(Translators note: This is a translation from the Spanish periodical El Pais. GRRM's book "A Game of Thrones" is just about to be published there. Please keep that perspective in mind when reading the article. It's a very informative one, however, and I personally think it's by far the best article I've seen on Martin.)
George R. R. Martin

Hungry for Other Worlds

  • View the original spanish article from "El Pais".

  • Considered one of the great contemporary creators of science-fiction and fantasy, author of works like Dying of the Light and A Song for Lya, and triumphant in the United States with his lastest books, the North American writer reflects.

    Written by: JACINTH ANTÓN

    As a boy, locked in a humble working class existence (in the New Jersey docklands), he saw boats pass. And he began to imagine from where those boats came and towards what places they went. Later, his imagination took to him to the stars.

    It's all encompassing to go to an appointment with George Raymond Richard Martin (1948), author of some of the most fascinating and stirring fiction of modern Fantasy Literature, author of true classics like Dying of the Light, where an impossible romance darkens a condemned world; A Song for Lya, in which a human sees how a companion leaves progressively for a foreign mind; Fevre Dream, a touching story of friendship and vampirism set at the time of steam boats on the old Mississippi; Windhaven, novel of a woman who dreams of controlling wings, or The Sand Kings, a disquieting fable on ruthless exercise of power. This visit is all encompassing, really: although Martin lodges in a central hotel in the Barcelonian gothic district. Space-time seems to dilate in this warm afternoon in order to contain strange stories, universes of chilling horror, melancholy wonders, dying planets, shady spaceships and the poetry of the dreams arisen from the yearning in that boy to go further than those boats he saw passing by ever could.

    After ten years of literary silence, George R. R. Martin has returned with force with a trilogy on fantastic a medieval world (A Song of Ice and Fire), in which echoes of the historical English Wars of the Roses are mixed with hints of magic. The series, that will begin to publish in Spain at the end of this year, has been in the United States list of best sellers, making it's author a leading light of the present time.

    Winner of the most prestigious prizes , like his works, Martin is a voluminous man in whom it is difficult not to recognize one of his characters, Tuf - protagonist of Tuf Voyaging -, a heavy set merchant, a space Falstaff that solves problems for the universe with his ecological engineering ship, fixing planets while an old galactic empire crumbles. Like Tuf, Martin has that aspect of one who could drink mountains of beer, eat too much and arrange to survive flying from one world to another. Also, he likes the cats! Today he wears a curious cowboy-style belt, illustrated with planets and stars, with a border that seems to be one of Saturn's rings."

    After introductions, a point-blank question: Where do they come from, all those magnificent, sensible, romantic, unforgettable stories? Unrolled in a armchair, Martin watches his questioner with expression of infinite patience. "Mine in particular?"

    "Well, yes"

    "You see, I was born and raised in Bayonne, a very small New Jersey town, at the end of a peninsula, next to New York. My father was a dock worker and our life was very humble. We did not a have car, household money was short. My world was very limited. But from the windows of the school I saw boats pass with their lights, and merchants. I learned to recognize all the flags of the world, Liberia, China, while the ships crossed the bay. I never went to any of those places, but they were the boats and, there, at a distance, the lights of Staten Island. I imagined strange worlds where those lights shone. And all those elements outside caused to grow in me the desire to imagine and imagine - what there might be far away. I felt a fervent desire, a hunger for other worlds."

    Martin, who now sips his Coca-Cola, explains that he soon fed his eagerness for strange worlds with comics, science-fiction and fantasy: Heinlein, Tolkien, Lovecraft, but mainly Jack Vance, whom he "vindicates" as his "maestro". Why? "Because of his words, their rich and very poetic style, their evocative form. When he describes extraterrestrial societies it is with a sense of real longing and wonder that makes him very different from other science-fiction authors, who describe the beings of another world dispassionaetly like they would some corner of their neighborhood. Vance was in the navy, you know, and he traveled a lot. I like to think it's possible I once saw him pass in front of my window, in his boat".

    Possibly, the most valued work of Martin is the beautiful A Song For Lya, considered one of the most sonorous science-fiction stories of all time. "It is the history of a existencial solitude", says the writer, "Lya is enamored with her partner, but she continues looking for something more. She finds it, an entire planet. But this answer does not work for her companion. I only introduce the discrepancy and the reader is the one that must take part in it. First, I wrote the the story, and only when finished did I have the sensation that it was something important".

    The Sand Kings (1979) has been compared, due to it's disquieting atmosphere, with the stories of Cortazar. It is the story of a man who acquires very small creatures, and this allows him to feel like God. He deals with them sadistically and he pays for this. "I experimented with a crossing of sorts, science-fiction with horror. I took the idea of (someone) that had, in his house, an aquarium with piranas: he had parties in which he threw colorful fish to them". Martin admits that the story also has to do with the cruelty that we all have exerted with ants. "Essentially, it speaks of power, of the corruption that is provoked by the feeling of power".

    Many books of Martin are unforgettable, but Dying of the LIght (1977) is especially piercing, to the point which it's memory causes that the hair of the arm to bristle. This reaction is motivated by the deep sense of loss in the novel, in which the melancholy story of failed love is soaked with the sadness of a whole world: Worlorn, a nomadic planet that agonizes, plunging towards the night and eternal cold. Is the title in English Dying of the light, related to Dylan Thomas? "Yes", Martin responds concisely. Poetry and science-fiction are inseparable in books."the poetry is important for some writers - and readers- of sorts, in contrast to other authors who(se works) are like scientific diagrams", he says. "The people who interest me are able to imbuir poetry in their stories, Gene Wolfe, Roger Zelazny, who was my very good friend, Vance, of course". Ray Bradbury? "I like his early work, particulaly Martian Chronicals, but his later work has not reached the intensity of a Vance. From The Martian Chronicles I remember especially the story of the human who finds a Martian and both think that the other is a product of their imagination".

