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Sandkings is a science-fiction horror novelette by George R. R. Martin, first published in the August 1979 issue of Omni. It takes place in the "Thousand Worlds" universe, and is set on the Manrealm planet of Baldur during the post-Interregnum period. It is about a jaded dilettante who purchases a few organisms of an alien species for entertainment, but when he fails to care for them properly they develop into a threat.[1]

Plot Summary

WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS SPOILERS —

Simon Kress, a wealthy playboy on the planet Baldur, loves to collect dangerous, exotic animals. When most of his pets die after being left alone during a long business trip, he ventures into the city to find replacements. He is unsatisfied by the offerings in the stores he has patronized in the past, but eventually comes across a mysterious new establishment called Wo & Shade. Inside, he meets one of the owners, Jala Wo. She shows him a terrarium filled with four colonies of creatures called sandkings. Each colony consists of a large female called the maw, and numerous insect-like mobiles. The maw is immobile, but controls the mobiles through telepathy. The mobiles hunt, forage, and build, and bring food back to the maw, which digests it and passes nutrients on to the mobiles. Each colony has constructed a castle out of sand around the maw, and the creatures fight coordinated wars and battles with one another. Wo also shows Kress how she has beamed a hologram of herself into the tank, and how the sandkings have decorated their castles with her likeness. Kress is mildly intrigued, but disappointed at the small size of the creatures. Wo assures him that they will grow to fill whatever environment they are kept in. Kress then agrees to purchase them. Wo assures him that they are easy to care for, and will eat anything.

Kress observes the installation of his sandkings and watches his four colonies (colored white, black, red, and orange) begin to build their castles. There is little intrigue or fighting, however, so a bored Kress begins to starve them. After that, they consistently war over the food he does provide. He also beams a hologram of his face, and they begin to decorate their castles appropriately. After a time, Kress invites his friends, including Wo, to view a war fought by his new pets. The guests are suitably impressed, but Jala Wo worries that he is not feeding the sandkings adequately. She assures him that if they are kept comfortable, they will engage in intrigue and wars that are endlessly more entertaining than if they are made to squabble over food. Kress dismisses her complaints and resolves not to invite her any more. Cath m'Lane, a former lover, leaves in disgust.

Kress throws a series of parties and takes bets on the outcome of the sandking battles. At one, a guest brings a dangerous alien creature and suggests pitting it against the sandkings. The sandkings quickly dispatch it. This begins a series of matches: the sandkings emerge victorious in all of them. Eventually, Kress learns that Cath has reported the sandkings to the animal control authorities. After bribing the authorities, he then films himself feeding a puppy to the sandkings and sends the footage to her. As he goes to bed, he notices his face on the castles has become twisted and sinister. Outraged, he pokes a sword into the white maw. He can feel that he has injured it, but it isn't dead. He then goes to bed. Cath arrives the next day with a sledgehammer, and tries to smash the sandkings' terrarium. Trying frantically to stop her, Kress stabs her with a sword. In dying, she finally breaks the plastic, releasing the sandkings. Kress flees the house in a panic. By the time he returns, the sandkings have taken over: the black and red have built castles in the garden, while the whites have taken over the basement. He is unable to find the oranges. Freed from their container, the sandkings grow larger. After getting rid of Cath's vehicle and recovering the footage, Kress chops up Cath's body into digestible pieces to appease the sandkings.

Over time, a panicked Kress empties his pantry while trying to get rid of the sandkings. Kress tries to exterminate them himself, then hires black market assassins to assist him, but he is only able to destroy the blacks and the reds, and the whites trap him in the house. He then invites several guests and locks them in the basement, where the sandkings devour them. The next morning, the mobiles are comatose. Kress finally decides to contact Wo, who explains that as the sandkings grow larger, the maw becomes more intelligent, and eventually reaches sentience. At that point the mobiles mature into their final instar, which varies based on what form the maw believes is suitable, but is always equipped with opposable thumbs and the ability to manipulate technology. She reveals that her partner, Shade, is a mature sandking himself. Because of Kress's mistreatment, however, the white maw is unstable and dangerous. Wo tells Kress to flee, and assures him that she will take care of the sandkings.

