When science fiction has been replaced by fantasy, the future has been replaced by the past, says historian and social philosopher Andrey Fursov. In an interview with “BUSINESS Online”, he described how “Game of Thrones” blurs the concept of good and evil among its audience, why Christianity was taken out in “Game of Thrones”, who hindered the scientific and technological progress of the 1960s and why dreams about other planets and spacecrafts were substituted by world of depravity and medieval torture.
What is “Game of Thrones”?
- Mr. Andrey, the last episode of the monumental American drama “Game of Thrones” is being released on world screens. The film beats millions of records on views and at the same time causes very controversial reviews from critics. From your point of view as a historian and scientist, what is “Game of Thrones”?
– First of all, the world of “Game of Thrones” is a combination of three different eras. On the one hand – Antiquity, on the other – the Dark Ages, this is the chronological period between the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. On the third side, the High Middle Ages; one of the free cities, Braavos, is very similar to Venice. There are canals, houseboats, the Iron Bank and even a part of the city that has gone under water.
All this together can be described as a pre-capitalist and pre-industrial world composed of Antiquity, the Middle Ages and some elements of Eastern culture (nomads, slave-owning cities resembling the centers of the Eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa – something like Carthage). However, it all looks balanced. Another thing is that the people living in a complex invented world do not seem to be inhabitants of the Dark Ages – their psychology is quite modern.
If we compare “Game of Thrones” with another famous fantasy epic – “The Lord of the Rings”, then one significant difference is striking. In the John Tolkien’s book and in the Peter Jackson’s film the line between good and evil is very clearly defined. Furthermore, the forces of evil even look horrible and repulsive: goblins, orcs, or even Sauron the greatest enemy of the free peoples of Middle-earth. And the elves, by the contrast, are beautiful and light, and even people are not bad. In “Game of Thrones” this clarity is lost, and probably intentionally. Externally, people from the world “Songs of Ice and Flame” may look absolutely normal and attractive, but at the same time be freaks inside. There is almost no absolute evil there, except perhaps Ramsay Bolton and King Joffrey. Even Littlefinger (Lord Petyr Baelish), a negative character, does good deeds, of course, in his own selfish interests: evil, doing good things. For example, he rescues Sansa Stark, who he cares about. But, most importantly, with her help he is going to become Lord of the North. Subsequently, Sansa unravels Baelish’s game, and her sister Arya kills Littlefinger as one of the culprits of her father’s death. But still, at some point, Baelish performs a good deed that changes the course of the game and the history in “Game of Thrones”.
Another eloquent feature of the epic, both in the film and in the book, is that evil continually triumphs over good. Relatively positive characters are dying at the hands of negative ones, however, the negative one gets payback too. Thus, both in the film “Game of Thrones”, and in the George Martin’s saga is constantly held the idea that good and evil are mixed up and distinguish one from the other is very difficult. Actually, that’s what happens in real life: the real world is not black and white, it includes various shades of gray. On one pole – white, there are saints, on the other – black, there are scoundrels and monsters like Ramsay Bolton, and the space between these two poles is gray. The gray life goes on, but the principles must clearly distinguish between white and black. Such principles are poorly seen in characters of the film.
The world of “Game of Thrones” – the world of murder, intrigue, meanness, debauchery, incest and cruel torture. The same thing we can find in the Middle Ages or especially the later Roman Empire. In the Renaissance era, which shadow side was remarkably described by the Russian philosopher Aleksei Losev, demonic passions were seething and sin was triumphant. But in Martin’s epic the darkness is condensed to the limit: readers and viewers are forced to think that there is not much goodness in the world but plenty of evil. It wins, and it is the norm.
A struggle for power
- Actually, the real Middle Ages, despite all its cruelty, was softened by Christianity that it was not so dark. The philosopher N. Berdyaev even called the Middle Ages the greatest epoch in the history of mankind since this is the first attempt to create the Kingdom of God on earth. And from “Game of Thrones” Christianity was taken out. As the name implies, it is just a game of ambition and a struggle for power.
