The dimly lit balconies of Price Center East Ballroom were adorned with banners symbolizing Houses Lannister, Stark, and Targaryen. An orchestral rendition of “The Rains of Castamere” echoed through the building, its low strings yielded a familiar sense of unease in those in attendance.
However, any tension was alleviated when the evening’s two guests of honor took the stage.
Tuesday’s event, “A Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson and George R.R. Martin”, was hosted the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UCSD to raise awareness for its Clarion summer science fiction and fantasy workshop. To do this, they brought together two of the most prominent literary minds in the science fiction and fantasy: UCSD alumnus and Nebula award winning author Kim Stanley Robinson and the eminent fantasy writer George R.R. Martin.
While Martin, the author of ongoing fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, was undeniably the bigger name, the event was far from a glorified “Game of Thrones Night.” Rather, the conversation was directed towards future authors and creators in the room, focusing upon what each of the two valued in their own work and the works that influenced their writing.
The conversation opened with a lengthy discussion as to the role of science fiction and fantasy within the field of literature.
“High literature was considered high… and popular literature was low,” Martin said, describing the treatment of his genre in the popular culture. In spite of their cultural significance, he opined that sci-fi and fantasy have not historically been considered academically viable literature.
Robinson added that his own experience at UCSD has proven to be an exception. Through the course of his undergraduate and doctoral careers at UCSD, as well as his current involvements at Clarion, Robinson feels our University has always given representation to popular literature.
Martin and Robinson agreed that the setting of the story is what sets both genres apart from what Martin referred to as “domestic literature.”
“We recognize the Shire… the Mines of Moria… Narnia, and Oz,” Martin said, “They’re as familiar to millions of readers as Thailand, Mexico, or Berlin.” In the case of A Song of Ice and Fire especially, the Martin sees the world and lore that he has created as its defining element.
“That’s true in Sci-Fi, somewhat [as well],” said Robinson. Before 1976, he recounted, the planet Mars – the setting for his popular “Mars Trilogy” – was completely unknown. “[Mars] might as well have been Arizona,” he said, but that didn’t stop sci-fi writers from utilizing it in “spectacular ways.”
Both authors agreed that in their work, setting is very much a character in the context of their stories and worlds. That is not to say that the characters themselves take a backseat.
“A lot of Fantasy is about good vs. evil,” Martin said. “In my opinion… We all have the capacity to be heroes, all of us have the capacity to be villains, and all of us have been both.”
In spite of the inherent difficulty of weaving so many characters and story arcs, Martin clarified that he does actively “try to inhabit [his] characters,” as a part of his writing process.
“Some of the time I’m a dwarf, some of the time I’m an incredibly hot chick riding dragons,” Martin said proudly.
Robinson, whose sci-fi trilogy took on a characteristically political stance, echoed Martin’s qualms about character and complexity.
Before writing his books, Robinson traces his characters’ journeys on visually on butcher paper. Although perhaps more organized than the famously traditional George R.R. Martin, who comically praised the convenience of his newfound tools, “‘find’ and “replace,” Robinson frames this narrative juggling as a struggle that all authors undergo. “I’m not a systematic or coherent thinker,” he admits, “That’s why I’m a novelist!”
Throughout the conversation, there was a welcoming air of self-deprecation. “Maybe I am slowing down,” Marin reflected, referencing his age and the twenty-plus year history of A Song of Ice and Fire. “Oh, and getting older, don’t do that!”
Martin believes that authors like William Faulkner and H.P. Lovecraft had a large influence on him picking up writing in his youth. For Robinson, college was the defining factor. “I realized [at UCSD] that Sci-Fi was the best description of the world that I had ever found… it’s what hit me when I was young!”.
Both authors were pleased with how the field of literature has recently recognized fantasy authors such as Stephen King, and has since gone on to recognize and award more foreign sci-fi and fantasy authors for their translated work. Martin was particularly in awe of the array of voices in fiction that have sprouted up worldwide. “For the first time you’re getting their visions, and I’m tremendously excited about that!”
Of course, the conversation would not have been complete without a bit of speculation on what comes next for each author. Robinson teased the audience early on with the prospect of a film or television adaptation of his Mars Trilogy at some point in the future.
Martin took the opportunity to play the audience even further. When asked which character death he regretted most, he wasn’t direct.
“Whose deaths do I regret the most?”, he pondered briefly, as if he was going to answer the question: “John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy!”
As to whom he would like to see assume the Iron Throne, Martin left the audience with a message that could perhaps serve both to sum up the entirety of the event and to annoy any avid fans in attendance: “Keep reading.”
Connor Gorry is a staff writer at The Triton.