George RR Martin has only missed one World Science Fiction Convention, aka Worldcon, in three decades.
“I came to my first one in ’71 in Boston, Massachusetts, with eight stories in my suitcase that I was going to foist on the editors there,” says the author of the Song of Ice and Fire novels, adapted for television as Game of Thrones.
“Of course, I rapidly learned that the last thing an editor wants is a writer coming up to him at a panel or party at Worldcon and thrusting a manuscript in his face. That was lesson number one.”
We lived in a public housing project. We didn’t go anywhere. My world was five blocks long, and there was always this urge in me to see the wonders of the world – and, of course, the wonders of other worlds
Worldcon began in 1939, with the first event coinciding with the New York World’s Fair, and it has been the home of the highly esteemed Hugo Science Fiction and Fantasy Awards since 1953. It’s sustained by thousands of enthusiastic fans around the world, who each year get to vote on where to host future conventions.
“Worldcon’s main focus is still books,” says Martin. “Yes, there are things there about movies and television and gaming, but it started out as a literary convention, and it is still primarily a convention for people who read science fiction and fantasy... I think there was less than 100 people there in 1939... Fandom grew from that start in 1939. They skipped a few years during the second World War, but they resumed in 1946, after the war, and have been running ever since.”
Martin has been publishing science-fiction and fantasy stories since the 1970s, but he has been reading them a lot longer. “I started out as a little kid in Bayonne, New Jersey, reading comics,” he says. “I think I was 11 or 12 years old when a friend of my mother’s gave me a Robert A Heinlein book as a Christmas present. I adored it. I had an allowance of $1 a week, and suddenly I was buying 35c paperbacks instead of three or four comic books. And I never looked back.”
What made those genres so attractive to him as a child? “I grew up in a blue-collar family,” he says. “My father was a longshoreman. We lived in a public housing project. We didn’t even own a car. We didn’t go anywhere. We lived on First Street, and my school was on Fifth Street, so my world was five blocks long, and there was always this urge in me, maybe from reading, to see the wonders of the world – and, of course, the wonders of other worlds. Science fiction could take you to different planets and other periods of time. It was so much more expansive than just those five blocks where I lived my life, and I loved that sense of wonder that the great science-fiction stories had, and still have.”
I was a bright kid, but even I had teachers say to me, ‘Why do you read that science-fiction stuff? Why don’t you read real literature?’ You got that kind of snobbism
There’s an intensity to sci-fi and fantasy fandom that isn’t always found in other genres. Some of Martin’s more impatient fans seem ungallantly obsessed with the idea that the 70-year-old writer might die before he completes A Song of Ice and Fire – his fellow fantasy author Neil Gaiman wrote a famous blog post decrying this attitude, headed “George RR Martin is not your bitch” – so there are some things I am advised before the interview that he will not discuss: the status of the next book in the series or his health – questions I wouldn’t be inclined to ask anyway – or his thoughts on the final TV series or the status of several proposed TV prequels he’s helping to devise. (A pilot for one created with Jane Goldman has reportedly already been filmed.)
Instead I ask why fantasy and sci-fi writers seem so much more intimately connected to their fans than writers of other genres do.
“Science fiction, for much of its history – and this goes back to before I was born – was not considered reputable,” says Martin. “It was seen as cheap gutter entertainment. I was a bright kid, but even I had teachers say to me, ‘Why do you read that science-fiction stuff? Why don’t you read real literature?’ You got that kind of snobbism.
“So the early science-fiction fans, in the 1930s and 1940s and early 1950s, felt that very much, and they gathered together, and it was sort of an ‘us against the world’ thing. ‘We know this is great stuff, and you on the outside might make fun of us, and mock us, but we’ll band together.’ And the writers started coming to the conventions, and many writers came out of fandom; they started out as fans.”
Where does he think that patronising attitude to genre fiction comes from? “You can go back to the literary quarrel between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson, ” he says, “and that’s really where you see a split between high literature and popular literature. Before that it was just literature.
“James and Stevenson had this dispute – actually they became really good friends after that – but it started when Henry James wrote a review of two books. He wrote a review of Treasure Island, by Stevenson, and a review of a book about a little boy growing up in provincial France. He wrote that Treasure Island is much better written and the other book is flawed and problematic... but that the other book is worthier, because it’s about something real – a little boy growing up. ‘And I know what it’s like to be a little boy growing up. I have been a little boy, but I have never been a pirate hunting for buried treasure.’ Stevenson famously replied in one sentence: ‘If Mr James has never been a pirate hunting for buried treasure, he has never been a child.’
“But essentially, in the opinion of most university lecturers for 100 years, James won that argument, and literature had to be about something serious and real life, and if it was about pirates or space travel or dragons or monsters then it was something for children.” He laughs. “That’s all changed. Now science fiction, far from being this little persecuted genre that it was in the 1950s, has conquered the world.”
