Knee-jerk Masculinity in the Fantasy Genre?

This is going to be a touchy subject, but it coincided with something I was intending to write about anyway, so here goes.

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Writer Ed McDonald has done a couple of experiments on r/Fantasy. First he asked people to list their favourite magic-using character, then he asked which three fantasy characters you would like by your side in a demonic apocalypse. In both cases, the responses overwhelmingly listed male characters.

We have two further questions to ask, based off these results:

  1. Why are the results so skewed?
  2. Is this an actual problem?

Now, in regards to the first question, it is entirely possible that the skew reflects the demographics of the respondents. But after considering my own hypothetical responses to McDonald’s experiments (Gandalf for the first, undecided for the second) – the only female character I would have considered for the demonic apocalypse question would be Granny Weatherwax (Discworld). Basically, I would have contributed to the skew myself.

Why is this? It is probably true that most fantasy characters are male – a reflection, perhaps, of who is writing the stories, who is reading them, and market demands. I have seen it suggested that some people associate female authors writing about female protagonists with “girly, romance-orientated” stories (an association that is, of course, criminally unfair). It is noteworthy, however, that there is a genre tradition, from C.L. Moore to J.V. Jones (and of course J.K. Rowling) of female authors hiding behind gender-neutral initials, which suggests that the market does at least see it that way, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Meanwhile, male fantasy authors from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin have served up unlikely sausage-fests among their invented families – Tolkien gives Fëanor seven sons but no daughters, while much of Martin’s non-Stark nobility skews male to an equally ludicrous degree (Walder Frey has twenty-eight children, twenty-one of whom are male – Martin then tries balancing this by having a handful of families where girls vastly outnumber boys).

One occasionally runs into the excuse that fantasy is male dominated because it is frequently concerned with military-orientated affairs, war traditionally being a masculine activity. This argument wears a bit thin when one considers that (1) it’s fantasy. “Historical accuracy” does not apply – even the likes of Robert E. Howard can write a female warrior – and (2) McDonald’s experiment centres around magic-using characters. If hitting things with a sharpened stick is masculine, surely magic is a more level playing field? Female magic-users are a time-honoured part of the genre for as long as it has existed.

On the other hand, if one bothers to look closer at the genre, it isn’t as though there aren’t a host of powerful and interesting female characters out there (there was sufficient material for me to write a four part series – 1234 – on female characters in Tolkien alone). Even if we in the genre are often a bunch of blokes writing about blokes, we are at least capable of writing about women too. Why is it, then, that we as a readership (based off McDonald’s results) prefer to embrace fictional males over fictional females?

If I would hazard a guess, it might be that I as a male instinctively find it easier to slide into identifying with men. Knee-jerk masculinity, perhaps: nothing inherently insidious, no conscious desire to perpetuate a patriarchy or anything, but it is still something that does need recognising. This in turn ties into what I was actually going to write about today.

You see, a while ago, I was going through my short story folder (the last year or so has seen me largely put Old Phuul on hold while I work on shorter fiction), and I noticed that the protagonists were overwhelmingly male. I had no particular issue with diversity of ethnicity or sexuality – but, clearly, part of my subconscious was treating “male POV” as the default. It was purely a subconscious thing too: at no point did I sit down and decide to make the character that way. Nor did I have the experience I did with Wise Phuul, where I realised while writing it that the main character was (to my surprise) bisexual – I never encountered anything that told me that I had erred, and that I was actually writing a woman.

Is this a problem? In one sense, no. If the story works perfectly well with a male protagonist, I think it’s wrong to artificially go back and tinker with it in that way, not least because that is the very definition of tokenism – giving a particular character a particular ethnicity/sexuality/gender solely in order to get brownie points. If one is writing in order to get brownie points, rather than writing to explore characters, themes, plot, and setting on their own terms, then one has left the path of wisdom. Rather, what I have been doing since I realised my “male” default issue is to start with a character I know is female, and tell the resulting story. That way I can write a story that both shifts me out of my POV comfort zone, and is true to the character in question. The result, among other things, is that It Shines Bright Tonight, my 13,000-word sword and sorcery novelette, is told entirely from the POV of Svelia, a female guardsman.

Returning to the earlier question of McDonald’s experiment. Is there something wrong with an audience so clearly preferring characters of one gender? To be honest, no. Readers will identify with whomever they choose, and as suggested above, there are perhaps more opportunities to identify with male characters in fantasy than female characters. It is entirely wrongheaded to suggest that someone is at fault because they prefer Gandalf over Galadriel. I think, however, that it is still something we ought to be aware of – I, for one, found it a strange experience to confront my own biases head-on. From that point of view, McDonald’s experiment is a thoroughly worthwhile one.

