Reviews – Nightflyers and Sandkings

Dreamsongs Volume 1, the first half of a mammoth George RR Martin retrospective, closes with a section titled Hybrids and Horrors. A selection of horror stories written by an author most often associated with science fiction and fantasy, it contains what are probably his best known works outside of the Song of Ice and Fire series (AKA Game of Thrones)– Nightflyers, a haunted starship story, and Sandkings.

Nightflyers doesn’t hold up well. It’s not scary, and its particular brand of 1970s science fiction, where almost everyone has latent psychic powers, seems ridiculous today. (A key moment in the climax has one character telling another to “teke it!”– “teke” being future slang for “telekinesis”. As a citizen of the future, I’m glad this never caught on. I don’t think I could teke it.) As an execution of premise it’s acceptable, but as a general rule I believe characters who accept passage from mysterious space captains with dark secrets deserve what’s coming to them[1].

Sandkings, however, lives up to its reputation. Unknown to me at the time, this was my first exposure to George RR Martin, way back when it was adapted into an episode of The Outer Limits in the mid-nineties. A quick look at the episode on Hulu suggests it might not be as creepy now as it was then. The short story, though, still makes my skin crawl.

Sandkings tells the tale of Simon Kress, a sociopathic businessman who collects exotic alien lifeforms as pets. Visiting the space version of a quaint little Chinatown mogwai shop, he picks up four colonies of sandkings– tiny, sophisticated insect-like creatures who he’s told will come to worship him as a god. Intrigued by the idea that they will eventually war for his affection, Kress gets impatient and finds ways to accelerate and encourage this behavior.

The conclusion to Sandkings is far from surprising. Everything turns out fine. Kress opens a free range habitat for his former pets where they can live in peace with one another, and he donates all the proceeds to help pass strict regulations on the intergalactic pet trade. It’s the details of the sandkings’ evolution that are frightening, as they grow and adapt in the confines of Kress’ living room like malevolent spiders with hive minds. Martin taps into our natural human aversion to insects and arachnids by keeping the sandkings small but relentlessly numerous, and ups the revulsion by making them literally alien. It’s essentially about finding a nest of termites in your house and realizing they’re not only acutely aware of your existence, but judging your every action.

The other horror stories included in Dreamsongs are either relatively tame exercises in the genre (the twistless ghost story Remembering Melody, where it turns out Melody is a ghost) or embarrassingly self-loathing. The Monkey Treatment at least posits a full-stage ecology for its monsters, but both it and The Pear Shaped Man are basically body horror stories about being lonely and overweight. The futuristic Meathouse Man is literally a masturbatory story about masturbation, less notable for its depictions of necrophilia than the brutal criticism it received from Harlan Ellison when he rejected it for inclusion in The Last Dangerous Visions. Even from a completist’s standpoint, the rest are inessential works. But not every story can be as effective as Sandkings, much less win both a Nebula and a Hugo.

[1] A good cry and lots of hugs, obviously. Hasn’t anyone in the future seen Alien?


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