In George R.R. Martin’s 1981 science fiction thriller ‘Nightflyer,’ the possibilities raised by a long journey and a malevolent force are thwarted by bad company

January 26, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Jan. 26, 2019

As a youngster, I loved almost everything about space. If I found a book, movie or TV show with a spaceship in it, I wanted to read or watch it.

This enthusiasm has persisted into my adult, albeit in somewhat diminished strength. (I still haven’t seen Solo: A Star Wars Story, for instance, and it took me months to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi.) These days, I’m especially intrigued by science fiction stories concerning mysteries or atrocities committed aboard a spaceship — for instance, Event Horizon or Supernova.

Given that background, you can understand why I was excited to run across George R.R. Martin’s 1981 novel Nightflyers in my library’s online catalog. Unfortunately, my enjoyment of the book’s potentially dynamite scenario was tempered by my disinterest in the 10 travelers whom the author imperils.

The spaceship in question is an independent merchant vessel called the Nightflyer. Its reclusive captain, Royd Eris, remains ensconced in his quarters, covertly monitoring much of what his passengers say and do. The vessel has been chartered by one Karoly d’Branin, resident of the planet Avalon. The academician’s team of explorers hope to make humanity’s first known rendezvous with an enigmatic interstellar vessel. The target and its scattered fleet of fellow travelers have been dubbed the volcryn by races closer to the galactic core, which have witnessed and whispered about the silent objects’ unhurried journeys over the millennia.

Martin, best known as the author of the popular fantasy saga “A Song of Ice and Fire” that inspired the hit HBO show Game of Thrones, sets his story in a far future where humans have used faster-than-light flux stardrive to spread across much of the galaxy. Our race long ago made contact with other intelligent species, and humanity has settled so many planets that Earth is an afterthought to the book’s characters.

Genetic manipulation is common on some planets, such as Prometheus, homeworld of Melantha Jhirl. Yet this “cultural xenologist,” the closest Nightflyers has to a hero, is mainly distinguished by her off-putting arrogance.

The HBO series based on Martin’s epic fantasy is infamous for disappointing fans by killing off their favorite characters. But this tale is mainly populated by folks who range from actively unpleasant to slightly unpleasant; none of the expedition members seem like the kind of person who would hold your interest at a party for more than five or 10 minutes. The best I can say about any of them is that a few are blandly inoffensive, such as how this pair come off in one early section of the book:

Lommie Thorne spent most of her days in the cargo hold they had designated as the computer room, setting up the system they would use to analyze the volcryn. As often as not, the xenotech Alys Northwind came with her to lend a hand. The cyberneticist whistled as she worked; Northwind obeyed her orders in a sullen silence. Occasionally they talked.

“Eris isn’t human,” Lommie Thorne said one day, as she supervised the installation of a display view screen.

Alys Northwind grunted. “What?” A frown broke across her square, flat features. Christopheris and his talk had made her nervous about Eris. She clicked another component into position, and turned.

“He talks to us, but he can’t be seen,” the cyberneticist said. “This ship is uncrewed, seemingly all automated except for him. Why not entirely automated, then? I’d wager this Royd Eris is a fairly sophisticated computer system, perhaps a genuine Artificial Intelligence. Even a modest program can carry on a blind conversation indistinguishable from a human’s. This one could fool you, I’d bet, once it’s up and running.”

The xenotech grunted and turned back to her work. “Why fake being human, then?”

“Because,” said Lommie Thorne, “most legal systems give AIs no rights. A ship can’t own itself, even on Avalon. The Nightflyer is probably afraid of being seized and disconnected.” She whistled. “Death, Alys; the end of self-awareness and conscious thought.”

“I work with machines every day,” Alys Northwind said stubbornly. “Turn them off, turn them on, makes no difference. They don’t mind. Why should this machine care?”

Lommie Thorne smiled. “A computer is different, Alys,” she said. “Mind, thought, life, the big systems have all of that.” Her right hand curled around her left wrist, and her thumb began idly rubbing the nubs of her [cybernetic interface] implant. “Sensation, too. I know. No one wants the end of sensation. They are not so different from you and I, really.”

The xenotech glanced back and shook her head. “Really,” she repeated, in a flat, disbelieving voice.

Royd Eris listened and watched, unsmiling.

The strange questions surrounding the nature of Nightflyer’s commander, and the promise of some kind of horror, and of a mystery to be solved and a murderer to be apprehended, did hold my interest for a while. But by the time mayhem starts afflicting the voyagers, I was so frustrated by the unpleasant, uninteresting group of characters that I couldn’t work up much excitement about how or whether any of them might survive the journey.

Incidentally, Nightflyers was adapted last year as a TV miniseries by Syfy; the only notices of it that I happened to see were tepid at best. Based on my lack of enjoyment of the source material, of course, I won’t be in any hurry to watch it.

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