Nightflyers is a science-fiction horror novella by George R. R. Martin, first published in the April 1980 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It takes place in the "Thousand Worlds" universe, and begins on Avalon, but is mostly set in a distant region of Jambles space, during the post-Interregnum period. It is about the crew of a starship which is heading into the outer reaches of known space in search of a legendary alien race. Soon, however, the crew discovers that there is something dangerous onboard.
— WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS —
A nine-member team of Academy scholars from the planet Avalon led by the astrophysicist Karoly d'Branin are searching for the Volcryn, an enigmatic alien species with an advanced interstellar travel technology. Due to limited funds, d'Branin has hired the services of the Nightflyer, a modified trader ship owned by captain Royd Eris. The enigmatic Royd keeps to his own sphere of the ship, preferring to correspond with the passengers via hologram. Royd secretly spies on the passengers using computer monitors. He is particuklarly obsessed with Melantha Jhirl, a dark-skinned genetically engineered human who is a head taller than the other scholars.
Over the next five weeks, the passengers speculate about the secretive nature of their mysterious captain. The team's telepath Thale Lasamer senses there is something dangerous aboard the Nightflyer. The team's psipsych Agatha Marij-Black drugs Thale with the drug psionine-4 to keep him calm. Things start to take a turn for the worse after the xenotech Alys Northwind accidentally cuts her finger with a kitchen knife. As tensions among the passengers escalate due to the ship's cramped and claustrophobic quarters, captain Royd tells the crew that he is the cross-sex clone of his late trader mother and has lived his entire life in zero gravity space.
Not trusting Royd, Agatha gives Thale a drug called esperon and tells him to read Royd's mind. However, a mysterious force causes Thale's head to explode. Agatha goes into shock. Despite growing unrest among the crew, d'Branin still proceeds with the voyage due to his determination to find the Volcryn. Later that night, the cyberneticist Lommie Thorne and Alys hack into the ship's computer systems in an attempt to investigate captain Royd. However, a mysterious force opens the airlock, killing the two scholars and causing significant damage to the Nightflyer.
Despite their mutual distrust, the scholars agree to help Royd make repairs to the ship's damaged structure. The xenobiologist Rojan Christopher attempts to cut his way into captain Royd's quarters with a portable cutting laser but is killed by an unseen force. The linguists Dannel and Lindran go to investigate but are also killed by the mysterious force, which possesses their bodies. Royd informs d'Branin and Melantha that the ship is haunted by the ghost of his late Mother. While d'Branin and Agatha travel in a gravity sled to seek the Volcryn, Melantha and Royd attempt to retake the ship from Royd's Mother. d'Branin discovers that the Volcryn are giant space-faring creatures that live in space.
Melantha manages to destroy the possessed corpses of Dannel and Lindran in the ship's mass conversion unit. Royd manages to subdue his Mother by restoring the ship's gravity but is killed in the process. He becomes a ghost and manages to take control of the ship from Mother. Due to the danger of the ghostly entities aboard the ship, Melantha decides to spend her remaining days aboard the Nightflyer, rebuffing Royd's pleas to repair the ship. Before she dies, she intends to destroy the central crystal and clear the ship's computers before setting a course to the closest inhabited world. Melantha vows not to leave Royd alone with his dead mother.
- Melantha Jhirl: A dark-skinned genetically engineered human woman who is a head taller and stronger than her fellow scholars. She was born on the planet Prometheus to two genetic wizards but defected to Avalon.
- Karoly d'Branin: Administrator, generalist, and mission leader. He is obsessed with contacting the Volcryn.
- Lommie Thorne: A female cyberneticist in a relationship with Melantha.
- Rojan Christopheris: An argumentative and cynical xenobiologist who does not get along with the other scholars.
- Dannel: A male linguist who is a romantic relationship with Lindran. She belittles Dannel about his professional competence.
- Lindran: Female linguist and colleague of Dannel.
- Agatha Marij-Black: A female psipsych, who is also a hypochrondriac, prone to depression.
- Alys Northwind: A female xenotech who wears a jumpsuit and never washes.
- Thale Lasamer: A male telepath and the youngest member of the expedition. He is a frail, nervous and temperament man, who is afraid of everyone around him but is also prone to fits of arrogance.
- Royd Eris: The captain of the Nightflyer. Royd is a 68-year old male cross-sex clone who has lived his entire life in zero-gravity space. Due to the frail nature of his body and lack of an immune system, he prefers to interact with other humans via hologram. He is the son of the enigmatic Mother, a free trader whose ghost haunts the ship.
- Mother: A ghost that haunts the Nightflyer. She was a telepath who grew up in poverty on the trash world of Vess. As a child, she was tortured for being a telepath and developed a hatred for her fellow humans. She became a successful free trader but isolated herself from other humans. Her ghost inhabits a crystal that controls the ship's computer systems.
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Nightlfyers contains two mysteries: who is killing the crew of the ship? And what are the Volcryn? These mysteries are inherently linked and generate intrigue, tension and fear amongst the characters. The story reveals that the answers to both mysteries are the same: a consciousness that humans have failed to comprehend.
Nightflyers is a science-fcition story which evokes aspects of gothic literature. The strange occurences on the ship lead the crew to believe it is haunted by a supernatural force. Royd plays the role of the sinister gothic aristocrat, spying on his guests and concealing the hidden dangers onboard; however, in this story, he surveils via computer monitors, rather than holes in walls and paintings. Additionally, Royd is obsessed with the cleanliness of the ship, suggesting he has an abject fear of dirt, or a neurosis that such imperfections suggests a contamination of the soul. Finally, the Volcryn, massive alien bodies that move through the infinite dark void of space, evoke the gothic concept of the sublime - a feeling of overwhelming awe. The Volcryn excite and terrify the characters (and the reader) because of how big they are, how old, and how insignificant they make humanity seem by comparison.