– I would not exaggerate the softening role of Christianity. It is enough to recall the Albigensian Crusade, the fires of the Inquisition, and much more. In “Game of Thrones” we see the Dark and Middle Ages, but Christianity as such is not there. By the way, it is not in the “Lord of the Rings” as well. The world of “Songs of Ice and Flame” has its own religions, the largest of which is the Faith of the Seven. There are those who believe in fire – followers of the cult of R’hllor, resembling Zoroastrianism (but this is nothing more than an external similarity). The Sparrows movement has partly similarity with Christianity: there is austerity, High Sparrow. Yet this movement is far from the followers of Christ, so we have to state that there is no Christianity in the world of “Song of Ice and Flame”. If we take into consideration that the modern West is also devoid of Christianity, and under the guise of a distant past, “Game of Thrones” demonstrates to us one of the versions of the future world and it is not by accident. In the post-capitalist world, the niche of Christianity will be very narrow, if ever it will exist.
- That is, we are offered a scenario of the future under the conditional name “Forward to the Middle Ages!”, but this is the Middle Ages without Christianity and completely surrendered to animal passions.
– Not just “Forward to the Middle Ages!”, it is a breakthrough into several options of “the future as the past.” Capitalism, as a system, is slowly collapsing and has almost disappeared. The transitional period to something fundamentally different begins, and not necessarily for the better, maybe vice versa. And if a global catastrophe does not happen, the future will not be uniform and homogeneous until the new system is fully established. On the one side, it will be a futuro-archaic Africa, on the other, it will resemble the pre-capitalist Arab East. The third option is China, where the traditional Chinese way of life will adopt computer technology and establish a system of social ratings. It is already being tested in the PRC (system provides a special ranking that will monitor the behavior of the population and rate people on the basis of their “social credit”; violators may be prohibited from flying by plane and traveling by train, profitable employment, teaching children in elite schools and universities and others – by editor). Big Brother, described by Orwell in the novel ” Nineteen Eighty-Four,” is simply nothing compare to this system of total surveillance of everyone and everybody that Orwell’s hero Winston Smith could not even imagine (note to those who like to talk about bright socialist China as an alternative to “dark and the evil world of capital “).
The future is the world of several futures, some of which are very futuro-archaic. An the best analogy here may be the “Dark Ages” in relation to the not so light, but still not so dark Antiquity of the 4th century AD. And it seems that the main value of these worlds will be power as the ability to control the resources and behavior of the masses. Actually, the “Game of Thrones” demonstrate this to us. The only unconditional value that remains with most Martin’s characters is power. Even if we take Arya Stark, for whom human feelings are important, we will see that many of her actions are driven by a thirst for revenge. She is feeling revenge as a power and using the skills that a group of hired killers taught her. Among the characters, whose soul are constantly fighting between good and evil, couple can also be recalled like Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Both of them, in one way or another (especially Daenerys) are seeking power.
“The main value of these worlds will be power as the ability to control the resources and behavior of the masses”
A fantasy world to replace since fiction
- “If we take the Middle Ages as a basic, then we will see that almost everything – from crusades and searches for the Holy Grail to the work of Chrétien de Troy and the Minnesingers – had a religious cover. It turns out that the non-Christian world of “Game of Thrones” is not even a parody of medium aevum, it is anti-medieval.
– I would not exaggerate the religious component of the same crusades. Yes, the religion created the crusades, but at the same time they solved two problems: an excessive demographic mass was thrown out of Europe, at the same time the desire to rob and kill was satisfied. Let’s not forget that Europe of the 11th – 13th centuries looked like a barbaric world compared to the refined Arab East. In fact, the Arabs, when they first encountered the Crusaders, had perceived them as a wild horde that came to rob the developed civilization. And they were not far from the truth. So, I wouldn’t call “Game of Thrones” an anti-Middle Age due to a lot of things has been removed from film. On the other hand, much of what was not in the medieval world is inserted into the world of the “Song of Ice and Flame.”
- Why do you think the fantasy genre has become so popular in recent decades? After all, science fiction was popular in the Soviet era. Readers were more attracted to starships and unknown worlds, distant planets and mysterious but bright common-galactic future, and now instead of all this, dark ages with murder and incest.
