Nightflyers: Mystery and horror aboard a haunted spaceship

Reposting to include Marion’s review of the new SYFY channel adaptation of Nightflyers. You can find it below our reviews of the novella.

Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin science fiction book reviewsNightflyers by George R.R. Martin science fiction book revewsNightflyers by George R.R. Martin

Nightflyers was first published in 1980, won the Locus Award for best novella, and was nominated for a Hugo Award. It was made into an unsuccessful film in 1987. It’s recently been on people’s radars due to the upcoming SYFY series based on the novella. You can purchase it in several new (2018) formats including an illustrated edition, a story collection, and an audio version. I listened to the audio version, which was narrated by actress Adenrele Ojo.

The story is about nine eccentric academics who have congregated on the spaceship Nightflyer bound for a rendezvous with an ancient alien race that they hope to study. The captain of the ship is even stranger than his passengers and presents himself in holographic instead of physical form. He also spies on his passengers, watching them in their berths at night (and all these promiscuous people are quite active at night, changing partners frequently).

Things begin to get scary when passengers start dying off, one by one, similar to And Then There Were None by mystery writer Agatha Christie. Some of the deaths are quite gruesome and the psychological terror of being trapped on a small spaceship with a murderer is palpable, making this a mystery, science fiction, and horror story.

The plot of Nightflyers is compelling, especially after the murders begin. It’s George R.R. Martin, so we know that none of his characters are safe. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), I didn’t like any of his characters, so I didn’t care if their heads exploded, they got chopped in half by a laser, got forced out an airlock, or whatever.

Usually I’m drawn to scholarly characters but these folks, with all their uninhibited drama and passion, were not convincible at all. Though I love her voice, some of the characterization choices that Adenrele Ojo made in the audiobook edition only emphasized Martin’s characters’ unscholarly speech, attitudes, mannerisms, and behavior. One character sounds like she has a mouthful of marbles. She did this to make them sound distinct, I know, but people who’ve spent most of their lives in an academic setting tend to sound similar to each other (for better or worse), making Ojo’s technique unsuitable for this story. (But, then again, who’s to say what academics will be like in 2039? Maybe Martin and Ojo are right.)

I don’t know if this is the case for the print editions, but Random House Audio’s version of Nightflyers includes an introduction written by Martin. Here he describes the horror films and monsters of his childhood, explains how his genre-blending fiction is like his chemistry set, gives us an SF history lesson (also related to genre-blending), and suggests elements that makes good horror and science fiction stories. I always enjoy the nostalgic feel and instructive nature of Martin’s introductions. In the audio version, GRRM reads it himself, which is really cool. The entire audiobook is 4 hours long. I don’t know whether to recommend it or not. On one hand, I Ioved GRRM’s introduction; on the other, I didn’t approve of some of Ojo’s characterization choices which seemed to highlight the aspects of the story that I think Martin got wrong.

~Kat Hooper


Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin science fiction book revewsI wasn’t going to read Nightflyers, just as I wasn’t going to watch the Syfy adaptation, but I ended up doing both. Kat suggested in the comments that I probably wouldn’t like the novella any better than she did, and she was correct. In fact, I liked it a little less than her. Part of it is simply that the story, published in 1981, is dated. Mostly, though, just like Kat, I found it impossible to find a character to like or warm up to, even Melantha, the “improved model,” who eventually seems to be the main character.

They also didn’t convince me they were academics. Karoly, the alleged leader, is obsessed with the volcryn, a space-faring species no one has actually seen. Because of his stilted, archaic style of speech, Karoly comes across less as an academic and more as a moneyed, 19th century eccentric pursuing a passion. The team he’s assembled is no more convincing.

While some of the deaths are gruesome, a couple of characters, if I read this right, just drift away in space, and while one of them chose that death, the other is semi-conscious and lashed to a “space sled” so I’m not sure what was going on there.

My favorite part were the lovely descriptions of the alien being the ship is following with the intent of study.

I think Nightflyers is mostly for Martin completists. The 2018 Bantam edition is handsomely augmented by the atmospheric illustrations of David Palumbo.

~Marion Deeds


Nightflyers by George R.R. Martin science fiction book reviewsNightflyers, SYFY channel adaptation


In 1981, George R.R. Martin published the novella called Nightflyers which Kat and I have reviewed above. Martin has stated in an interview that he wrote it because he had read an essay somewhere that said SF and horror were two subgenres that couldn’t be blended. I guess Martin never saw that movie that came out in 1979. What was the name again? It started with an A… Oh, that’s right, Alien.

Nightflyers is about a ship full of scientists who pursue a strange space-faring being called the volcryn across a part of space called “the void,” trying to make contact. Things don’t go well.

Moving forward in time 37 years, the SYFY channel decided to adapt the Nightflyers novella into a “limited run” show. (Clearly, from the cliffhanger ending, someone is hoping for a second season.) The show, filmed mostly in Ireland, has high production values that cannot save it from the disjointed storytelling and the stilted, ridiculous dialogue. There are things to like about it, but mainly, this derivative show flails about, trying to pick a direction, and failing miserably most of the time.

Here’s what I liked about Nightflyers:

1) A stellar cast did everything it could to make this story work.

You know how sometimes your heart is torn but you are somehow inspired by historic tales of a small, feisty force who valiantly fights a larger army, holding the ground as they basically get annihilated to a person? Well, I had that feeling about this cast more than once during my watching of Nightflyers. Standout performances include David Ajala as Captain Royd Eris and Maya Eshe as Lommie. Eshe deserves special notice as an actor to watch in the future. Angus Sampson, as Rowan, struggles to make his xenobiologist character something other than a puppet, and nearly succeeds.