The success of Sandkings inspired Martin to try more science-fiction/horror hybrids, most notably with Nightflyers, which he considers a "haunted starship story." While he had mixed ghosts and futuristic settings in previous stories (such as The Exit to San Breta), in Nightflyers he wanted to see if he could provide a final explanation for the haunting.
According to Martin, the the screenplay of the 1987 film adaptation of Nightflyers was probably based on the shorter publication of the novella, since all of the secondary characters had different names than the ones he chose in the expanded version. Martin was unhappy about having to cut plot elements in order to accommodate the film's small budget. He claims that large hunks of the original story are still recognisable, but that the single scariest sequence in the novella was dropped. While not a hit at theatres, Martin believes that the film saved his career, and that everything he has written since exists in large part because of it.
Nighflyers was originally written in 1980 as a 23,000-word novella, and published by Analog Science Fiction and Fact.
In 1981, at the request of his editor at the time, James Frenkel, Martin expanded the story into a 30,000-word piece, which was published by Dell Publishing together with Vernor Vinge's True Names as part of their Binary Star series. In the extended version, Martin supplied additional backstory on the various characters, and named several secondary characters which were not named in the original version.
It was included in Martin's short story collections Songs the Dead Men Sing, published in 1983, and Nightflyers and Other Stories, published in 1985.
It was later included in his 2003 anthology Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective.
In 1987, Nightflyers was adapted into a film by writer/producer Robert Jaffe. The film is about a group of scientists who begin a space voyage to find a mysterious alien creature, and in the process are victimized by the ship's malevolent computer. It was directed by Robert Collector, using the pseudonymn "T. C. Blake", as he left before post-production was completed, possibly because he was unhappy with it. The film stars Catherine Mary Stewart and Michael Praed, and grossed $1,149,470.
In 2007, Martin's short story anthology Dreamsongs was released in audiobook format. It included a recording of Nightflyers read by Adenrele Ojo.
In 2017, a pilot for a possible TV series based on Nightflyers was being developed by Syfy. The series would be based on the 1987 film, with Jaffe serving as one of the producers. The script for the pilot was written by Jeff Buhler. Since his Game of Thrones contract with HBO contains an exclusivity clause, Martin was not involved in the production or writing of the series. On December 6, 2017, Jodie Turner-Smith was announced as being cast as Melantha Jhirl. Martin expressed his enthusiasm on his journal, and pointed out that her casting more accurately represents the novella's character than the film, which cast a white actress. On January 4, 2018, it was reported that Netflix would co-produce the show and hold first-run rights outside of the United States. The series was filmed in Ireland and premiered on Syfy in December 2018, consisting of ten episodes. On February 19, 2019 Syfy announced the series was cancelled after a single season.
On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the series has an approval rating of 33% based on 27 reviews, with an average rating of 5.41/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "Unsettling without being particularly scary, Nightflyers's low-budget aesthetics and over-reliance on homage betray its intriguing philosophical pondering and impressive creative pedigree."
In 1980, Nightflyers won the Analog Readers Poll for Best Novella/Novelette.
In 1981, it won the Locus Award for Best Novella and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novella.
In 1983, it won the Japanese Seiun Award for foreign short fiction.
In the foreward for Dreamsongs, Gardner Dozois calls Nightflyers one of the best science-fiction/horror hybrids ever written, alongside Sandkings.
In 2017, the Vassals of Kingsgrave podcast released a review of Nightflyers:
Connections to the "Thousand Worlds" Universe
All of the researchers are working at the Academy of Human Knowledge on Avalon, in the Jambles.
Melantha Jhirl is a native of Prometheus and has been genetically altered by Prometheon surgeons.
Royd's mother was born on Vess, the same planet where The Way of Cross and Dragon is partially set. Royd recalls that his mother lived in povery and was tortured by the Vess locals for being a telepath.
The story mentions viewscreens, a technology which is ubiquitous throughout the "Thousand Worlds" universe.
Allusions to Other GRRM Works
Allusions to Other Media
Nightflyers contains several alusions to Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho. Indeed, in a promotional video for the Syfy adaptation of the novella, Martin himself calls the story "Psycho in space." In Psycho, Norman Bates, the owner and proprieter of the Bates Hotel, is depicted as a creepy and dangerous loner. He spies on his guest Marion Crane through a hole in the wall, without her knowledge. Likewise, Royd is depicted as isolated, is disliked and distrusted by the other crew-members, and is shown to spy on them via computer cameras. Norman and Bates were also physically and mentally abused by their mothers, who continue to control their thoughts and actions even from beyond the grave.
Nightflyers also contains similarities to Ridley Scott's film Alien, which had been released the previous year. Nightflyers, like Alien, features a spaceship being possessed by a sinister, perhaps supernatural force which creates tension, claustrophobia and paranoia amongst the crew. Characters are gradually seperated from one another and killed off. The film also depicts the ship's AI computer as working against the crew. Finally, the scene at the end of the first act of Nightflyers, where the crew are gathered around a table and Thale's head explodes, is very remiscent of the scene in Alien where the crew is having dinner, and a creature suddenly bursts through a character's chest. The Harper Collins 2019 re-release of Nightflyers even describes the novella as "Alien meets Psycho."