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For those who like reviewing books

A new initiative from my publisher, focused on those of you who like reviewing books:

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50/25/5 Reading Challenge: August

Only one completed read for August:

  • Blood of Elves, by Andrej Sapkowski.

As indicated earlier, August was a productive month for writing. Less so for reading.

A Strange Inverse: US and NZ politics

Every political culture has its strange little rules: patterns and correlations that may or may not have anything to do with each other. Today I thought I would share one that very rarely gets mentioned – the habit of New Zealand voters of ideologically opposing the party that currently holds America’s White House.

More specifically, both New Zealand and the United States have a broadly leftist party and a broadly rightist party: Labour and the Democrats, National and the Republicans. The key is that when there is a Democratic US President, New Zealand generally elects National Governments, while when there is a Republican US President, Labour does better.

Consider the evidence. There have been twenty-four New Zealand elections since the Second World War (the twenty-fifth is being held next month).

  • 2014: Democrats and National
  • 2011: Democrats and National
  • 2008: Republicans and National
  • 2005: Republicans and Labour
  • 2002: Republicans and Labour
  • 1999: Democrats and Labour
  • 1996: Democrats and National
  • 1993: Democrats and National
  • 1990: Republicans and National
  • 1987: Republicans and Labour
  • 1984: Republicans and Labour
  • 1981: Republicans and National
  • 1978: Democrats and National
  • 1975: Republicans and National
  • 1972: Republicans and Labour
  • 1969: Republicans and National
  • 1966: Democrats and National
  • 1963: Democrats and National
  • 1960: Republicans and National
  • 1957: Republicans and Labour
  • 1954: Republicans and National
  • 1951: Democrats and National
  • 1949: Democrats and National
  • 1946: Democrats and Labour

This gives us:

  • Nine elections where National wins with a Democrat
  • Two elections where Labour wins with a Democrat
  • Seven elections where National wins with a Republican
  • Six elections where Labour wins with a Republican

But, wait, there’s more. You see, there were two elections (1960 and 2008) where New Zealand changed governments after America had also voted for change, but before the new President had been sworn in. If rather than focusing on the current incumbent, we apply the test of which party had been most recently elected to the White House, the figures become:

  • Eleven elections where National wins with a Democrat
  • Two elections where Labour wins with a Democrat
  • Five elections where National wins with a Republican
  • Six elections where Labour wins with a Republican

That gives us a quite noticeable seventeen out of twenty-four elections where the New Zealand electorate is splitting with the American one. This is more true of Democrats (eleven out of thirteen times, New Zealand votes National), whereas it is more even with Republicans.

But let’s take a look at the seven elections where the two countries voted the same way: 1946, 1954, 1969, 1975, 1981, 1990, and 1999. In four of those cases (1946, 1954, 1969, and 1981) New Zealand voted for change at the next election, while in the remaining three (1975, 1990, and 1999), America voted for change at the next election. There has been no occasion since the Second World War where two consecutive National victories in New Zealand have coincided with Republican Presidents, and there has been no occasion where Labour has done the same with the Democrats. National achieves this with Democrats, and Labour achieves it with Republicans.

What does this mean for next month’s New Zealand election? With a Republican in the White House, that makes a Labour victory more likely, simply going by history.

 

Why The Hobbit Sucks

While browsing Youtube, I ran across this interesting five-part look at the structural failures of Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation:

I don’t have much to add, beyond restating my own preference that theme ought to be paramount in adaptation.

August Writing Update

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August has been a highly productive month in the writing department (less so in the reading department):

  • It Shines Bright Tonight. My sword-and-sorcery/Lovecraftian Elephant Seal novelette ended up as 13,000 words (up from 8,000 at the start of the month). That’s 65 pages in Standard Manuscript Format – sticking the indents in manually (curse you, LibreOffice) took forever. It’s now at submission level.
  • An Extract from the Diary of Peter Mackenzie. 1900 words. A taniwha meets railway nerdism, which might well take the cake for obscure subject matter. Seriously: the story is a fantasy explanation for why the Kurow Branch of the New Zealand Railways never went beyond Hakataramea (the Branch closed in 1983). The piece is also at submission level – in fact, it actually got into the second round at Clarkesworld before getting rejected, something that made me very excited.
  • The Mystery of the Nineteen Bells. 850 words. A strange little side project that came out of nowhere, on campanology and trying to find meaning. Basically finished, but needs some polish.
  • Black Nykövä. This is intended as an independent story set in the Wise Phuul universe, and is a piece I am having to take slowly, since the narrator has a decidedly purple and poetic turn of phrase (think Dylan Thomas) – it is very easy to mess up something like that. Note that I didn’t intend the narrator to be that way; it’s just that I am a discovery writer, rather than a planner (or what George R.R. Martin calls a gardener, rather than an architect) – so I find stuff out as I go along.

