Nightflyers: George R.R. Martin’s Humble Beginnings in Sci-Fi

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A spaceship is a 22nd century equal to an empty hotel in the dead of winter. Consider the implications of being on a spaceship. There are only a few measly sheets of metal protecting you from the cold vastness of the void. With whatever chance it gets, space will try to do anything in its power to get through that barrier and choke you dead. But, it leaves a minute and a half to play with you first, before leaving your bloated, disgusting body in the cold.

And on the ship, you’re stuck. You’re stuck in cold, cramped close quarters with people you may or may not know. But whether you like their company or not is a moot point, because it’s not like you can duck out. Space travel, as a concept, sounds claustrophobic.
It’s a surprise that space horror, at least in literature, is so underdeveloped. So, it was shocking to discover that George R.R. Martin was the author dipping into the niche genres of sci-fi and horror before he found his fame in fantasy.

When he wasn’t completely dominating the chess world (yes, George R.R. Martin played professional chess to pay the bills) in the late 1970s, Martin wrote science-fiction novellas. I took a look at his novella Nightflyers, included in a collection along with some of his other short stories, about a doomed crew aboard a doomed ship.

In Nightflyers, a handful of scientists board a ship in search of a mythical alien race. Among them include an advanced human, a powerful telepath, and an expert on alien lifeforms. They soon realize that things are not as they seem.

In its first act, Nightflyers is diehard science fiction. In discussing the aliens populating R.R. Martin’s made-up world, he uses names like Nor T’alush and Fyndii. The titular Nightflyer itself isn’t discernible from the hundreds of other space-faring ships that populate the genre. The names of the crew run together, and I found myself rereading passages to remind me who a person was.

In its first and second acts, Nightflyers isn’t doing much to up the tension. A couple of strange things happen here and there; like when a scientist cuts her finger off. Or when the crew is skeptical of their captain, Eris. And rightfully so; he prefers to interact with them through an unsettling hologram. Some suspect him of being an Artificial Intelligence. Others, like the telepath Thale Lassamer, think he’s an alien.


David Ajala as captain Roy Eris, from the Nightflyers Television adaptation (2018).

One night, the Nightflyers confront Roy Eris about his spying on them. At the crew’s behest, to ease their fears, the captain comes clean about his upbringing. Roy Eris is a clone of his mother, an anti-social, sociopathic woman who loathed humanity. In her hatred for humanity, it only made sense for her to bring a child into the world, to neglect him as much as possible. Eris claims that his immune system is so weak, coming into contact with normal people would kill him. He uses the hologram for safety purposes.

The crew doesn’t buy it. They give their on-board telepath a drug to increase his psychic abilities. When the Nightflyer’s order their telepath to tell if Roy Eris is lying or not, things escalate quickly. In trying to dig up the secrets of the captain, his head explodes.

From this moment, no one on the Nightflyer, including the captain, is safe. Bodies and blood start piling up. Within moments, the remaining crew members find themselves past the point of no return. There are two options; face the potentially dangerous volcryn, or the definite-dangerous thing that lurks on the ship.

I’m not going to give the ending (of a forty-year-old book) away, because Nightflyers is a quickie. It’s a fast fun read. I do have a couple of gripes with it, which is nothing new for me because I have gripes with everything.

First off, when it comes to pacing, Nightflyers isn’t it. Almost a hundred pages in a two-hundred-page book, the first body drops. And then, in a very short succession of time after that, people start dying off fast.

Nightflyers would’ve benefitted if it focused a bit more on the horror instead of the sci-fi. If it built up more tension earlier instead of throwing around alien names that had no significance in the grand scheme of things. It was a bit difficult to slog through the beginning. I liken it to oil and water; the science fiction part sitting on top of the horror part, the two intermingling bits but never in complete cohesion. I’ve seen the television adaptation, and it’s boring as hell. But it starts the scares early, which, in the book’s canon, still makes sense for the big reveal.

My other gripe; the characters. Besides the big three, Melantha and Roy and D’Branin, G.R.R.M introduces us to all these people, which would be so bad if it wasn’t a novella. There’s no time to flesh out anyone else, besides a quick blurb at the beginning about their role on the ship. But he keeps using their names, without establishing something memorable about them. I had to switch back to the beginning a couple of times to learn that, no, Lommie Thorn is a computer expert and not the xenobiologist. That’s Alys Northwind. I think.

And finally, it’s a shame that the volcryn are so…underwhelming. Like, their inclusion in act three after all that crazy shit happened felt weird. And that’s because there’s a more pressing matter occurring inside the ship. Like “yeah hey volryn, good to see you guys here but we’re all about three minutes away from death so I’m gonna have to put this on the back burner”.

If I’m not mistaken, this was one of G.R.R.M’s first novellas. It’s not bad. Granted, it needs work with the characters and the pacing, but Nightflyers proved to me that Martin is adaptable. Strong in fantasy as well as science fiction and horror. “Sandkings” is next on my list.

Sydney Richardson

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