Septon Cellador paled. “Seven save us.” Wine dribbled down his chin in a red line. “Lord Commander, wights are monstrous, unnatural creatures. Abominations before the eyes of the gods. You … you cannot mean to try to talk with them?”
“Can they talk?” asked Jon Snow. “I think not, but I cannot claim to know. Monsters they may be, but they were men before they died. How much remains? The one I slew was intent on killing Lord Commander Mormont. Plainly it remembered who he was and where to find him.” Maester Aemon would have grasped his purpose, Jon did not doubt; Sam Tarly would have been terrified, but he would have understood as well. “My lord father used to tell me that a man must know his enemies. We understand little of the wights and less about the Others. We need to learn.”
That answer did not please them. Septon Cellador fingered the crystal that hung about his neck and said, “I think this most unwise, Lord Snow. I shall pray to the Crone to lift her shining lamp and lead you down the path of wisdom.”
A Dance with Dragons – Jon VIII
Welcome to the book club. Like each book club story on this blog, the reading and commenting is done at your own pace. Have fun and enjoy!
I have started a book club re-read for the older works of George R.R. Martin for purposes such as research, scholarship, and teaching. I own all copies of material that is used for this book club. If you have not yet a story listed, please check with your local bookstore for your own reading material to purchase. (Indie Bookstore Finder) The full list of GRRM stories outside of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that I have read can be found on this page here.
Reminder: Any and all book material, interview material, So Spake Martin info, and anything else related to George R.R. Martin and his works is openly discussed throughout this blog.
Just under 5,000 words, Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg was published in September 1976 and is part of George R.R Martin’s Thousand Worlds Universe. It carries the common themes of poverty and hopelessness within an exploitative system, but the main character, Glen Sykes, also conveys an amount of anger at the people who accept their life there and don’t try to escape like he does, much like Ed Cochran in the story Override as he tries to dupe his friend (and main protagonist) Matt Kabaraijian, except Sykes is much more bitter. And then there is the driving force behind the bitter-tongue of Glen Sykes; the legacy his father left behind.
This exploitative system is the same throughout the Corpse Handler trilogy, and the message seems to be about the nature of corporations working the laborer to death (and beyond). Meathouse Man shows this idea in the strongest way, as does Override when the main antagonist, Bartling, storms into the picture. Even though Armageddon Rag isn’t part of the Thousands Worlds Universe, it also shows these “dragons” through very clear events between dreams and waking events.
A corpse handler is a living human that controls the select dead by way of implants and remote control. You might think this is akin to greenseers in ASOIAF, but I would not agree. This is akin to the dragon element that is all about mind control. Think back to how Martin mentions his initial intent for the Targaryens was to be able to have psionic mind control powers which allowed a type of pyrokenisis. Instead, this is closer to one of Martin’s Hrangan minds:
- Dying of the Light – Hrangans. Humanity’s great enemy during the Double War, the Hrangans were perhaps the most alien sentients ever encountered. Their social system was structured on the basis of a number of biological castes, most of whom seemed to belong to different species, so different were they. Of the Hrangan millions, only the so-called Minds were truly intelligent, and mankind never communicated successfully even with them. The Hrangans were bitterly xenophobic; prior to the Double War, they had enslaved a dozen less-advanced races, and there is evidence that they had exterminated others entirely. The war effectively destroyed the Hrangans, except on Old Hranga itself and a handful of their oldest colonies. *They used a type of coercive mind-control. (hence the harangue) The Hrangans used the Hruun as a slaverace to fight for them in the Double War (Dance of Dragons).
If I were to draw that link to A Song of Ice and Fire, this corporate/production system is the “ice dragon” Others as the overreaching and suppressive government is the red-fire dragon Targaryens (with rare and minor character exceptions). To be a wighted slave (or Unsullied, undead Gregor Clegane, other lickspittle, etc) is to be controlled by any of the “dragons”. Corporate or government, the masters control the slaves. Just following orders. Work yourself to death to benefit the one other. The terrible thing is that often these two groups can work in tandem, both touched by madness. Yikes!