Mages as Main Characters: A Comment on a Reddit Post.

Today, I ran across this post on the /r/fantasy forum. It purports to be a commentary on the difficulties of writing magic-using characters, and since I have already dipped my toe into fantastical magic discussions this month, I may as well keep going.101247-200

Suffice to say, I beg to differ with the author of the post. Quite strongly. I think it carries with it a host of dangerous implications, both in terms of fiction, and in terms of real life.

Let’s take the first point:

Without balance, mages are hammers and everything else is a nail.

Basically, the poster is arguing that without an author-imposed limit on magic-usage, mage characters will cheerfully use their powers to resolve any situation. To which I would make the following points:

  • Having a special ability to do something does not mean that a character will use that special ability in all circumstances. Sometimes, it’s straight-out inappropriate: being the best sniper in the world does not help you paint your house, which means the character is going to have to resolve their problem in other ways. After all, your character has a well-rounded personality, right? One that is defined by more than simply having a special ability? Even Howard’s Conan occasionally encountered a problem he couldn’t resolve simply by hitting it.
  • Balanced magic is another kettle of fish, but using RPG-style limitations strikes me as pretty unimaginative (not to say it can’t be done well, but concepts like spell points, or whatever, are pretty old hat). To take the sniper example again, there are some circumstances where the sniper could use their ability, but they wouldn’t, because it would be utterly daft to do so. You don’t shoot a parking-warden dead for ticketing your car – social ramifications restrain both real and fictional characters from doing anything they want.

The drawbacks of being a mage have to feature prominently if you’re documenting their lives in any kind of detail. 

I honestly don’t see the point here. Every real-life person who has a special ability will spend most of their time not using that special ability – often in situations where someone else’s special ability is more pertinent. The World Chess Champion may be a magician over the chessboard, but that doesn’t help him if he needs medical treatment – for that you need someone qualified in a different area, namely a doctor.

Every action carries with it something economists refer to as opportunity cost – the cost of not being able to do the next best alternative. If every action has an opportunity cost, by implication so does a chosen career-path. If you are training to be a doctor, that means you can’t be training to be something  else. Which in turn means everything has a drawback – mage or otherwise.

Fragility VS competency is always a tricky balance

The poster concludes that since a magic-user who can fight would be overpowered and thus uninteresting, best if the magic-user is some sort of weakling, who must shield themselves from physical attacks (or get someone else to shield them).

Where to begin…

There is not just a distinct lack of imagination here, but also a lack of familiarity with the genre.

Tolkien’s Gandalf is one of the most famous mages in fantasy literature (while actually doing comparatively little magic) – but he carries Turgon’s old sword, Glamdring, around from The Hobbit onwards. Why? Because Gandalf can actually fight if he needs to. Does this make Gandalf uninteresting? No, it doesn’t, because there are foes out there that are more than a match for our wizard.

Moorcock’s Elric is another sword-wielding spell-caster, to the extent where he is better known for the sword than the magic. Elric is actually a weakling in the sense that he is a sickly albino, in constant need of drugs (or Stormbringer) for sustenance, but this rarely comes up in terms of having to defend himself from attacks – his fragility is an issue away from fights, not in the fights themselves. Oh, and his role as a cosmic plaything means that the issue of being overpowered never comes up.

And that assumes you are actually dealing with offensive spell-casting at all. My own Teltö Phuul is technically a mage (he is a qualified Necromancer, after all), but he is basically an ordinary person who just happens to be able to raise the dead. His magic (if you can call it that) is only sometimes useful for dealing with combat situations, and even then he has to get creative with it. He’s not simply throwing fireballs at people (nor is he more fragile than the average person – he has his athletic side with swimming).

