Tuesday, June 12, 2012

George R.R. Martin - Nightflyers

Nightflyers was George R.R. Martin's fifth collection, but, save the title story, its contents seem to have first appeared a few years before those in Sandkings. Unlike the stories in that other collection, only "Override" and "Nightflyers" are genre benders here, the rest being straight up Science Fiction. Furthermore, despite Martin's (well deserved) reputation as a writer of characters, most of these stories are not hugely character based, zeroing in instead on the forces that drive and overpower the characters in the tales. It may be too easy to split the collection into two halves, but the four stories we'll be looking at lend themselves to it rather easily. The first pairing, "Weekend in a Warzone" and "And Seven Times Never Kill Man," focus on the irrationality and violence that lurk beneath our society; the second, "Nightflyers" and "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring," don't look as closely at men but rather at the immensity of the cosmic backdrop behind them. Of course, that's leaving two stories out, but I'll be doing that throughout this piece; "Overdrive" and "A Song for Lya" appeared in A Song for Lya before this, and I'll be covering them when I review that collection. And as I've also covered "Nightflyers" the novella separately here, that means this is going to be a rather fractured review, but hopefully it'll get its insights in as well.

The future we see in "Weekend in a Warzone" is a nice one, prosperous and with war safely a thing in the past. Only, the lack of struggle hasn't changed man, and the lack of strife hasn't taken away our need for discord and to prove ourselves. Our need for violence. That's where Maneuver, Inc. and its various foes come in. In exchange for a hefty sum, you get to walk through the forest with your buddies and an assault rifle, to kill or be killed. As they put it, "a man hasn't lived until he's seen death" (p. 139).The narrator – and, no doubt, the reader – is horrified at this bizarre custom and can't wait to get back to the civilized world. According to those he meet, though, it may not be that simple, the worst parts of ourselves that isolatable:

"It's war […] here in the zone, yeah, but out there too. We just don't call it war, but it still is. There are guys after you every minute, after your woman, after your job, pushing shit on your kids, trying to stick it to you. You have to fight back, and this is one way." (p. 143)

It's not long until walks between the tree trunks turn into deadly encounters, and it doesn't take long for the narrator to realize that he's a coward. But, when the danger's passed, he realizes something else…he enjoyed it. More, watching as a man "screams and dies and clutches at the air […] dies hard" leaves our narrator with a "hard-on" (p. 154). He is, he realizes, "as bad as they are" (ibid). All of this is written in a friendly and terrified conversational style, the narrator rambling on about the cold and his misery right up until the end. Some phrases get repeated a bit too much, the premise is a tad hard to swallow, and the turn's not wholly surprising, but the piece is still hard hitting and effective, if not one of Martin's best.

With "And Seven Times Never Kill Man" we return to Martin's regular Thousand Worlds universe, and society's not nearly as cozy as it seems in "Weekend in a Warzone." No, here the universe is a hard, unforgiving, and uncaring place, and the "stars will break those of softer flesh," (p. 162) as the Steel Angels preach. Their religion has removed their doubts and fears, driven them to power, and left their morality as nothing but the "right of the strong" (p. 168). These warriors of faith, with their "roman collar" (p. 160), are spreading across the world of the Jaenshi. The Jaenshi, too, are creatures of faith, no more focused on curiosity or reason than the Steel Angels that advance upon them.

The story is told from a trader's viewpoint. He's grown to know, if not quite understand, the Jaenshi culture, and he loves their beautiful statuary. No matter how stark the circumstances, he cannot convince them to fight. It's only those the Steel Angels have already exiled, the "godless" (p. 174), who understand. But they lack the strength and the fervor of the Steel Angels, and they can do nothing to stop them. The tale's end is not, though, the climactic tragedy that seems inevitable, but rather a crumbling away of both sides. When the trader's ship returns for him, the Jaenshi culture has melted entirely from sight, and the Steel Angels are now charging towards their own starvation and annihilation, their fanaticism rendering their ability worthless. As a final, punishing twist, the crew that's come for the trader doesn't understand what's transpired and never well, and they know that the Jaenshi statuary is, to the galaxy at large, "worthless" (p. 195).

Judging by the story's inclusion in Dreamsongs, Martin is evidently quite proud of "And Seven Times Never Kill Man," and it does have a melancholy and hopeless dignity about it, but I can't help but feel that it's the skeleton of a much stronger piece. Though hardly long at forty-two pages, the contest is so mismatched that even the relative surprises at the end can't inject too much excitement into it, and repeated scenes with the Steel Angels fail to deepen them beyond the (admittedly badass) role of stock space crusaders.

"Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" takes place in the same universe as "The Second Kind of Loneliness" and could, I think, be seen as a fulfillment of that story's isolation. In "The Second Kind of Loneliness," we learned of the first kind of loneliness, that of a man cut off from his fellow man by distance, and we learned of the second kind, that of a man surrounded by his fellows that was, nonetheless, unable to reach any of them. In "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring," we learn of the final kind of loneliness, the ultimate one, the isolation that weighs heavy on the entirety of the human race.

The story takes place at the far end of a Star Ring, a wormhole of sorts, but this Star Ring has taken them to a place where they see nothing, not even the faintest glimmer of a star. No light races across this void; no matter mars its perfection, (p. 204) Martin writes. This is a future filled with technology and promise, and all that promise has run up against its edge, against the untamable and incomprehensible infinite. This is a Science Fiction Weird Tale as only Martin can write it, a view from such a high vantage point that shows Whatever we have, whatever we believe in, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters, except the void out there. That's real, that's forever. We're just for a brief meaningless little time, and nothing makes sense. And the time will come when we'll be out there, wailing, in a sea of never-ending night. (p. 212) Faced with that infinite, we can do nothing but "make noises" (p. 217).

Despite the story's grandeur, it's got heart and what is likely the most immediate, emotionally powerful narration of any of Nightflyers' stories (not counting, at least, "A Song for Lya," here only as a reprint). The scientists aboard the Star Ring work with this infinite, but it's Kerin who feels its presence, who must convey it to the rest; Kerin, "the displaced poet who fought the primal dark," (p. 205) whose role blends with Martin's as he strives to "make someone else feel what I feel when I'm out there" (p. 209). All of this is done without interpersonal melodrama or needless action, and here Martin pens some of his most evocative lines, such as: "For years, we've been falling through space, and the only light and sound and sanity is far behind, lost in the void" (pp. 211-2).

At its close, "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" makes it clear that, though we are unable to grasp the immensity of what's around us, those noises that we make can have tremendous effects. The ending here is hard to believe even while reading and yet jaw dropping, audacious beyond belief. A habit of endings like this could look like Martin was fleeing his conclusions into sentiment and cliché. Just one, right here? Perfect.

It seems to me (an impression perhaps bolstered by my own preferences and obsessions) that "Nightflyers" and "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" are both noticeably stronger than the interesting but flawed other pieces, and the latter of those is really the only essential story here that's not reprinted in Dreamsongs or elsewhere. Still, while I wouldn't start a foray into Martin's backlist with Nightflyers, every story in it is still interesting and more than competently executed. Not to mention that the price of a used-copy-admission are no doubt worth it for "Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring" alone…

Standouts: Nor the Many-Colored Fires of a Star Ring, Nightflyers

1 comment:

  1. For "Seven Times Kill No Man" you unfortunately missed the entire point of the story, which is probably why you feel it's a 'skeletal' piece. The story is about the pyramids. They are remnants from the Hrangen, who dealt in enslaving people through mind control. What happens in the story happens because the Hrangen's technology is still controlling everyone there. The statuettes are a delusion. Re-read the story.