Non-Fiction Reviews

The Science of the Game of Thrones

(2016) Helen Keen, Coronet, ฃ16.99, hrdbk, vii + 252pp, ISBN 978-1-473-63231-8


This book almost had to happen given the popularity of George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones the TV series of which in recent years has broken piracy records and which so spurred sales of Martin's novels that in global depression ridden 2011, genre books bucked the then publishing trade trend with British SF/F/H printed books growing by 7% (overall that year the British printed book market declined by 6.3%).  Having said that, on receiving this title I did wonder how they would handle the science? After all it is one thing to talk about the Science of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Doctor Who as there is bags of science in those SF shows, but a fantasy such as The Game of Thrones?

Well actually – especially given the fantasy source material – Helen Keen has done a rather good job!  OK, there is a good dollop of history thrown in for good measure – such as the medieval rights of the high-born to trial by combat and its all interesting stuff – but the main focus is science and technology. There is plenty of biology from dragons to dire wolves and nutrition (well, foods) to physics: apparently women in armour are at a disadvantage due to the shock from blows being channelled into the sternum (breast bone) which can shatter.

Helen Keen also draws upon the softer sciences such as psychology to explain things like out-of-body experiences and in this sense this book differs from other 'Science of… [insert name of TV show]' books. After all fantasy is full of hokum such as spells and magic as opposed to the nuts and bolts of science fiction but there is an explorative journey to make from fantasy trope treatment in The Game of Thrones through possible analogue manifestations in history through to potential scientific explanation even if often we have to draw upon psychology as opposed to biology, chemistry and physics, though this book contains its fair bet of these too. In fact this is all so well done I forgive the bits of off-piste history presented us: for example, there's a page on how a single arrow taking it all that, after a brief mention of Harold at Hastings (which we surely all know) we learn about Richard the Lionheart's fate.

Martin himself made job easy as, well before he began to pen his 'Fire and Ice' books he was well versed in both SF and fantasy and so not surprisingly he draws upon many SF/F tropes and themes with which genre buff will be familiar. In this sense much of this book (with only a slight tweaking to the inspirational source material) could without much difficulty be rewritten as the Science of… say, Conan.

The book is also very readable and should appeal to teenagers as well as the show's adult adherents irrespective of whether or not they are well versed in school-level science. (Something to consider if Christmas or a birthday is in the offing and you know a Game of Thrones fan.) The readability is in part facilitated by a good use of text boxes and small cartoonish illustrations.


Jonathan Cowie

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