one-two punch of the internet and the direct cable television changed the game. 

Might-have-been novelists who previously bypassed the East coast print scene for the more lucrative environs of Hollywood screenwriting are now shifting their course yet again, this time toward cable television, the newly anointed center of the creative writing universe.  Here, at least for the moment, writers have an unprecedented degree of latitude to create compelling stories. Enabled by relatively cheap digital production and special effects tools, they can create new worlds or destroy old ones, cast aside the known and set their stories and parables in venues that have never been.  

The heirs of Scheherazade have found a new voice and a new venue.

And, it appears, an audience has been waiting for them. Today's younger viewer, the entertainment industry's most desirable demographic, are not strangers to Fantasy and Science Fiction.  To them, Jean-Luc Picard, Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter are not kid stuff, but cultural touchstones.  Suddenly, Game of Thrones' Westeros is as legitimate a setting for a costume drama as Downton Abbey's Yorkshire, or Boardwalk Empire's Atlantic City.  

As often happens these days, the young audience is showing its elders the way. Fantasy and science fiction is catching on, albeit grudgingly, among responsible adults. When noted author Chang-rae Lee sets his latest novel in a dystopian future, and Maureen Dowd of the New York Times cries out "Bring me my dragons!", you know we've arrived at a cultural watershed.  At this point, I won't be surprised if Dune begins to appear next to The Prince and The Book of Five Rings on the bookshelves of corporate middle managers.

This is not to say that all fantasy and science fiction has been redefined as high art.  The genre serves too broad an audience.  For every Shakespearean prince of Thebes, there are a host of rude mechanicals gamboling or stumbling about on the F&SF stage.  The quality of writing in Fantasy and Science Fiction is, overall, nothing if not irregular.  Which is, I think, for the good.  This genre, founded on the question 'What if?' and long-time home of willful dreamers, has always been a welcoming and unselfconscious place. 

And that is fertile ground for good stories.


  1. "At this point, I won't be surprise if Dune begins to appear next to The Prince and The Book of Five Rings on the bookshelves of corporate middle managers."

    Actually I'm fairly convinced that one of my former bosses devised his staff interview technique around Dune's gom jabbar scene.

    1. My current employer seems to have modelled the company structure upon a rough description of The Eyes of Heisenberg. Could have been worse, could have been Helstrom's Hive I suppose.

    2. "Pain is just the axis of the test."

      That's how I interview, actually, and I do keep a copy of Dune on my bookshelf at work. Don't have book of 5 rings though.

  2. I'm going to push back on this "fantasy breaking out of the ghetto" notion a bit. I watch Game of Thrones and I like it a lot, *in spite* of it being fantasy, not because of it. I dislike the fantasy genre in general and simply can't stand the elfy - wizardy literary gutrot where everyone rides a talking dragon and has a sword with a name and so-and-so is on a quest because blah blah blah fulfill his father's destiny. That stuff chokes the bookshelves in the Bookstore Section Formerly Known As Science Fiction. I am a pretty persistent reader but I don't think I got more than 50 pages into the Lord of the Rings before setting it aside. I think it's wildly overrated.

    Game of Thrones isn't warmed-over Tolkein; in spite of the fact that it seems to take place in some alternate world it is much grittier and more realistic than much of the ren-fair depictions of medieval Europe in historical fiction. What really makes the story work is that the characters are very well-drawn and it has an extremely clear-eyed view of human nature: most people in the story are neither good or bad, they are simply pursuing their own interest and even when they want to do the "right" thing it isn't always clear to them what the right thing is. In other words, I think Game of Thrones rises above genre; I don't think it's proof that the genre is being accepted into the mainstream.

    1. I'll answer by restating my last paragraph, which you evidently did not get to:

      "This is not to say that all Fantasy and Science Fiction has been redefined as high art. The genre serves too broad an audience. For every Shakespearean prince of Thebes, there are a host of rustic mechanicals gamboling or stumbling about on the F&SF stage. And the quality of writing in Fantasy and Science Fiction is, overall, nothing if not irregular. Which is, I think, for the good. This genre, founded on the question 'What if?' and long-time home of willful dreamers, has always been a welcoming and unselfconscious place. "

  3. Game of Thrones is.... well left over meatloaf. It takes pains to appear to be roast beef, but once the gravey is scraped off its just left over meatloaf. Game of thrones is a political thriller, in a different period of time and place. Many many better renditions have been achieved. I read as much as I could and watched as much as I could but it failed on all levels. Not gritty enough for simple escapism, not twisted enough to keep me guessing. And its worst sin, it does nothing exceptionally well. Rather it does a lot of things well. TBH it reminds me of friends a social phenom that I was never able to buy into. I hope people enjoy it, and who knows I have a nasty of habit of reheating meatloaf hoping it tastes better this time :)