Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Review of Nightflyers by George R. R. Martin

George R.R. Martin is by now almost a household name. The success of the Song of Ice and Fire novels feeding into the even greater success of the television series, one hears the words ‘Winter is coming’ and ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow’ on the street. I assume most of these people, however, are unaware Martin began his career as a writer of short fiction in the 70s. Regular readers of this blog know my jaded nature toward a lot of popular fiction, and thus it should come as no surprise that I feel some of Martin’s early, more humanist work is, in fact, his best. Capturing a few of these stories, plus a handful of his more mainstream fiction, is the 1985 collection Nightflyers.

Containing only six stories (though two are long novellas), things kick off with the title story. Vampires in space, “Nightflyers” is the story of a mission gone horrifically wrong. Mysterious captain and mysterious happenings onboard make for a mysterious story that, for as well developed and suspenseful as it truly is, lacks any true depth beyond vampires and space. Undoubtedly, however, it will gain praise from mainstream sf&f fans. (Longer review can be found here.) “Nightflyers” is followed by another straight-forward but well executed sf horror story, “Override”. About a miner on a distant planet who uses remote controlled corpses to dig for valuable metals, when a rivalry turns sour, things quickly get out of hand for him.

The first really substantial story in the collection is “Weekend in a War Zone”. Clearly influenced by the Vietnam War, as well as Robert Sheckley stories like “Seventh Victim”, it tells of a man who instead of taking a tennis course one weekend decides to enroll himself in something else, something a bit more ‘physically challenging’. Society having evolved beyond real war, human blood sport is the name of his weekend game as he joins a small army to fight against another. Martin creating a nice parallel to the innocence of draftees in the Vietnam War being sent to the front, the story offers layers the previous stories do not.

Feeling very strongly like an Ursula Le Guin short, “And Seven Times Never Kill Man” tells of the exotic planet Corlos, the furry Jaenshi who live there, the aggressive Steel Angels (humans) whose religion mandates the extermination of the Jaenshi, and a trader named Arik (human) who would like to help the Jaenshi defend themselves. One of the most developed stories in the collection, it puts respect for culture and religion in its thematic crosshairs, resolving itself in a scary yet not unrealistic fashion (context, natch). The weakest story in the collection (despite the flowery title), “Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring” is a bit of hard sf romance, with a touch of Norman Spinrad’s “Riding the Torch” (or perhaps vice versa, I’d need to check the publication years). About an exploratory vessel on the edge of known space, what lies in the unknown causes potential problems, intellectual and mortal, for the crew. Suffice to say, Spinrad’s story is far better at capturing the existential sentiment Martin was aiming for.

If isfdb.org is to be trusted, I haven’t read about 60% of Martin’s short fiction, and his novels Armageddon Rag and Windhaven still elude me. But of all that I’ve read, “A Song for Lya” is the best, thus far. A very human rumination on love and death, the story tells of a couple, Lya a mind reader and Robb an emotion reader, who are asked to come to the planet Skheen to solve a problem between the human and native population. The native Skheens having existed for 14,000 years without evolving, they practice a mysterious cult that is slowly taking hold of the human population, as well. The cult’s practices inevitably resulting in death at the hands of a strange alien attached to people’s bodies, Lya and Robb have their work cut out for them if they want to investigate without becoming involved. A poignant, mature read (despite the blob aliens and telepathic stuff), Martin seems to have put his heart and soul into this piece, and it shows. (Longer review found here.)

In the end, Nightflyers is a mix of popular and more literary-minded fiction, and in the least is a good sampler of genre; science fiction, horror, fantasy, and mixes thereof. The strongest stories in the collection are “A Song for Lya” and “Weekend in a War Zone”, with the title story, “Override”, and “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man” contributing positively to Martin’s short fiction opus.

Bookended by novellas, Nightflyers contains the following six stories:

Weekend in a War Zone
And Seven Times Never Kill Man
Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring
A Song for Lya

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