Martin, George R.R.
The half dozen short stories centre on Haviland Tuf, a fastidious, pompous, somewhat misanthropic character, who outsmarts his foes, and appears to be the only person with integrity in the whole universe. The prequel story describes how he gained possession of an ancient but technologically massively advanced juggernaut - its most crucial capacity is genetics. Tuf can create virtually any species he wants - from devastating viruses to gentle cute grass-eaters to beasts of nightmare.
The story that started this collection (all written for Analog) probably came from the old notion that the technology we have now would make past cultures view us as God/s. In ‘Call Him Moses’, Martin sets up a self-styled prophet who takes over a planet by (secretly non-miraculously) reproducing most of the plagues of Exodus - the executive hand over office under threat of the first born ‘plague’.
Our ‘hero’ deliberately appears to this dictator as a pillar of light, saying I am the Lord God. With his far greater technology he displaces the ‘false prophet’. Martin pushes this pretty hard, having his (not ironic or undermined) protagonist sincerely say for all intents and purposes in this case he is God because of the planet altering powers his ship gives him.
The same theme is explored in ‘Manna from Heaven’, written seven years later. Faced with an absurdly overpopulated planet which, after every chance to work on birth control (something their religion abhors), is descending into anarchy and expansionist warfare, Tuf devises a plant that will essentially sterilise 99% of the population.
“You have no right,” declares the (straw woman) president of the planet. “...Who the hell gave you the authority to make that decision for them? ... You’re no better than we are. You’re only human ... What gives you the goddamned right to play God with our world and our lives?”
...”I make no claims to godhead in the mythological sense, ” [replies Tuf,] “Yet I submit that I do indeed wield the power of a god...I traffic in the life and death of worlds. Enjoying as I do these godlike abilities, can I rightfully decline the accompanying responsibility, the equally awesome burden of moral authority? I think not.”
Normally such a declaration would have the reader saying with Tuf’s antagonist, “He’s insane.” But Martin is pushing us to think a little deeper. A cool theme that emerges is that we should recognise our responsibility rather than just act as if it doesn’t exist. Learning to be comfortable with the power we have is actually admirable. It’d be great if he wrote something about this relating to the responsibility we in the ‘1st world’ automatically have to the ‘3rd world’ - with every purchase we make.
Tuf persuades the president with the analogy of the way he sterilised his cats:
“... Ultimately, as you yourself will discover, there are but two fundamental options. You must either reconcile yourself to inhibiting the fertility of your cats, entirely without their consent, I might add, or, failing that, some day most assuredly you will find yourself about to cycle a bag full of newborn kittens out your airlock into the cold vacuum of space. Make no choice, and you have chosen. Failure to decide, because you lack the right, is itself a decision, First Councillor. In abstaining, you vote.”
“Tuf,” she said, her voice agonised, “don’t! I don’t want this damned power.”
I can see in this why he deals so well with the nature of kingship in his, ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series, particularly Danerys. Also putting the power thing into this context doesn’t offend my sensibilities as a Christian who actually does think God is not merely a myth, and all believers fools and/or manipulative liars.
While these two stories are easily the most challenging thematically, they don’t really set the tone for the book. Interesting that the first story written, ‘Call Him Moses’, comes second last. The earlier ones are all prequels, most written seven years later in ‘85. The longest and most enjoyable, ‘The Plague star’, is simply a thriller - Tuf has to kill or be killed by the individuals in the landing party attempting to claim the valuable ship. We then have novel accounts of how Tuf deals with the ecological problems of various planets.
There is another theme: despite him solving massive problems, his solutions are generally resented by those he rescues, and his motives always unjustly impugned (projection). This may be Martin deliberately setting him up for godhood, rightly seeing that justice from above, even in response to calls for help, often just results in rank ingratitude and abuse.
A weakness, however, is that no other character is given the sense or personality to actually appreciate or even understand Tuf’s actions. Because some of these actions are so clearly helpful, this means everyone else is either stupid and/or ugly, or inconsistent. Tuf’s eccentricities and virtue could have been much more enjoyable if he’d had at least some sympathetic characters - his precious cats aren’t enough for me.