I will transcribe both Override and Meathouse Man and will update here, but in the meantime, I have a chunk of Override quoted in this Daenerys and Bran page. Meathouse Man will come later as I need to figure out the best way to note this story in a sensitive manner because this story is emotionally connected to GRRM in his own personal life in a deep way, as opposed to the ‘grody’ story most readers tend to think it is.
As far as New Pittsburg goes, this one does not require as many notes as other stories do, but what I do add will be bulletpointed in as the story moves. Feel free to use the notes as talking points and to add your own observations in comments below. Just have fun.
What does Martin have to say on the matter?
- Dreamsongs: … long before H. P. Lovecraft came into my life, I once found a chemistry set waiting underneath the Christmas tree. Chemistry sets were all the rage in the ’50s, and were found beneath as many trees as Lionel trains or Roy Rogers gunbelts with the matching six-shooters (if you were a boy—girls got the Dale Evans set, and Betty Crocker baking sets instead of chemistry sets). It was the age of Sputnik, the age of Charles Van Doren, the age of the atom; America wanted all us boys to grow up to be rocket scientists, so we could beat the damned Russkies to the moon…Most of the time when we mixed this with that, all we made was a mess. That was probably a good thing. If we had ever actually found a formula that turned weird colors and bubbled and smoked, we might have tried to drink it … or at the very least, see if our little sister could be convinced to drink it.
My chemistry set soon ended up at the back of my closet, gathering dust behind my collection of TV Guides, but my passion for mixing this with that remained as I grew older, and found expression in my fiction. Modern publishing loves to sort the tales we tell into categories, producing racks of books that resemble the racks of little bottles in the chemistry set, with neat little labels that read: MYSTERY. ROMANCE. WESTERN. HISTORICAL. SF. JUVENILE.
Pfui, I say. Let’s mix this with that and see what happens. Let’s cross some genre lines and blur some boundaries, make some stories that are both and neither. Some of the time we’ll make a mess, sure … but once in a while, if we do it right, we may stumble on a combination that explodes!
With that as my philosophy, it’s no wonder that I’ve produced a number of odd hybrids over the years. Fevre Dream is one such. Although most often categorized as horror, it is as much a steamboat novel as a vampire novel. The Armageddon Rag is even more difficult to classify; fantasy, horror, murder mystery, rock ’n’ roll novel, political novel, ’60s novel. It’s got Froggy the Gremlin too. Even my fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, is a hybrid of sorts, inspired as much by the historical fiction of Thomas B. Costain and Nigel Tranter as the fantasy of Tolkien, Howard, and Fritz Leiber. The two genres that I’ve mixed most often, though, are horror and science fiction.
I was doing it as early as my second sale. Despite its SF setting, “The Exit to San Breta” is a ghost story at heart … though admittedly not a very frightening one. My first two corpse handler tales, “Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg” and “Override,” were further fumbling attempts at the same sort of cross-pollination, offering as they did a science fictional take on an old friend from the world of horror, the zombie. I was going for a horrific feel in “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” as well, and (much more successfully) in a later, stronger work, my novella “In the House of the Worm.”
Some critics have argued that horror and science fiction are actually antithetical to each other. They can make a plausible case, certainly, especially in the case of Lovecraftian horror. SF assumes that the universe, however mysterious or frightening it may seem to us, is ultimately knowable, while Lovecraft suggests that even a glimpse of the true nature of reality would be enough to drive men mad. You cannot get much further from the Campbellian view of the cosmos as that…
* * *
My corpse handler series went all the way to three: “Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg” began it, “Override” followed, and “Meathouse Man” brought it to … well, a finish, if not an end. A fourth story exists as a four-page fragment, and there are ideas in my files for a dozen more. I once intended to write them all, publish them in the magazines, then collect them all together in a book I’d call Songs the Dead Men Sing. But that fourth story never got finished, and the others never got started. When I did finally use the title Songs the Dead Men Sing for a collection (from Dark Harvest, in 1983), “Meathouse Man” was the only corpse story to make the cut.
