Monday, 2 April 2012

Guest Post | Nathaniel of The Hat Rack Reviews Nightflyers by George R. R. Martin

I've had my eye on Nathaniel Katz for long enough that it probably qualifies as creepy.

But for good reason. He's consistently one of the most intelligent and insightful reviewers we have in our darkly sparkling corner of the blogsphere, and his site, The Hat Rack, is a bookmark waiting to happen, if it hasn't already.

From time to time, Nathaniel also writes for Strange Horizons, which should give you a good sense of the quality of his criticism. Meanwhile his short fiction has been published a bunch in the last little while. You can read a bit more about that here. Or perhaps here. Even here!

He's a good dude, too. As evidenced by the fascinating short story review which follows this little thing I've written. What the premiere of the much ballyhooed-about second season of Game of Thrones airing here in the States yesterday, how awfully timely it is too. :)

Why, it's almost as if someone planned this whole thing...


I hope I won't be surprising many of you when I say that George R. R. Martin's career did not begin with A Game of Thrones. Decades before that novel's publication, Martin was releasing and winning acclaim for his early novels and short stories, many of them, the subject of our discussion today no exception, a blend of Science Fiction and Horror. Judging by the date at the story's close, "Nightflyers" was first written in 1978, but it first saw publication in a 1980 issue of Analog before becoming one half of Binary Star #5, starring as the title story in a collection (from where I'll be getting all the page numbers to come), and reappearing in two more of the master's collections (Songs the Dead Men Sing and Dreamsongs, for those of you playing along at home). It's worth every one of those reprintings.

At the story's center are the volcryn, sailing towards the galaxy's edge below the speed of light. To understand something  so alien, we must begin with scale: When Jesus of Nazareth hung dying on the cross, the volcryn passes within a light year of his agony, headed outward. (p.1) That's not enough, though. It's not just our modern perception of time that's so dwarfed here. We proceed, sailing past future history rendered irrelevant backdrop by time, past the Fire Wars and a great man named Klerenomas and the time when "Klerenomas was dust" (ibid). And so we come to this present that's so far ahead of ours, and the volcryn continue their voyage, paying no more attention to our time than they did to any of those that preceded it.

That doesn't mean, of course, that we pay no attention to it. A group of academics – xenobiologists and xenotechs and telepaths and more – has assembled to draw close to this passing specter and learn the truth. They're a friendly bunch, even if they haven't yet had a chance to become close, and they're ready for success, even if they've not yet met the captain of their ship. I don't think I'm blowing your mind when I say that things don't turn out so hunky-dory. The book's back, after all, does so-subtly shout in its bolded typeface: MASS MURDER IN DEEP SPACE. The Nightflyers' eccentric captain is the cause of their troubles, coming to them as a "ghost," as a "hologram" (p.4), his true form – whatever it might be – cut off from the others by a wall that divides the ship. He's amiable, but he'll tell them nothing about himself. And those that dig deeper begin to die. There is nowhere for those left to go, of course. They're in the middle of space, and they can't get back without their captain's cooperation. But his protestations of innocence, needless to say, grow harder to take as the days go on, as the second death follows the first, and as they near the implacable volcryn fleet.

The building of tension is, and has always been, one of Martin's strengths, and the escalation aboard the Nightflyer – the speculation, the theories, the fear, the accidents as they begin to happen – is superb. I should warn you, though, that "Nightflyers" doesn't have the same emotional, close up point of view that Martin uses in his A Song of Ice and Fire series. Much of the story actually seems to be from the captain's own perspective, but that reveals nothing at all about who he is. As we learn: "He watched them work, eat, sleep, copulate; he listened untiringly to their talk. Within a week he knew them, all nine, and had begun to ferret out their tawdry little secrets" (p.5). And so much of the novella's first half is comprised of terse description and observed conversations, which leads to a group of carefully rendered characters, each of which is viewed too consistently and from too far away to be anything but sullied or detached.

I won't give away the captain's precise identity, but I will say that isolation is key to it. At the novella's end, we get a glimpse of the volcryn we've been following this whole time, and we learn that all those who thought they knew them before had really only "sensed a bit of the nature of the volcryn […] and fashioned the rest to suit themselves" (p.96). These legendary unknowns become a mirror of sorts, turned back to humanity and all the other beings that have glimpsed them. In that sequestrated mirror, one of the things that we might glimpse is the distance and isolation between us, even without the depths of space to support it. As the captain says, "you are all aliens to me" (p.37).

This isn't, mind you, the first time that Martin's turned to a ship hurtling through space, its crew of academics gradually fraying on their way to some colossal other ship, their eccentric captain watching and shaping the conflict from its midst. "Plague Star," the novella that kicks off Martin's fantastic fix up novel Tuf Voyaging [reviewed on The Hat Rack here - Niall], covered similar ground – and couldn't have been a much more different story if it were a romance novel in another language altogether. "Plague Star" was filled with strife, yes, and the victor found himself at the center of a destructive monolith, but that monolith was a marvel of human ingenuity and engineering. It showed us our manifold promise, our ability to create things both wonderful and terrible. "Nightflyers" is not quite so empowering. Trapped in the Nightflyer's crazed and deadly confines, nearing an inscrutable and impossibly ancient race, this is a story of claustrophobia and fear, a glimpse of man as a "helpless" and "ignorant" (p.95) creature apt to destroy himself at every turn at the hands of something so much incomprehensibly vaster than he. Here, "it is not wise or safe to be too many moves ahead" (p.61). And, here, joy may be found in "grand gorgeous lies" (p.84) and, maybe, nowhere else, something that's rather reminiscent of Martin's story "The Way of Cross and Dragon" from Sandkings [which Nathaniel has also written about on his site - Niall].

The last word of "Nightflyers" is "ever," (p.103) and so it ends much as it began: with the infinite. For a novella just over a hundred pages, it has a lot of that in it, in addition to a whole lot more. "Nightflyers" is a locked-door gem of building tension and imagination, and I wholeheartedly recommend it.


Well that's your marching orders, folks!

Thanks again to Nathaniel for chipping in with this terrific short story review. You can and you should find him blogging - all too occasionally for my tastes, but in this case I'll take what I can get - at The Hat Rack.

As to tomorrow on The Speculative Scotsman? Well, as of the time of this writing, I'm not exactly sure yet, so let's just say it'll be a pleasant surprise... because it will be, one way or another.

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