The Air-Speed Velocity of Ravens: “Game of Thrones” and the Importance of Consistency in SFF Writing

Spoiler alert: this post contains minor spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 7 Episode 6

“Gendry is obviously not Robert Baratheon’s bastard,” I observed to my Laddie during the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. “His father has to be The Flash.”

After a few days’ hiking with the wight-hunting party, our warrior-blacksmith seems to reach Eastwatch in mere minutes, determined to summon help for his besieged friends. But his superhuman speed pales in comparison with the raven he dispatches. Traversing a continent faster than a text message, that remarkable bird mobilizes Queen Daenerys to fly her rescue dragons north before the boys beyond the wall even have time to get frostbitten. In a season of conveniently abridged journeys (did the Dothraki army just teleport to Casterly Rock?) this episode took the most egregious liberties yet with the established geography of Westeros. Even wildly popular stories are susceptible to this common pitfall of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) writing: inconstancy with the reality we create.

When we make the rules for an imaginary world, it’s often tempting to bend them in service of a more exciting story. We dismiss handy twists as “magic” or invent a convenient bit of technology to achieve our plot goal. But with the power to create a fictional universe comes the responsibility to maintain its integrity. Our relationship with readers depends on it. SFF makes a pact with the audience, promising that if they accept certain thematic concepts—such as ice zombies or FTL space travel—those things will follow the rules we establish. Even speculative universes must have internal logic. Otherwise, the fragile construct shatters and readers feel cheated.

If Gendry’s hammer had been Thor’s Mjollnir and rocketed him back to the Wall, or if clairvoyant Bran had enabled a psychic connection between the ravens at Eastwatch and Dragonstone to facilitate the message, I might have overlooked it. I might even have bought that a dragon could cross a continent in a few hours (although we’re familiar with ravens, we have no reference for rates of dragon flight; however, Dani would need more than a furry apres-ski gown to endure supersonic speeds). But the writers didn’t bother with even the flimsiest cover. They simply burned the map.

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“What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?” Or, in this case, a raven. (Photo credit: Internet Movie Database)

I know how they feel. I encountered an analogous challenge while writing Syzygy. One of my story’s invented “rules” is space elevator technology, and I did considerable research to make it as plausible as possible. Assuming velocities human bodies can tolerate, I calculated that a one-way elevator trip between Earth and geosynchronous orbit would take at least one week. A shuttle trip between the orbit station and the moon would take another two or three days. Add a ride on the lunar elevator, and traveling from one planet to the other would probably require a minimum of three weeks. I had to account for that in the story’s timeline whenever the characters switched worlds. It took effort to structure my scenes appropriately–some aspects of the plot would have been easier to manage if Ash and Skye could flit between locations at will—but I felt avoiding shortcuts was the best way to honor the story and my readers.

Because SFF fans aren’t stupid. They notice little continuity errors, and they won’t be shy about excoriating them on social media. Criticism of the Game of Thrones incident ignited the internet this week. Director Alan Taylor complained to the New York Times, “you don’t seem troubled by the lizard as big as a 747, but you’re really concerned about the speed of a raven.” Taylor overlooks a key aspect of the pact between writers and readers. We will happily accept giant flying reptiles or the macabre powers of the Faceless Men in the appropriate context. But playing fast and loose with the laws of spacetime in a story with no precedent for such metaphysical mischief destroys the illusion. (People complained that the recent Ed Sheeran cameo took them out of the story, but I found the flagrant disregard for geography much more jarring.)  Worse yet, these narrative conveniences feel lazy and disrespectful.  Readers ask, with a touch of contempt, “Did you really think we would be too captivated by your narrative genius to notice the seams?”

Detailed story notes and a commitment to staying honest with your readers are all it takes to avoid this trap. Out of respect for both our fiction and our fans, let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard of storytelling. SFF gets enough undeserved disdain without perpetuating poor craft. Sadly, Game of Thrones isn’t doing much to bolster the genre’s reputation. For me, this last episode was just the latest disappointment in a season characterized by sloppy writing. But I’ll discuss the problems of groan-inducing insta-romance in another post!

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