You may have heard of George R.R. Martin. You know, he’s that guy who wrote that obscure A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, adapted into that hidden gem premium cable television show A Game of Thrones. Yeah, that guy.
What you may not know about GRRM (as the internet affectionately deems Martin), though, is that he’s written a bunch of other books (and I’m not just talking about those other ones set in Westeros). In addition to stories about superheroes and insect-like creatures, GRRM has also written a good amount of science fiction—including one particular tale of a haunted ship in outer space.
Nightflyers tells the story of said haunted spaceship, the eponymous Nightflyer, which has been hired by a group of academics in pursuit of a mysterious sub-lightspeed fleet of aliens called the Volcryn, that latter of whom have been traveling across the cosmos for eons. Studying the Volcryn—coming face to face with their armada in the hopes of unlocking their purpose—is the pinnacle of Karoly d’Branin's (the de facto leader of the group aboard the ship) work. Accompanying d’Branin, the scientific team includes two linguists, a telepath and a psychic, a cyberneticist, a xenobiologist, a xenotechnologist, and, most importantly, the muscle. Filling the last role is Melantha Jhirl, a genetically-enhanced “superior model” (as she refers to herself throughout the text), with higher strength, stamina, and intelligence than the average human.
Shortly into their expedition, the team begins to realize that the Nightflyer is no ordinary ship. First, there’s the curious fact that hired captain Royd Eris only appears to them as a hologram, gently refusing any explanation for his ethereal presence and asking that his passengers respect his privacy. Then, there’s the sense of wrongness aboard the Nighflyer. Telepath Thale becomes increasingly paranoid, sensing a coldness and darkness that he cannot explain closing in on the crew—a coldness that specialist Lomie Thorn senses as well when she tries to connect to the ship’s computer. One by one, the Nightflyer claims each life aboard the ship, just as the Volcryn pull closer. It is up to Melantha and d’Branin to unravel the vessel’s secrets before it is too late, and the Nightflyer claims them all for her own.
Originally published in 1980 as a novella (and then expanded and published in various iterations over the past thirty years), Nightflyers shows a different side of GRRM. Drawing heavily on old-guard science fiction as well as classic horror tropes in terms of plotting and style, Nightflyers feels a lot like Robert Heinlein meets Stephen King in the Twilight Zone—with all of the positives and negatives that come along with them. Among the positives are a killer premise, a rapidly unfolding and evolving storyline, and answers at the end (in true Rod Serling fashion). This is a haunted house story, set on a spaceship, with aliens of questionable origins and motives at the periphery—what is causing the haunting, who is behind the true evil nature of the Nightflyer, and how it all ties together with the interception of the Volcryn is where Martin expends the bulk of his efforts, and it all works really nicely.
Among the negatives, however, are basically anything else one would like in a story: that is, character development, dialogue, and any semblance of empathy. We learn about each of the nine strangers aboard the Nightflyer in a cursory fashion, as Martin describes point-blank how each looks (and therefore how sexually desirable each is to others on the ship) and their importance on the ship based on how important Royd Eris (the holographic captain of the ship) thinks they are. There is no real time spent on character development, voice, or tone; instead there’s a lot of repetitive dialogue (Melantha repeatedly tells everyone that she is three moves ahead of them all because she is a Superior Model) and not enough actual interaction between each of the players to care about them or to even remember their names. As a result, when the body count starts to rack up, it’s hard to feel anything for the ill-fated crew. (Ironically, it’s kind of like the antithesis of Game of Thrones in this way.)
Despite this lack of connection with any of the novel’s core cast, Nightflyers is quick, straightforward, and entertaining but doesn’t really aspire to be more. The haunted house mystery, which may have been novel in 1980, feels entirely predictable in 2018, and the various twists along the way feel more like homage to King and Hitchcock than anything truly memorable.
With all that said, Nightflyers is perfect fodder for a television show, giving plenty of room for character growth and plot development to deepen the mystery of the eponymous ship and the volcryn! The SyFy series airs all throughout December 2018, with the first episode airing Sunday December 2—to mixed results. The premise behind the Nightflyer’s existence seems to remain in tact, but there are a slew of other characters introduced and some interesting choices for backstory introduced in the pilot (most notably: Earth is on the brink of collapse due to plagues and some other vague bad things, therefore intercepting the Volcryn is of paramount importance).
My verdict? It’s worth reading Nightflyers and I’ll be giving the show a few more episodes to win me over. Who doesn’t love a good haunted spaceship for the holidays?
In Book Smugglerish, 6 telekinetic attacks out of 10.