The answer I generally give is basically: the past, a sort of alternate-reality Middle Ages. That seems to put most people in the right mindset.
But in The Guardian, Adrian McKinty considers the evidence and comes up with a tantalizing theory: maybe Game of Thrones is set not in an alternate-reality version of the past, but in the Earth’s distant post-apocalyptic future.
McKinty bases his theory on an analysis of the provenance of Game of Thrones in the high fantasy tradition, which was basically conceived by Tolkien. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was made up of bits of the prehistoric Germanic world that Tolkien so loved, but it was later revealed that the setting was “a planet in a parallel universe where (according to The Silmarillion) the sun went around the Earth and the world was originally flat.”
But jump forward to Jack Vance, who, McKinty says,
…had no time for faux-medievalism and suggested instead that dragons, swords, magic, different races of men and so on would all actually be possible on an Earth millions of years hence, when the continents had changed shape, technology had failed and human and animal evolution had continued along its merry way.
Others followed in Vance’s wake, including Gene Wolfe and even the Dungeons and Dragons universe, and McKinty thinks Martin is part of this school, too:
It seems to me, then, that it makes more sense to regard Game of Thrones as taking place not in some canned version of our medieval past but in the far future when the continents have shifted and some humans have evolved extraordinary physical and mental abilities which, to paraphrase Arthur C Clarke, are indistinguishable from magic.
All but the most basic technology has been forgotten…so battles are fought between humans with swords and shields. Dragons have evolved or been genetically engineered from lizards and the more useful animals such as cows and horses are still around. As the sun expands, Earth’s orbit becomes more eccentric and massive variations in climate are to be expected, resulting in stretched-out summers and long, deadly winters.
When it comes to stories set in fantastical worlds, I’ve generally been of the opinion that situating the setting in relation to the real world—putting the stories on another planet, say, or Earth’s past or future—is essentially meaningless. All that matters to me is the internal logic of the fictional world, and a compelling story that takes there.
But I still find McKinty’s theory tantalizing. Even if it’s not what Martin intends, it’s an interesting way of looking at things. Somehow, the notion that all this torture, killing, and war is taking place not in an alt-past but in a possible post-apocalyptic future makes Martin’s chaotic world seem even more brutal. It’s completely unnecessary to enjoy Martin’s books, of course, or the HBO series based on them—but it’s still something I’m going to remember as I watch season 4 this spring: What if this isn’t a version of our past, but a vision of our future?