George R. R. Martin wrote some excellent science fiction stories back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. “Sandkings” is one of the most popular of those. It won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus Award for Best Novelette. This time I read “Sandkings” in Volume 1 of Martin’s big Dreamsongs collection.
I so thoroughly enjoyed A Game of Thrones, the first volume of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, that I eagerly read “Sandkings” the first time I came across it. I found the novelette to have the same clear, readable prose style as his novel. It also showcased Martin’s ability to build suspense. Another time through (my third?), I still think it’s excellent.
In the story, a man named Simon Kress lives on a planet somewhere (I’m fairly certain it’s not Earth, but I don’t recall it ever being specifically stated). He’s a rich man that is fond of exotic pets. He’s also a powerful man that is fond of his power. On a shopping trip to replace some of his pets that died after being neglected during an extended business trip, he purchases some sandkings – intelligent ant creatures that work with a collective hive mind. He puts them in a large terrarium, and he observes with delight as the creatures war with each other over resources.
Even more fascinating? The sandkings worship. Kress projects a hologram of his own face over the terrarium, and the creatures build shrines to him, etching his likeness on their small castles. When Kress gets bored, he shakes things up a bit by not feeding them. He manipulates them into fighting in every way he can think of. And things go badly.
The story is as much a commentary on the dangers of playing God (or the need some people have to do so) as it is a horror story about uncontrollable dangerous creatures. In fact, it completely succeeds at being both of those things, which is why I enjoy re-reading it so much. It’s a rich story that leaves me both unsettled and contemplative.