Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tuf Voyaging - George R.R. Martin

Early in his career George R.R. Martin was not particularly good at finishing series. A lot of his 1970s stories leave openings for sequels that never got written. Tuf is a bit of an exception in that respect. Martin wrote enough of them to fill a book. In a way, we have to commercial failure of The Armageddon Rag (1983) to thank for it. Martin couldn't get his fifth novel sold and abandoned it eventually. He had a contract for a Tuf collection though, and he needed money quite badly at the time. The result is this book. Not that it is a complete of course. Martin had ideas for more stories, after the publication of this collection in 1986 there was even talk of a full novel. None of that ever happened. Martin left for Hollywood and got into A Song of Ice and Fire later. It looks unlikely that more Tuf stories will appear. Not any time soon anyway. A shame really, rereading this collection left me with the feeling Martin was not yet done with this character.

Tuf Voyaging is sometimes mentioned to be a novel, sometimes a fixup and sometimes a collection. I think it is the last. In fact, if you approach this work as a novel, you'll be disappointed. Martin wrote them as short stories and although there is a bit of development in Tuf's character, there isn't much of an overarching storyline. The oldest story of the bunch, A Beast for Norn  appeared in 1976 but Martin rewrote it quite a bit for this collection. The original version can be found in the massive collection Dreamsongs and was first published in an Orbit anthology called Andromeda I. All others Tuf stories ended up with Analog between 1978 and 1985. That last year was particularly productive for Tuf, with no less than four stories appearing. Martin also added a brief prologue to the collection to gather everything together.

The collection  presents the stories chronologically and starts with The Plague Star (1985). It tells the tale of Tuf taking a group of adventurer out to a derelict spaceship that the party's leader thinks is a huge, ancient seedship from the a huge war fought more than a thousand years ago. The builders had very advanced knowledge of genetics and ecology, making the ship, if intact, very valuable. In this story we meet a Tuf that is almost comic. He's calm and very much in control of the situation even when it appears he's not. He's also verbose, eccentric and seems a little naive. He seems blissfully unaware of the backstabbing that is about to break out yet somehow seems to come out on top.Tuf has reinvented himself as ecological engineer. He now wields the power to shape or destroy entire planets. He has, in other worlds, become a god.

There is a lot of religious symbolism in these stories. Lots of biblical references are sprinkled throughout the text. Martin uses the miracle of loaves and fishes, the ten plagues brought down on Egypt and the manna that feeds the Jews in the Sinai in Exodus all find their way into the stories. At one point Tuf even pretends to be Yahweh to bring a wayward religious leader to heel.  Absolute power and the use of it is an important theme in these stories. Tuf uses his power as he sees fit and seems to have inhibitions about ending ways of life forever, wiping out whole ecosystems or waging biological wars. Tuf feels entitled to make these decisions without consultation. He goes from unassuming to almost tyrannical over the course of the collection. If Martin does write a sequel, it would be interesting to see what Tuf would do if he screws up.

Having taking control of the Ark, as the spaceship is called, Tuf proceeds to the planet of S'uthlam where he hopes to get the damage to his ship accumulated over a millennium fixed. As the name suggests, the planet is in a permanent state of Malthusian crisis. The majority of the population beliefs it is their holy duty to procreate and does so at an alarming rate. Tuf himself, when he finally finds out the size of the population of the planet, responds with a typical understatement.
"Since you solicit my opinion, Portmaster, I shall venture to say  that while the world above us seems formidably large, I cannot but wonder if it is indeed large enough. Without intending any censure of your mores, culture, and civilization, the thought does occur to me that a population of thirty-nine billion persons might be considered, on the whole, to be a trifle excessive."
Tuf talking to portmaster Tolly Mune in Loaves and Fishes.
Mune, interestingly as much opposed to the enormous growth the the population of the planet, is one of the few characters in the story who seriously tries to make Tuf see the problematic way in which he uses the Ark and makes his decisions. Mune and her troubled planet appear in three stories in this collection, making it the spine of Tuf's adventures. Loaves and Fishes, Second Helpings and Manna from the Heavens were all first published in 1985 and contain most of Tuf's development as a character.

Tuf's adventures on S'uthlam can also be seen as commentary on the overpopulation that is one of the main driving forces in environmental degradation all over the planet. One of the strategies Tuf (himself a vegetarian) proposes is the replace all sorts of inefficient foodstuffs (read meat) by much higher yielding, if not always tasteful, alternatives. Tuf realizes that in the face of exponential population growth, this is just a stopgap measure however and that the real solution much be found in birth control. That is one theme where I think the collection could have used a bit more depth. The ethical dilemma is outlined but never really discussed or shown in much detail.

In between de stories dealing with S'uthlam, Tuf visits several other planet. In Guardians (1981) he brokers a piece between humans and an, until Tuf's intervention unrecognized, sentient species. In A Beast for Norn (1976) he end animal fighting in a roundabout way and in Call Him Moses (1978), he stops a fanatical religious leader with a few biological tricks up his sleeve. It's in these stories that you can tell Martin's knowledge of ecology is basic. In the stories dealing with S'uthlam, he needs to employ the entire ecosystem for food production, basically redesigning it completely. In the other stories, he just meddles and the consequences of this could be dramatic.

Tuf tends to introduces species to fix certain biological problems. If experience on Earth is any guide, this almost always backfires in some way. Think of rabbits overrunning Australia, the unbelievable damage rats can do on islands where they are introduced, the devastation caused by the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, the list of examples in endless an costly in both ecological and economical sense. In A Beast for Norn, in which Martin introduces two dozen alien species to a planet, when confronted with the fact that he ruined the planet's ecosystem and crashed it's economy he remarks:
"Unlikely," said Tuf. "My experience is these matters suggests that Lyronica may indeed suffer a certain interlude of ecological instability and hardship, yet it will be of limited duration and ultimately I have no doubt that a new ecosystem will emerge. It appears unlikely that this successor ecology will offer niches for large predators, alas, but I am optimistic that the quality of Lyronican life will be otherwise unimpaired.
Tuf speaking to one of his customers in A Beast for Norn.
Now that would be a remarkable feat of ecological engineering. Doing away with an entire trophic level of an ecology doesn't strike me as a good way to keep the productivity and complexity of an ecosystem in tact.

Ecology is still a subject a lot of science fiction steers clear of. Martin gives it a try in this collection but on the whole it is closer to a satirical work than a scientifically accurate one. That being said, I did enjoy reading this collection again. The humour is part of it, but I also simply enjoyed the writing. Despite writing them out of chronological order, Martin manages to get a development in the character from a humble and eccentric trader in The Plague Star to a near megomaniac Manna from the Heavens. I've seen many review stating there is no character development in Tuf. I respectfully disagree with that. It is more subtle than in some of his stories, but it is most certainly there. One other thing I appreciate about Tuf Voyaging is that it underlines that Martin is just as comfortably writhing short stories as he is writing huge fantasy novels. Martin is a versatile writer, capable of writing more then fantasy novels alone. As much as I like A Song of Ice and Fire, I still think Martin's best work is in his short fiction and Tuf is one example of that. Don't approach it as a novel and don't expect epic fantasy and you might just end up liking what Martin has done here.

Book Details
Title: Tuf Voyaging
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Meisha Merlin
Pages: 440
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-59222-004-5
First published: 1986

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