– That’s right, and the peak of science fiction (both Soviet and western) fell in the 1960-1970s. However, in the 1970s, this genre began to fade out and fade away; as early as the 1980s, the fantasy genre in the West began to gain strength. Of course, this is no coincidence. It was the 1960s became the peak of scientific and technological progress in the twentieth century. By that time, the first half of the twentieth century was over, so much was invented over these fifty years that everything seemed possible, it was believed that progress would increase exponentially. The 1960s is a world of unbridled social and cultural-technical optimism. The man flew into space, launched artificial satellites and thought about the exploring other planets. But this impulse of humanity into the future created a certain threat to people in power both in the West and in the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s, the staff of the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations in the United Kingdom (and, ironically, it is located in the county of Devonshire, next to the Dartmoor swamps, where the Conan Doyle drama the “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was played) was tasked with slowing down scientific and technological progress by implementing certain information, psychological and organizational models. In particular, work on the creation of youth and female’s subcultures and other movements started (it was the time when the Beatles, The RollingStones appeared from “nowhere”, ecologism began to develop, feminist movement became more active).
One of the main tasks assigned to Tavistock was to stamp out the cultural optimism of the 1960s. But science fiction, especially Soviet science, was certainly optimistic by itself. Some less optimistic remarks (I cannot call them pessimistic, but they looked more complicated than just optimism) were noted among several writers in the “Social Camp”, particularly in the books of Stanislaw Lem (just read “the Astronauts” and the “Magellanic Cloud”). However, the general mood of Soviet since fiction until the mid-1960s was predominantly optimistic – this is evident from the work of the Strugatsky Brothers and from the novels of Ivan Efremov. But by the end of the 1960s, there was a turning point based on a very simple cause: the nomenclature, for mercenary group reasons, refused to make a breakthrough in the future and chose to start integrating into the cap system. Our most astute fantasists intuitively caught this turn. Ivan Efremov writes the novel “The Bull’s Hour” (published in 1968–1969 and published as a separate book in 1970) which at the initiative of Yuri Andropov, is being withdrawn from bookstores and libraries. The leadership of the planet Tormans came out similar to the Soviet Politburo. Strugatsy’s novel “Noon, 22nd Century” was followed by novel “Snail on the Slope.” Even according to the famous Soviet journal “Technique of Youth”, this was clearly visible: the tonality of publications has changed since the second half of the 1960s and in the 1970s.
In the West, a fracture occurs for similar reasons: technical progress, which had rapidly developing since the second half of the 19th century, allowed the middle class and the top of the working class to benefit from their fruits – this was a threat to people in power, so the ruling class began to react. It can be said that the Soviet nomenclature and the Western elite worked here synchronously. The result was a slowdown in scientific and technological progress in the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first century. What has been invented during this time? Mobile phone, computer, internet? But this is no comparison with the space achievements of the first half of the twentieth century.
One consequence of the negative evolutionary breakthrough of the 1970s was displacement or pushing back of science fiction by the fantasy genre. In the fantasy genre there is no democracy, no progress – the future is like the past. And such a situation correlates very well with the famous 1975 report “The Crisis of Democracy”, which was written by S. Huntington, M. Crozier and J. Watanuki for the Trilateral Commission. It is a very interesting document, I have already spoken about it more than once. In short, the main point of the report is that the West is more threatened not by the Soviet Union but by excess democracy in the West itself, which can be exploited by “irresponsible social groups.” “The democratic political system turns out to be particularly vulnerable to tensions from industrial and regional groups,” – declare the report’s authors. Therefore, as stated in the document, it is necessary to explain to the population that democracy is not only a value, but also a tool, that there are other values besides democracy: seniority, knowledge, authority. It was literally expressed as follows: “In many cases, the need for expert knowledge, superiority in position and rank (seniority), experience and special abilities may outweigh the claims of democracy as a way of constituting power.” In conclusion, the report suggested some political apathy in the masses, which was completely correlated with the fashionable world of fantasy. After all, in fantasy, I repeat, there is no democracy – there is only neo-paganism, neo-kings and neo-knights.
