Originally published in 1986, ‘Tuf Voyaging’ contains seven stories largely published in Analog in 1985. You remember 1985, right? ‘Money for Nothing,’ ‘A View to a Kill,’ AIDS, Gorbachev, New Coke, Nintendo, and ‘The Breakfast Club’ all sound familiar? Yeah, that’s right. The year where it seemed like the leaders just wanted to fight, greed was king and the youth movement was all about walking away from the adults in the room. Clearly Martin was tapping into the zeitgeist, because his protagonist Tuf is all about being misunderstood, calling out governments and nobles, and expressing his desire to be left alone with his cats.
The first story is ‘The Plague Star’ and lays the foundation for the rest. A band of four people tied together by greed lights on Tuf as the solution to their transport problems. “The man is an independent trader, of sorts. Not a very successful one… He must be getting desperate–desperate enough, I’d think, so that he’ll jump at this opportunity… He’ll give us no trouble. He’s big, but soft, inside and out. He keeps cats, I hear. Doesn’t much like people. Drinks a lot of beer, eats too much.” It is novella-length at 120 pages and describes just how a humble space trader ends up in possession of an ancient ‘seed’ ship.
The remainder of the stories are basically Tuf going to different places in the universe and ‘solving problems,’ although there’s a reoccurring visit to the Port of S’uthlam, a sophisticated space repair station. ‘Loaves and Fishes’ refers to how Tuf solves the problem of repairs at the Port. At 75 pages it’s the second-longest story, while the remaining ones are under 50. ‘Guardians’ is fishing world beset by leviathans and whom Tuf offers to help. ‘Second Helpings’ is a return to Port looking for another miracle of the fishes. ‘A Beast for Norn’ and ‘Call Him Moses’ are next. You would almost think ‘Beast’ is going to be a morality tale after witnessing how Tuf, a vegetarian, imposes his no-meat rule on anyone visiting his ship, but, not at all. He treats animals as disposably as his clients do. Lastly is ‘Manna From Heaven,’ a final confrontation at the Port which contains a philosophical showdown with the Port Manager.
This felt very old-school sci-fi. The universe felt like it had less to do with cohesive world-building and more the sci-fi version of Star Trek. The ship, you see, is thirty kilometers long, normally crewed by two hundred, but able to be ran–largely–by one person after reading a few manuals. You can clone anything you like, from cat to T.rex, and the defense system includes monsters from the lesser-known pockets of the universe.
It’s a great premise, and I was expecting something along the lines of ‘humble man achieves power and imposes order to chaotic systems,’ but instead it felt like half morality tale, half destructive wish fulfillment fantasy. Much like a djinn, Tuf often obeys the letter of the requests made to him–giving people what they ask for, but not what they need. In exchange, just a few million or so, to help him pay off his own debt. I’d have less problem with it if it wasn’t clear from the story that hundreds, to thousands to millions were suffering while he let the leaders screw around, essentially punishing them until they agreed to his point of view. Early on, the Port Manager makes the point of how absolute power corrupts. While I’m not sure Tuf was corrupted, I think being an asshole plus having an excessive amount of power certainly facilitated his being an asshole on a very large scale. Larger questions of the stability of a society are indirectly referred to as a potential consequence, but neither Tuf nor the reader gets to see them.
I don’t know about you, but I was giving serious consideration to Tuf as George R.R. Martin’s alter ego. Drinking his dark beer, complaining about the quality of food on other planets, and basically complaining about how no one gives him the benefit of the doubt or treats him with suspicion when he does so very badly at conveying his ideas. His solution in ‘Loaves and Fishes’ takes 45 days of him isolating himself and working away without a word to anyone. (I suspect Tuf was working on the outline to GoT). I mean, tell me that this quote doesn’t sound like George commenting on a policy of choice: “Yet, poisonous cynic that I am, I cannot help but suspect that ultimately the S’uthlamese may decide that some lives are more sacred than others.”
I was reminded a great deal of James White’s Sector General series, about a deep-space hospital that catered to beings of all natures. While Tuf Voyaging does manage to avoid a lot of the misogyny and cultural centrism that that time period can be known for, the collection has limitations. ‘Guardians’ is by far the least problematic story, and got Martin nominated for an award or two. Enjoyment hinges on being able to just let details go and see where the ride takes you. Oh, and it helps if you love cats.