WFR’s 101 Weird Writers #22 — George R.R. Martin

The Colonial Nightmare in "Sandkings"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

george-r-r-martin-imageGeorge R.R. Martin (1948 – ) is an American writer of fantasy and science fiction best-known for his Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, which contains its share of weird supernatural elements. According to myth, he began his career selling monster stories to other neighborhood children for pennies. Subsequent work has won many awards, including the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. Despite readers’ strong association of Martin with fantasy fiction, Martin’s devotion to the horror field has been life-long. Classics in this mode from Martin include the truly terrifying “Nightflyers” (1980), the disquieting “The Pear-Shaped Man” (1987), and the stunningly weird SF story reprinted in The Weird, “Sandkings” (1979), winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. 101 Weird Writers is proud to present this appreciation of Martin and “Sandkings,” written by returning contributor Elwin Cotman.

– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”

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The whites, his favorite, had carved a cruel idiot god.

A nation in economic downfall, its great cities turned to cesspools of crime. A humiliating defeat in a far eastern war. A leader exiled in disgrace. Meanwhile, the civil insurrections of recent years have descended into ennui, the hope they once offered turned to complacency. This is the United States in the year 1979, an atmosphere rife for the gritty media that defined the period. George R.R. Martin, though a young writer, proved adept at capturing this zeitgeist.

Before his two-decade sojourn in Westeros, Martin was an author of genre-bending science fiction, set in a universe called the Thousand Worlds. Like his influence Robert E. Howard, he built this universe story by story, every piece adding scope and history. Humanity has reached the stars, bringing along our greed, avarice, fanaticism, and crime. We have also brought our alienation, our inability to relate to others. Many of these stories focus on the struggles to colonize planets where both the inhabitants and landscape are inhospitable. The Dying Earth scenario, reminiscent of Jack Vance, is a recurring theme, most notably in Martin’s novel Dying of the Light. The planets we discover may be wastelands where winter has come, but we colonize them, anyway, if for no other reason than pure hubris. As Martin is writing in the nuclear age, he has the same cynical view towards technology. In “Meathouse Man” and “Bitterblooms,” futuristic tech only exacerbates the characters’ loneliness and isolation.

Then there are stories like “And Seven Times Never Kill Man,” in which the encounter with the indigenous population wreaks havoc on the missionaries who try to convert them. Or the natives of “The Stone City” who won’t let the explorers leave. Or the vampires and windwolves who make life hell in “Bitterblooms.” Or “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” in which the brutality of the Catholic Church cannot sway the indigenous from their spiritual views. As happened in reality, the church has to offer high-ranking positions to aliens who they secretly despise. No matter their intentions, the arrogance of the colonists is always met with resistance from the planets’ original occupants. The era in which Buck Rogers or John Carter could conquer a world with fists and flashing swords was long gone.

Martin’s open-eyed look at colonial failure is representative of post-Vietnam American literature. The war itself was a remnant of French colonialism, inherited by the US from the dying French empire; the long, slow defeat in Vietnam is still a black eye for America. First published in Omni, “Sandkings” deals with the colonial nightmare: that of the colonized rising up to take back their land. It is filled with the dry humor and cynicism that would later define Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series.

“Sandkings” is a tale in the EC Comics tradition, in which a Bad Person suffers a moral comeuppance that is both ironic and fatal. Martin establishes that Simon Kress is a rotten sort by the way he treats his pets, setting the scene with noir-like proficiency:

The shambler Kress simply shooed outside and left to fend for itself; the little monster would gorge on slugs and birds and rock jocks. But the fish tank, stocked with genuine earth piranha, posed a difficulty. Finally Kress just threw a haunch of beef into the huge tank. The piranha could always eat one another if he were detained longer than expected. They’d done it before. It amused him.

Inevitability is the crux of horror. When the protagonist is sympathetic, the reader fears for their safety, knowing the inevitable is coming for them. This is true for many of Martin’s early stories, where the sadness of his characters is magnified by the inevitability of fate. Many stories, but not “Sandkings.” Martin can famously make the vilest characters sympathetic. Not in “Sandkings.” Simon Kress is a villain through and through; the fun is in seeing how much he is punished before the end.

