George R.R. Martin – Tuf Voyaging (1986) Review

Tuf Voyaging

  • Genre: science fiction
  • pages: 435
  • My rating: 6/10

Long before George R.R. Martin became a household name due to his great success with A Song of Ice and Fire, he used to write science fiction. Mostly short stories, written in the 70s and 80s. Now, with the success of his epic fantasy series, publishes saw an opportunity to re-issue his short stories in a couple of nice editions. Most of these stories are now collected in a two-volume collection named Dreamsongs, but here we have third collection – Tuf Voyaging – that binds a handful of his stories together with a shared theme.

Tuf Voyaging hold seven short stories about an astronaut named Haviland Tuf. Martin wrote all these seven stories sometime between 1978 and 1986. Haviland Tuf is a space trader who comes into the possession of a powerful spacecraft, which used to be a ship of the Ecological Engineering Corps. With this spacecraft, Tuf holds the power to tackle all the various problems of the human settlers in their colonies on faraway worlds. So begins Tuf’s adventures in space, where he has to use his ingenuity to deal with the strangest problems.

Tuf is not a typical action hero. Tall, bald, overweight, with a fondness for cats; a bit like the guy who plays Varys in the Game of Thrones TV series. Martin wanted his stories to have a dark comedy in them, in the way that Jack Vance used to present his stories. The premise of Tuf helping out people on other planets with ingenuity also sounds very similar to Stanislaw Lem’s Cyberiad and The Star Diaries. But Jack Vance’s influence is the strongest, and immediately recognizable in Haviland Tuf’s speech patterns. But since Tuf is the only one speaking in a dry, elaborate manner, he comes across as an odd person.

Whether these stories work for you, depends on whether you like Tuf and whether the rather simple plotlines interest you at all. The stories themselves are very episodic with colorful characters, and Tuf himself is somewhat of an oddity. He is unsociable, patronizing and his manner of speaking can work on your nerves, so much so that I often fully understood those who got mad at him. In Jack Vance’s stories, it worked because Vance’s entire style had a dark comedy of manners to it (and he was a better writer than early Martin), but when your main character is the only one acting weird, he turns into a self-centered dickhead.

Tuf Voyaging2

I like this French cover

So, he is unlikable. But he is also a unique character to find its way into a space story. He’s memorable, at least.

The stories:

The Plague Star. Our introduction to Haviland, and the story of how he got his powerful ship Ark. A motley group of traders, a mercenary, an android, a soldier and a scientist team up to search for an ancient artifact of immense value, and they hire Haviland and his crappy little ship to fly them there. The story moves fast, but its plot is pretty standard and the characters are cartoonish. Lots of action and infodumps, but nothing about it is intriguing. The whole thing reminded me of a Saturday-morning cartoon. 3/5

Loaves and Fishes. Tuf flies his ship to an overpopulated planet for repairs. For the deal, he solves a famine with his bioengineering ship. This story works better because the amount of cartoonish side characters is thinned down. Tuf mainly interacts with Tolly Mune, a practical old woman. She is a good counterweight to Tuf. The story just shows Tuf solving the problem without breaking a sweat, the end. There wasn’t much to it. 3.5/5

Guardians. Tuf flies to a planet that is terrorized by sea-monsters. He comes up with a solution and rather arrogantly shows that everyone was stupid and should have listened to him. I’m not sure what a story like this is supposed to accomplish. Tuf gets a comeuppance but he is not shown as a sympathetic character at all. The story has no further surprises. 3/5

Second Helpings. We are back at Tolly Mune’s. The Mune stories are the best of the collection. This one starts out great but sort of fizzles out without a conclusion. It is a ham-fisted commentary on religion and population growth and Haviland Tuf uses his cats for passive aggressive communication. 3/5

A Beast for Norn. Tuf is asked to clone a monster for an arena fight. Tuf has no stomach for this tradition and has a devious idea. Rather predictable. 3/5

Call him Moses. This story is just awful. Tuf takes an indentured slave, showing what an ass he is. He turns into a monster. It’s full of mediocre religious tropes. Tuf is too wordy, the story is tedious, full of infodumps and takes forever to get to the point. 1/5

Manna From Heaven. By this point I could hardly bring myself to read another one, but this was the last Tolly Mune story. Tuf returns again to the planet of overpopulation, devices another solution. He’s convinced that he should play god now. 3/5

I have no reasons left to recommend these stories. I’m very underwhelmed and had trouble getting through it. This is clearly the work of a starting writer who is yet to develop a finer sense of character depth. The stories themselves are also rather bland and play out in predictable ways. The action is cartoonish and the universe gets no more than a surface-level presentation, full of second-rate tropes. What confuses me the most is what Martin’s plan was for the characterization of Haviland Tuf. Martin confused Vance’s brilliant style for verbosity, and Tuf’s monologues are annoying instead of funny. He is an arrogant, difficult man and seeing him being right gives no comedy or sense of justice. And he just gets worse as the stories unfold.

I think it was with good reason that Martin’s Tuf stories disappeared into obscurity, and only with the success of A Song of Ice and Fire were they dusted off for a reprint. They seemed intriguing at first glance, but even halfway through the first story I got a sinking feeling in my stomach that this was going to be bad. Seven Haviland Tuf stories was too much, because they are very repetitive as well. If you’re looking for funny mannerisms and a rich universe full of rather brilliant throwaway ideas about interplanetary civilization, you will be better off with Jack Vance and Stanislaw Lem.

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