In 1996 Martin published the first volume of A Song of Ice and Fire, which ultimately became a phenomenon. What was it that made the series so successful?
Maybe people are going to throw fruit, or maybe they’re going to give you a standing ovation. You never know, but you’ve got to get your work out before people, right?
He notes that the first book didn’t hit the bestseller lists and that the series was a gradual word-of-mouth success. “You never know with either books or television. I had a book about 10 years before, The Armageddon Rag, a rock-and-roll book... nominated for the World Fantasy Award. I got paid a lot of money for that book. It was going to be a big breakthrough book. It was going to be a bestseller, and it died totally. It almost destroyed my career. Nobody wanted my thing after that.” He laughs. “It’s not a bad book... Why did it sell so poorly? Why did Game of Thrones sell so well? Have you ever read William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade? He says at one point, ‘Nobody knows anything.’ These are words to live by. If people knew what would work, they would do it all the time.”
Did he anticipate the level of the TV show’s success? “No one can anticipate that. It became the most popular television show in the world. When it started David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], the showrunners, I remember them saying, ‘Well, let’s hope we can get three seasons, so we can get to at least the Red Wedding [a shocking sequence in the third series]... Obviously, we got more than that.”
Before Game of Thrones was even a twinkle in HBO’s eye, Martin worked in television himself, on 1980s shows including the fantasy drama Beauty and the Beast and The Twilight Zone. Why did he stop? “You work for a year on something, and you become very invested in the world and the characters, and then they decide, ‘Nah, we’re not going to do it. What else do you have?’,” he says.
“I discovered that I hated that. It was a lesson to me. I learned something about myself... When an actor finishes a play they come out for the curtain call and the applause. The cheque is not enough. I want to know what people think of it. Maybe they’re going to throw fruit, or maybe they’re going to give you a standing ovation. You never know, but you’ve got to get it out before people, right?”
As part of Worldcon, Martin is presenting a screening of one of his favourite films, Fred M Wilcox’s 1956 sci-fi extravaganza Forbidden Planet, at the Irish Film Institute next Saturday.
“It’s still one of the great science-fiction films of all time... For 1956 its effects were astounding, and it’s a great story, and it was a first in so many ways that I’ll talk about when I present it. There have been science-fiction films before, but Forbidden Planet broke all sorts of new ground... I rewatch it regularly. I own a little movie theatre here in Sante Fe [the Jean Cocteau Cinema]. It was closed for a number of years, but when I reopened it, in 2013, that was the first film I showed.”
How else does he occupy his time when he visits Worldcon?
“I do panel discussions. I’ll do a couple of autograph things. But for me the big attraction is that it’s a family reunion. Writers come from all over the world, and some I’ve known for 30 or 40 years. I don’t see them except at Worldcon, so it’s a chance for me to go out for dinner with somebody like Lisa Tuttle. She lives in Scotland, and she and I wrote Windhaven together.” The Storms of Windhaven was made up of three novellas published as one “fix-up” novel in 1981.
“I’ll go out with Robert Silverberg, one of the great writers of science fiction. We always do a dinner at Worldcon... The social part of it is just as important as the stuff going on during the day... I go to Comic-Con in San Diego from time to time – HBO sends me – but it’s a whole different experience. There’s going to be 5,000 or 6,000 people at the Dublin Worldcon. At Comicon there are 150,000 people. I can’t walk the floor without security or without being instantly surrounded by people who want selfies or an autograph.
“At Worldcon there’s a little of that, but I can also sit in the lobby or a coffee shop and have a drink, and people will come by and say, “Hi, George”, but it won’t be an overwhelming thing... I can still walk through the dealers’ room and see what new books are out on the tables of the ‘hucksters’.” He laughs. “That’s old science-fiction-fan talk. ‘The huckster room.’”
One of the biggest changes, he says, is visible when he’s autographing books. “In the old days at Worldcon I would sit there for an hour autographing, but sometimes I would be finished after 15 minutes, and would sit there chatting to the other writer, and, 30 minutes in, a few more people would come. Now I have to cap it, otherwise I’d be signing for six hours instead of one.”
A few years ago he cameoed in the cult sci-fi show Z Nation at the behest of an old Twilight Zone friend, the producer and writer Michael Cassutt. He starred as a zombie version of himself kept in a museum of oddities by a deranged collector.
Wasn’t the zombie version still seen autographing books? “Yes, it was muscle memory. I was also trying to eat them, but they said, ‘You put a book on front of him and he signs it.’”
Was that a reference to his signing stints at events like Worldcon? He laughs. “I think so. These days my autograph parties threaten to get a little bit out of control.”
George RR Martin will take part in a public conversation after the Irish Film Institute’s screening of Forbidden Planet, as part of Dublin 2019: An Irish Worldcon, which takes place from Thursday, August 15th, to Monday, August 19th, at Convention Centre Dublin