    Why did Martin dedicate himself to science-fiction? "It wasn't a conscious decision. The first things you write are what you read, what you enjoy as a reader. (Along with science fiction) I have come to mix many 'categories' of writing: fantasy, terror. The symbols and metaphors of these categories are only tools, and are used as such. Science-fiction and Fantasy offer a good range of tools". That nostalgic sense , the feeling of an elegy on life that is pronounced in his writing... "You see, again from my childhood. Before the Civil War, Bayonne was a place with a certain glamour. It had a was a hotel for rich, with large gardens, and a beach. When I learned of this, it already was in decline, it transmitted a sensation of passed glory, a world of another time, that had perished. I believe that my melancholy has to do with that. Sunsets have always attracted me more than dawn".

    Another recurrent element in his fiction is friendship. "Ah, yes. And lost love. That comes from a relationship in college, and then another one..." Martin becomes introverted in embarrassed and embarrassing silence that dissolves into a tender expression. He leaves his absorption to speak of Fevre Dream and the friendship between the pilot of the Mississippi and the Byron-reading vampire who seeks a way to redemption and relief from his wild thirst for blood in the novel. That book, in addition to being a song to friendship, is a singular mixture of Bram Stoker and Mark Twain. " I received a master's degree in Journalism in the seventies and was a professor in a small town in Iowa on the Mississippi. The place had many Victorian houses and, once again, the melancholic atmosphere of a place whose best days are finished. I was there three years and I was interested in the river and its history. Did you know that the steamers were death traps because of fire and that none survived more than three or four years because of this? They were unstable and dangerous structures. In parallel, I was interested in the vampire, that Victorian monster par excellence. The fusion of both elements, steamboats of the Mississippi and vampires, had an attractive macabre romanticism ". His beautiful novel, from 1982, has a similarity to Interview With the Vampire, by Anne Rice. " Her book is previous to mine ", Martin states honestly, " I read it a year after writing mine, which somehow has a rational approach to this subject. I could not offer a traditional vampire, since according to the canon, they cannot cross water obstacles. So I resorted to a vampire that knows it's own vampire myths. That helped me to put it in world with water, candelabras, silver and mirrors ".

    It does not cease to seem peculiar, to be speaking with a reputed science-fiction author, on a subject like the vampires. " I believe that there is no contradiction. And I like to mix types, to use metaphors here and there ". What is his opinion of science-fiction? "The good opens the mind to the new ideas. It gives appreciation of 'other' to you, it offers contexts and radically different values to you. Of course, like in all classes of literature, there is science-fiction oriented to the imprinting of socially established values, and there is nonconformist science-fiction, even subversive. The popular culture in the United States, and I believe in the world in general, it has narrowed it's sights very much. And I say it as someone that has worked as a television scriptwriter for ten years (for the well-known The Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast). It gave me the sensation that the public is only interested in seeing its own reflection. There is much bad science-fiction there outside, specially in the cinema and the television ". Martin feels like part of the generation of science-fiction writers (Bishop, Haldeman, Vonda McIntyre) that followed the new wave of the sixties- the movement that about-faced the old guard emphasizing subjects like drugs and the inner trip -. " Soon we vindicated the use, without shame, of the 'old equipment', like spaceships, extraterrestrial planets and, the stereotypes, but with style. It seems to me that we were mistaken, because what followed was that science-fiction did not go that way: Cyberpunk arose. We lost ". Martin does not much appreciate the current that William Gibson initiated and considers that it's emblematic novel, Neuromancer, "is overvalued ".

    Where does he think the human need for fantsy comes from? " We live boring lives ", responds Martin. " Books such as those of Tolkien or Vance take you to other places, allow you to live other lives. Fantasy serves this function". For the writer, science-fiction today less effective than other forms of the fantastic one. " Today the future appears darker, in the fifties, people thought that the future would be better; they thought the smoke coming from a factory was positive: it did not mean pollution, but progress. Now we do not see the future with optimism ".

    Is it for that reason Martin now writes fantasy set in am unpredictable pseudomedieval world? " Partly. Also it is a result of the years that I spent as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. I returned to literature to get away from the frustration of writing stories which were going nowhere, of developing films which were never made and which they requested be reduced the level of everything else. I wanted something epic, on a grand scale, with many characters and a complicated and ambiguous plot, something that never would make Hollywood. A Song of Ice and Fire, begun as a series of six novels (the first appeared in 1996, the third last year...), is quite influenced by the War between York and the Lancaster, and also by the Hundred Years War and the Albigensian Cross. It has an historical novel texture, but it is developed in a fantastic world, with a measured use of the magic. The subject is the eternal one of the fight between the good and evil, but with the reservation that for me this conflict is weighed not only in battlefields, but, mainly, in the human heart ".

    With a science-fiction writer, it seems obligatory to speak of extraterrestrials. " They are only symbols ", says Martin , watching tourists pass behind the crystal windows of the hotel salon seeking the way to the cathedral. " In the hands of a good author they can be even interesting in themselves, but basically they constitute a mechanism to project or to reveal the surprising shades of our own humanity ".