I Found a Cool Story the Other Day, #21

I knew George R.R. Martin before he was cool.

Well, I knew about him.

TufNow that Mr. Martin has become a juggernaut of epic fantasy with his Game of Thrones A Song of Ice and Fire series, it’s easy to forget he was once better known for his short science fiction, and boy, did he write some doozies. I discovered him 25-or-so years ago in the pages of Analog, chronicling the journeys of an eccentric alien space trader named Haviland Tuf. Tuf was a dour, Hitchcock-like fellow with a taste for mushrooms and an affinity for cats who found himself at the helm of the Ark, a seedship of long-dead Imperial Earth. The Ark stored a library of genetic material from thousands of worlds and was an automated weapon of biotechnological terror against a rival empire, able to unleash everything from killer microbes to Tyrannosaurs onto unsuspecting enemy planets.

Fortunately for everyone, Tuf was both a practical and an ethical man. He employed the Ark as a sort of biological troubleshooter, solving problems for planets experiencing ecological challenges. At a fair price, of course. The problems were always a bit more complicated than they appeared at first glance, and Tuf was an able sleuth, among his various and sundry other skills.

tuf voyagingThese were good stories, and with my library of Analogs long since handed over to the recyclers, I despaired of ever finding them again. I was delighted to discover that, likely aided by Martin’s surging popularity, a compendium of Tuf stories was recently re-released, including the original accompanying line art from the Analog stories supplemented by even more pictures from the original artist. I found a copy on the shelves of my local Barnes & Noble this past weekend and lost a good 45 minutes thumbing through the first novelette, “The Plague Star.” It hasn’t lost its spark after all this time. The collection is called Tuf Voyaging, and even in hardcopy, it’s a steal at about $11.00.

There are rumors floating about that Martin may write more Tuf stories and/or bring them to television. I would not complain.

sandkingsMartin’s best-known SF short, however, is his Hugo and Nebula Award-winning “Sandkings,” a staggering tale of hubris and horror that still makes my skin crawl. Arrogant socialite Simon Kress has a taste for exotic alien pets, and he enjoys pitting them against each other in the fashion of certain notorious celebrity animal-abusers I won’t name here. One day, Kress obtains some pets he’s told will worship him like a god. He’s about to discover the difference between being worshipped and being worshipful, and the consequences of failing at the latter.

If you have an aversion to multi-legged creeping things, you may find yourself sleeping with the lights on for a few nights after reading this story, a can of pesticide at the ready. I did.

This story was also adapted for television as an episode of The Outer Limits, with some extensive plot modifications, judging from the episode summary. I never watched it, and nothing could possess me to search it out on Netflix, thank you very much. I doubt they did the story justice, anyhow.

omniaug79“Sandkings” debuted in the lamentably-departed magazine, Omni, to which I subscribed at the time. It was perhaps the most beautiful periodical of science fact and fiction ever published. Its entire run is archived in the public domain now, and it’s chock full of some of the coolest stories ever, many from writers who were just entering the big leagues of science fiction and fantasy. Check it out.

And here’s a link to the issue containing “Sandkings,” which begins on page 50. Read it. I dare you. You know you want to…


6 thoughts on “I Found a Cool Story the Other Day, #21

  1. I miss Omni.

    Sandkings won both the Hugo and Nebula for a novelette, too. It’s surprisingly good for its time, and I remember seeing Game of Thrones and thinking, “Oh, it’s the sandkings guy.” It seemed like the late sixties to the early eighties had an abundance of great short SF, and Sandkings was one of them. I’ve heard of the Tuf series, but haven’t read it.

    1. I was amazed that they put all the issues online in a free archive. A few things are apparently missing here and there, like the original full-page ads, and the online reader is a little clunky, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.

      I actually like Martin better as a sci-fi writer than a fantasy writer. I got a book and a half into the Thrones series and quit because it felt so depressing and tedious.

  2. I read the sandkings short story in an anthology and it still haunts me to this day. Excellent, excellent stuff.

    And I’ve labored through all the Game of Thrones books. I’m not sure why I keep doing that to myself, but I guess at this point, I want to know who the last person standing is going to be and who will wind up with the throne. Kind of a sadistic reason, I guess.

    1. You’re a better man than I am, Brother John. 🙂 I’ve done the same thing with other ponderous series, and American Idol, but this time…yeah, the worldbuilding is intricate and the characters are complex, but it was a world I simply didn’t care to visit any longer.

  3. I adore the _Song Of Ice And Fire_ series. I’ve read it three times now and will read it again here shortly.

    The funny thing is that I knew Martin as a Sci Fi writer decades ago. (not personally…knew OF, I should say) and when someone recommended I read ASOIAF I put it off for years because I was a) avoiding epic Fantasy and b) couldn’t get past the idea of a Sci Fi writer doing EF. I still won’t read any EF glfrom Harlan Ellison, for instance. Assuming he writes any.

    I, too, miss Omni.

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