Tuesday, July 5, 2011

George R.R. Martin - Sandkings

George R.R. Martin may be best known as the author of the bestselling and superb A Song of Ice and Fire series, but, long before he first wrote of a young boy witnessing a beheading, Martin made a name for himself with Science Fiction and Horror novels and shorts. Much of the man's short fiction was collected in the mammoth retrospective Dreamsongs, but, being the Martin-obsessive that I am, I've decided to track down each of his original collections. Sandkings, first published in 1981, was the author's third collection, and the stories are superb. A warning before we begin: most of my analyses will contain SPOILERS.

Of course, one of the many things that Martin is famous for is his position that genre is just furniture, that the same story can be told in any fashion with just a few substitutions. Well, though Sandkings frequently incorporates elements of Fantasy or Horror, the stories here are all quintessentially Science Fiction, tales that share a universe of interstellar travel and many worlds, explorations of man on the edge, of what happens in the moment when we leave everything we knew behind and realize the universe is far vaster than we ever could have dreamed. Of course, such a thematic course bears more than a passing similarity to the Weird Tales of Lovecraft or Ligotti. And to the Fantasy writings of authors as diverse as Neil Gaiman and China Mieville. Okay, so Martin might have been onto something with that furniture theory. More important still for anyone reading the collection, however, is the fact that Martin's treatment of the theme is no less nuanced and no less powerful than the treatments of any of the above authors.

We begin with The Way of Cross and Dragon. Our main character, a Knight Inquisitor, is called to address a rising, new heresy. Their beliefs? They have made a saint […] out of Judas Iscariot. (p. 16) As it turns out, the belief is a wholly artificial one, something created to mask the truths of existence as the heresy's instigator, a member of the sect of Liars, sees them: [T]hese naked truths are cruel ones. We who believe in life, and treasure it, will die. Afterward there will be nothing, eternal emptiness, blackness, nonexistence. In our living there has been no purpose, no poetry, no meaning. Nor do our deaths possess these qualities. When we are gone, the universe will not long remember us, and shortly it will be as if we had never lived at all. Our worlds and our universe will not long outlive us. Ultimately, entropy will consume all, and our puny efforts cannot stay that awful end. It will be gone. It has never been. It has never mattered. The universe itself is doomed, transient, uncaring. (pp. 25-6)

Martin's view – that religion is false, but perhaps comforting – is clear throughout the story, and the plot is lacking in dramatic flourishes, but the skill that Martin brings to the tale and the emotions he manages to evoke lend life to the concept. The heresy's faith is, of course, a tad absurd, but Martin gifts his descriptions of it with strength. Furthermore, it's interesting to note how many times Martin manages to layer the same meaning into his stories. On a grand level, we see people sustained by the lies of religious faith. Then, on an institutional level, we see similar delusions, where the story's Catholic Church attempts to view itself as the sole provider of truth even while there are seven popes and "over seven hundred Christian sects." (p. 16) Then, finally, the theme comes down to the character level, where our viewpoint Inquisitor masks his doubts and his humanity with the garb and ritual of his office. All of that being said, I will admit that part of the reason the story works so well for me is that I share the generalities of Martin's perspective. Would a tale this focused on message work for those who find its method incorrect or even insulting? I don't know.

The second story is Bitterblooms, a tale of seeming fantasy that morphs into something much more heartbreaking. Lost and far from home in a world of inhospitable snow, ice, and vampires, Shawn desperately tries to trek back. On her way, she comes across a seemingly impossible sight and is taken in by a woman named Morgan who possesses magic that can send her ship through space. But escape is an illusion, and Morgan is revealed as a Liar, offering false comforts while her guests starve on a diet of empty dreams. What makes the story truly tragic, however, is the fact that the places Morgan references – Old Poseidon with its weathered docks and its fleets of silver ships, the meadows of Rhiannon, the vaulting black steel towers of ai-Emerel, High Kavalaan's windswept plains and rugged hills, the island-cities of Port Jamison and Jolostar on Jamison's World (pp. 50-1) – are the legends and even settings of the volume's other tales. The world beyond does exist, but Shawn and Morgan never reach it. Bitterblooms may lack the insight of The Way of Cross and Dragon and the visceral nature of some of the volume's other tales, but its emotional core is devastating nonetheless.