Kress runs into the wilderness around his estate in a blind panic, trying to follow Wo's directions for a pickup. While walking in the desert, he decides to hire an assassin to kill Wo and Shade after the problem is resolved, but as he thinks about this, he realizes that either he has become lost in the desert or that Wo and Shade were eaten by the sandkings. After traveling all day without food or drink, he finally comes across a house, with children playing outside. Thinking he has found salvation, he calls out to them. As he comes closer, however, he realizes that he has reached the castle of the mature orange sandkings. As they surround him and drag him to the waiting mouth of the maw, he screams; all of them have his face.[2]

— END OF SPOILERS —

Themes

Artwork by caffeine2, from DeviantArt

In the introduction to the Sandkings anthology, Orson Scott Card compares the story to Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, claiming that it depicts “the irresponsibility of a man who plays at being God, and the peril he faces when his monster turns on him.” Kenia Sedler concurs that there is a critique of religion in Simon Kress' cruelty, as it illustrates how "humans are incapable of envisioning a god who is unlike us." Kress is as "petty and narcissistic as the Old Testament Jehovah" and the sandkings’ carvings reflect his degeneracy. Despite the initial sense of power it affords him, "playing god" is ultimately sends Kress to his death. Ironically, his decision to starve his subjects is what provokes them to devour his body. Sedler adds that, within literature, breaking bread with others is symbolic of peace and good will, both of which are qualities of a benevolent god. But Kress is, inherently, an evil god: "he wants war and sacrifice, and he stirs ill will against himself in the process." And although the desires of Kress and the sandkings are in conflict with one another (in starving them he denies them their only desire while fulfilling his own for entertainment), in the end, the one thing that is shared between god and subjects, is death. And the fact that Kress' death arrives in the form of becoming food to those wearing his own face is symbolic: he becomes one with, and “breaks bread” with them in the end.[3]

Elwin Cotman interprets Sandkings as an allegory for colonised people rising up against colonisers and retaking their land. Kress serves as a stand-in for Western civilisation, "yearning for the exciting and exotic qualities of the East, but only wanting it in a way that he can control." This is shown when he travels to the city of Asgard, where Martin's describes everything about alien culture as a commodity displayed for Kress' enjoyment: “The big corporate emporiums had impressive long windows, in which rare and costly alien artefacts reposed on felt cushions against dark drapes … Between them were the junk shops — narrow, nasty little places whose display areas were crammed with all manner of off world bric-a-brac.” Colonists can only experience the Other if it is turned into a product, something they can safely put in their homes. Actually respecting these planets they steal resources from is unthinkable. Martin uses pulp elements to describe a colonised world, one of them being orientalism. While this would later become a source of criticism towards his writing (particularly in his descriptions of Essos in A Song of Ice and Fire), Cotman argues that here the Asian references are at service to the story. Besides Jala Wo’s "vaguely Asian-sounding name," the way Martin describes the emporium brings to mind narratives of "Chinese curiosity shops." Jala Wo plays the part of the mysterious proprietor, at turns both sinister and obsequious. Martin populates Asgard with junk shops and brothels, like a "pulp version of Shanghai." Only this time, the curios are genuinely alien. The sandkings are aliens among aliens, an off-world beast that there is no information on. They are "the colonial nightmare represented as a literal nightmare, an inhuman thing we can’t possibly understand." In many ways, they inhabit stereotypes of native peoples: "horde-like, violent, worshipful of their conquerors, perpetually breeding." Martin appropriates the colonial narrative to explode the whole situation in Kress’ face. [4]

Author's Notes

According to Martin, Sandkings was the third of three stories he wrote during the Christmas break in the winter of 1978-79. The other two were The Way of Cross and Dragon and The Ice Dragon. At the time writing, he considered Sandkings to be the least impressive of the three, but it ended up being one of his most well-received publications. This success inspired Martin to write further science-fiction/horror hybrids.

