George R. R. Martin exhibits a daring creative imagination in the best tradition of the science-fiction genre. He is not afraid to deal with such matters as homosexuality, prostitution, and free love, subjects strictly avoided by conservative earlier writers of science fiction. Martin attempts to project his vision into the distant future to discover what life will be like for remote descendants of the current generations. His plots typically are mere threads to lead the reader into the bizarre worlds of his imagination. The real interest is not so much in the fates of the characters as in the experience of living in the strange environments these characters invariably take for granted.
“The House of the Worm” is perhaps the most effective work in this collection. Characteristically, the story of young Annelyn is merely a vehicle to introduce the reader to a foreign world, one in which the Sun is dying and life is evolving deep underground to cope with changing environmental conditions. The background is more important than the foreground and the setting more important than the action it contains. This story is remarkable for its sustained grip on the imagination, taking the reader ever deeper into an underground world where a whole civilization existed in the forgotten past and has since been taken over by creatures adapted to live in perpetual darkness. “Bitterblooms” and “The Stone City” are other good examples of stories relying primarily on atmosphere for their effect.
Martin sprinkles his stories with neologisms to create atmosphere and verisimilitude; “sandkings,” “bitterblooms,” and “fast-friends” are examples. Martin has the poetic power to make his environments seem real while the reader is trapped inside them by wonder and curiosity. This gifted author can pick out the small imaginary details that bring a setting to life. Verisimilitude is the outstanding characteristic of these wildly speculative short stories. Although only the future will reveal the accuracy of Martin’s speculations, his realistic stories make their readers painfully aware that conditions are continually changing and that the future will be drastically different from the present.
Although Martin’s stories may seem fantastic, they all have a certain factual foundation. For example, the Sun will die someday, and humans may contact extraterrestrials; if so, there will be various kinds of cultural cross-fertilization. Martin uses known facts and plausible speculations to create inventive, fascinating, and realistic futures.