In the House of the Worm comes next, the first story to not also appear in Dreamsongs and also the volume's longest tale, at sixty-one pages. Like in Bitterblooms, we find ourselves in a society on the end, one driven underground by the end of the world. And yet the world building here is almost optimistic. Amidst the ruins of civilization and delusion, life goes on. As a character says, The sun was dying long before I came into the House of the Worm, and it will continue dying long after I have left. (p. 64) The speaker there is our protagonist, Annlyn, who had no blood ties with the line of the Manworm, no secret sources of knowledge, but he was always quite sure of his opinions, and his friends – Veryllar and stout Riess and beautiful Caralee – thought him the wisest and wittiest of men. Once he had killed a groun. (p. 64) Annelyn is arrogant but amusing, and Martin is able to both render him sympathetic and a tad more than a tad conceited.

The story proper begins as Annelyn leads Varmyllar and Riess down towards the lower levels, where the monstrous groun roam, to slay the Meatbringer who slighted him at a party and seduced Caralee from his side. Like many teenage quests, Annelyn's was conceived with more bluster than bravery, but, at the point when he was counting on his friends to draw him back from danger, he instead finds one of his people's greatest warriors, coming to aid him in the slaying of the Meatbringer. What follows is, of course, a descent into the unknown, and, in no time at all, Annelyn is fleeing for his life in pitch black tunnels. The history that Martin reveals as the story progresses is somewhat hard to follow on anything more than a surface level, and the pacing of the tale's second half is a bit drawn out, but both of those complaints fade in light of the awe inspiring atmosphere and the pathos that Martin manages to create.

Next up is Fast-Friend, a piece only elsewhere available in the Subterranean Press two-story collection Starlady. The story centers on man's drive to reach the stars. Man, in Martin's tale, is able to cross the gulfs of space, but only by becoming a Fast-Friend. The protagonist and his lover, uncommon dreamers dreaming a common dream, join the program to become Fast-Friends, but the process is not as simple as it sounds. Most who enter the program simply die at the point of transformation, and those that do not become something other than human. The lover changes – and the protagonist balks. Our story begins years later, however, at a time when the protagonist is deeply scarred by his failure to take that final step. He's essentially divided his consciousness into two as he searches for a way to reach the stars while retaining his humanity. The physical love and human connection he once had with his lover he now experiences entirely with his angel, an organically created sex slave with a playful personality and an innocent mind. He has no attachment with the human woman he shares his ship with and seems incapable of even basic interaction with her. His intellect, on the other hand, is focused entirely on his quest: his idea to chain a Fast-Friend to his ship and use it, like a horse affixed to a carriage, to drag his ship through space at fantastic speeds.

The Fast-Friend that he captures is, of course, his former lover, but he balks once again at the moment of transformation. I couldn't do it, he explains to his ship mate. We would never have been able to let them outside the screens. They'd be animals, draft animals, prisoners. […] I guess they're not. Not people either, though, not anymore. (p. 136) To reach the stars in Fast-Friend, it seems that man must either surrender his physical form or his morality, and the protagonist chooses to do neither. The story's final lines give hope that the protagonist, now having withdrawn for the final time from the stars, might be reconnecting with humanity and leaving grandiose dreams and rather disturbing sex behind, but – as this is a Martin story – the quasi-happy ending is left ambiguous. Though not the collection's standout tale by any means, Fast-Friend is a well placed and executed tale with an interesting dilemma at its heart.

I have a confession to make about the next piece in the collection, The Stone City. When I first read this tale in Dreamsongs some years ago, I found it boring. Now, revisiting it, I'm astonished and somewhat horrified at my earlier reaction. If there has ever been a Science Fiction Weird Tale, an interstellar equivalent of Lovecraft's The Shadow Out of Time, it is The Stone City. This is a story quieter than many of the collection's other pieces, but it is, in my opinion, one of Martin's best works. The protagonist, Holt, is a member of a spaceship crew that is stranded on an alien world, trapped in a place that makes no sense, forced to try and make their way (and to try and escape) in an impossibly old and impossibly alien Stone City.

