This essay was part of the 2016 Deal Me In Reading Challenge, where I read a short story, essay, or poem every single week. Each item on my reading list was assigned to a playing card, and every Friday I picked a card at random to choose my weekly read.
I own an anthology of science fiction short stories edited by Orson Scott Card, and George R.R. Martin’s was one of the few names I recognized among all the authors. So, this selection was a bit arbitrary, but it was an interesting and engaging read nonetheless.
Simon Kress is a rich, bored businessman who likes to entertain himself with highly exotic pets from various worlds, in his isolated mansion 50km from the city. It is immediately apparent that he has no respect for the life of any living beings, and that he is a cold and uncaring person.
Desiring some novel new pet, he wanders into Wo and Shade, importers of artifacts and life-forms. From Wo, he buys what are called Sandkings; hivemind, psionic, sentient alien creatures that have the physical appearance of insects (6 limbs, 6 eyes). But they are not insects at all: they are an intelligent, war-loving race that exists in teams of black, white, red, and orange armor. They build strategic alliances and wage war with one another, and each clan has a “queen” called a maw which they build a castle around, using the sand and granite inside the tank within which they live. She eats (anything and everything) and the “mobiles” then eat her pap (the only thing they’re able to eat). They also grow in size in proportion to the space they are confined in, so their size can be limited by the size of their tank. Most interestingly enough, they worship their owner since they are psionic and feel the owner’s presence. They build a mosaic portrait of the face of their “god” on their castles if a holographic photo is projected into the tank for their observation.
Simon isn’t patient enough for them to go to war on their own, so he routinely starves them to initiate battles. He invites friends over for “war games.” At his first party, an ex-girlfriend named Cath m’Lane is disgusted by what he is doing and storms out (it turns out they are exes because his pet shambler ate her puppy). Wo, whom he invited, disapproves of his starving the Sandkings, saying he just needs to be patient. He of course, does not listen. At a later party, his friend, Jad Rakkis, introduces a poison spider into the tank, betting that the spider will win. After being inside one of the castles for some moments, the initial assumption is that the spider has eaten the maw, but it turns out the maw ate the spider. In a grim foreshadowing, Simon says to him:
“Jad, I think you are a bit confused about who is eating who.”
As time goes by, Simon notices his mosaic face on the castle walls is growing more and more wicked and cruel-looking over time. The Sandkings worship him, but they hate him for being the cruel god that he is to them.
Cath calls the police on him, but the policewoman takes his bribe to not charge him for his illegal pets. He retaliates by purchasing a puppy exactly like the one from before, feeding it to the Sandkings, and sending Cath the video. She arrives, and angrily cracks the Sandking tank with a sledgehammer. Amidst the struggle, Simon impales her with a sword from his collection, and with her last bit of strength she breaks the tank open with one last swing.
As the Sandkings begin to crawl everywhere, Simon flees in fear to a nearby town. When he returns, he finds 3 clans have settled with new castles in his garden, his swimming pool, and his wine cellar. The 4th orange clan is missing. He finds the body of Cath in the cellar–the mobiles are dragging her body towards the castle to feed the maw. Simon decides to help them in order to eliminate evidence of the murder: he cuts up her body so that it will be easier for the maw to eat.
Simon invites the friend over with the holo equipment who helped him make the puppy video for Cath. In order to cut all loose ends, he shoves her into the wine cellar for the Sandkings to eat. It is a gruesome scene because once the screaming started, “it did not cease for hours.” (I winced when I read that sentence.)
Simon calls a “cleanup” crew to eliminate his pest problem. While they manage to kill many Sandkings, they all die and are eaten. Simon drinks himself to sleep and wakes up to find a Sandking staring at him from atop his dressor, and overcome with an intense hunger…which he realizes is not his own, but the maw’s hivemind which is transmitting her severe hunger to his mind. He empties his fridge and freezer for them, and attempts to escape via a skimmer (flying car–the only way in or out of his isolated home) but finds sandkings inside them and so is unable to escape.
He finally resolves himself to calling Wo for help. She tells him he must get out of there; because of his mistreatment of them, they will eventually turn on him. She advises him to walk/hike due east and she will arrive in a few hours to pick him up. He sets out. Several hours later with no sign of Wo, he stumbles across another isolated home. He is delirious from hours of walking and dehydration, and it is only at the last moment that he realizes it is no home, but a castle. He found the 4th missing Sandkings clan. He struggles, but they manage to carry him towards the house–towards the gaping, breathing hole:
That was terrible, but it was not the thing that set Simon Kress to screaming. He screamed because of the others, the little orange children who came crawling out from the castle, and watched impassive as he passed.
All of them had his face.
This story was most definitely suspenseful, with some horror elements, although I would still classify it as science fiction and not horror. I felt very invested in what was going to happen (and I’m not a fan of horror either). If I had to use one word to describe it–even though I liked it–it would be: “creepy.”
As I got further along, I realized that I felt fearful for Simon Kress. I wanted him…not to live, but to not die. It was a strange clash of opposite emotions, and I believe that speaks to Martin’s ability to create complex, nuanced characters.
Although I haven’t gotten around to reading Frankenstein yet, Card does point out in the anthology’s introduction that this story is similar, in that it is about “the irresponsibility of a man who plays at being God, and the peril he faces when his monster turns on him.” Playing god is, ironically, what sends Simon to his death: his choosing to starve his subjects seals the fate of his own body becoming devoured. Within literature, breaking bread with others is symbolic of peace and good will–both of which also happen to be qualities in a benevolent god. But Simon is, inherently, an evil god: he wants war and sacrifice, and he stirs ill will against himself in the process. And although their desires are in conflict with one another (in starving them he denies them their only desire while fulfilling his own for entertainment), in the end, the one thing that is shared, is death. And the fact that Simon’s death arrives by becoming food to those wearing his own face is symbolic: he becomes one with, and “breaks bread” with them in the end.
George R.R. Martin
Today, Martin is best known for being the author of the 7-book epic Song of Ice and Fire series (only 1-5 have been published as of this writing), which was adapted for TV as the A Game of Thrones HBO sensation. He has written several other short stories and many novels, all “distinguished by their meticulously conceived backgrounds,” according to Card.
He currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Fans eagerly await his release of the final 2 books in Song of Ice and Fire.