On with the mad scientist experiment…
Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg
By George R.R. Martin
Four of them waited in the drizzling rain of New Pittsburg; four who walked and breathed. But only one lived, and only the living moved with purpose. His name was Sykes, a whip-thin young man with dark eyes set in an angular face, and he was impatient. The other didn’t mind. The rain was nothing to them. They’d given up feeling long ago, with their lives.
But Sykes felt the rain, the leaking from the gray above in tiny droplets almost fine enough to be a mist. And he remembered it as he felt it, remembered how it tasted of rust and acid, how it stung when it hit bare skin. One he’s hated that rain, as he’d hated New Pittsburg, but now there was only contempt. New Pittsburg wasn’t worth hatred.
“Move it,” he snapped at last. He was hot, wet, tired of waiting. His papers weren’t that interesting.
The spaceport guard looked up in faint surprise from the window of the gate control booth. Unused to being snapped at, he eyed Sykes and the three corpses curiously for a moment. Then he shrugged, folded up the papers, and handed them back, “Welcome to New Pittsburg,” he said without conviction.
Sykes smiled: a quick cold slash across his face. “Welcome back, you mean. But I’m not staying.”
“Yeah,” said the guard, not really interested. “That’s what they all say. Nobody’s staying, but nobody leaves.” He shrugged again. “Company office will be open tomorrow morning. They’ll have work for you. Meantime, if you need a place to stay…”
“I have a place to stay. I was born in here. You can skip the recital about deadman offenses, too. I know that shit.”
The guard shot him another curious look. “Born here?”
“Yes. People do leave. The smart people.”
“You’re not so smart,” the guard said. “You came back.”
Sykes frowned, but did not reply. He was getting bored with the conversation. There were more important things to do.
The guard threw the switch to kill the electricity on the ten-foot high spaceport fence. Then he swung a sonic screechrifle over his shoulders, came outside, and unlocked the gate. Sykes strode through quickly. The three corpses shuffled behind him, their steps clumsy echoes of his own as he walked them through the corpse controller snug on his belt.
Outside, he paused. He was back on New Pittsburg.
The town was as dreary as ever. It was an afterthought, almost, sandwiched in awkwardly between the spacefield and the mountains. And it was ugly. Three years hadn’t changed that. The buildings were shoeboxes of corrugated duralloy that had never been meant to permanent, but were. The streets and sidewalks were gray plastoid, pitted and worn by the constant drizzling rustrain. They matched the monotony of the flat gray sky.
It wasn’t that color was illegal on New Pittsburg, Sykes reflected, though it sometimes seemed so. When he was a kid, he only bright color he remembered seeing was the color of blood. And even that seemed grayish at times.
He stood and looked down the dismal street and thought. His father had landed like this, some thirty-odd standard years ago. With a bigger corpse crew than Sykes had now. With hope, but not much brains, and less knowledge. So the Company grabbed him by the balls, ad never let go.
The Company was tough. But Sykes thought he was tougher. He was ready for New Pittsburg. He was here for one night; no longer.
He stirred, and moved towards the building closest to the spaceport. A warehouse, from the outside, but Sykes remembered what it really was: the Company deadman depot.
The reception room was small and filthy, the grime-encrusted plastic counter untended. But there was a bell. Sykes hit it. Hard.
Then he waited. The corpses waited too, just outside the door, unmoving. Eyes blank and empty, arms limp. You didn’t need to see the metal plate in the back of a man’s skull to know he was a deadman. A glance would do.
They had no names, the corpses. Not anymore. They had forfeited their names with their lives, then they committed their crimes or had their accidents. Death had come on dingy corpseyard operating tables, where their brains – crippled, criminal, troublemaking – were ripped out and destroyed. Then they rose again, with corpse pseudominds in their skulls to command the skill-living bodies. The newborn dead; the cheapest labor of all. As men, they’d built up a debt to society. They paid it off with their lives and their bodies. You didn’t waste anything in this universe, and the bodies of condemned criminals made valuable machines.
