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A Week to Remember: Happy Birthday, George R. R. Martin!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
George R. R. Martin with a book cover

George R. R. Martin was born on September 20, 1948. Martin is best known for the novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, which has been adapted into the popular TV series Game of Thrones. But Martin had been writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror for more than 40 years before television made him a superstar, and we're going to focus today on his pre-Song of Ice and Fire writing.

Martin began writing early, selling original monster stories to his classmates in grade school for a few pennies each. He sold his first professional stories in 1970, while still a student at Northwestern University. Dreamsongs (e-book | print) is a large collection of Martin's short fiction, covering the first 35 years of his career.

One of the challenges faced by any aspiring writer is finding the time to write, and Martin had a nice piece of luck in that regard. The early 1970s saw a flurry of interest in chess in the United States after Bobby Fischer won the world chess championship in 1972; Martin was able to support himself for a few years by working as a chess tournament director. Most tournaments were weekend events, leaving Martin free during the week to write.

By 1976, the chess bubble had burst, and Martin took a job teaching English and journalism at a small Iowa college. He'd had enough time, though, to finish his first novel, Dying of the Light (e-book | e-audio | print), the story of a planet that is slowly dying as its erratic orbit carries it further away from its sun.

When it came time to sell the novel, Martin hit upon another piece of good luck. Star Wars had just been released; science fiction was much in demand, and Martin had a strong enough reputation in the field from his short stories that he was able to sell Dying of the Light for three times his annual teaching salary. In 1979, Martin left his teaching job to become a full-time writer.

Martin's next several novels explored a variety of genres. Windhaven (e-book | e-audio | print), co-written with Lisa Tuttle, was an expansion of earlier novellas about a planet where communication among many small islands is controlled by the flyer caste who are able to glide from one island to another. Fevre Dream (e-book | e-audio | print) put new twists on the vampire novel, setting its story on a Mississippi riverboat shortly before the Civil War. And The Armageddon Rag (e-book | print) looked back at the music and culture of the 1960s, in a mystery with fantastic overtones about the murder of a music promoter.

3 George RR Martin book titles

The Armageddon Rag was a critical success, but a commercial failure and Martin turned to television writing for a few years for a steady income. He wrote several scripts for the mid-80s revival of The Twilight Zone and spent three years as a writer and producer for Beauty and the Beast. He wrote a pilot called Doorways, about a doctor who gets caught up with warring aliens as they travel from one version of Earth to another; the pilot was never aired, but a comic book adaptation (e-book) was published in 2010.

Martin didn't entirely abandon fiction during his years in television. He collected several stories he'd written about Haviland Tuf, a loner who travels space offering his services to planets in ecological crisis, into a novel called Tuf Voyaging (e-book | print).

In 1987, Martin began an ongoing project that's been in process even longer than A Song of Ice and Fire. The Wild Cards books tell the story of people who've been affected by an alien virus. Some are killed; a smaller number—the "Jokers"—are afflicted by various physical changes ranging from harmless to disabling; an even smaller group—the "Aces"—get superpowers. Martin edits the Wild Cards series, and has written a few stories for it; most volumes in the series are collections of short stories written by multiple authors, though there are a few single-author novels. More than forty authors have contributed to the series, which now includes more than twenty volumes. The series begins with Wild Cards (e-book | print | audio).

Since 1996, of course, Martin's career has been dominated by the Song of Ice and Fire novels, beginning with A Game of Thrones (e-book | e-audio | print | audio). The series was originally planned as a trilogy; it's now expected to be seven volumes long, with volumes six and seven not yet published. The long gaps between volumes have annoyed some fans, who grumble when Martin spends time working on other projects. Martin notes that he has often jumped from project to project during his career, and that his time and inspiration are his to use as he chooses.

Game of Thrones, the television adaptation of the series, will air its final season in 2019 (the first six seasons are available on DVD), and as the series has progressed beyond the published books, Martin has worked with the producers to let them know how the story should end. That ending, whatever it is, may not be precisely the same as the way the books end, since there have already been several significant divergences from the novels as the television series has progressed.

Also This Week

September 17, 1862

The Battle of Antietam was fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland. It was the largest Civil War battle to have been fought on Union territory until that point, and it resulted in more than 3,500 deaths and 17,000 injuries, making it the bloodiest battle of the entire war. Union General George B. McClellan forced Robert E. Lee's Confederate troops to retreat, but because of his incorrect belief that he was outnumbered—his forces actually outnumbered the Confederates by more than two to one–McClellan was less aggressive in the battle than he might have been, and did not pursue Lee when he fled. Stephen W. Sears tells the story of Antietam in Landscape Turned Red (e-book | e-audio | print).

September 22, 1888

The first issue of National Geographic magazine was published. The magazine publishes articles about the history, culture, and geography of cultures around the world. Photography became a trademark of the magazine early in the 20th century, and color photographs began to appear as early as the 1930s. National Geographic made news earlier this year when editor Susan Goldberg acknowledged that the magazine's coverage of non-European cultures had often promoted racist stereotypes. Current and recent issues of National Geographic are available in e-format at RBdigital.

September 22, 1908

Esphyr Slobodkina was born. Slobodkina was a Russian-born artist and a founding member of American Abstract Artists, a group which still exists and works to promote the work of abstract artists. Slobodkina's work was much praised during her lifetime; today, she is best remembered for her work as an author and illustrator of children's books. Her 1940 book Caps for Sale (e-book | e-audio | print), the story of a cap salesman who battles a group of thieving monkeys, has sold more than two million copies and been translated into multiple languages.

September 19, 1928

Adam West was born. West had been playing small film and television roles for about a decade when he landed the starring role in the 1960s TV series Batman. The series offered a distinctly comic take on superheroes, with campy villains and earnest good-vs-evil morality. West struggled to be taken seriously in other roles after the series ended, but by the 1990s, he'd made his peace with the role, and frequently played some version of "himself," poking fun at his own image. The self-mockery went beyond television, as "Adam West" became the central character in the comic book series The Mis-Adventures of Adam West, traveling through time and space to save the universe.