Everyone knows George R.R. Martin because of Game of Thrones (aka A Song of Ice and Fire), but his legacy in genre fiction goes much farther back than that, and has influenced many more people than you might first suspect. Before Game of Thrones, he was known for working on things like The Twilight Zone (80s version), Max Headroom, and Beauty and the Beast. Outside of television, he was the heart of the collaborative series Wild Cards, which was a shared universe about superheroes that actually has its roots in a roleplaying campaign Martin ran.
Nightflyers, while not a novel and more of a novella at 30,000 words, is significant because it was adapted into both film and television. The 1987 film actually saved Martin’s career (though he wasn’t at all happy with it, nor was anyone else) and the recent SyFy series has met with disappointing reviews and was cancelled after one season. Not having seen either, I’m just looking at the story itself, which is, at its heart, a genre mash-up.
Martin’s introduction to the story makes this intention clear, that he grew up thinking that stories didn’t need to (and in fact shouldn’t) be pigeon-holed into a single genre and follow those genre rules like a straightjacket. This is evident in much of his work, including the aforementioned Game of Thrones, which, while fantasy, incorporates the gritty feel of a historical saga.
It’s easy to think GoT’s high body count and killing off of favorite characters is just some kind of shock-and-awe literary tactic, or the moral ambiguity being an attempt to “grimdark” the genre, but the true motivation is much simpler than that—reality doesn’t care who you like, few people are wholly good or bad, and people change over time.
Nightflyers is basically a mash-up of science fiction and horror. The best movie examples I can compare it to in terms of tone would be Alien, which keeps the science fiction elements grounded, and Psycho or perhaps The House on Haunted Hill, and keeps things confined on a ship far from any possible help.
However, rather than accidentally stumbling upon an alien ship, the premise here is in the hope of finding one. A spacefaring species that is believed by most to not even exist, the Volcryn, and the team leader who is obsessed with finding them. The Nightflyer is the name of the ship that they hire to take on the mission, but the team only ever see their captain as a hologram. Before they can find the Volcryn, however, things go terribly wrong and the more they try to discover the source of their problems, the more they’re put into harm’s way. And then the bodies start to pile up.
In short, you have the makings of a haunted house or a slasher horror story…IN SPACE!!!
The story is part of Martin’s Thousand Worlds universe, where he set many of his short stories. It’s set at a time long after the Federal Empire fell from an alien war on two fronts, and are only now are the remaining planets starting to reconnect.
One thing that stuck out about Martin’s writing here was the casual way he writes about sex, treating it in a very nonchalant way, because people in this future seem to treat it as little more than recreational. He gets across how frequent it is on board the ship and the varieties of partners involved, but without explicitly describing anything. That only adds to the slasher tropes in my opinion, but thankfully nobody with a hockey mask shows up.
The unintended side-effect of this is to diminish any titillation from the act, since sex is little more than a different kind of workout to those involved. And while this does have a certain progressive nature to it, the frequent references to the subject, devoid of emotional investment, disconnects the reader from the characters emotionally as well. Novellas are difficult at the best of times when it comes to fleshing out their characters, so spending time talking about who was coupling with who just seems like wasted words.
There are some very intriguing concepts in here, like the Volcryn, the mysterious captain of the ship who is seen only as a hologram, the long history of the Nightflyer, and so on, but ultimately the real story is to play the classic horror game of “Who Survives in the End?”
There is an illustrated version of the novella out there on its own, but it’s most often is seen as part of a short story collection (also called Nightflyers). The audiobook version was intriguing for me because the reader, Adenrele Ojo, chose to use a variety of accents, giving it a very multicultural feel, and putting me a bit in mind of the Afrofuturism of Black Panther. It was a welcomed touch to a story that needed a bit more life injected into it.