- Rhaegal, Viserion, Drogon.
- The Night’s Watch has lost it’s way, forgotten its true purpose, and chances are the vows as we know them now are altered history.
Some corpse handlers gave their crews nicknames, but that sort of sentimental nonsense was not for Sykes. His father had been sentimental, and a loser. Sykes was a cold winner. Deadmen were mindless hunks of flesh, property. He treated them as such.
- Similar to how Tywin (a fire person) feels of his father Tytos Lannister.
He owned three, a large crew for a handler his age. The first he’d gotten by luck, a withered oldster picked up in a game of psychodice. The corpse had lost his right arm long before Sykes won him. He was nearly worthless.
The second was something else; a seven-foot giant, a muscleman with broad shoulders and think, corded arms. Sykes had saved for two years to buy him, but it was worth it. He was a prize, a first-class corpse, top meat.
The third was a recent buy. Young flaming red hair, a once-handsome face; average quality, a little soft but he’d toughen in time, and he had a long deadlife ahead of him. Besides, he’d been a bargain. Sykes bought him on Vendalia, where harsh laws made corpses common and dirt cheap.
- The dragon has three heads.
There was a noise. Behind the counter a door popped open and a stubby little man stepped through. He wore a white smock of a corpse technician, not blood-stained, and he was peeling off a pair of gloves as he walked. Sykes didn’t know him. He felt vaguely let down. When he left, he technician had been Banner, fat Banner with the beard and the big laugh, who’d predicted more than once that Sykes would wind up on his table. But he’s also given Sykes a controller to play with, and shown him how to handle a deadman. Something his father would never do.
“I rang for the depot man,” Sykes said. “I’ve got three corpses to slop.”
The small man slapped his gloves down on the counter. “I am the depot man. Tech, too. We do double duty around here. The Company likes hard workers.” He eyed the corpses. “A company dollar a night for each,” he said, “and we take no responsibility for damage.” He took out a form and a pencil and pushed them across the counter. “And you’ll want to convert your money. I’ll do it for you. On New Pittsburg we use company dollars. Rate’s three stellers for two dollars.”
Sykes didn’t like the man. He stifled the urge to ark what had happened to Banner and the old depot clerk. “That’s pretty high,” he said, toying. “What if I don’t want to convert?”
“Got to,” the small man snapped. “Company rules.”
- Right. The Company rules.
Sykes smiled his cold smile. He knew all about Company rules. The New Pittsburg Company had opened the planet, and it still owned it. It had political as well as economic clout, and its rules had the force of law. Earth, with its guidelines and settlement company regulations, was long light years away.
Sykes knew about conversion rates, too. His father had arrived here with a pocket full of Vendalian stellars. The pocket had been a lot roomier after conversion.
But Sykes was smarter than his father; he was ready. “That’s all right,” he said, pulling a fat roll of bills from his coverall pocket. “I converted already. On Vendalia. At the real rate.” He smiled again, enjoying it, and pushed three bills at the small man.
The Company man looked up sharply. But he took the bills. Then he opened a gate in the counter. “This way,” he said.
Sykes followed him behind the counter and through a door. The corpses came after, walking with a slow, clumsy guilt. It was Sykes who walked them, really. A corpse handler sent impulses to the controller at his belt in the same half-thinking way he sent impulses to his own muscles. The psi circuits in the controller picked up the commands and relayed them to the corpse pseudomind. Then, amplified, the impulses went out to the nerves and the tendons and the muscles of the body. And the deadmen walked.
They could do other things, too; swing a pick, lift a crate, carry a load, run a machine. Lots of things, depending on the skill of the handler. Walking a corpse-crew was easy, but having three or four deadmen at work on three or four different tasks was a feat of a different order. Like running four bodies at once.
Behind the reception room was a long corridor, then another door. Then the warehouse, huge and dark and rank with the smell of corpseflesh. Light poured in through an open door and Sykes could see corpses sprawled everywhere. They covered the floor in piles, flopping all over each other, until the piles stretched away into the darkness. A few were lying in the slop troughs that lines one wall. If the stink was any indication, there were thousands of deadmen littering the warehouse floor.
