While George R. R. Martin is definitely best known for his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series of books, it may surprise you to find out that the larger than life author was born in 1948, meaning that he will turn sixty-seven this year! The first novel in the saga; A Game Of Thrones, was released in 1996, nine years ago now. So what did Mr. R. R. Martin get up to for the first fifty-five years of his life? Well it turns out he was writing really good stories. From his 1960s fanfiction submissions to comic ‘fanzines’ to Hugo award winning short stories, everything that he has written is top tier. While you should definitely pick up anything and everything with his name attached, here is my personal top ten:
10. Tales Of Dunk And Egg (1998-2010)
Let’s get the stories set in the world of Westeros out of the way first. Tales of Dunk and Egg is a collection of three (with more to come maybe) short stories, following the hedge knight Ser Duncan (Dunk for short) and his unlikely travelling companion Prince Aegon Targaryen, through various adventures that I am deliberately not describing here to avoid spoilers. The stories are set roughly ninety years before the events in A Game Of Thrones. Martin does an excellent job populating his world with interesting ancestors to the characters that we already know and love (or hate) from the main series. Targaryens still rule the world; Lannisters are good guys, and the Green apple Fossoways and Red apple Fossoways are still just ‘the Fossoways’.
These stories manage to be excellent stand alone tales in their own right, but for fans of the main series, it’s well worth the read to get the extra insight into the background of Westeros, and the people who live in it.
9. The Princess and The Queen (2013)
The other story set in the world of Westeros on this list is The Princess and the Queen, written for the short story collection ‘Dangerous Woman’ (which is excellent and you should read the whole thing). The stand out entry of the collection was this thirty-five hundred word tale of petty Targaryen matriarchs fighting over who gets to sit on the iron throne next. As with Tales of Dunk and Egg, this story is set in the past. But this time, Martin went even further backwards. This story takes place a full two hundred years before Game of Thrones, and that means dragons! Every member of the Targaryen family rides a fire breathing dragon into combat, and without giving too much away, I can tell you that it makes for excellent reading.
Apart from the fact that it has dragons the story manages to be an excellent offering, covering years and countless plot twists and developments despite its short format. It sacrifices a bit of finer detail to achieve this, but the end result is a very satisfying read. Plus, did I mention that there are dragons?
8. Tuf Voyaging (1986)
Now we move away from the familiar fantasy setting, into speculative science fiction. Tuf Voyaging follows the vegetarian pacifist Haviland Tuf as he travels the galaxy in a gigantic military ‘seed ship’, possessing lost technology capable of recreating any species of animal, vegetable, or germ in the galaxy. The story was initially written as a series of short stories submitted to science fiction magazines over many years, so each story is mostly self contained, and the transition from chapter to chapter can be a little jarring sometimes, but every story collected within is cleverly told, and Martin always has a greater point to make, or a penetrating question to ask the reader. If you need more convincing, the opening chapter of the book features a female space mercenary chasing Tuf through the interior of his ship on the back of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And somehow the author pulls this off without having it feel over the top or ridiculous. Later on there’s a psychic cat, and weaponized jellyfish. Very much worth a read or two.
7. Meathouse Man (1976)
This tale is not for the faint of heart. George himself describes this story on his blog as “the darkest, bleakest, sickest, most twisted thing I ever wrote.”
Meathouse man gives us a look at a gritty future where human life has such little value, that prisoners and the poor, (along with “rumours of cruise liners going missing during the quieter periods”) have their brains removed, and are turned into psychically controlled human puppets known as ‘corpses’ to be used for tasks like hard labour and sex (The titular Meathouse is a brothel full of these ‘corpses’). Our protagonist is a lonely corpse ‘driver’ who is looking for happiness and a deeper human experience, but cannot escape the fact that his one great skill seems to be controlling these zombie puppets.
Meathouse man is shocking, bleak, and hard to read, (it was commissioned by Harlan Ellison for a horror compilation) but it is a powerful experience, and definitely worth reading if you can find it.