Yet he is also, in his way, as romantic as other Martin protagonists. He yearns for the exciting, the exotic, but wants it in a way that he can control. This is shown when he goes to the city of Asgard. Everything about alien cultures is commoditized: “The big corporate emporiums had impressive long windows, in which rare and costly alien artifacts reposed on felt cushions against dark drapes . . . Between them were the junk shops—narrow, nasty little places whose display areas were crammed with all manner of off world bric-a-brac.” Colonists can only experience the Other if it is turned into a product, something they can safely put in their homes. Actually respecting these planets they steal resources from is unthinkable.

The arrogant and thoroughly unlikable playboy has a taste for exotic pets. At the establishment of Wo and Shade, he is introduced to the sandkings: insect-like pets who come in colors of red, black, orange, and white. Sandkings wage sophisticated war on each other. They are hive-mind creatures birthed from a queen called the “maw.” They also worship their owner, building his or her image on the towers of their sandcastles. Seizing the opportunity to play god, Kress buys them for his fish tank. Kress is bored. He is petty. He doesn’t think things through.

The world of “Sandkings” is not dying, but desolate. Kress’ existence is an isolated one, taking place between the fortress-like security of his mansion and the starport of Asgard. The land itself is filled with volcanoes and arid deserts, forcing businessmen like Kress to hole up in their mansions. When Kress is finally forced to leave his house, he finds the climate itself as deadly as any monster. Despite living on an alien world, he can only experience the alien as a condescending voyeur/master. Tellingly, the only bipedal aliens who appear in the story are laborers.

Martin uses pulp elements to describe a colonized world, one of them being orientalism. While this would later become a source of criticism towards his writing, here the Asian references are at service to the story. Besides Jala Wo’s vaguely Asian-sounding name, the way Martin describes the emporium brings to mind narratives of Chinese curiosity shops. Jala Wo plays the part of the mysterious proprietor, at turns both sinister and obsequious. Martin populates Asgard with junk shops and brothels, like a pulp version of Shanghai. Only this time, the curios are genuinely alien. The sandkings are aliens among aliens; an off-world beast that there is no information on. They are the colonial nightmare represented as a literal nightmare, an inhuman thing we can’t possibly understand. In many ways, they inhabit stereotypes of native peoples: horde-like, violent, worshipful of their conquerors, perpetually breeding. Martin appropriates the colonial narrative to explode the whole situation in Kress’ face.

In the confines of his home, Kress plays god. The whites flourish, the oranges are the lowly underdogs, and the reds and blacks prove resilient warriors. He starves the sandkings to make them fight. He invites friends to witness the battles. He makes bets, pitting his sandkings against spiders, snakes, and dogs. All the while, they carve Kress’ face into their castles. Martin draws humor from the dry detachment of Kress’ evil. “He knew some of [his guests] would be discomfited and even offended by his sandkings . . . He customarily considered his parties a failure unless at least one guest walked out in high dudgeon.” There is a critique of religion in his cruelty; humans are incapable of envisioning a god who is unlike us. Kress is as petty and narcissistic as the Old Testament Jehovah. The sandkings’ carvings reflect his degeneracy:

The face on the wall was still his. But it was all wrong, all twisted. His cheeks were bloated and piggish; his smile was a crooked leer. He looked impossibly malevolent.

Uneasy, he moved around the tank to inspect the other castles. They were each a bit different, but ultimately all the same.

The oranges had left out most of the fine detail, but the result still seemed monstrous, crude; a brutal mouth and mindless eyes.

The reds gave him a satanic, twitching sort of smile. His mouth did odd, unlovely things at its corners.

The whites, his favorites, had carved a cruel idiot god.

