Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin

Read February 2021
 ★     ★     1/2

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.

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10 Responses to Tuf Voyaging by George R.R. Martin

  1. I got a lot from the review, and even though it wasn’t a favorite for you, sounds like something I’d like to check out sometime.

    • thebookgator says:

      Excellent, Oliver! I love that that happens–that even if it doesn’t work great for me, other people can pick out what sounds like it might work for them. It’s one of my goals in my somewhat lengthy reviews. 😉

  2. pdtillman says:

    While I haven’t read it in many years, and have no plans to re-read, I liked it more than you did. Especially the cats! And the “tough love” parts. I’ve never quite figured out how GRRM got into the Big Leagues of SF/F writers. But I have no interest in his Big Bash Royal Fantasy blowout. By all (local = NM) accounts, he’s a nice guy, and has been genuinely kind to other NM writers. Points for that! Not so many as to get me to read whatever-it-is.

    Carol (et al.), ICYMI: Scalzi’s WONDERFUL classic, “Automated Customer Service,” https://whatever.scalzi.com/2018/11/19/a-thanksgiving-week-gift-for-you-automated-customer-service/
    “If the Vacuubot Extreme Clean has decided to purge your house of all living things, press three.”

    “What do you mean you’re not willing to electrocute your cat? It’s a cat! It would do the same to you in an instant! Look into its cold, pitiless eyes and tell me it wouldn’t! Press one for obvious agreement, press two if you’ve been duped by this feral interloper in your own home.”

    Great stuff. There’s an audio version too. Narrated by the author? Apparently this started out as an improv routine, then got incorporated into his readings, then he finally wrote it down. Even my wife, who’s allergic to that sci-fi stuff, likes this one. Go for it!

  3. Andreas says:

    This is sitting on my shelf – twice, it’s included in his Dreamsongs collection.
    Martin can do so much better. I‘d rather recommend his Sandkings (https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2020/05/20/sandkings-%e2%80%a2-1979-%e2%80%a2-horror-sf-novelette-by-george-r-r-martin/ ) or even religious SF Way of Cross and Dragon.

  4. I read this novel years ago (I was nineteen and still willing to read almost anything sci-fi), solely because of the dedication page (because I’m a big Roger Zelazny fan, and if this George R. R. Martin guy, someone I’d never even heard of before, was friends with Zelazny…). I can’t say I especially liked it, but because someone literally threatened to kill me for reading it (“Science fiction? You mean like witchcraft?” followed by threats of extreme violence for “devil worship”), I sort of feel that I should defend it anyway. Or something like that.

    To this day, Tuf Voyaging remains the only book by GRRM that I’ve ever read. Don’t feel any desire to read anything else of his. (Also, I no longer feel that I “must” read books by friends of my favorite authors.)

    • thebookgator says:

      Well, of course you must defend yourself–or at least your choice of reads! I have tried a couple of others he’s written. Specifically, I’ve checked out the Wild Cards series (interesting premise, wide variety of authors playing in the universe) and A Song of Fire and Ice (I bounced off it). I too no longer look to author’s friends, as Ilona Andrews has burned me on that one. But I absolutely agree on Roger Zelazny.

    • pdtillman says:

      carol.:” Wild Cards series (interesting premise, wide variety of authors playing in the universe”
      Yeah. Some of the stories were first rate. Some cringe-worthy. I think the premise (superpowers from, what, Dr Who?) has likely been worked out. For me anyway…. And FWTW!

  5. I haven’t read “Tuf Voyaging” stories since they were new in Analog. I have fond memories of those younger days. The quality was good enough to have me seeking out Martin’s name at the bookstore, and with generally positive experiences. Then “Game of Thrones” came out and burned me. I mourned the loss of a favourite author who had dropped to such abysmal levels. (and subsequent TV adaptations did not change my mind)

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