Mages might not be the most obvious romantic leads

This is where unsavoury real-life assumptions come in. Basically it amounts to the following reasoning:

  • Magic-users are nerdy weaklings.
  • Nerds struggle for romantic attachment.
  • Therefore magic-users struggle for romantic attachment.

It’s really a restatement of social stereotypes masquerading as literary analysis.

Now, there are examples of magic-users who do struggle in the romantic sphere – Rowling’s Severus Snape, for instance. Which is rather beside the poster’s point, since Snape’s problem isn’t that he’s a mage (his enemy James Potter is one too), but rather his own status as both a bullying victim and a bully. The issue is not that Snape is a nerd, the issue is the character’s psychology. A better example would be Väinämöinen from Kalevala, an immensely powerful mage who is unlucky in love – but as Merlin shows, even the very archetypes of the western wizard can have romantic interests. Similarly, while Gandalf is not a sexual being, Elric most certainly is (female characters throw themselves at him on a regular basis). And Teltö happens to be bisexual, and very open about it.

I am rather flogging a dead horse at the moment, but I think the real problem with the post is that it betrays stunted thinking about how a magic-user would interact with the world around them. Too much willingness to buy into tropes – indeed the post represents an attempt to justify clichés via an appeal to “reason”, rather than trying to address what is actually in the fantasy genre as written. While it is entirely possible to write about a nerdy sexually-frustrated mage who hides behind meat shields, and to write it well, the key point should be to try and make the character feel fresh on its own terms, rather than simply claiming that this is the logical consequence of magic-use in a fantasy setting.

 

[New Zealand Politics] The Art of Disappearing Up Your Own Arse.

New Zealand politics is in a bit of a ferment at the moment, a month out from a general election. The main opposition party, Labour, has seen its old leader, Andrew Little, resign and be replaced with his deputy Jacinda Ardern, while their allies the Greens have seen one of their co-leaders (Metiria Turei) quit after she revealed that she had lied to social welfare services over twenty years ago. The upshot is that a recent poll has had Labour up 13% to 37%, with the Greens dropping 11% to 4%.

I wasn’t actually going to comment on this – the Turei thing is much more complicated than the above summary would suggest. However, after running across this post on the New Zealand political blogosphere, I really felt the need to – especially because the poster in question does not allow comments on his blog, so I can’t respond over there (a tad ironic, given his rock-solid belief in his own positions).

The post is, frankly, a classic example of the tendency of some people to Disappear Up Their Own Arse when talking about politics.

Ergo, this:

The Greens’ success for the past nine years now looks like a commentary on Labour’s weakness, its succession of bland, interchangeable dead white male leaders. And now Labour has a leader worthy of the name, someone young (or “youth-adjacent”) and inspiring, who promises change rather than more of the same, they’re doing well again. 

To which I would make two points:

  • Jacinda Ardern has not promised anything Andrew Little didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: as someone of a left-leaning persuasion, I am genuinely excited by the current trajectory of the New Zealand Labour Party – Ardern’s Labour is the strongest it has been since the Clark era. It’s just that we must recognise this is less about “promising change” and more about media reception – there has been a change in leader, but no change in policy. I feel very sorry for Andrew Little in these circumstances.
  • More importantly, Idiot/Savant (the author of the blog post) has a bizarre hang-up with demographics. Clearly in his mind, one’s skin colour and gender is more important than one’s actual opinions. One wonders whether he considers the likes of Bernie Sanders (75 years old) or Jeremy Corbyn (68 years old) “dead white males”, seeing as both enjoyed strong support from younger voters (the answer is that no, he wouldn’t. But why is it fine to use someone’s ethnicity, gender, and age as an implied criticism – especially when, as pointed out above, Ardern’s Labour is no more radical and Corbynite than Little’s Labour?).

Idiot/Savant reinforces this point again:

Empirically, Labour does best when it has a woman in charge. That’s who their voters are, that’s who they represent. So they might as well embrace it rather than pretend they’re still the Labour party of the 1930’s or 1950’s in the era of “National mum and Labour dad”.

Presumably he also prefers Liz Kendall to Jeremy Corbyn, and Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders.

What Idiot/Savant misses is that while the Greens or New Zealand First can afford to be niche parties, Labour is not niche. Ardern’s Labour doesn’t represent only a particular gender, any more than Little’s Labour did – a New Zealand Labour Party that is the Women’s Party would cease to be viable, because you can’t be a major political party if you ignore half the population. Labour must appeal to men and women alike, rather than doing what Idiot/Savant does so often – disappearing up its own arse in the name of some abstract dogma.