“Flop ‘em down anywhere,” the small man told Sykes. “Pick them up in the morning, though, or you pay extra.”
Sykes glanced at him coldly. The deadman depot was worse than he remembered, much worse. He was annoyed, but he kept his voice even. “Where do you get off charging a dollar for this?”
- This seems a bit like the Shed Boss and location from Martin’s story The Stone City (1977).
“What do you want? Beds? Makes no different to them!”
“Most places have boards, wood bunks, shelves. Something. You used to.”
Again the small man eyed him sharply. “Yeah. Well, it got crowded. And this isn’t most places. They can’t feel a thing anyway. Flop ‘em, I said.”
“Right by the door?” Sykes said. He laughed lightly. “So they get stepped on by thousands of corpses coming out? I get here late and they’re ruined.” He shook his head.
“We’re not responsible for damage. Flop ‘em anywhere you like.” The small man turned and left.
Sykes touched his controller and snapped a silent mental command. His three deadmen stumbled forward, almost in step, trodding on limp uncomplaining bodies as they walked across the huge room. When they were deep enough into the darkness so they had a reasonable change to avoid being trampled, Sykes disengaged his mind and the corpses did an ungainly flop. They would not move again until he moved them. The pseudominds kept their hearts beating and their lungs at work, but Sykes was their will. They were tuned to his controller, and his alone.
He thumbed the belt-box off and returned to the reception room. The small man was putting on his gloves. Behind him, the second door was open. Sykes got a glance of a body, face down on a white table, with a shining-new metal plate in its skull.
Memories came back in a rush, of the other bodies he’d seen in that room. Of the time Banner had let him watch a conversation. Hardly ten, he’d cowered in the corner, wearing a surgical mask and an oversized smock. Two Company policemen, stern in blue and black, carried the man in from their wagon. He’d already been drugged. He was heavy, hard-faced, with hair like dark fine wire, and he’d killed a Company officer. Sykes knew him vaguely. His name had been Karpov, and he’d worked as a hired handler. The police had dropped him on the table, and Banner went to work quickly; shaving his skull, attaching a tangle of tubed and instruments, setting up a stasis-field to keep the life in the body. Then, from behind, he’d cut through the skull, down into the brain, slicing at it, removing it deftly, piece by piece. The machines kept the body going. Banner, his gloved hands very sure, took a pseudomind from its case, set to work hooking it up with the spinal column and the nerve endings. Sykes had been too far away to see exactly what he’d done.
- Stealing bodies for this “wighting” purpose is very close to what happens in the Martin story The Needle Men (1981) or Cyrain of Lilith and Ash stealing bodies as the other player loses their mind in The Glass Flower (1986).
Afterwards, when the steel plate had locked the pseudomind into place and the body was breathing normally again without the support of machines, Sykes had come close and touched it. The skin had been warm, and he felt a pulse. “He’s not dead,” he said, suddenly not understanding.
Banner, his mask off, only laughed his big laugh. “Body isn’t,” he said. “But Karpov is.” Then he’d picked up a controller, tuned it to the new-mind pseudomind. And Karpov’s corpse had risen and chased Sykes out the door.
It all came back then, as Sykes stared at the body through the open door, and wondered if this small man ever used his corpse to frighten kids. But he put the thought away. “Don’t tell me you left a customer waiting while you took care of me?” he said.
- Like Old Nan’s scary stories she tells Bran, which is actually foreshadowing of what is upcoming in Bran’s arc; his purpose.
The small man flexed his fingers, looked up, and frowned. “He’s all done. Got the pseudo in. Now all I gotta do is tune it to a controller.”
- To control the blood of the dragon.
“What’d you get him for?” Sykes asked, hoping it wasn’t anyone he’d known. There were a lot of old friends who’d been headed for the table when he left.