The crew has broken apart, and many of its members are dead for incomprehensible and comprehensible transgressions, the captain among them. Much of the crew is now living day to day, having lost all hope for escape, but some have remained optimistic, believing that The human mind can understand anything. Give me time, that's all, and I'll figure it all out. (p. 157) As the story progresses, as their imprisonment lengthens and their progress wanes, it becomes obvious that such thoughts are nothing but delusions: She said we'd come too far. […] She said it was wrong to think that the whole universe operated by rules we could understand. You remember. She called it 'sick, arrogant human folly.' You remember, Jeff. That was how she talked. Sick, arrogant human folly. […] The crossworlds almost made sense, that was what fooled us. but if Irai was right, that would figure. After all, we're still only a little bit from the manrealm, right? Further in, maybe the rules change even more. (p. 157)

In the middle of all that, Martin's characterization is enough to make Holt at once understandable and deeply flawed. All his life, Holt's yearned to explore the galaxy, but his idea of exploration is a cursory one more dependent on distance travelled than experience gained or cultures understood. He lusts after far off myths, not realities; as one crewmate puts it, he's just a "collector." (p. 151) He judges his crewmates Xenophile[s] (p. 150) while supporting himself by stealing from the hapless aliens all around him. The story finishes with The Stone City as a fantastic, mystical, and forever out of reach place, but in Holt's character we can see the dichotomy of self knowledge and exploration play out on a far more relatable scale, and one no less well handled for all of Martin's fantastic alien creations.

The next story, Starlady, is the one story in the collection that didn't work for me. Its connection to the general theme of the unknown is there – a woman (the titular Starlady) finds herself trapped in a space port devoid of the civilized rules she's used to – but the focus is on other things here. That, however isn't where the problems lie. The story is told in a very self aware manner, with Martin going so far to cast about for parts in the very first paragraph: This story has no hero in it. it's got Hairy Hal in it, and Golden Boy, and Janey Small and Mayliss and some other people who lived on Thisrock. Plus Crawney and Stumblecat and the Marquis, who'll do well enough as villains. But it hasn't got a hero… well, unless you count Hairy Hal. (p. 173) That by itself isn't a problem, but it becomes one when combined with a deeply amoral tale of prostitution and murder. Now, the themes themselves aren't an inherent issue. Martin has proven, time and time again, his ability to deal with sensitive and dark topics with both pathos and insight. But the distance and playfulness of the narrative voice here renders the treatment feeling crass and joking rather than heartfelt. Hairy Hal is not a hero but rather a pimp, and the intentionally overblown dialogue and prose's treatment of him feels shallow and almost insulting. Perhaps I'm being too hard on this story, but the intentional distance added to it left the characters unattractive and the plot unengaging.

Our closer, however, brings us back to par and beyond. Sandkings is one of Martin's best known stories, and for good reason. Simon Kress is a collector of exotic and violent pets, and he's a sadistic and cruel man to boot. While searching for the next lethal thing, he comes across Sandkings, insect-like hive minds that battle one another and worship their owner. He purchases them and shows them to all his friends, and, in classic fashion, his arrogance leads to his downfall. The setting is Science Fiction, while most horror aficionados agree that a time period like the reader's own is almost instrumental in instilling the sense that the horror is lurking near them. Finally, there's the fact that most unsympathetic main character – a group that Simon most certainly belongs to – make for poor horror. While the reader might love to read of their death, it's rather horrifying to see evil meet its end. For all these reasons, Sandkings seems set up for being enjoyable but not extraordinary. But, of course, every one of those expectations is proven wrong by the sheer skill that Martin brings to the table.

