Originally published back in 1980, Nightflyers is a novella-length story that was recently repackaged and turned up on the shelves at work. I wouldn’t have picked it up but for the fact that this new edition is illustrated by David Palumbo (the man responsible for those gorgeous painterly Binti novella covers *all the hearts*) and I really love his stuff. And, yeah, it’s a short, quick scifi read and my month is going to hell in a handcart so I’ve had to restack a couple of bigger tomes I intended to read. Ugh, life gets in the way sometimes, you know?
A group of scientists have been drawn together by Karoly d’Branin, a man obsessed with the as yet unseen alien volcryn, who is determined to intercept this mythical race out in deep space and study them. For this purpose d’Branin has chartered a Nightflyer and her captain Royd Eris, an eccentric individual who will only interact with the group via his hologrammatic self. Things go south quickly. The powerful telepath d’Branin has employed is convinced that the crew are in danger from the get-go and only becomes more distressed as the journey continues …
This is a horror story in space (did you guess?). I’d have paid good money to read more of the secondary story about the mythical volcryn, but the plot mostly concerns itself with the extermination of the small academic crew aboard the Nightflyer and the mysterious Royd Eris. A couple of the deaths are pretty spectacular, but I suspect that may be all I take away from this book.
Martin certainly has a talent for writing compelling, if not necessarily likeable, characters though, and he puts it to good use here. Of the ten characters in this story, only one is anywhere near pleasant, but they are all interesting. For a future in which the “Academy of Human Knowledge” appears to be the highest power, this motley group aren’t very Star Trek and they fall prey to suspicion and paranoia in record time, (because humanity will always be its own worst enemy, I guess). That just made watching them die one by one more fun than scary, however.
It’s definitely something that would translate to the screen well (all that blood!), or so I thought while I was reading it. Then I found out that it had already been made into a TV series for the SyFy channel, and the general consensus on the interweb was that it wasn’t very good. Which is a shame because I feel that it was written very much with an eye to the visual, something Palumbo is able to take full advantage of in his gorgeous full-page illustrations. I really like Palumbo’s style anyway, but here he does a great job of creating dark, moody images that made me feel almost claustrophobic. (As an added bonus, the artist’s Instagram account was mentioned at the end of the book and there you can find an extra handful of paintings that didn’t make the cut for the book – very cool).
There were a couple of things I didn’t like so much in the story. There were some weird manners of speech that I found a bit jarring, particularly d’Branin’s oddly old-fashioned chatter and his frequent use of the term “my friend” (‘friend’, ‘love’ and ‘mate’ from people who are not any of those things to me is a pet hate of mine); and Melantha’s need to repeatedly remind everyone that she is an “improved model” also grated a bit.
And there was quite a lot that I’d have liked Martin to expand on: Royd and Melantha’s relationship was quite interesting and had either one been in the slightest bit sympathetic I’d have enjoyed more of that; Royd’s backstory, too, was fascinating and could have made a book on it’s own especially if his mother had been given a bit more room. The volcryn were awesome too (I particularly loved Palumbo’s illustration of them), and I felt they were another potentially much richer storyline given too little room. In fact, I think that may be my main complaint with Nightflyers: there were a ton of great ideas in here, enough for three books, but none of them were explored in any great depth because, in the end, only the body count really seemed to matter.
So, yeah, a bit of a mixed bag this one. With a bit more space and one or two redeeming features in the cast I think this would have been a much cooler novel. As it is, it was a fairly satisfying series of deaths and some interesting ideas. Must try harder. (which, of course, Martin did, didn’t he?!)