The story was inspired by one of Martin's college friends at Northwestern University, who had a piranha tank and would sometimes throw goldfish into it between screenings of horror films.

Martin had intended Sandkings to be part of a series, with Wo & Shade operating shops on many different planets. He notes that "strange little shops on the back alley where queer, dangerous items can be bought" were a familiar trope of fantasy, which he wanted to incorporate into science-fiction settings. He began writing a second story featuring Wo & Shade set on ai-Emerel, called "Protection", but never finished it.[5]

Publication History

Sandkings was first published in the August 1979 issue of Omni.

It was included in Martin's short story collections Sandkings, published in 1981, and Songs the Dead Men Sing, published in 1983.

It was later included in his 2003 anthology Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective.

Adaptations

In 1987, Sandkings was adapted as the seventh of the DC Science Fiction Graphic Novel series, by writer Doug Moench and artists Pat Broderick and Neal McPheeters.

In 1995, Sandkings was adapted into a television film that served as the first episode of The Outer Limits relaunch. The script was adapted by Melinda M. Snodgrass, Martin's co-editor for the Wild Cards series.

In 2007, Martin's short story anthology Dreamsongs was released in audiobook format. It included a recording of Sandkings read by Mark Bramhall.

"Sandkings"_by_George_R._R._Martin_(audiobook)

"Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin (audiobook)

Reception

In 1980, Sandkings won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award and the Locus Award for Best Novelette, and was nominated for the Balrog Award in Short Fiction. It is the only one of Martin's stories to date to have won both the Hugo and the Nebula.

According to Gardner Dozois, by the end of the 1970s, Sandkings was Martin's "best known story." Martin claims that until A Song of Ice and Fire, it was "far and away the most popular thing I ever did."[6]

In 2014, the Vassals of Kingsgrave podcast released a review of Sandkings:

"Sandkings"_by_George_R._R._Martin_(Review)

"Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin (Review)

Connections to the "Thousand Worlds" Universe

Sandkings is set on Baldur, a planet in the Manrealm which is mentioned in several other stories.

In A Song for Lya, Robb compares the Tower of Schkeen to the "gaunt skyscrapers" of Baldur and Old Earth. He also notices some novels from Baldur in the Tower library. Robb and Lya dine at a restaurant which is described as having Baldurian decor and cooking, and are served a bottle of chilled Baldurian wine call Veltaar. At the end of the story, Robb intends to book passage to Baldur, to return to his and Lya's home.

In This Tower of Ashes, John Bowen and his ex-wife Crystal are natives of Baldur. He recalls that their relocation to Jamieson's World was prompted by the discovery of some unique silver and obsideon artefacts in a Baldurian shop. It's possible that this shop is meant to be the same establishment run by Wo & Shade.

In The Stone City, Holt recalls naming various planets in the night's sky for his father's amusement, including Baldur.

In Dying of the Light, Dirk mentions that he was born on Baldur, but his family moved to Avalon while he was very young and he does not remember it.

Wo tells Kress that she has a simian mimic from Celia’s World in stock. Celia’s World is also mentioned in "A Beast for Norn" (the fifth chapter of Tuf Voyaging), The Way of Cross and Dragon, and The Stone City.

Allusions to Other GRRM Works

Sandkings is unique among the "Thousand World" stories for the unflinching cruelty and immorality of its protagonist Simon Kress. However, Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire features point-of-view characters with similarly villainous attributes, such as the chapters of Theon and Victarian Greyjoy, and Jaime and Cersei Lannister.

Allusions to Other Media

Sandkings contains a similar plot device to Oscar Wilde's 1890 Gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Grey, wherein a vain, wealthy young man is gifted eternal youth after having his portrait painted by an admirer. The more he indulges in vice, hedonism and cruelty, however, the uglier the painting becomes. Likewise, Simon in Sandkings is a vain, wealthy man who uses the sandkings to deify himself and feel immortal. He enjoys the fact that they carve his face in worship to their owner. However, the crueller he acts towards them and others, the more the sandkings modify their carvings to represent Simon's inner ugliness and corruption.

References

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