6. The Second Kind of Loneliness (1972)
Another powerful science fiction tale, The Second Kind of Loneliness, centers around an unnamed protagonist who, when faced with rejection by the love of his life, volunteered to do a months-long stint alone manning the ‘cerberus ring,’ a space station out past Pluto that acts as a gate for a wormhole to distant galaxies.
The Second Kind of Loneliness is presented as a journal, while our protagonist counts down the days until his replacement arrives and he can return to Earth and other human contact. It is a deeply introspective tale, and there are some powerful, but not often talked about, emotions running through the narrative that make the main character pitiable, but still relatable.
5. With Morning Comes Mistfall (1976)
Should science try to explain everything? Should all the dark corners of the universe be probed? Should we leave some mystery for the sake of mystery? This is the question posed in With Morning Comes Mistfall.
Set at a resort on a mountain peak on an otherwise perpetually mist-covered and largely uncharted planet, the story revolves around the conflict between the resort owner and a young scientist out to make a name for himself. The former is a romantic, who relies on the mysterious legendary ‘banshees’ who live in the mist to drive tourists to his business. The latter is a man determined to reveal the truth, who will not compromise and has no sense of humour or romance for the strange, beautiful world. The protagonist is a reporter caught up in the middle of it all. I won’t spoil whether the banshees are proven to exist or not, but the world that Martin describes here is beautiful and captivating, and you’ll find yourself wanting to visit in any case.
4. The Ice Dragon (1980)
Finally: something written by George R R Martin that you can let your kids read. (Please, please, do not ever let your children read Meathouse Man!) The Ice Dragon is the tale of a girl with no emotions who doesn’t feel the cold, and ruins her family through selfishness and inaction…
Oh wait, actually that’s the plot of the not-for-kids short story that the children’s book of the same name is based on. It turns out that the kid’s book is a much nicer tale, with a much happier ending and warm fuzzies for all. If you can find the original though, then give it a read, they’re both excellent stories, although the original is a bit light on happy endings, and has a bit more ‘marauding army slaughtering the protagonist’s family.’
3. The Pear Shaped Man (1991)
Pure psychological horror done slowly and patiently, The Pear Shaped Man is a strange and pitiable creature who lives under the stairs, smells a bit funny, has no social skills and consumes nothing but Cheez Doodles and Coca-Cola. I don’t know what else I can say about this very strange story without spoiling anything, but this story manages to consistently feel creepy from beginning to end. The Pear Shaped Man manages to be ominous and threatening, despite being short, fat, and a bit slow mentally. George R. R. Martin really shows off his horror writing skills here. This is a story that will stick with you for years and will probably put you off cheesy snacks forever.
2. A Song for Lya (1975)
A Song for Lya is another excellent piece of science fiction. This short story follows two telepathic detectives who happen to be lovers. Their mission is to investigate a strange colony world, where the human population is overwhelmingly adopting the local alien tradition of giving themselves over to a parasitic goo that slowly consumes its host. The setting and synopsis sound like bad 1950s pulp sci-fi, but in the hands of George R. R. Martin, this story is a deeply emotional and haunting tale that explores the meaning of love, commitment, vulnerability, and whether we can ever really know another person.
1. Sandkings (1979)
George wrote about Sandkings “I finished writing it, and thought hey… no one hits a home run every time.” Sandkings then went on to be his most popular piece of writing outside of the game of thrones universe. The story even inspired the very first episode of The Outer Limits TV series in 1995.
Sandkings captures whatever instinct it is that makes games like Pokémon so likable, while also giving us a dark, emotional journey (because doing that is kind of George R. R. Martin’s thing). A rich man with a borderline sociopathic lack of empathy goes looking for a dangerous and exciting new pet. What he finds are the sandkings – semi-sentient, castle-like creatures that produce soulless drones to do battle with any other sandking hive in the area. If you place two of these hives in a cage, the drones will do endless battle against each other until only one hive remains. Ethical questions abound, and the characters of Sandkings will commit more than one atrocity before the story comes full circle. Sandkings is a deeply satisfying read.