On this episode of Unsupervised Learning Razib hosts Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream, The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery and The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. A columnist at The New York Times, often on political and social topics, Douthat also reviews movies for National Review. Today Razib talks to him about a topic that is a bit off the beaten path: why is genre fiction, and fantasy literature, still relevant today, and how, in the last generation, did it break out of its cultural ghetto?
First, Douthat addresses the massive role that J. R. R. Tolkien’s works have had on the field, how most of modern fantasy is either an imitation of his works or a response to them, and the creative limitations that that circumstance imposes. Razib and Douthat then discuss the various shifts in the genre style over the last 20 years, toward a more gritty and morally ambiguous style exemplified by George R. R. Martin, and the cultural breakthrough of Game of Thrones in the 2010’s. Douthat avers that in some ways genre has come into its own, with the decline in the cultural status of realistic fiction and drama, and the ascension of “comic book movies.” While Razib believes that Marvel films are arguably fantasy, Douthat disagrees, believing their contemporary settings disqualify them. They also address whether fantasy is actually simply the channeling of premodern narrative styles that go back to the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad. They address the somewhat exceptional success of Game of Thrones on television and the failure of Amazon’s Rings of Power and The Wheel of Time. Finally, Douthat talks about his unpublished fantasy novel, The Falcon’s Children.