A thousand years ago the old Earth Empire collapsed. Most of its amazing technology was lost and the galaxy settled back into a period of decline. But one of the Empire's old seedships, the Ark, has been rediscovered. With its cargo of ferocious beasts and genetically-engineered plagues, the Ark can lay waste to entire star systems. Fortunately for the galaxy, its new owner is the morally-minded and fussy merchant Haviland Tuf. Accompanied only his crew of telepathic cats, Tuf sets out on a voyage that will take him to many worlds...and many problems.
George R.R. Martin began writing stories about Haviland Tuf in the mid-1970s. In the mid-1980s, following the disastrous performance of the novel The Armageddon Rag and his move into Hollywood, Martin was convinced to repackage the old stories with several new ones to make a "fix-up" novel, one book formed from several smaller tales. The result, Tuf Voyaging, sold reasonably and kick-started Martin's literary career again, leading to the Wild Cards series and, a decade later, A Game of Thrones. It might not be quite the book that saved Martin's writing career, but it certainly helped give it a bit of a leg-up when it was urgently needed.
The book consists of seven short stories (the first of which is long enough to qualify as a novella). After the first, "The Plague Star", which explains how Tuf came to possess the Ark, the rest relate episodes where Tuf has to use the Ark's amazing abilities to resolve a crisis or emergency. Three of these stories form a recurring narrative when Tuf has to visit the planet S'uthlam, one of the few worlds advanced enough to be able to repair and maintain the Ark. During his initial visit Tuf incurs a massive repair bill and he periodically has to return to satisfy his monetary debt to the planet and renew his personal friendship (as much as Tuf has one) with Molly Tune, the planet's dockmaster.
The stories often resolve around moral quandaries: "A Beast for Norn" sees Tuf recruited to help a planet which pits animals into gladiatorial combat against one another. Tuf is petitioned by each ruling house in turn to give them the most ferocious beasts. The result is a neat little morality play that wouldn't have been out of place on The Twilight Zone. "Guardians" sees Tuf taxed to the limit as he uses the Ark's capabilities to genetically engineer a solution to a planetary infestation of sea monsters, only to find some kind of intelligence working against him. "Call Him Moses" sees Tuf recruited by a planetary government that has been forced to surrender to an anti-technology religious maniac using the threat of plague to seize power. These are all clever stories, but also ones that have a common thread to them: rather than facing a naturally-occurring disaster, the problems Tuf encounters are the result of human hubris greed, stupidity and fanaticism.
The S'uthlam trilogy - "Loaves and Fishes", "Second Helpings" and "Manna from Heaven" - represents the book's high point as it gives Tuf a formidable foil in the form of Molly Tune. Each one of the stories sees Tuf confronted by the problem of S'uthlam's overpopulation: the planet's population is 39 billion and rising, outstripping its ability to feed itself. Each time Tuf presents a situation, carefully noting that it is a stopgap at best and the people of S'uthlam have to back it up by not breeding so uncontrollably and by carefully preserving their resources. And each time he is ignored, for religious or economic reasons. In the final story Tuf presents Molly with the final solution to the problem, one that will save her world from starving itself to death, but at the expense of her people's right to freedom and self-expression. It's one of the thorniest moral quandaries science fiction has ever presented to the reader, and the solution is grim.
The result may be George R.R. Martin's most resonant SF moment in his long career writing science fiction (before epic fantasy stole him away). In 1976, when the first Tuf story was published, the Earth's population was 4 billion. In 2016, it stands at almost 7.4 billion. The Earth's population has almost doubled the first story in this book was published. What was a theoretical concern when Martin started writing these stories is starting to look terrifyingly prescient, and the solution presented in these stories may be horrific but there are also a lot of people who would take the solution Tuf offers Tune in a heartbeat. This element adds a surprising amount of contemporary value to a book published thirty years ago.
Moving on from that aspect of the book, characterisation is excellent, particularly of Haviland Tuf himself (the reader may detect faint pre-echoes of Varys in his character and appearance) but also Molly Tune and the demented crew of space pirates who try to steal the Ark in the opening story (Rica Dawnstar may also be the best name for a space mercenary there ever has been). The writing style is a fair bit different from his prose in other books, being more whimsical, florid and witty. Martin's favourite author is the fantastic Jack Vance. Martin can't quite match Vance's supremely joyous command of the English language (frankly, no-one can) but he does come startlingly close on occasion. This is also a book that should appeal to all cat lovers, as Tuf's brood of felines grows, gets into antics, gets older and occasionally (and sadly) shrinks as the stories continue to unfold.
Tuf Voyaging (****½) is not quite up there with A Song of Ice and Fire and Fevre Dream as Martin's best work, but it a very well-written book packed with entertaining characters, moments of real comedy (it's Martin's funniest work, by a long way) and some unexpected moments of tragedy and pathos. It's also a book that's become more resonant over the years as real-life issues catch up to Martin's vision. The book is available now in the UK and USA.