After absorbing years of buzz, last night I sat down to watch the first episode of Game of Thrones.
Murder, mayhem, occult creatures, brawny and bosomy bare flesh, brutality, swords, royalty, tribes, clans, unforgiving codes of honor, and fantastic medieval-ish sets in the haunted mythical landscape of Westeros.
In other words, boring.
It looked like an R-rated Lord of the Rings (which Harvard Lampoon succinctly summarized as “Bored of the Rings”). It was contrived vicariousness of a particularly male bent, dominated by a mood of forced solemnity—a first cousin to adolescent power fantasy and a second cousin to porn.
Maybe in a few episodes its broader merits might surface. But nothing in the first hour gave me any reason to expect so.
GoT glorifies a barbaric moral outlook in which loyalty to the clan/tribe/king is valued above all. (The first scene ends with the summary beheading of an accused deserter— judgment, sentence, and execution all carried out in 30 seconds by the king-figure, whose son is forced to watch to absorb the moral lesson.) It panders to a nostalgia for hierarchical social structure, for the opposite of democracy, for a pre-industrial world of magic, dynastic kinship, and physical dominance—the very world that modern Western civilization struggled to escape for centuries.
The world that climate change may return us to.
Our technological society is quite robust as long as it has enough food, wealth, and electricity to keep it going. If any of those underpinnings fail, the entire structure could collapse in a heap. Out of that heap may crawl the elemental impulses that darkened human history until we developed the ideas, values, technology, and social structures to mediate them—not always successfully, but I’ll take flawed democracy over perfected feudalism any day.
If the ice cap goes and agricultural capacity is halved, the economy collapses, and the power grid falls apart, the United States, as strong as it seems to us, could fracture. If the positive feedback of tundra melt kicks in and spews an unrelenting stream of heat-trapping methane into the atmosphere, things could devolve into a truly medieval situation in just a few generations, possibly sooner.
Rather than 50 states, we could have loose federations and shifting alliances, and dozens of pockets of warlord rule. We certainly have the guns among us. All it would take is a local power vacuum and a charismatic guy with ambition and a bad attitude.
It won’t look like Game of Thrones, populated exclusively by healthy, handsome men and healthy sexed-up women between the ages of 14 and 35. It’ll look more like Somalia with glass office buildings.
This is not a prediction. This is an invitation to use the imagination in the way George R. R. Martin used his for Game of Thrones, but with the intent of foreseeing consequences, not indulging in adolescent fantasy.
If you’re in the mood for some adult television, check out James Cameron’s series Years of Living Dangerously. No bare breasts, no beheadings, no vicarious thrills, but some thought-provoking ideas about how we can avoid a medieval future.