 

Crackpot Theory: Rhaegar Targaryen had Aspergers Syndrome

Anyone who has read A Song of Ice and Fire (or paid attention to the backstory of Game of Thrones) is familiar with Rhaegar Targaryen, the Crown Prince who sparked a war by running away with Lyanna Stark, a la Homer’s Paris and Helen. Rhaegar remains something of an enigma, since we are only relying on second or third-hand information about him – this leads to an awful lot of speculation about his personality.

Myself, I have a pet crackpot theory of my own design – one that is unlikely to ever be proved or disproved. Namely that Rhaegar had Aspergers Syndrome.

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Now, when the subject of Aspergers and Autism in Martin’s work gets raised, the most usual candidate is Stannis Baratheon. I actually think the evidence goes either way on Stannis (while he is socially awkward and honest, he does not have a “special subject” or an unnaturally stilted vocabulary). Rhaegar though allows much more room to speculate, and in this case, I think there would be something richly subversive about such a glamorous figure having such a “nerdy” psychology.

My evidence:

  • Rhaegar has a special subject that he pursues to the extent of obsession, namely prophecies, and to a lesser extent harp music. There’s even a flashback scene in the House of the Undying where he’s with his (own actually existing) son, and he’s still going on about “there needs to be one more”.
  • It explains him running off with Lyanna, and not quite understanding why it would upset people, even though he is highly intelligent.
  • As a child, he showed no interest in other children, and spent all his time with books. Our other bookworm, Samwell Tarly, is far more social by comparison – Sam likes dancing, kittens, and hanging out in the kitchen. Rhaegar is much more of a loner.
  • As a child, he impresses the Maesters with his knowledge of arcane trivia. One imagines his vocabulary being pretty extensive.
  • Rhaegar remains clearly introverted as an adult. He prefers brooding over his harp to social contact.
  • He doesn’t seem to notice that Jon Connington has a homosexual crush on him.
  • Ned Stark doesn’t think Rhaegar would visit brothels. This is generally interpreted as a comment on Rhaegar’s moral code, and certainly Ned would have meant it as such, but if we run with this theory, perhaps the notion of intimacy in a social setting made Rhaegar uncomfortable?
  • The apparent lack of social awkwardness can be explained by everyone being too busy admiring his inhuman beauty, or thinking how wonderful he is, to notice him doing anything odd. Especially given that he’s Targaryen: there’s a social expectation that Targaryens are supposed to do odd things, and while his father and little brother are more overt, there is nothing stopping Rhaegar from having his own issues.
  • The biggest strike against the theory is that Aspergers is commonly associated with poor hand-eye co-ordination. Rhaegar becomes a decent swordsman, which implies his hand-eye co-ordination was pretty good. To explain this, I would suggest that Rhaegar’s single-minded obsession with the prophecy (which he interpreted as requiring him to be a warrior) led him to devote far more time and energy to developing his swordsmanship than he otherwise would have.

Note that this theory also allows a middle ground between those who gloss over his role in starting a disastrous civil war, and those who would vilify him for his neglect of the political situation leading up to the conflict. Rhaegar would be culpable, but his culpability does not arise from selfishness or callousness – it arises from an inability to understand what a faux pas he was committing.

Magic as Fantasy’s Pseudo-science

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George R.R. Martin, currently over at the Helsinki Worldcon, has offered the following opinion on magic in fantasy literature: “Magic should always be dangerous and unknowable, not a pseudo-science.”

This is currently being cheerfully tweeted and re-tweeted all over the place.

Now, my immediate reaction is a knee-jerk one: I dislike Martin’s wording. It appears he is expressing a personal preference (magic as being mysterious) in a way that makes it some sort of rule. Certainly, I would prefer it if Martin had couched his statement as an opinion instead – “I think magic should be..”, “I like magic to be…”, and so on. But let’s give Martin the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that the “should” in that line is the expression of subjective desire, not a “shall” statement of how to write fantasy.

Ignoring the knee-jerk annoyance factor, I still disagree – not because I am committed to a pseudo-scientific view of magic, but because it is the sort of thing that really depends on setting. As you probably know, J.R.R. Tolkien is my favourite author; Tolkien is notable for treating magic as something very rare and mysterious. That doesn’t mean I am inherently tied to believing that magic should be written like that – Wise Phuul treats necromancy as a “mind-control” type of pseudo-science, to the point where, if you squint, there is a case for treating the book as a variant of science-fiction.

