“A Song of Ice and Fire” is a late second act in George R. R. Martin’s career, not entirely announced by a first act that included a couple of mildly successful genre novels (none of which have earned popular attention even post- “Game of Thrones.” ) His editing work ( with Gardner Dozois and for the “Wild Cards” series ) showcased him as more of a nexus middleman than a creator. His TV career had a pretty commercial bent: In the 80s, Martin wrote for the “new” “Twilight Zone” and “Outer Limits,” and was a guiding force in many, many episodes of “Beauty and the Beast,” the quietly-beloved romantic fantasy with Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. (If I recall correctly, Martin cameos in Episode 2, Alfred-Hitchcock-style, as a harassed subway passenger.)
It’s odd to think that for many years Martin worked best in the short form, as if he couldn’t quite marshal the energy that powers up his voluminous fantasy series. His stories are great, frequently disturbing: “The Pear Shaped Man” and “Nightflyers” are nightmare fodder, and I’ve always meant to read the award-winning “Sandkings,” which is famous enough to have been parodied in “The Simpsons,” “Futurama” and “South Park.”
WELL, I just got to it!
“Sandkings” is very much a chip off the moralistic “TZ”/ “OL” block (and was televised as a much-reworked episode of the latter.) Simon Kress is a decadent aristocrat in planet Baldur, collecting bizarre animal imports for the amusement of his guests. Aching for new kicks, Kress purchases a rather sophisticated ant-farm from what is basically the extraterrestrial version of the ethnically-suspicious Chinatown shop in “Gremlins.”
Now, ants (by their sociability and observability) are endlessly fascinating creatures: E. O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler’s “The Ants” has over 700 pages of mind-blowing ant factoids, and it’s only the springboard for research on formicidae. Science-fiction can’t help but find them attractive: think of the formics in Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game.” Think of Bernard Werber’s “Empire of the Ants” trilogy. Think of “THEM!”
The antoids in “Sandkings” have a queen (a maw); develop their stately ant-hills (castles); swarm against invaders (how long before Kress has his creatures warring?); and go through bizarre evolutions (just like real ants develop wings… but only at ultra-successful colonies.) What makes “Sandkings” more than a creature feature is one element: the antoids are capable of religious worship.
They worship Kress, carve likenesses of his image, praise him as he feeds them. All a bore to Kress. Soon he’s fiddling with the terrarium’s weather, starving his followers, prodding them into conflict with each other. The antoids change their behavior, and make their religion more cruel, to accommodate their horrible overseer.
Nasty things happen.
BUT they’re thought-provoking nasty things.
The question of an Omnibenevolent God does not stand much scrutiny, even by the rules of religious dogma. Omnibenevolence never judges or punishes; Omnibenevolence couldn’t design Hells or cancerous cells, for instance. No Omnibenevolent Creator could have crafted the concepts of hunger, thirst, illness or death, or condemned a beloved Creation to “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a MOSTLY benevolent- or contemptuously indifferent – Deity. But Martin slyly suggests (and this will not surprise readers of ASOIAF) that human criminality and warfare are the norm because they’re the result and reflection of MALEVOLENT divine tinkering. “We’re in God’s image”; “As above, so below”; “Ares over Eirene.” Even the Heavens have hosts, clashing armies, attempted coup d’etats.
It’s telling that the version of “Sandkings” that made it to TV is far more popularly palatable in its proposal: there, Kress gets turned into a “mad scientist who plays at being God.” ( The implication being that things go wrong when people play at being God. The problem is that there isn’t much evidence to suggest that they go a lot better when GOD plays at being God. In Martin’s pessimist universe, the Lamb and the Tiger (and the Ant) share a Maker, but the Maker had too much fun making sure that the Tiger always rips apart the Lamb… and that the Ant can swarm over the corpses.