“Assault on a Company officer,” the small man said. Sykes tried not to show surprise. Three years ago, simple assault hadn’t been a deadman offense. New Pittsburg was getting tougher. Each world had its own list of deadman offenses, crimes that would make a man a corpse. The list was longest on the raw new colonies where machines were expensive and labor scarce. And it looked like conditions were worsening on New Pittsburg.
The Sworn Sword
“Lady Shiera does. Lord Bloodraven’s paramour. She bathes in blood to keep her beauty. And once my sister Rhae put a love potion in my drink, so I’d marry her instead of my sister Daella.”
Egg spoke as if such incest was the most natural thing in the world. For him it is. The Targaryens had been marrying brother to sister for hundreds of years, to keep the blood of the dragon pure. Though the last actual dragon had died before Dunk was born, the dragonkings went on. Maybe the gods don’t mind them marrying their sisters. “Did the potion work?” Dunk asked.
The World of Ice and Fire – The Targaryen Kings: Aenys I
The tradition amongst the Targaryens had always been to marry kin to kin. Wedding brother to sister was thought to be ideal. Failing that, a girl might wed an uncle, a cousin, or a nephew; a boy, a cousin, aunt, or niece. This practice went back to Old Valyria, where it was common amongst many of the ancient families, particularly those who bred and rode dragons. “The blood of the dragon must remain pure,” the wisdom went. Some of the sorcerer princes also took more than one wife when it pleased them, though this was less common than incestuous marriage. In Valryia before the Doom, wise men wrote, a thousand gods were honored, but none were feared, so few dared to speak against these customs.
This was not true in Westeros, where the power of the Faith went unquestioned. Incest was denounced as vile sin, whether between father and daughter, mother and son, or brother and sister, and the fruits of such unions were considered abominations in the sight of gods and men. With hindsight, it can be seen that conflict between the Faith and House Targaryen was inevitable.
The depot man vanished behind the operating room door. Sykes stepped outside. Night had come, but it was still raining a rusty drizzle. And it was still hot. Lights burned in the windows of several of the grim metal buildings that lined the street. Most of the lights didn’t interest him. He knew the one he wanted.
It was a tavern-restaurant, well-lit and noisy but nearly empty. The long mockwood bar was occupied by only two customers, and the scattered tables were deserted.
Customers and barkeep both looked up when Sykes entered and eyed him with open curiosity. The short silence was broken by one of the patrons, a man Sykes had never seen before. “You’re new,” he said.
- When Death walk into a bar: A Night at the Tarn House.
“Not really,” said Sykes. He looked at the barkeep, a tall man with a craggy face and wide shoulders slightly stooped by age. “Looks like business is off, Rob.”
The bartender had been staring at him. Now he started. “Sykes,” he said. “My God. Glen Sykes.” He gaped, then broke into a smile, and offered a huge rough hand.
Sykes took it, clasped, and smiled back. Not his usual cold slash this time, no, something warmer, gentler, less certain. And almost involuntary. A slow curl at the corners of his mouth. “A long time.” He said. “Three full years.” Kenyon, the big barkeep, nodded numbly.
Then one of the customers was on her feet, offering her own hand. “Remember me?” she asked when Sykes turned her away.
Sykes studied her. She was gaunt, middle-aged, with baggy clothes and a hook nose. “Sure,” he said. “Sal something or other. Corpse handler. You were new just about when I left.”
“Right,” the woman said. She gestured towards her drinking companion, the man who’d accused Sykes of being new. “That’s Eddie. He’s been here two years or so.”
Sykes gave him a nod, then turned quickly back to Kenyon. “Where’s everybody else? Mueller, and Cathy? And the Slob? And Dave Anderson, and Roy? And Banner, dammit? I went by the depot and some new guy was in charge.”
“Banner’s dead,” Kenyon said. “Keeled over about a year ago. Right at work too. Fell on his own table. Everybody said they should of made a deadman outta him. The Slob’s dead too. Her whole crew got wiped out in a mine flood. We’ve had a lotta wipe-outs the last couple years, Glen. Things been getting worse since you left.”
