Some members of the Crack Team have become devoted fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones, based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. Consequently I've seen my share of episodes. It's a good show, with great actors.
It also reveals something very interesting about a change in how people understand fiction.
First some data. Sales figures for the books are about 15 million copies sold for the whole series, which works out to roughly 3 million copies of each book. So we can assume that A Song of Ice and Fire has around 3 million readers (maybe as many as 4 million if lots of people are borrowing copies from friends or the library).
The television series has about 10 million viewers per episode -- plus people like the Crack Team who watch it on DVD, and apparently a record-breaking number of people watching pirated downloads.
So roughly three times more people have watched Game of Thrones than have read A Song of Ice and Fire. Most people watching are not fans of the books.
Why is this important?
It's important because of something I noticed about the television show. It doesn't do any handholding. There's no narrative prologue or text crawl explaining what's going on. The viewers have to pick up on the setting's complex history (and geography, and biology, and theology, and all the rest) on the fly.
Compare this with the famous opening of Star Wars, which had to spell out that this is all taking place "a long time ago in a Galaxy far, far away" and helpfully lets you know that the heroic rebels are fighting the evil Galactic Empire. Or with the more recent films of The Lord of the Ringsand The Hobbit, by Peter Jackson -- both of which began with long backstory narration sequences.
Being able to figure out a fictional setting which isn't our own world (present or past) is a skill set which was once the jealous preserve of SF and fantasy fans. The late John M. Ford wrote a wonderful essay called "The Rules of Engagement" about how a great many readers simplycannot read science fiction or fantasy because they're unfamiliar with the implicit contract between reader and writer in those genres -- that if a writer makes a passing reference to, say, Queen Victoria II being crowned in 1952, it's not a typo but a useful clue to the nature of the setting.
But apparently that skill set has now "escaped" into the general population, or at least is widely shared enough to support a television series, because that's exactly how the Game of Thronesseries depicts its fantasy setting.
This is both good news and bad. It's good news because it gives one reason to hope for more high-quality fantasy and science fiction on TV and film. The old argument that "viewers won't understand" doesn't hold. (Assuming the viewers are stupid is a perennial failure by movie and television producers -- has any show actually failed because it was "too smart"? I know that moviemakers sometimes console themselves with that thought, but is it true?)
It's bad news for the greater nerd community because it kicks away one of the props under our collective ego. Apparently we're not any smarter than anybody else. Mass audiences can learn to understand and enjoy the same works us geeks do.