As a short story writer, Martin is adept at developing his high-concept scenarios, following them through to the end. He lovingly describes the evolution of the sandkings and how they wage war, setting up his Chekhov’s guns. In order to stay entertained, Kress escalates the abuse, and, once freed, the sandkings escalate. Like any failed conqueror, Kress uses violence to maintain control. His “vengeful god” moment, in which he shoots pesticide on the united black and red armies, has a wonderful punchline when the sandkings bite through the hose. The human’s drunken actions grow increasingly illogical, while the enemy’s grow more sophisticated. It is not the viciousness of the sandkings that creates horror, but their gradual increase in strength and power. They get bigger. The iron sword that Kress uses to kill a human only wounds the maw. By the time the white maw is psychically controlling Kress’ emotions, he has been thoroughly outclassed.

There is an element of fun to the way Martin blends science fiction and horror. The futuristic elements come fast and furious, but are never overwhelming. Martin never describes what a “shambler” is, or how “joysticks” work, or how to fly a “skimmer,” or the exact mechanics of a “skinthin” suit. In other stories, he elaborates on his futuristic concepts. “Sandkings” deliberately keeps to the vague science of a Flash Gordon strip, so that the horror is ever at the forefront.

The story is also a parody of the aristocracy in colonized lands. The “friends” who attend Kress’ parties are silly, narcotized bourgeoisie who delight in cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Every word out of their mouths is affected. When Kress starts using them as bait for the white maw, it becomes pure slapstick. For instance, when he kills one of his girlfriends: “She screamed as she tumbled down the stairs. Kress closed the door and began to nail it shut with the boards and air hammer he had left for that purpose.” This hurried construction is straight out of Looney Tunes. The wealthy colonials are vain and stupid, the colonial police are corrupt. The story’s sole semi-heroic act from its sole sympathetic character—Cath m’Lane’s liberation of the sandkings—is even played for laughs. Cath comes across as more histrionic than righteous when she takes vengeance for Kress sending her a video of the sandkings eating a puppy. In the EC Comics tradition, Kress engineers his own downfall, the bumbling murders part of the irony. This fool is as oblivious as the courtiers who Poe fed to the Red Death.

Bringing horror into the home is the greatest breach of social contract. This is especially true when that horror is the Other. The sandkings overrun Kress’ manor, building castles in his wine cellar and swimming pool. The Vietnam parallels become strongest when Kress’ hires hitmen to deal with them, and his lawn turns into a battle with flamethrowers, foxholes, and aerial bombings. All the technology at their disposal cannot defeat the sandkings, who are part of the earth itself. The conquest of the master’s home is quintessential to the colonial nightmare. First, the slaves are freed. Then, the plantation is overrun. Finally, the greatest fear of the colonist: usurpation.

The idea of humanity viewing its own evolutionary obsolescence appears in several Martin stories, such as the human-alien hybrids in “Fast-Friend” that enable space travel. In going to space, we have made ourselves more isolated, more despondent, and ultimately outmoded. Questions of humanity arise. Is evolution a step up, or usurpation by a superior force? Thanks to Kress’ personal intervention, the sandkings evolve, and it is a horrifying prospect for humanity’s future. “One of the sandkings had split open. Four tiny hands covered with pinkish-yellow blood came up out of the gap and began to push the dead skin aside.” They are stronger than humans, and certainly smarter. The revenge of the oranges—with its nightmare-inducing final image—is nothing less than the emergence of a new race.

To the colonizer, the colonized will always be frightening. Even defeated, they will be there, plotting, waiting to take back the land. Martin has famously said that writing is about the heart’s struggle with itself. I would posit that Martin’s work is about the romantic versus the pragmatic; how we maintain our illusions in the face of reality. The illusion of religion. The illusion of magic. The illusion of our own place as in the universe. “Sandkings” is a sad slog, not only towards usurpation, but obsolescence. A vision of our possible future in space, told through these strange pets, their evolution, and the cruel idiot they wreak havoc on.

Elwin Cotman is the author of The Jack Daniels Sessions EP, and the upcoming story collection Hard Times Blues. He blogs at www.lookmanoagent.blogspot.com.