Tuf Voyaging, by George RR Martin

Published 1986
Review by Tim

George Martin has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most lyrical writers in fiction. His short fiction is particularly excellent, and has won him numerous awards. I well remember Noreascon II (Boston, 1980, the first and only sf convention I have ever attended), where he received Hugo awards for "The Way of Cross and Dragon" and "Sandkings". As I recall, Isaac Asimov, who was Master of Ceremonies, was particularly annoyed by what he regarded a conspicuous act of selfishness, and chased a grinning, unconvincingly humble Martin away from the podium before he could finish the first sentence of his second acceptance speech.

Martin's novels are less excellent than his stories, which is a pity, because it is tough to make a writer's living from short stories these days, no matter how well written, and Martin is not among the most prolific of writers. My primary criticism of his novels is that most of them ramble on far longer than they should, as though they really should have been written as shorter fiction. Tuf Voyaging, however, is a particularly delightful exception, perhaps because it is more a collection of short fiction all centering on one man, than a true novel. The central character is Haviland Tuf, who gets my vote for the most original science fiction character ever devised:

He stood very tall, almost two-and-a-half meters, and his great soft gut swelled out above his thin metal belt. He had big hands, a long, curiously blank face, and a stiff, awkward posture; everywhere his skin was as white as bleached bone, and it appeared that he had not a hair on him anywhere. He wore shiny blue trousers and a deep maroon shirt whose balloon sleeves were frayed at the ends.

from "The Plague Star"

Haviland Tuf's personality is as striking as his appearance. He is a loner, almost misanthropic - his human contact is limited almost entirely to business. He loves cats and enjoys complicated games of strategy. He is a vegetarian with a particular fondness for mushrooms. Tuf's speech and manner is stiff and formal, and when aroused he is inclined to a viciously deadpan sarcasm. His devotion to his given word is absolute, even when it is given under duress. This is not to say that Tuf is completely honest; he will adhere to the exact letter of any bargain regardless of what he knows his customers expect, especially when he disapproves of said customers.

And his profession? When we are first introduced to Haviland Tuf, he is making a marginal living as an independent interstellar trader, his primary asset being a small cargo vessel improbably named The Cornucopia of Excellent Goods at Low Prices. Through various extraordinary circumstances he comes into possession of a derelict seedship of the defunct Ecological Engineering Corps, named the Ark. The ship is some thirty kilometers long and contains cloning material for an incredible number of living organisms. It can make or transform entire ecosystems, but its original purpose was warfare. Tuf, a highly intelligent man, teaches himself the use of the seedship's technology, and decides to take up the profession of ecological engineer.

Tuf's adventures as an ecological engineer are detailed in seven stories, and many of the titles are biblical references (not to mention the Ark itself). This is by design, for one who controls the Ark is gifted with god-like powers.

"The Plague Star" introduces Haviland Tuf, and relates how he obtained the Ark.

In "Loaves and Fishes" Tuf, in need of repairs and upgrades for his new acquisition, journeys to S'uthlam, a world suffering from chronic overpopulation, exacerbated by religious beliefs that extoll the virtues of procreation, and condemn any attempt to limit it as "anti-life". So far their advanced technology has held famine and general collapse at bay, but they are quickly approaching the point of diminishing returns. The power of the Ark would go a long way toward staving off the day of reckoning - if they could manage to get it away from Tuf.

"Guardians" showcases Tuf's analytical prowess as he grapples with the problems of a world of islands beset by a seemingly endless supply of sea monsters.

In "Second Helpings", Haviland Tuf returns to S'uthlam and once again applies his talents to that overpopulated world's food problems.

Tuf becomes embroiled with a culture dominated by animal blood sports in "A Beast for Norn".

A dedicated charlatan - "Call Him Moses" - destroys a world's advanced civilization with a series of cleverly managed ecological manipulations. Haviland Tuf shows Moses the real thing.

S'uthlam is on the brink of interstellar war in "Mana From Heaven". The Expansionist faction is determined to export their surplus population to other, less crowded worlds. The latter want no part of S'uthlam and its Church of Life Evolving. Haviland Tuf returns, determined to devise a final solution to S'uthlam's population/food imbalance, in the hope of averting war.

Tuf Voyaging is as fine a set of science fiction stories as I have ever read, dealing with the problems and relationships of humanity and their technology, bound up with fascinating characters and plots. It also deals in a cautionary way with the problems of unrestrained population growth. Finally, it explores the consequences that result when a single human being gains the ultimate power of life and death.

February 2000