Sykes pulled up a barstool and sat down, nodding. “I noticed. Electric fence round the spacefield and no shelves in the depot. And a corpse tech doubling as depot man. Banner never would have done that.”
“Banner did do that,” Kenyon said. “Company changed things about a year-and-a-half ago, before he died. He had no choice. He was Company, but they pushed him around too. You know how it was. Profits have been going down, things are more marginal than ever. Company’s really in a panic.”
Sykes Nodded again. “Figures. It’s hard to see this place getting worse. It was bad enough when I was here. But it figures. What else has been going on?”
“Mueller’s still around,” Kenyon told him. “He’s in the mills now, working a Company eight-crew. Always was a good handler. Cathy wound up marrying Roy Anderson.”
“Roy? Thought it was Dave she was hot for.”
Kenyon Shrugged. “Guess she cooled. Haven’t seen her or Roy for a while, to tell the truth. But Dave still comes around. Mueller too. They’ll probably be in later.”
- GRRM has a habit of repeatedly using a fire-hot Catelyn type in his works. Here is yet another example. Cat was hot for Brandon, but had to cool to Eddard instead.
“I can wait,” Sykes said. “Meantime, I’ll have a beer.”
Kenyon drew a glass slowly and set it down. “What about you, Glen? What have you been doing? I never expected to see you back on New Pittsburg.”
The beer was strong and dark, but it had a bitter aftertaste that Sykes didn’t recall from the old days. Still, it was beer. He quaffed it down and ordered another.
“I never expected to come back,” he told Kenyon when the barkeep set down the second glass. “Not sure why I did. I’m just passing through, really. Spent the last year on Vendalia, but I didn’t like it much. It’s a bad place. They need corpses something fierce for these big wilderness campaigns. So they’ve got deadman laws, rough ones. One wrong step and you’re on the table.”
- Vendalia is somewhat like Valyria, and a place we will visit in Meathouse Man. Think Doom of Valyria.
“I’ve heard,” Kenyon said. It’s getting worse here too.”
“So I learned. The Company tech tells me assault’s a deadman offense now. Shit.”
Kenyon shook his head. “Not just assault, Glen. Assault on a Company officer. They had a couple mine bosses beat up pretty good after a few of those floods.”
- Just as we see Aerion Targaryen (Company officer) wants to have done to Dunk when Dunk attacks Aerion in honor of Tanselle in The Hedge Knight.
“Of course,” Sykes said. “Makes sense. Had something like that on Skrakky, too. I was there before Vendalia. The whole damned planet is covered by factories, mills, strip mines, and everything is sulfur. The atmosphere wasn’t so good anyway, so they figured there’d be no harm in polluting it, I guess. But now they can’t get people to work there. Just corpse crews.”
- We’ll visit Skrakky in other corpse handler stories as well.
He finished his second beer and shoved the empty across the bar. Kenyon took it and refilled it. “It that what you do, Glen?” he said. “Work a corpse crew?”
Sykes nodded. Yes,” he said, a little belligerently. “Never knew that did you, Rob? Benner taught me how to handle. I’ve got my own crew now, three of them. And I’ve got money saved. I’m going places, Kenyon, just like I said I would.”
Eddie, the stranger, laughed suddenly. “Going places? And you come back here? You’re either crazy or stupid.”
“I’m here for one night,” Sykes said. “One night only. I leave tomorrow. I know all about New Pittsburg. My father came here to work a few months. He never left. But I left. And I’ll leave again. This place isn’t getting its claws into me.”
Eddie smirked and went back to his drink. Sal nodded. “Keep thinking that way,” she said. “Get out while you can.”
“You don’t have to warn me. I was born here, remember?”
“Yeah,” said Sal. “But it’s worse now. When I got here, I was staying just long enough to earn passage money. Figured it’d be easy. I had a five-crew. A five-crew. dammit!”
Sykes smiles: the cold version. He remembered Sal better now. The woman had been a new arrival when he left, a cool swaggering independent handler who was going to teach the natives how to deal with the Company.
