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This Week: Freedom of Thought

Famous Atheist: George R. R. Martin

George R.R. Martin

image courtesy of Yerpo

“Give me priests who are fat and corrupt and cynical,” he told Haldon, “the sort who like to sit on soft satin cushions, nibble sweetmeats, and diddle little boys. It’s the ones who believe in gods that make the trouble.”Tyrion Lannister in A Dance with Dragons


I make no secret of the fact that I’m a huge nerd. I love science fiction, fantasy and superheroes — which I tend to wad together into one big genre I’ve heard referred to as “weird stuff.” And one of my favorite authors of weird stuff is George R. R. Martin.

Martin’s massive fantasy epic, A Song of Ice and Fire, is getting a lot of attention these days, even from people who don’t normally read fantasy. His books have just been adapted in a popular and critically acclaimed HBO series, Game of Thrones, and the newest, long-awaited book in the series, “A Dance with Dragons,” is topping bestseller lists and getting loads of very positive press.

And it’s totally deserved. Martin’s characters are among the best written, not just in genre fiction, but literary fiction as a whole. His plots are complex and well-crafted, his ear for dialogue is excellent, and he’s notoriously willing to change the status quo by killing a beloved character or changing their fortunes for good or ill, giving the books a genuine sense of danger that fantasy often lacks. With the HBO series’ popularity, his first four novels are gaining new readers that have never stepped into a Sci-Fi section of a book store before and the world of Westeros is transcending the genre’s niche audience. The bottom line is that these aren’t just great fantasy novels. They’re great books, period.

So why am I talking about this guy on the blog for an atheist radio show? Well, it turns out that Martin is a non-believer, too.  Here are some exerpts from an interview he did about his new book with Entertainment Weekly:

There’s a line in book 5 where character says, “The gods are good.” Jaime thinks, “You go on believing that.” You talk about religion a lot in the stories, but what are your views?

I suppose I’m a lapsed Catholic. You would consider me an atheist or agnostic. I find religion and spirituality fascinating. I would like to believe this isn’t the end and there’s something more, but I can’t convince the rational part of me that that makes any sense whatsoever. That’s what Tolkien left out — there’s no priesthood, there’s no temples; nobody is worshiping anything in Rings.

There’s few acts of kindness in your novels. If somebody is on their own, or weakened, they can pretty much expect everybody to take advantage of them or treat them terribly. Obviously Aslan is not going to save the day, but are your books cynical about human nature?
I think the books are realistic. I’ve always liked gray characters. And as for the gods, I’ve never been satisfied by any of the answers that are given. If there really is a benevolent loving god, why is the world full of rape and torture? Why do we even have pain? I was taught pain is to let us know when our body is breaking down. Well, why couldn’t we have a light? Like a dashboard light? If Chevrolet could come up with that, why couldn’t God? Why is agony a good way to handle things?

Seriously, folks. These are awesome books, with genuinely surprising twists and turns, compelling characters that break the genre fiction mold, and a dense and gritty world that feels like it could be real.  A couple of us at Ask an Atheist are big  fans of Martin’s books. Libbie and myself in particular, are giant Martin addicts.

Run to the book store right now and pick up George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones,” even if you don’t like fantasy. Especially if you don’t like fantasy.

Trust me.

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About the Author: Mike Gillis

Mike Gillis is co-creator, and co-host of Ask an Atheist. He hosts the Radio vs. the Martians! and Mike and Pól Save the Universe! podcasts. He also enjoys comic books, the Planet of the Apes, and the band Queen.

Feedback and Commentary

5 Comments 1 Trackback
beth July 15, 2011 at 1:30 am

I really dislike fantasy as a genre and I LOVED this series. Top notch.

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Libbie July 15, 2011 at 12:52 pm

Ahh…Martin, you never disappoint.

I stopped caring about the fantasy genre back at the end of high school, when everything in it became too predictable — and also when I started discovering that other genres and categories of writing were full of greater craft and artistry. I now dislike nearly all fantasy and have only a small fondness for certain sci-fi, although I think sci-fi is a culturally important art form.

The big, huge exception to that is George R. R. Martin. I am absolutely bonkers about him, and I think ASOIAF is the best of all his works (although the rest of his works are not to be sneezed at.) This series is what fantasy SHOULD be — what sci-fi IS: a genre that uses the fantastic to shine a light onto our own world and culture, one that lets us see ourselves more clearly. Somewhere after Tolkien fantasy devolved into endless rehashings of “farmboy goes on quest for magical object, learns he is the chosen one.” Gag me with a spoon. Give us something new already. Give us something relevant. If you have to use the same old formula, at least make it mean something other than “an homage to Tolkien” (read: “I can’t think up an original idea, but here’s the ol’ formula that Tor always buys.”)

A friend of mine told me several years ago to read A Game of Thrones, and I resisted because I was just done with fantasy. I didn’t care. I didn’t want another formulaic Tor book. She kept at me, though. Eventually I gave in one day because I was so bored I literally couldn’t think of ANYthing else to do. And I was totally hooked.

I quickly realized that Martin was one of the best writers I’d ever read. Personally, I rank his craftsmanship up at the very top of my list of all-time greats, alongside Vladimir Nabokov and James Joyce and John Updike and the other literary masters I adore. A lot of people scoff at me for this, yet nobody would scoff if I’d put Tolkien that high on the list. Tolkien is considered “a master,” but somehow we’re not allowed to decide Martin is a master just because he’s still alive and his series is still unfinished? Please!

Aside from his sheer talent and his freakish ability to keep such a complex plot and so many truly human characters straight in his head (and that really is freakish, in a good way), his prose is beautiful. His imagery is haunting. He has a sense of timing and pacing (except in Dorne or the Iron Islands, ugh) and a deep understanding of poignancy. He is one of the best writers of all time, and I don’t mind admitting to the world that I think he far, far outstrips Tolkien.

I know, blasphemy. Also, yeah, “Oh, he couldn’t do what he’s doing now without Tolkien.” Well, it’s not George’s fault that Tolkien was born first.

Martin gave fantasy legitimacy again by using it as a true literary tool, to examine our own world and our own time with unflinching honesty. He made the genre into something other than endless repetitions of Tolkien’s original idea. Now whether any other fantasy writers have the balls to follow in his footsteps and understand and use their genre like the important, powerful tool it is, the world would be a happier place.

Yeah, I said it: Martin is almost as good a writer as Nabokov, and Martin is better than Tolkien.

And I’m so glad that, like Nabokov, we get to claim this extraordinary artist as “one of us” — a nonbeliever. Hell yeah.

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Astrid_H July 15, 2011 at 3:30 pm

I’m currently listening to the audiobook A Clash of Kings, the second book in the series. It really is quite fascinating and enjoyable. When I’m done with the books I’ll take a look at the HBO telly version. Hope it’ll live up to it’s reputation.

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John-Henry Beck July 15, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I hadn’t thought that Tolkien was admired for his great writing, so much as the creativeness of coming up with the new world and all those fantasy critters that became a basis for a genre. Even when I was loving the stories as a kid I never thought he was that great as a writer…

I’m currently working on A Feast for Crows. I’m no literary critic, but I’m certainly enjoying it. Though it does seem the story is getting away from him, winding all over the place.

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soitgoes July 21, 2011 at 9:20 am

I love that Tyrion quote from Dance. I just read that chapter last night.

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[…] point of view), I can’t pass up talking about some of the religious aspects of the book.  Though Mr. Martin is a non-believer, he is foremost a storyteller and if there are messages embedded in his excellent prose, they are […]

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