It would be hard to deny our flourishing fascination with all things fantastical if you were at UC San Diego’s Price Center West, May 2, when fantasy writer George R.R. Martin (affectionately know as “GRRM”) and sci-fi writer and UCSD alumni Kim Stanley Robinson spoke to a sold-out audience of some 1,000 fans.
The event was a madhouse. The line to get in wrapped around the building and people came early vying for the best seats. Tickets were $20 a piece and sold out immediately. The proceeds will be used to support the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, held every summer on campus.
Martin, a fantasy novelist, short story writer, screenwriter and television producer, may be best-known for his epic novels in the series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” which were adapted to become HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Now in its fourth year, “Game of Thrones” has become the television show with the most nominations in Emmy history. In 2016, it won for Best Drama, Best Dramatic Writing, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor, along with 12 other technical Emmys, for things like lighting and sound production.
Martin was joined on stage by Robinson, who is best-known for his “Mars Trilogy,” a collection of books about what colonization and life on the red planet might be like for the human species. The trilogy is a metaphor for three possible futures the State of California could experience.
The evening began with Professor Sheldon Brown, head of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Imagination on campus, introducing the festivities. Brown got a rousing round of applause with lots of whoops and hollers. He dealt with the adulation by jokingly remarking, “This is the welcome I usually get in all my classes!” He went on to say that the Clarke Center is interested in creativity and imagination — two skills well developed in science fiction and fantasy writing, which are based on the creation of imaginary worlds.
Martin and Robinson were interviewed by Professor Shelley S. Streeby, who, in addition to teaching Literature and Ethnic Studies at UCSD, is the director of the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshop. She noted that Martin, who’s been writing since he was a child, was educated at Northwestern University, where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Martin spent most of the 1980s writing for Hollywood and in 1991, began writing his magnum opus “A Song of Fire and Ice.” He has accumulated many honors, including several Hugo Awards.
Streeby said that Robinson graduated with a Ph.D. in Literature from UCSD. He is also a Clarion Graduate and helped bring the writing workshop to campus from the East Coast.
When Martin and Robinson came to the stage, they received a massively positive reception from the audience. Martin was dressed in black with a purple scarf and a gray Greek fisherman’s hat. His clothing, along with his oversized glasses and thick Santa Claus beard, made him look like a character out of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.”
Robinson, wearing khaki pants, a striped buttoned-up white shirt and a corduroy jacket, was also sporting his brown hiking shoes that still had a little mud on them from The Sierras, his favorite haunt and the inspiration for the setting of “Mars Trilogy.”
Their discussion revolved around the astonishing turn of events wherein fantasy and science-fiction writing were transformed from a minor stigmatized “ghetto” genre of literature (thought mostly for kids), into a major, widely accepted and respected form of literature appreciated by all. Martin explained that the flip could be traced to a review by the great writer Henry James, who compared Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island” with another not-so-well-known coming-of-age book about a youth growing up in France, the name of which Martin could not remember. James wrote that although “Treasure Island” was a better book, because it was unrealistic fantasy, it was of lesser stature than the other book, which was realistic. This belief took hold and dominated literature and education for many years.
Martin pointed to the similarities between sci-fi and fantasy, calling them “two flavors of the same thing.”
Robinson added that humans are deeply steeped in fantasy because every night when we dream, our mind creates three or four scenarios that are “fantasy-like.” He said his teacher at UCSD, the politically-oriented literary critic, Fredrick Jameson, once observed: “It is clear to me that fantasy is about pre-capitalist society and science fiction is a reflection of capitalistic society” — the two forms of writing mirror our political and economic development.
Both Martin and Robinson agreed that science fiction and fantasy have risen to prominence in literature, media, entertainment and video gaming. Martin had advice for would-be writers of both: “The setting is of utmost importance.” He said he loved creating different castles and clans just to his liking.
“One of the things I explore in my writing is the issue of ‘power,’ ” he said. “The quest for power occurs throughout our daily lives with people in all walks of life and in all situations fighting over the tiniest scraps of power. People everywhere want to tell others what to do, but do not want to be told what to do.”
Martin said he is also interested in the age-old question of good versus evil. “Nothing nor nobody is all good or all bad. We are a mixture. Sometimes we do good things and sometimes we do bad things. There is always a choice to be made,” he argued. “Science fiction and fantasy, owing in large part to their ability to tell a good story, have conquered the world, taking over television and becoming a major genre of literature of significant stature that should be investigated by all.”
After the presentation, the line to buy Martin’s and Robinson’s books numbered beyond 100 people. Amber Atizado, who was at the lecture with her mother and brother, bought all nine of Martin’s books, spending $387! “I have been saving up to buy these books tonight and I bought an extra book for my brother,” she said with a smile. “I’m going to add these books to my collection. I bought them because I love a good story.”