Tuesday, November 29, 2011

George R.R. Martin - Tuf Voyaging

The plague star twinkles but little, shines down upon the land with a clear bright light. This is wrong, I told Janeel once; a plague star ought to be red. It ought to glower, to drape itself with scarlet radiance, to whisper into the night hints of fire and of blood. This clear white purity, what has that to do with plague? That was in the first days, when our charter ship had just set us down to open our proud little trade complex, set us down and then moved on. In that time the plague star was but one of fifty first-magnitude stars in these alien skies, hard even to pick out. In that time we smiled at it, at the superstitions of these primitives, these backward brutes who thought sickness came from the sky. (p. 14-5)

Tuf Voyaging opens with a planet bound glimpse of the orbiting Ark, a ship of the long lost Ecological Engineering Corps that, now abandoned, rains plagues down upon the surface of a ruined world. Our focus soon shifts upwards, as Haviland Tuf, the Tuf of our title, gains control of the ship and its near unlimited power. Though composed of eight distinct short stories, this is a collection with a strong arc, and it's one of power, responsibility, maybe even divinity, and – let's not forget – more inventiveness and wit than your average author can dream of.

The first and longest tale, The Plague Star, brings us to that celestial doom bringer and forces us to cower, antlike, before its mass. Like almost all of the collection's pieces, we are relegated to a somewhat distant view of Tuf, but here we don't see him as a titan come with benevolence or malevolence but rather as a man, a down on his luck trader hired to be the most expendable part of a crew made of near nothing but, hired to take them all to a prize so vast they'd all gain wealth beyond comprehension if they could secure it. Of course, as soon as Tuf's Cornucopia of Excellent Goods at Low Prices ferries their crew of retired soldiers, bodyguards, cybertechs, and career criminals to the colossal Ark, things fall right to hell. The Plague Star shows every character gunning for every other, a free for all filled with violence, cleverness, and trickery amidst the echoing corridors and dormant cloning tanks. Before long, a handy tide of delightful monsters and plagues have joined the fracas. Yeah, it's clear from the get go who's going to be relaxing on the bridge at the end of all the shooting, but that doesn't detract one bit from the mayhem. This's a rather different tale from the collection's others, focused more on action than theme, and it's likely the most fun, even if not the best.

From then on, with Tuf in firm (and sometimes not so firm) possession of the Ark, the collection becomes the story of his change (or, depending on your interpretation, lack thereof). In each of the tales to come, Tuf is presented with a seemingly impossible ecological problem and must find the solution. This is where, in my opinion, some of Martin's most colorful creations can be found. Handed the life-generating powers of the Ark, with the limitations and to some extent necessary realism of long form work removed, Martin lets his imagination fly here, presenting us with a variety stunning sights and ideas. In Guardians, for instance, we see a war between horrors beneath the sea and those in the seedships vast cloning vats: To hunt the drifting fire-balloons [Tuf] brought forth countless fliers: lashtail mantas, bright red razorwings, flocks of scorn, semi-aquatic howlers, and a terrible pale blue thing – half-plant and half-animal – that drifted with the wind and lurked inside clouds like a living, hungry spiderweb. Tuf called it the-weed-that-weeps-and-whispers. (p. 235)

The height of all that, though, is likely A Beast for Norn, which readers of Dreamsongs have experienced in slightly different form (along with, actually, the also just mentioned tale Guardians). A Beast for Norn has Tuf visiting a planet famed for its gladiatorial combat, each of its great houses pitting its monsters against the next. That, of course, is a situation just waiting for a man with a titanic vessel filled with all the great beasts of the ages, and so it proves, Martin somehow managing to balance a stylish and moral tale with exhibiting a menagerie resplendent with potential and sheer fun.

