Creating an epic, sprawling fantasy series like A Song of Ice and Fire seems like an author’s life’s work, but it’s certainly not the only thing George R.R. Martin has achieved. His short stories and novels were taking us to amazing worlds long before we visited Westeros. Here are some of his best non-Game of Thrones works.
This novella was first published in Omni in 1979. I’ve had the eponymous short story collection on my shelf forever, although I have no idea where I got it. For years I would make sure to mention it in conversations with scifi fans, but only after I’d become a Song of Ice and Fire fan did I go back to Sandkings and realize it had been written by the same guy!
The story involves a rich man who collects exotic pets. He acquires a race of tiny alien creatures divided into four tribes, then has a wonderful time playing god to them and pitting them against each other in an ever-escalating war. Spoiler: he gets his comeuppance. Martin won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Sandkings.
This novel is great for a couple of reasons—it’s a fix-up novel composed of previously written short stories linked together, which can be awkward, but here it gives the adventures of Haviland Tuf an episodic feel that fits the sardonic tone. It’s also heavily influenced by Jack Vance, which is never a bad thing. Finally, it’s set in what one might call “the LyaVerse,” a fictional universe that first appeared in the novella A Song for Lya. I’m a big fan of an author revisiting different parts of the same universe in different stories, and Tuf Voyaging makes for an enjoyably wry travelogue.
Beauty and the Beast
Martin wrote more than a dozen episodes of this quintessential late 80s prime time drama. I’ll confess I’m not really a fan of the show, but there’s a strong argument to be made that it played a role in the development of serial genre TV. The X-Files and Star Trek: the Next Generation are the cornerstones, but Beauty and the Beast was an important experiment, and Martin’s penchant for creating linked stories and shared universes was a factor.
Speaking of shared universes, this is one of my favorites. In the Wild Cards universe, an alien virus gives some humans superpowers after World War II (it kills a lot of people and makes monsters out of some, as well). The result is an alternate history populated by weird creatures, superheroes, and supervillains. Although Martin didn’t create the idea himself, he’s edited many of the Wild Cards anthologies and is generally credited (along with Melinda M. Snodgrass) as the catalyst that holds the Wild Cards world together.
Various publishers have been putting out Wild Cards books for 30 years now—and apparently Tor has a new one in the works. Many of the books are anthologies, some are single-author novels, and some are novels pieced together out of multiple authors and short stories. Some of the earlier stories grew out of a superhero RPG campaign that Martin gamemastered. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was originally a rejected Wild Cards pitch!
The Armageddon Rag
It would be easy to dismiss this novel as a bit of indulgent baby boomer nostalgia, based as it is on the fictional history of a fictional ‘60s rock band and what happens to them in the 1980s. But Martin explores those themes of nostalgia, and that old “you can’t go home again” idea, without too many fond sighs and thoughts about the good old days. In fact, this subtly supernatural murder mystery does as much to destroy nostalgia as to indulge it. What’s really great is how detailed the fake band’s (Nazgûl, not to be confused with the real world metal band Nazgûl, which formed more than 10 years after this novel was released) history is. There are concert posters, album titles, track listings, concert setlists—people who love the “fictional documentary” style of world building will love this novel.
This novel has a bizarre pedigree. It was written over the course of 30 years by Martin, legendary sci-fi editor Gardner Dozois, and author Daniel Abraham. It started as a short story by Dozois, but he couldn’t think of an ending. Martin developed it further, and he and Dozois passed it back and forth for a while until it sat, unfinished, in Dozois’ desk for a few decades. Abraham finally completed it as a novella called Shadow Twin, and Dozois expanded it into the novel Hunter’s Run.
Unusual origin aside, it’s a terrific science fiction novel that is partly an extended, breathless, desperate chase scene, but simultaneously a deeply thoughtful look at identity, cultural relations, and our ability to become better versions of ourselves.
The Skin Trade
It’s no big surprise that Martin writes some seriously dark stuff (usually weddings), but when he turns his attention fully on the horror genre, he can really but loose. That’s the case with this werewolf novella that first appeared in the Dark Visions anthology, alongside stories by Stephen King and Dan Simmons.
Martin edits anthologies rather prolifically—there are too many excellent ones to list individually. Highlights include Warriors and Dangerous Women, both with Gardner Dozois and both overflowing with epic fantasy, sword & sorcery, and high adventure. Down These Strange Streets (again with Dozois) is a compelling blend of detective noir and supernatural elements, while Songs of the Dying Earth is an anthology of stories inspired by Jack Vance. Oh, Gardner Dozois co-edited that one too.