When we think of the modern world, we think of progress and reason, science and technology. The latter has provided us with many gifts and toys, including photography, cinema and means of photo manipulation. As well, we think of the modern world as progressing in social justice, especially for minorities and women.

However, our relationship to the modern world has been complex, starting perhaps, with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The mad scientist and his comedic kin, the efficiency expert of the 1950s, told us of the danger and futility of a totally rational society. Everyone remembers Hal, the malevolent computer with the unblinking camera eye, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

We leave the modern world in flights of fantasy, from Peter Pan to Star Trek. No matter how many light years we travel from home, we always return home. This is because the modern world is our world, the world of today and tomorrow. We have imagined the apocalypse many times, as World War III, or a world of mutants or robots and cyborgs—but those scenarios are a ways off.

However, in more recent times, the modern world has seemed increasingly a trap. More people seem to share less in the benefits of progress, especially in terms of higher wages so as to enjoy all these gifts and toys. We have become astonishingly accepting of authoritarian thought systems, of looking over our shoulder for the thought police. Women have flipped men and usurped them, beating them at their own games.

We have become cynical as our world becomes more crowded and less livable. The real world is less appealing to us. As a result, we escape into ever more complex fantasy worlds: in video games, movies and television. The future is dubious, and we have seen rather too many cartoon characters and chase chase, boom boom action flicks.

HBO’s new fantasy series, A Game of Thrones has premiered to rave reviews. It is based on the first book by the same name in A Song of Fire and Ice, a series of epic fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. This one is vast and deep, a world you can really get lost in. It is already a trading card game, board game, and roleplaying game, featuring many characters and plotlines.

In Thrones, the viewer is thrown back into Medieval times. Bearish men ride on horseback and administer swift justice with broadswords. No court appointed lawyers and legal loopholes here. Merry wenches pile into bed with a dwarf (God gave him one gift), exposing their bottoms and breasts. This is, after all, premium tv and you get soft porn for your hard earned dollar. Rear entry seems to be the only sexual position in this kingdom, for royals, as well. I wonder about the authenticity of this, but never mind.

Life is basic in Winterfell’s wintry kingdom, but no one complains about the lack of indoor plumbing. Indoors we are regaled by feasts with plenty of food and candles and fires in braziers. Life under the covers doesn’t seem so bad. The sexy blonde princess enjoys a hot bath, as the viewer enjoys her naked beauty. And just when you might be tiring from winter (although Ireland, where the show is filmed, is beautiful in any season), a second plotline takes the viewer to southern climes, what looks like the Mediterranean. The natives there like to kill each other for sport and resemble the kind primitives National Geographic used to feature: bare breasts in the name of ethnography.

Time will tell whether the viewer will stay with this series, learning the many characters and their own unique language. I have not read the novel and don’t know what adventures lie ahead. A bard singing serviceable verse would be a treat for me.

Anyway, the show is off to a terrific start, with those twin engines of sex & violence purring at full throttle. Mr. Martin resembles a Hobbit at age 62, with a white beard and Hobbit glasses. I wonder about the R.R. middle name. Wasn’t there a another R.R. of fantasy fame? Mr. Martin is seeing his vision on film in his lifetime. It just goes to show you what folks from New Jersey are able to accomplish in getting themselves noticed in this world.

Update: After ten episodes, the first season of the series has concluded, with strong plotlines for the three storylines going into 2012 season: the struggle for the iron throne on the continent of Westeros, the tasks of the Night’s Watch on the northern border of Westeros, and the quest of Daenerys Targaryen, on the continent of Essos, to reclaim the iron throne. The old order is mostly dead; the future belongs mainly to the children of the fallen.

The least promising, to me, is the Night’s Watch, with its all male crew mostly prattling on about girls and presumed bogeymen in dreary, freezing settings. The bogeymen finally show up, but they don’t scare or entertain me; and how much more wintry can it get up there on the northern border inasmuch as the viewer is constantly reminded that “winter is coming,” before all hands desert for the equivalent of Florida?

The uneven seasons of this vast universe of Mr. Martin’s imagination are a minor irk. There is nothing in the sky to support other than a single sun solar system. You can bend fantasy so far, then it becomes ridiculous. Mentioned events of significance to the present happening thousands of years in the past are also irksome. There is nothing as clever in “Thrones” as the plot device left behind by ancient aliens in the sci-fi classic Total Recall.

Not being a dedicated fan, I found it difficult to follow or care about the stories of minor characters who made moves in the past but do not appear onscreen as the story unfolds, especially considering as there are no flashbacks to prior events. In a story more complex than anything in Shakespeare or Homer, or The Lord of the Rings, how much time do you want to spend with these characters?

There are significant differences between Mr. Martin’s work, which is heavily influenced by Tolkien’s Ring cycle. I am comparing the film versions. There is no sex in Rings, and no large scale battles yet in Thrones. Rings is a smaller, more comprehensible world and is complete in three grand films. Thrones will have at least, what, ten more episodes? Egad. Sex, in considerable variety, grounds Thrones in adult human behavior. In that way, it is less fantasy and more like a pseudo-history, an alternate history. It also makes a shrewd, limited use of magic. In this way, it is less like science fiction and the over abundance of special effects.

Despite the occasional scenes of feasting and merriment, the world of Thrones is grim, with endless plottings, bloodlettings and cruelty as we know are true of much of history. Seldom does a character pause to enjoy the view. You can say that life in Medieval times—and that is the historical analog of the story—was hard. But you cannot say it was joyless. Author and producer Martin’s vision trends toward a state of joylessness.

In the final episode, a bard recites his song with musical instrument before newly imposed king Joffrey, to the young king’s displeasure. The king gives the bard a choice: to preserve his tongue or his hands. The bard chooses hands, and so loses his tongue, cruelly, on the spot. Realistic, you might say; but a missed opportunity for light to shine in the dark realm of the iron throne made of swords.

The dialogue is direct, pointed, occasionally eloquent, but never quite poetic. It delivers the monstrously complicated story. So Shakespeare it is not. Overall, Game of Thrones, in its monumental scope and fine detail, is a considerable achievement for television. It’s a fictional world well worth entering, and worth leaving, especially with winter coming.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.