Tuf's genesis, Martin reveals in Dreamsongs, was an attempt to generate a proper series, one centered on a "larger than life" (p. 563, Dreamsongs) character who "the readers would enjoy following story after story." (p. 562, ibid) To say that he succeeded is an understatement of the kind that Tuf himself might find rather excessive. Tuf is a vegetarian and a pacifist, the possessor of untold power and unmatchable physical strength besides, a fussy and fastidious man, as obsessed with formality as he is irreverent towards the customs of others. He's implacable and huge and hairless; his only sentimental attachment is his cats – named Dax, Suspicion, Doubt, Hostility, Ingratidue, and Foolishnes to commemorate the rude treatment he receives at his various ports of call – and he often extols the virtues of the feline to any and all who will listen (or, of course, that must listen). And none of that's yet touching on his fantastically dry wit. At one point, a military officer tells him that his seedship is "impossible," for "the EEC was wiped out a thousand years ago, along with the Federal Empire. None of their seedships remain." Tuf's response, in all its wry glory: "How distressing […] Here I sit in an illusion. No doubt, now that you have told me my ship does not exist, I shall sink right through it and plunge into your atmosphere, where I shall burn up as I fall." (p. 206)

But there's a troubling, thought-provoking, and nigh unforgettable core beneath all the collection's levity.  As things proceed, a truth soon becomes clear. It is not enough, and is not even possible, to simply solve the environmental symptoms of the problems that Tuf encounters. No, he can liberate the men he finds from the consequences of their mistakes, but he knows that, as he departs, they will make those mistakes again. And so Tuf changes again, and he begins to alter the men themselves.

The center of the collection's arc is the trio of tales set on S'uthlam, a world beset by overpopulation and long ago exceeded resources. The first time, Tuf tries to save them with simple technology. But, as he is shown again and again, there is no possible solution that is merely technological. So Tuf, witnessing a universe filled with problems, and aware that he has the ability to solve them, steps in to fix them. It's something he must do, he argues, no matter how much the people of that world wish him not to. Failure to decide, because you lack the right, is itself a decision, (p. 438) he says. Tuf remakes the worlds around him to match his own ideas of progress.

The dilemma of right and intervention is an interesting one, but the true blow from all this comes from the reader's own realization. Each of the collection's tales is an escalation from that preceding it, both in moral complexity and in the scale of Tuf's intervention. And while I'm sure the exact point each reader begins to feel queasy will vary, that moment of revelation will come, and it's that revelation – the realization that the reader has been blithely supporting this remaking, unconsidering and as unable to see beyond Tuf's exterior as the characters – that gives such awful power to Tuf's debatably megalomaniacal declaration to the man named Moses in the second to last story, Mana from Heaven:

"I was born human, and lived as such for long years, Moses. Yet then I found the Ark and I have ceased to be a man. The powers I may wield are vaster than those of many gods that humans have worshipped. There is not a man I meet but I could take his life. There is not a world I pause on that I could not waste utterly, or remake as I choose. I am the Lord God, or as much of one as either of you is likely to encounter.

"It is a great fortune or you that I am kind and benevolent and merciful, and too frequently bored. You are counters to me, nothing more – pieces and players in a game with which I have whiled away a few weeks." (p. 382)

Tuf Voyaging is the story of a man turning into a god, though whether it's a benevolent or malevolent diety he becomes is a question best left to each individual reader. This is not a collection that can be enjoyed in the same way as some of Martin's other work, like his landmark A Song of Ice and Fire. Reading, you don't sympathize with Tuf and, really, there's never any doubt at all about whether he'll succeed. This is, nonetheless, an excellent read well worth the attention of any of Martin's fans or any Science Fiction, a narrative of spectacle and humor with enough depth to comfortably envelop Tuf's vast ship.

[Note: all page numbers from the Meisha Merlin limited hardcover edition]


  1. Nat, I like Martin's fantasy, and some of his short fiction, but I'm not sure exactly what Tuf Voyaging is; is it a novel, a short story collection, or something else altogether? It certainly sounds interesting.

    Can you clarify?

  2. It's a short story collection, but featuring the same character and an overall character arc of sorts that goes through the different stories. That being said, if you're new to Martin's short fiction, I'd definitely recommend Dreamsongs, as it's got a huge number of pieces from all over his career (including two from Tuf Voyaging).

  3. Alright, so it's similar, in concept, to the Conan Collections by Howard?

    I'll see if I dant find a copy of Dreamsongs.