Now, the arguments on both sides are well-known – there is the school of thought that a magic that loses its mystery is no longer magic (to which the counter-argument goes “Is that a problem?” – magic is just a manipulation of the world according to different physics. Clarke’s Third Law, and all that). Alternatively, there is the school of thought that advocates a more systematic approach – magic needs limits on what it can do, lest it come across as a deus ex machina. True, but is there any particular need for those limits to be made explicit in the text? We don’t need to know the gory details of Gandalf’s spell-casting to know that he is less powerful than Sauron.

Thinking about this a bit more, I would refine my view that “it depends on setting”:

  • If magic is used to resolve the plot, it should strike a balancing act – yes, you want to avoid deus ex machinae (which is what Sanderson’s First Law of Magic is getting at), but if it is too well-explained, you run the risk of tension being sapped from the scene. Rather than the reader wondering how on earth this obstacle is going to be overcome (and then surprised and delighted when it is), the reader ends up sitting on our protagonist’s shoulder, second-guessing and tut-tutting, as though watching a sort of literary chess game.
  • Relating to the above, one can skirt close to deus ex machina without actually going over the cliff, so long as it feels consistent with the spirit of the setting. Tolkien never explicitly establishes the limits of Elven singing, yet he gets away with Lúthien sending Morgoth to sleep (or driving Mandos to pity) – because he has established the story as being mythic, he can have mythic things happen.
  • Further relating to the above, the sort of thing Sanderson warns about – unexplained magic acting for the convenience of the author – can become apparent when magic shifts from being a background thing to having real plot significance. Harry Potter worked much better before Rowling started to rules lawyer things after the fact in order to suit her authorial needs.
  • If magic is used to resolve the plot, it should still be secondary to actual character conflict. People don’t watch court-room dramas for the excitement of seeing a legal question being resolved, they watch it for the humans struggling to get something they want. There is a reason TV and literature alike often play fast and loose with the mechanics of law, and even the most perfect and elegant of magic systems has to bow before the rules of narrative.
  • It is easier to keep magic as a mysterious background force when your protagonists are non-magical themselves. When you are seeing things through the eyes of Frodo Baggins, Sam Gamgee, or even Aragorn, Gandalf’s activities are a thing removed from their understanding. In Martin’s work, the chief magic-using Point of View character is Bran Stark, who learns and grows in skill throughout his story – he may use magic, but he is not in a position to understand the finer details, and for all his talent, he is only one character. By contrast, the nature and setting of Harry Potter by necessity turn magic into a science once the whimsy dissipates – it is literally the only academic subject around, and everyone uses it (though Rowling is hardly rigorous about it, which causes problems later).
  • A more systemised and scientific magic system creates more demands on the world-building – if these strange forces can be understood, they can be harnessed, and if they can be harnessed, they will have inevitable effects on the way a fantastical society develops. Martin’s Westeros does not lend itself to an abundance of magic, since it would deviate too strongly from the 15th Century English model – as it is, Martin’s neglect of how his variable seasons would impact his setting is already a major weakness of his world-building. Magic as a mysterious thing in the background ties in with the sort of story Martin wants to tell – which is fine for him, but not everyone wants to tell the same sort of story.
  • While Rowling provides a cautionary tale of trying to turn whimsical magic into something more rule-bound, magic can exist as both a mysterious force and as a pseudo-science in the same setting – as per Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller books. Naming and Sympathy are both clearly magic, yet the books have their cake and eat it too, with the former being the unknowable quantity, and the latter being a sort of magical engineering. Rothfuss’ trick? The two systems are entirely distinct branches of magic, rather than one turning into the other.

All this is before we consider Martin’s implicit assumption that mysterious magic is somehow more dangerous than the more pseudo-scientific variety. Knowing what the risks are beforehand does not, to my mind, mean safety – especially if the power associated with the magic comes at an inherent price (I am thinking Holly Lisle’s Secret Texts trilogy here). There is also the point that real-world magical traditions did actually end up going down the pseudo-science route, to the point where the likes of Isaac Newton did not distinguish between his occult/biblical prophecy/alchemy work, and his work on actual mathematics and physics – and in the case of his ideas about gravitation, one may have influenced the other.

So, yes, I think even if we give Martin the benefit of the doubt on his statement, there is a fair bit to unpack. As always with writing, I think it matters less about the underlying dogma, and more about the needs of each individual setting, and how the author goes about attending to those needs.