I knew George R.R. Martin before he was cool.
Well, I knew about him.
Now 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.
These 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.
Martin’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.
“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…