Like in many of the stories shown here, Martin here manages to thematically parallel the details of the character's life with the overarching SF plot. In his interactions with others, Simon is arrogant and blunt, always seeking to elevate himself above his peers. He's not wholly combative, however, as attested by his strings of former lovers and friends entangled with him both through loyalty and darker deeds. One of the main draws of the Sandkings is how they soon come to worship the face of the owner that they see above their tank, and so Simon comes to dominate their society. But, like how he soon comes to damage and even kill the human friends he has, Simon proves a cruel god to the creatures, and their representations of him soon grow all wrong, all twisted. His cheeks were bloated and piggish, his smile was a crooked leer. He looked impossibly malevolent. (p. 213) Among the humans around him, Simon eventually triumphs, burying his crimes and slaughtering those arrayed against him. Against the Sandkings, however, Simon is made to pay for his ways. The combination between the two groups is reinforced late in the story by two revelations. First, the co-owner of the store where Simon purchased the Sandkings is himself a Sandking, proving that the creatures are not inherently evil. The second revelation, of course, is the moment where the orange Sandkings transform into grotesque images of humanity, of a childlike but monstrous Simon.

But, while I find everything in the above paragraph fascinating, none of it even approaches the heart of the tale. Martin writes with enough devilish confidence to draw us into Simon's viewpoint, to force us to enjoy the sadism of the Sandking's wars and the luster of the parties. And then, later, as the Sandkings spread, Martin loads every word of the text with terror. Armored men, the representations of safety and power, find the very ground beneath their feet unstable and coursing with those wronged. The Sandkings fall from above, and they've cut off all means of escape. They thrive, and the air is putrid with the reek of their maws. They crawl through the walls, and the house is littered with their mutating forms. The atmosphere evoked here is almost without peer. By the end I was turning pages in a frenzy, desperate to escape the terrifying sensation of monsters all about me. This story is a visceral powerhouse without fear, a tale resplendent with both brawn and brains, a work unlikely to ever be forgotten by any who read it.

George R.R. Martin may be best known as the author of the bestselling and superb A Song of Ice and Fire series, but I'll go out on a limb and say that, as far as I can tell, the standout stories of this collection are on par with that genre leviathan. The stories in Sandkings explore a wide variety of subjects, and each is told in its own style. Comparing Sandkings to Bitterblooms to A Song of Ice and Fire is almost a silly exercise, but the threads that draw the three together are – besides the themes of man and the larger world – the unmatchable levels of quality that Martin displays in almost every tale he pens, regardless of that story's length or genre. If you are a Martin fan that has not read his short stories, you have done yourself a grave disservice. Go to amazon and rectify that at once.

Standouts: Sandkings, The Stone City, The Way of Cross and Dragon

[Note: page numbers from the Timescape 1st edition paperback]


  1. Re-reading this now myself, and I had a very similar experience with "The Stone City." I had remembered the plots and the locations of "Sandkings" and "The Way of Cross and Dragon" and "In the House of the Worm," from my readings in the late eighties, but not those of "The Stone City."

    But re-reading now, I'm astounded by how well "The Stone City" evokes a very strange and very large galaxy, in which Man and Mannish thought can find themselves very lonesome indeed.

    "The Stone City" is sort of Vingian, too, ten years or so before Vernor Vinge would write the books that would make the adjective meaningful, in that it suggests that physical law might vary by location in the galactic disc.

    One thing bothered me slightly about the story, though: Martin in his eagerness to use that "Holt walks among the stars" capline sort of clumsily appends it to his little time-lecture at the end of the story. Hard to believe an editor couldn't have fixed that last bit up for him, it's such a phenomenal story otherwise.

  2. I actually got goose bumps reading this, as the stories were brought back to me. Excellent analysis, as always.

  3. @Rastronomicals: I've actually never read Vinge, though it seems I very much have to, now. Is there a particular work of his you'd recommend?

    As for the last line, upon rereading it just now, I can see what you mean, but am still not sure that I dislike it. Its inclusion is a tad abrupt, coming after the grand nature of the preceding paragraphs, but the entire tale is, after all, about the blurring of the personal and the incomprehensibly vast.

    @Anton Gully: Thank you very much!

  4. What I'd recommend and what is pertinent here are his "zones of thought" books, A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky