In July 2008 Subterranean published this book containing two novelettes by George R.R. Martin, both of which were originally published in 1976. They are presented in a similar fashion to the Ace Double novels of the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, Starlady and Fast-Friend has two covers and is printed back to back and upside down. I was born too late and on the wrong continent to have been exposed to any of these double novels myself, but I thought it an interesting idea anyway. In his collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, a publication that is central to Martin’s work, he mentions Starlady and Fast-Friend as some of his earliest exposures to (written) science fiction — stories that took him to “walk beneath the light of distant stars.” But they weren’t included in Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, so I had not read them before.
Starlady is set in the same universe as Martin’s first novel Dying of the Light and a number of other short stories, but other than a few references to places, events, and alien species, the story does not seem connected to any of these. It is set on Thisrock, a place where life is cheap, justice hard to find, and anything is available for a price. Janey Small, or Starlady as she will be known, and her companion Golden Boy find this out the hard way. Raped, robbed and stranded on the planet, they are taken in by the pimp Hairy Hal. Hal sets Starlady straight on the facts of life; it is either work for him or take their chances outside. Not much of a choice in truth. Life with Hairy Hal is not enough to quell Starlady’s ambition and need for vengeance.
I guess many people would see Starlady as the central character of the story. For me Hairy Hal was more interesting, though. Martin has never been afraid of showing the dark side of human nature and he certainly does not shy from it here. Hairy Hal is not a very nice man. He’s a pimp, makes a living by exploiting other people’s bodies, and he’s a shameless opportunist. But, and that is probably the brilliance in this story, he is also very afraid. This single fact and the way Martin reveals it manages to create just a little bit of sympathy for the loathsome man. It’s what makes this story work for me.
In Fast-Friend, a story that as far as I can tell does not share its universe with any of Martin’s other stories, we see a human civilization that is struggling to escape from the solar system. The first expeditions into interstellar space have found life, to their amazement and ruin, and one of these species holds the key to breaking the speed of light. Darks, as they are called, are creatures that convert matter — any matter — into energy. They travel the vast emptiness of space at incredible speeds. Spaceships are food to them, they are very dangerous, and there is simply no outrunning them. By merging human and dark however, Fast-Friends can be created. These creatures are the link between humanity’s far-flung colonies — the only way to communicate effectively. Brand, the main character of our story, and his lover Melissa, had the chance to become a Fast-Friend. Melissa took it, but fear got the best of Brand. He now infinitely regrets the lost opportunity.
This story is more emotionally charged than Starlady. Brand’s struggle to be reunited with his love is touching but does not have quite the same impact as some of the other short stories he wrote in the 1970s such as A Song for Lya (1974). I very much liked the bitter-sweet ending of the story, however. Fast-Friend is one of those stories that could very easily have been ruined by giving it a happy end. Fortunately that is not Martin’s style.
Martin’s success in recent years with his fantasy series A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE has eclipsed most of his earlier projects. At the same time it has also created opportunities to reissue some of his older works. I’ve read quite a few of Martin’s short stories and all of his other novels by now and I think some of his best writing is in his short fiction. Whenever I read one Martin’s short stories I am amazed by how much he can put into so few words. Starlady and Fast-Friend is not a particularly cheap book (it is currently listed for $20), but for that you get two stories by a master of the craft as well as a good quality hardcover with good artwork by Martina Pilcerova (who did some fine Ice and Fire artwork as well). I don’t think I ever read anything by Martin that disappointed me and these stories are no exception. Good stories, interesting format, good artwork, what more could we ask for?