“In the fantasy genre there is neither democracy, nor progress – this is the future as the past”
The inner space of “The Lord of the Rings”, “Games of Thrones”, “The Wheels of Time” by Robert Jordan, “Harry Potter” and others is, first of all, the world of hierarchies, and not the Efremov’s world of “The Andromeda Nebula,” where the future is called Era of Shake Hands. Secondly, the fantasy world is a pre-industrial or at best destroyed-industrial futuro-archaic world. And this also corresponds to the course of slowing down scientific, technical and industrial progress in the interests of the top capitalist society. The idea behind the deceleration was ecologism, which has become a quasi-ideology. The first report to the Club of Rome (which was founded in 1968) was called “The Limits to Growth”. It argued that humanity in its industrial development has reached its limits, humanity put excessive pressure on the environment, it is necessary to slow down industrial and economic development, by switching to “zero growth”. That is, 50 percent of all funds should go to neutralize the negative effect of industrial development. Despite the fact that the report was exposed as a scientific fake, supporters of environmentalism and deindustrialization took repot seriously – just like today’s other fake – ” global warming as a result of human activity”.
Thus, the shift from science fiction to fantasy, has a clear class reason. Using Marxist terminology, this is a reflection of the decline of capitalist society and the fact that the capitalist elite has taken a course to slow down scientific and technological progress. The Soviet nomenklatura has done the same in its own interests, when in the mid-1960s it blocked the OGAS program of Viktor Glushkov (the developer of the first personal computer in the USSR “MIR-1”), as well as Ivan Filimonenko’s Cold Fusion invention, and a number of other military achievements KB Chelomei. The fact is that people who were called technocrats came to the forefront and the implementation of V. Glushkov and I. Filimonenko’s projects somewhat pushed the nomenclature a little aside. By the way, I remember very well how in the late 1960s at Moscow State University our teacher of scientific communism criticized the scientist and science fiction writer Igor Zabelin for his opinion that scientific and technological intelligentsia are becoming the driving force of progress. Well, the technical intelligentsia was pushed aside along with the scientific and technological progress. In this sense, it can be said that the world of capitalism which directed to the past in the first 15-20 years of the 21st century, is the result of parallel actions of the Western elite and part of the Soviet nomenclature. And since the mid-1970s these are cooperative efforts. However, the Soviet nomenklatura did not plan such world, it simply fulfilled its selfish interests, while the Western elite planned. The world of “Game of Thrones” is one of the versions of the world that this elite offers us as a project of the future, accustoming us to the possibility of such a future.
How the series will affect the Russian audience
- Can the consciousness of the Russian audience be reformatted by the series “Game of Thrones”? It is known that in the West this film epic has captured the minds.
– I think nothing like that will happen in Russia. About 10 years ago in the USA I had a conversation with an interesting person, who said that American “shooting games” work on Americans and Western Europeans successfully in terms of reformatting consciousness, but on Slavic and especially Russian children – not at all as they would like. He asked: ” What do you think is the reason?” And I answered.
- And what did you say?
– I told him that in Russia, the mentality is fundamentally different from that of the West. Both states can be at the same time – very funny and very scary. Besides, the nature of evil in Russian culture has no absolute character. Evil is absolute only in Western culture: it can be Sauron, it can be Lucifer, it can be a sperm whale in “Moby Dick”. It is such a black, pure evil. And in the Russian tradition, even Baba-Yaga is partly a comic character, she is not an absolute evil. When Ivan gets to her and she promises to cook him and eat, he replies: “No, you first take me in the bathhouse, serve food and refreshment.” Where is it seen in the West, so that the absolute evil feeds you? Even with Immortal Koschei is it possible to negotiate in Russian fairy tales. Russian people do not perceive the blackest evil as absolute, and this gap is often filled with humor. Hence the reaction.
I am convinced that the filth will not work even for the current and very highly modified Russian person as it does on Western people, because attempts to intimidate are made, but we are not afraid. We sometimes have a real life worse than the “shooting games” and films with absolute evil. I am sure that American society would hardly have survived what we went through in the 1990s. This is not the best reason for cautious optimism, but nonetheless. As stated in the film “Chapaev”: “A psychic attack (attack from enemy – editor)? Well, to hell with it, let’s get ready”. The key word here is “to hell with it.”
Full text of the interview on the website “BUSINESS Online”
Translated by Nata Kallissi