George R.R. Martin may be best known for creating A Song of Ice and Fire, his fantasy book series upon which HBO's hit show Game of Thrones is based, but he was already a well-known writer in the world of science fiction, fantasy and even horror well before he wrote one word about Westeros.
Considering how each new book in his ongoing fantasy saga seems to get larger and larger, it might come as a little bit of a shock to learn that many of Martin's earlier works came in the form of short stories.
Whether it is a massive tome of a book or a short story that cuts to the bone, all of Martin's stories share one thing in common: each leaves a lasting impression that isn't easily forgotten. If you are a Game of Thrones fan who has yet to read some of Martin's other work, you can't go wrong with any of these nine stories.
Dying of the Light
If you are looking for a great entry point into Martin's other writings, why not start with his first novel? Released in 1977, Dying of the Light takes place on a far-away planet that served as host of what can most accurately be called a galactic world's fair. Only now the planet is nearly abandoned, as it is slowly but surely drifting into the nothingness of space. It is here where a complex narrative of love and betrayal, honor and sacrifice plays out, as one man journeys to the planet with the hope of winning back the love of his life. In true George R.R. Martin fashion, it's a tale that is at times both heroic and profoundly sad. Don't expect a happy ending.
An exceptionally tall bald, very pale, overweight, phlegmatic, cat-loving vegetarian. That would be Tuf, the main character of a number of Martin's sci-fi short stories. Tuf is the owner of a seedship called the Ark, a massive, space-faring vessel with advanced ecological abilities that also serves as a home to a number of exotic alien lifeforms from across the galaxy. Tuf travels from planet to planet offering his various environmental services...for a fee, of course. But he always has an agenda, caring more often about the well-being of the animals and the environment than the interests of his clients.
Turns out that the vast majority of galactic environmental problems are not caused by Mother Nature, but by the greed, stupidity and ignorance of the sentient races that call the planet's home. Tuf looks to teach them the error of their ways, whether they like it or not. Tuf's adventures are every bit as relevant today as when they were written, making these a must-read for any Martin fan.
Sandkings is one of Martin's most popular stories outside of Game of Thrones, and for good reason: it is dangerous, exciting and terrifying in all the right ways. The sci-fi story revolves around the sadistic millionaire Simon Kress, who is looking to round out his collection of exotic pets by purchasing colonies of creatures known as Sandkings. The ant-like creatures carve out miniature kingdoms in their habitat (one for each hive), erecting castles and occasionally coming into violent conflict with each other. But that's not enough for Kress. Soon enough he starts to starve the creatures, forcing them to wage war against each other for his entertainment. That is, unless the Sandkings have other plans. It's a disturbing tale, but one that comes with a huge payoff at the end that makes it required reading.
The Meathouse Man
Speaking of disturbing, The Meathouse Man is by far the most twisted tale to ever come from the mind of Martin. In fact, Martin in his own words calls it the "darkest, bleakest, sickest, most twisted thing I ever wrote." He isn't lying, either. This tale of zombie necrophilia (see, told you) takes place in a grim future universe where human life has such little value that it is perfectly acceptable to scoop out the brains of humanity's undesirables, transforming them into mindless puppets that can be controlled for labor or...other activities. You'll need a shower after reading this one. Or three.
Combine the space-horror of Alien with the homicidal computer of 2001: A Space Odyssey and you have Martin's Nightflyers, one of his more popular pieces of fiction. Nine academics embark on an expedition aboard the Nightflyer to find the truth about a mysterious alien creature, only for the crew to begin meeting their end one by one in some truly horrific ways. Not helping matters is the ship's "captain," who is never seen and doesn't seem too concerned for their well-being. This story was adapted into a feature film back in 1987, but the tension and atmosphere crafted by Martin is far superior to the version of the story that appeared on the silver screen.
The Armageddon Rag
Unlike anything else Martin has ever written, The Armageddon Rag is part murder mystery, part supernatural fantasy and all love letter to the rock 'n' roll music Martin grew up with in the 1960s. It starts when former hippie Sandy Blair finds himself investigating the brutal murder of legendary rock promoter Jamie Lynch. It's not long before the lead singer of one of the bands Lynch promoted, the rock band Nazgul (their name, of course, taken from the terrifying creatures that appear in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings) is found dead as well. From there Blair begins to dive into the band's past. If you are a fan of old school rock 'n' roll, Martin's rock fantasy is worth checking out.
Martin is a well-known lover of comic book superheroes. He attended the first-ever San Francisco Comic Con in 1970, back when it was just a handful of people who brought their comic collections and a few card tables so they could hang out for the weekend. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that Martin has helped to craft a rich superhero world of his own. The Wild Card Universe takes place in an alternate post-World War II world where an alien virus (known as the Wild Card virus) is unleashed over New York City, modifying the DNA of its inhabitants.
While 90 percent of those who come into contact with the virus die shortly thereafter, 9 percent mutate into malformed creatures referred to as Jokers. One percent of those who come into contact with the virus are granted incredible superpowers and are referred to as Aces. Martin has overseen the Wild Cards universe for decades, and while stories set in the universe have come from dozens of authors, Martin himself has penned more than a few. If you are looking for hard-hitting, more realistic superhero stories than what you will traditionally find in the pages of a Marvel or DC comic, Wild Cards is a superpowered universe that is easy to fall in love with.
The Pear-Shaped Man
Martin truly does have a knack for horror, but while Nightflyers is gory and The Meathouse Man is as twisted as they come, none can match the overwhelming sense of wrongness that lurks within the pages of The Pear-Shaped Man. It's not really a story that can be described, but if you had to sum it into one word, gross would probably suffice. It revolves around a socially inept, funny smelling, cheese puff eating man who lives under the stairs of an apartment building, who, you guessed it, kind of has the body-shape of a pear. Everybody knows a pear-shaped man, the story remarks, and it's that single line that sinks into the back of your skull and won't let go. Saying much more will give it away, but rest assured you will likely swear off cheese puffs by the time you turn the last page.
A Song For Lya
Religion, love and loneliness all collide to form one of Martin's standout novellas. Two human telepaths and lovers by the names Robb and Lyanna travel to a newly colonized world where the native inhabitants and even a number of human colonists have begun sacrificing themselves to a strange creature in the name of their religion. Robb can sense people's emotions, Lyanna their thoughts, and together they begin to piece together what exactly is causing all of these people to give their lives. Like all of Martin's best stories, this one is thought-provoking and laced with a melancholy tone that will have you thinking back on it long after you've finished reading.