George R.R. Martin Discusses Influences, Inclusion & Diversity in Sci-Fi/Fantasy at Humanities Festival

Commencing last week with journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Chicago Humanities Festival continues to celebrate its 30th anniversary in full force with acclaimed author George R.R. Martin being the latest to headline. Best known as the writer behind the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, Martin spent the evening in a wide-ranging conversation with fellow author, Eve L. Ewing (1919, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, Ironheart). Reflecting on his decades-long career, Martin spoke on his upbringing, his influences, and on the power and relevance of the fantasy genre. He also noted that science fiction and fantasy have always done more for representation and inclusion than most other aspects of society and the arts. 

The night at the Symphony Center began in style with a performance of the main title theme from Game of Thrones by Chicago’s Spektral Quartet. Setting the mood, the piece was performed as the lights slowly dimmed and smoke filled the stage. To the delight of the audience, both Martin and Ewing entered from below the stage, gradually rising to meet the crowd.

George R.R. Martin in conversation with Eve L. Ewing. Photo provided by Chicago Humanities Festival

Launching into their discussion, Ewing began by asking Martin if it bothers him that, despite his long career in writing, a majority of the questions he receives from fans are about A Song of Ice and Fire and not his many other works. Martin responded that he is often left startled by this as many assume that his career started in 1996 with the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones.

In reality, his career began much earlier, dating back to the early 1970s. Martin got his start writing and selling short stories that appeared in a number of science fiction magazines and publications. It wasn’t until 1977 when his first full-length novel, Dying of the Light, would get published. The novel also holds the distinction of being the first story set in Martin’s “Thousand Worlds” universe, which includes several of his other works, including Sandkings, Nightflyers, and A Song for Lya.

The conversation then turned to Martin’s early influences. Though he noted the impact that writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and J.R.R. Tolkien had on him growing up, Martin indicated that it was in comic books where he really began developing his style. A lifelong comics fan, Martin regaled the audience with his immense knowledge of comic book history. Although a fan of both DC Comics and Marvel, Martin grew weary of what he described as DC Comics’ tendency for “circular storytelling.” Martin specifically pointed out how in the case of Superman, most stories would begin and end with the character in the same place. Although Superman would spend the story working to save the day, the story had no actual character development. Rather, the story would often circle back to Superman being in the same status quo as when he began.

When Martin began reading the works of Stan Lee, he found actual stakes in the storytelling. Noting Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, as a prime example, Martin was immediately invested in the real-life dilemmas faced by Lee’s characters. Peter Parker endured realistic hardships throughout his stories. Whether it was not having the money to pay his rent or being unable to get the attention of the girl he liked, Peter was written as a fully fleshed-out character, whose actions and choices carried real consequences. The notion of featuring real stakes was a story device that young Martin immediately found alluring.

Photo provided by Chicago Humanities Festival

By writing stories with legitimate stakes, Martin affirmed that the audience is given a richer reading experience, one in which they are allowed to better immerse themselves in the world and the decisions of the characters. As Martin himself summarized, “I don’t want the reader to just read the book. I want them to live the book.”

Later in the conversation, Martin reflected on his childhood and upbringing. Born and raised in Bayonne, New Jersey, to a blue-collar family, Martin spent his early years fantasizing about the larger world around him. Noting that his family was without a car and that his world was fully contained within a five-block radius of his home, Martin instead relied on the power of books to transport him to other worlds. Living near a port, Martin would watch big ships and oil tankers come in, many of which carried the flags of countries from across the world. Owning an encyclopedia of flags, Martin would often imagine himself sailing on those ships to visit all the countries he read about.

For the last part of the evening, Ewing presented Martin with pre-selected questions from the audience. One question asked Martin about his process for developing his characters. Martin used the question to reflect on the significance of the science fiction and fantasy genres as a whole. In his opinion, science fiction and fantasy have always done more for representation and inclusion than most other aspects of society. 

One example that Martin touched on to illustrate this was the original Star Trek series. At the time of its original run, Star Trek was a trailblazer thanks to its multicultural cast of characters. For Martin, the character of Spock especially holds resonance. On the show, Spock is depicted as half-human and half-vulcan. Being the offspring of an interracial relationship, Spock was an enigma at the time—especially in the United States, where interracial marriages were still outlawed when the show initially came on the air. Martin’s point was that it is through works such as Star Trek and other stories set in the realms of science fiction and fantasy that the common threads that connect all of humanity are shown.

The night ended on a personal high note. Much to this writer’s excitement, my question was selected as the final one of the evening. The question I submitted: what brings a man like Martin joy? He answered sincerely, touching on his love of a good book, writing and finishing his own stories, and being surrounded by the people he loves.He also spoke about his love of food. Though he did allude to his preference for New York-style pizza, he conceded that Chicago does have excellent Greek food. With that, the Spektral Quartet returned to the stage and performed once again as Martin and Ewing bid farewell. The night proved to be an enlightening one, filled with laughs, stories, and insight into one of the most prolific writers of our time.

The Chicago Humanities Festival continues its Power” season with more than 70 events by authors and influencers, including political commentator Rachel Maddow and musician Patti Smith. Look for those events and more around the city between now and November 10. For continuing coverage, stay tuned to Third Coast Review.

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Adam Prestigiacomo
Adam Prestigiacomo
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