Let’s Talk About Realism in Fantasy, #1

Are you done blinking at the title yet? That’s fine, neither am I. I spend too much time staring at screens to keep my gaze steady for longer than–

Alright, fine, gods damn it all, I’ll cut to the quick. Realism! Fantasy! Neither of these things is like the other, and you may have been just slightly soured by all the people who claim that “realistic” fantasy means all women are either in danger of or actively being raped at any given point of the narrative, no one is allowed to have loyalty or principles without everyone guffawing about how stupid they are, and all things are constantly shitty at all times.

This isn’t realism, of course, it’s just grim. Now, while I’m obviously referencing A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m not ragging on it. I don’t believe for a second Martin was trying for realism. Martin wanted a grim story, and he achieved that in spades. I’m ragging on the idiots who see that grimness and call it realism, quite frequently in order to justify their sad, regressive worldviews. Aside: I don’t give a good goddamn how shitty things were or are in another place or time. We can do better. What’s the point of being sapient if we don’t, eh?

Back to the matter at hand: I want to make it clear nothing I’m about to say is a criticism of ASoIaF. I’m just using it as a talking point because it’s well known and in-depth enough there’s lots for me to analyze. So, here’s a long list of things which would need to be addressed for ASoIaF to be properly realistic. I am explicitly referring to the book here, of course, not the show: the show would have way more points for me to yap about. Too many, in fact! You’re about to get enough martial arts griping without that, so without further ado:

-Most unarmored or even just helmetless fights would end within seconds when one person gets a killshot to the head, neck, or vital organs in the torso. To be fair, Martin does have a few fights end abruptly, but they’re by no means the norm. Precious few historical swordfights (and as it happens, we have plenty of accounts depicting them!) lasted more than a few movements.

Prime example: Bronn is unfortunately dead after Ser Vardis cut him into many tiny, gritty mercenary pieces. You know all those moments where Bronn was just hacking wildly at Ser Vardis’ armor? I hate to tell you this, but swords are not good blunt-force weapons. Ser Vardis would barely feel those impacts, and the sword would skid all over the damn place leaving Bronn open after every swing. All Vardis has to do is stick his sword-arm out suddenly while Bronn’s focused on… what? Dulling his sword on the armor that Martin himself has clearly indicated it cannot cut through?

On a more basic level, you will not convince me that Ser Vardis is so much less capable than Bronn that he’ll lose when he’s in full plate and Bronn’s completely exposed. It’s just not possible for any knight to be that bad and have even the tiniest status. Put a fucking squire in plate against Fiore himself, and the squire’s got a damn good chance of winning. (Fiore was the progenitor of the entire Italian longsword tradition. Ego aside, he was just slightly good.)

If Bronn were fighting more intelligently, I could buy this. No, just keeping distance and circling to make Ser Vardis move isn’t smart, that’s basic. Smart would be getting Vardis’ sword hung up on his shield, going in to grapple, and getting Vardis on his belly so Bronn can just stab him through the gap at the rear underside of his helmet.

-Not a change, but credit where it’s due: steel armor works as steel armor in ASoIaF, and it really strengthens a lot of the fights! Excellent work, George!… shame Game of Thrones didn’t get this memo…

-Most of the strategic and battle details would need to be seriously reworked. Even down to the skirmish level, most battles in the series have been crushing, completely lopsided victories. Historically most wars involve far more stalemates, setbacks, sudden reversals, and so on. And in the books, there are very few of the total screw-ups common in earlier historical warfare. Remember, it’s hard to coordinate tens of thousands of people when you don’t have radios.

-Stannis cannot suck so hard and still have any loyalists. Stannis is so bad at everything that he destroys all previous human beliefs about being bad–he’s the Übermensch of failure. You seriously expect me to believe anybody could be dumb enough to besiege a city, across a river no less, while completely failing to account for the loyalties of a much larger army to the rear? No. No general can be this brainless, and just saying “BUT MELISANDRE THO” doesn’t cut it.

Alternatively, Stannis never meaningfully participates in the war because he’s too busy losing his army down “shortcuts.” You cannot tell me Stannis Baratheon will ask directions, and God Forbid he let someone else drive the ca–army!

-Is Dany ruthless or a complete bleeding heart? Ya gotta pick one, girl! Going back and forth doesn’t work! (Go full Genghis. Never don’t go full Genghis when trying to forge an empire by force.) I know she’s an actual teenager making huge decisions with precious little help, but you’d think her time with the Dothraki would’ve hammered home that sometimes you just have to be violent. Actually, all the time; it has never yet been demonstrated in this series that mercilessly curbstomping everything isn’t the best way to go. We’ve only got lip-service to this idea once or twice.

-The overall ratio of psychopathic rage-murderers should be about 1% of what it currently is. The idea that huge numbers of historical warriors were bloodthirsty madmen is in itself born from Internet overreactions to romanticizing the past, as well as a healthy dose of ye olde Toxick Masculinitey. Real knights were more violent in word and deed than the average contemporary person, yes–the same as a U.S. Marine is today. Most people have never been warriors, and warriors do war. It’s literally in their name. Just because they’re less averse to violence doesn’t mean they lose all morals and need everything to die 24/7.

-Ideals should exist on every side, often be held quite strongly, and actually the cause of many of the biggest problems for EVERYONE. Even the Nazis believed in ideals, people; the everyone-for-themselves watch-the-world-burn stuff is just edgy, and has always been edgy. Besides, the realization that everyone has ideals and that many of the world’s biggest problems are caused by idealists is way more depressing than any thing else you’ll read from me! Enjoy!

-Assassins for everyone! Jesus Christ, there’s basically no real security presence in any of these places, King’s Landing is chronically undermanned, every third person will sell their entire family into meat pies just to avoid giving their acquaintances the impression they have a single redeeming human quality, and all factions are such unmitigated assholes to each other at all times that it’s amazing anyone survives long enough to scheme.

-Way less Scorched Earth for dramatic effect. The sheer level of raiding, pillaging, raping and property destruction in the books is completely untenable. Starvation ahoy!

-Every new group of people should no longer be the most depressing.

-Valyrian Steel should have more effect on the world economy and on status than it currently does. Given that these things are so rare and no more are being made at present, how is there not an entire criminal organization dedicated to stealing the Steel?

-Outlandishly good or even just weird acts should be much more common to balance the outlandish evil. History’s full of a surprising number of wonderful or weirdly awesome people, provided you actually study history and don’t just cherry pick the worst parts for some strange, diseased reason.

Here’s my closing, ultra-super-mega-important point: if ASoIaF were to be truly realistic, either we would need ironclad explanations as to why so, so many parts of this world look so, so much like our own, or it would need to not resemble our own world at all. But ASoIaF is fantasy.

The things Martin does aren’t for realism, they’re to flesh out the world further. His goal isn’t perfect realism, but internal consistency of a kind that builds the right world for his narrative and characters. Y’know, writerly stuff. Again, the idea that ASoIaF is realistic comes from outside the work itself–certain readers projected this on to the series for their own reasons. Some good; some… less so.

Fantasy, by definition, does not need to be realistic. Next time, let’s get into why I think fantasy could benefit from the right kinds of realism, and what that actually means. Before I go, let me just reiterate for the relevant parties:

For fucksakes, rape is not realism, you worthless chromosomal smears. 

(Part Two is Here)


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