2) The art direction was beautiful. Borrowing heavily from H.R. Giger’s intestinal-themed Alien sets, Nightflyer makes beautiful use of lines, curls and loops. A scene in Episode 9, when Lommie is jacked into the ship’s AI and reclines, surrounded by narrow repeating lines, lit in shades of swimming-pool blue, would make a poster I’d be happy to hang on my wall.

3) A review I read complimented the show’s “body horror,” which I would call “splatter.” For gross, gory ways to die on a space ship, they did very well.

4) Trees in Space! Even though they stole it and gave Silent Running no credit, I liked the trees.

5) The dandelion theme, while always subtext, is beautifully handled.

Here’s what didn’t work for me:

1) To pad out a 50,000 word story, the showrunners borrowed heavily from many stronger works, even ones that weren’t that good: Alien, certainly; 2001: A Space Odyssey; the SF horror movie Event Horizon; even the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog. Oh, and one of the sets even looks like Cerebro from the X-Men movies. Stealing is okay with me if you do it well, but these elements were thrown about in a random manner, and the inability to settle on a story made the awkward grafting even more obvious.

2) In addition to being shallowly derivative, the awkward storytelling relies more than once on what Roger Ebert called “the idiot plot.” As I use it, the idiot plot is this: if one character would share one piece of information that they have no reason to withhold, a large problem in the story would be solved. One example of the idiot plot in this story is the memory suite. Karl D’Branin, alleged leader of the scientists aboard the Nightflyer, goes into the suite, which allows people to replay memories of events. To his horror, his memory takes a dark and creepy turn and he crawls out of the suite, muttering, “That isn’t what happened.” Karl never shares this important detail with anyone, even when they later decide to use the memory suite to reconstruct something that happened on the ship — and later still when Karl himself decides it’ll be a good tool to use to attempt communication with the space-faring volcryn they are chasing.

A second example, less egregious but more irritating, concerns a “secret” about Captain Eris, which anyone who watched the show figured out by Episode 3. Instead, the secret is “revealed” to the audience as if it’s a big surprise much later on. Why did it need to be a secret in the first place? We never find out.

3) Fridging. The character of Tessia, a biologist who later has a relationship with Rowan, is introduced so extravagantly and with so little background that I was sure she was either a construct of the young telepath Thale’s (Sam Strike) subconscious, or of the ship itself. Neither, as it turns out; Tessia is simply a woman Suitable for Fridging: dying in a horrible way to give a male character an excuse to behave badly. Women, in general, are treated strangely in this show. If they are strong, smart and good, they are sacrificed or sacrifice themselves. If they are strong, smart and don’t die (for a relative value of “die”), they are evil. Along these lines, the consequences for male characters never match their actions; the two obvious examples being Karl and Rowan.

4) The dialogue is clunkier than a one-act play written by sixth-graders. Please note that I am not insulting sixth-graders. They, after all, are learning to write. The show-writers of Nightflyers, including Martin himself, are adult professionals who get paid to do it. Also, please note that I said the dialogue was clunkier than sixth-graders would have written. It’s hard to pull out one or two examples, but the character of Augie is worst offender. The second-in-command, Augie is often given expository dialogue to voice, which means his lines of speech don’t respond in any way to the previous line of dialogue. It’s like, “Is that a new shirt, Augie?” “Yes, and your mother was a brilliant woman. There was no one like her, ever. And it was so sad when she died, but I swear I feel her presence on the ship still.”

I won’t even go into the non-existent world-building or the plot points that require to people to be nearly fatally stupid. I’m not a scientist, but the ones on this ship violate basic protocols and commit acts of cross-contamination that would get them flunked out of a community college biology class, all so the story can work and be creepy.

Basically, the show was not a success, and because of the hype and the amount of money spent on a bright shiny thing that looks pretty, it was an actual disappointment.

If you’re a Syfy fan, like I am, re-watch the seasons they have of The Expanse. If you’re a Martin fan, ten hours with your favorite episodes of Game of Thrones would probably be better spent.

Published in 1980 in print, 2018 in audio and film. From the number one best-selling author of A Game of Thrones – a chilling mystery set on a seemingly haunted spaceship, soon to be an original series on Syfy. This is the definitive edition of an electrifying tale that combines the deep-space thrills of Alien, the psychological horror of The Shining, and, of course, the inimitable vision of George R. R. Martin. When a scientific expedition is launched to study a mysterious alien race, the only ship available is the Nightflyer, a fully autonomous vessel manned by a single human. But Captain Royd Eris remains locked away, interacting with his passengers only as a disembodied voice – or a projected hologram no more substantial than a ghost. Yet that’s not the only reason the ship seems haunted. The team’s telepath, Thale Lasamer, senses another presence aboard the Nightflyer – something dangerous, volatile, and alien. Captain Eris claims to know nothing about the elusive intruder, and when someone, or something, begins killing off the expedition’s members, he’s unable – or unwilling – to stem the bloody tide. Only Melantha Jhirl, a genetically enhanced outcast with greater strength, stamina, and intelligence than other humans, has a chance of solving the mystery – and stopping the malevolent being that’s wiping out her shipmates. But first she has to keep herself alive.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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2 comments

  1. I usually enjoy Martin’s writing, but there is nothing really new here for me… and I planned to skip the series too, for that matter. I just think it’s a bit dated. And yeah, it’s hard to engage with a horror story if there’s no one you can root for.

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