Still depressed after the horrible events of Game of Thrones season three, or of George R.R. Martin's original books? The misery, the misanthropy, the savage reversals of fortune? George R.R. Martin himself has the cure. His funny, strange space opera book Tuf Voyaging has recently been reissued, after a decade out of print.
Minor spoilers ahead...
Martin published Tuf Voyaging back in 1986, but it's actually a fix-up of seven stories and novellas that were mostly published in Analog Magazine throughout the early 1980s. And it's a very different sort of book than Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, although there's still plenty of the hallmarks of Martin's wit and clever world-building. Tuf Voyaging is funny and mostly pretty cheerful, although it takes a somewhat darker turn towards the end that might catch you off guard. It's actually somewhat reminiscent of the Harry Harrison at his best — a jaunty, slightly barbed story of space adventure.
The main charcter of Tuf Voyaging is Haviland Tuf, a ginormous bald man with incredibly pale skin and a distinctively fussy, somewhat literal way of speaking — Tuf's version of wit is to be incredibly dry and straightforward, with a large dose of sarcasm. In fact, his slightly formal speeches, his long-suffering manner, and his massive bulk all remind me a bit of Nero Wolfe, the great detective from Rex Stout's classic novels.
Oh, and Tuf is a cat-lover, who has two cats at first — although there are more of them in later stories. The cats are adorable and a lovely counterpoint to the somewhat cold and self-absorbed Tuf, but they also wind up serving an important function in the plot of many of the stories. They're highly sensitive and have slight psychic powers, which Tuf experiments with enhancing over time. And anybody who tries to harm Tuf's cats is automatically a major villain, it goes without saying.
In the stories of Tuf Voyaging, Tuf is a poor merchant whose fortunes have taken a turn for the worse. And then he's hired by a motley bunch of prospectors, academics, mercenaries and fortune seekers, who have come across an amazing lost treasure and need to hire Tuf's ship to get to it. That lost treasure turns out to be the Ark, a long-lost ship of the Ecological Engineering Corps, which had the power to transform worlds — or unleash terrible biological warfare and wipe out entire planets.
Soon enough, Tuf is taking this crew to the Ark, and it doesn't take long for everyone to start double-crossing each other at amazing speed. This first story sets the slightly comedic, adventurous tone for the rest of the series, although the other stories in the book are increasingly cerebral and less focused on action and adventure.
Tuf never stops being a fascinating hero, though — he's originally framed as being the only honest man left in a galaxy of scoundrels, which doesn't stop him from being crafty and outthinking all his opponents. He's honorable to a fault, and never lies. If he says he'll do something, he does exactly that. And he never takes advantage of people — except that he always winds up getting the upper hand, and he often allows people to trick themselves. He's so honest, he's able to manipulate people using their own greed and stupidity. That's sort of the basic idea of Tuf's character, and it's a brilliant one — but as the book goes on, Martin starts making the situation more complicated.
You can tell Martin was having loads of fun writing these stories, which are chock full of little shout-outs and in-jokes — like, at one point, we learn of a wind-riding creature known as the Ororo, which comes from the planet Claremont.
And like I said, these stories might restore your faith in human nature somewhat — even though by the end of the book, you're left with some troubling questions, true to Martin's twist-the-knife style. Tuf is essentially a good-natured person who wants to help people — even though he's also a somewhat frosty introvert who doesn't want to be around people that much. He spends a lot of these stories traveling around trying to render assistance to people in distress, even though he wants to be paid for his labors and he often has to save people from their own idiocy.
Because Tuf is so much smarter than everybody else he meets, the question in these stories is never, "Will Tuf get the best of these rogues or idiots?" But "How will he do it?" And Martin manages to keep the solution to each of these conundrums just clever enough to allow Tuf to stay ahead of the reader as well as the fools he's surrounded by.
More about those fools — in addition to rogues and scoundrels, Tuf winds up spending a lot of time dealing with politicians, petty power-brokers and religious people. And as he travels around, he more or less passes judgment on some of the cultures he meets — in ways that it's hard to disagree with.
Especially the religious people, who come in for the bulk of Tuf's scorn. In one story, it's pretty clear-cut — he faces off against a religious charlatan who calls himself Moses, and tries to use fake miracles to destroy a somewhat technologically advanced arcology because Moses believes technology is evil. In that instance, anyone who's currently reading these words on a computer will agree that the technology-hating Moses is wrong, and deserves to be taught a lesson.
But also, three of the stories in the book, or about half its pages, have to do with the planet S'uthlam, whose ginormous population is constantly facing starvation because it's a Malthusian nightmare — most of the planet's population believes that humans have a duty to breed as much as possible, because their religion teaches that unlimited procreation will speed up human evolution and allow us to achieve transcendence. Every time Tuf encounters the S'uthlamites, their situation has gotten worse because of this religion — but what right does he have to tell other people not to have children, or to abandon their religious beliefs?
We see the story of S'uthlam mostly through the lens of Tuf's relationship with Tolly Mune, the portmaster of S'uthlam's main space port, who doesn't believe in the planet's religion but respects the realities of her own world's politics. She and Tuf keep butting heads, even as she tries to use Tuf's abilities to help her people. Notably, by the end of the book, we're completely seeing the encounters between Mune and Tuf through Mune's eyes, probably because Martin wants us to question the morality of Tuf's actions the way she does.
Without giving too much away, the book does get into some heavy issues by the end — and there's no easy answer to the questions that Tuf and Mune are debating in the final section. This is the closest Martin gets to the bleakness of A Song of Ice and Fire, but it's still relatively cheerful by A Feast for Crows standards.
And like I said, the book is often laugh-out-loud funny, largely thanks to Tuf's dry wit. For example, when he travels to the struggling ocean planet Namor (yes, really) to offer his assistance, he's met with threats of force. And meanwhile, he's just gotten five new kittens, which haven't been named yet. Which leads to this lovely bit:
"Explain yourself or be fired upon."
"Indeed," said Haviland Tuf. "Threats will avail you little, Guardian. I am most sorely vexed. I have come all this long way from Brazelourn to offer you my aid and solace, and you meet me with threats and hostility." A kitten leapt into his lap. Tuf scooped it up with a huge white hand, and deposited it on the console in front of him, where the viewer would pick it up. He gazed down at it sorrowfully. "There is no trust left in humanity," he said to the kitten. ...
Haviland Tuf sat back and toyed with the kitten. "I shall name you Suspicion," he said to it, "to commemorate my reception here. Your siblings shall be Doubt, Hostility, Ingratitude and Foolishness."
And indeed for the rest of the book, the cats keep those names, so that we're frequently treated to the sight of Doubt and Ingratitute playing with yarn together.
Without giving too much away, the fact that the ship Tuf finds in the first story is an ecological engineering vessel turns out to be very significant. First, because it allows Martin to open up questions of power and whether powerful people ought to be able to impose their own ideas on others. But also, second, because it leads to some knotty dilemmas around the notion of ecology — the ability to introduce non-native species to a planet basically allows you to terraform a world, or to create an ecosystem in your own image. The business of feeding people and creating abundance is a complicated one, involving a lot of factors, including food webs and predator-prey relationships. The more you tinker, the more problems you risk causing — and a lot of the most fascinating ideas in Tuf Voyaging come from this question.
By the time the end of the book comes, and you're starting to question whether Haviland Tuf is really the unalloyed hero you'd decided to invest in at the start of the book, you're already in too deep. And even when you put the book down, feeling somewhat disturbed by the questions that Martin raises at the end, you'll still feel a lot happier about the human race than you probably did after the latest batch of Game of Thrones episodes. You'll only be sad because there are no more Tuf adventures to be had.