“I’ll bet you had trouble finding work,” Sykes said.
Sal’s face twisted with unreadable emotion. “Oh, I got work all right. But not until I was nearly flat. The Company waited until I was desperate, then they offered me mine work.”
“And you jumped at it,” Sykes said.
“Damn right,” Sal said. She laughed, a thin cracky sound that grated on the ears. “Pay wasn’t bad. Regular corpse handler fees, plus day labor for five deadmen.”
Sykes didn’t know the details, but he could guess the rest of the script. It was a very old story, and fools like Sal were always around to star in it. His father had played the lead once, in an earlier version.
“Nobody ever told me expenses would be so damned high,” Sal continued bitterly. “Rent. Depot fees. Imported food, ‘cause nothing grows on this muckhole. Even though I was working, the money seemed to go as fast as I got it. And the work was rough on the corpses.”
- Craster’s Keep and King’s Landing are both referred to as ‘midden heaps”.
“It always it,” Sykes said. He’d learned that long ago, but big mouths like Mueller and the Slob never quite understood what was being done to them. “The Company gives the dirty jobs and the risk to the independent crews. The safe jobs go to Company corpses under hired handlers.”
“On of my corpses had a hand chewed off by an automole the first week. The first week! Year later, I lose two of my crew in a mine flood.”
Sal, encouraged, lifted her drink, continued. “I still had three corpses, a little money, but the mine work was getting to me. I tried for a transfer. The Company offered me a deal. They’d move me to the mills if I sold them a corpse. So I did.”
Sykes was getting bored by the hard-luck story. “That was stupid,” he said. “Not unusual, mind you. But, stupid.”
Sal squinted at him, half puzzled. She’d expected sympathy. It was a New Pittsburg tradition for the handlers to sit around in bars and cry over what the Company had done to them. But Sykes refused to play.
“You don’t know what it’s like down there, Sykes,” Sal said, a little uncertainly. “The rain seeps down into the ground, and you’re knee deep in water most of the time. And it’s hot. Suffocating. The machinery is junk – old, unreliable, no safety precautions. I’ve seen more than one automole go berserk and chew up its crew instead of rock.”
- Again, think of the Doom of Valyria, Old Valyria kept slaves and used them in the mines, valar morghulis, the High Valyrian for “All men must die”. The traditional response to this is valar dohaeris, or “All men must serve.” This is why slaves fled from the Valyrian freehold dragonlords and founded Braavos.
- In ASOIAF, it is not a good thing if a character likens themselves to be the blood of old Valyria.
Kenyon had been listening to the whole exchange. “It’s the same junk your father worked with, Glen, only older,” the barkeep said while refilling his glass. “The Company’s been cutting corners, running things even cheaper than before. Ramshackle machinery, corpse labor, dirt wages – all part of it.”
Sykes sipped the beer carefully and put it down with a smug smile. “Sure,” he said. “But none of that’s new. You just have to know how to deal with it.” He turned back to Sal. “You don’t have to go on. Just tell me how many corpses you’ve got left?”
“None.” She said reluctantly. “I’m a hired handler.”
“And you had a five crew,” Sykes said. His voice was a whip. “So what did you do? Sold them one by one, let the money slip away. If you’d had any brains, you would have sold them all at once. Gotten enough money for a ticket offworld.”
“A handler don’t sell her crew,” Sal said stubbornly. “Not if it can be helped.”
“Here it can’t be helped. How long does any independent last on New Pittsburg? You stay here, the only question is whether you do it smart or stupid. You did it stupid.”
Sal’s face, already blurred by drink, got ugly. “You talk smart, but your father didn’t do much better from all I hear.”
“No,” Sykes admitted. He was getting a bit drunk himself. “I did, though. I got out. I left New Pittsburg.”
That shut Sal up. Kenyon, sensing the strain, took over and led the talk to safer channels. “Where you going now, Glen?” he asked.
“Out along the Arm,” Sykes said. “They just opened up a new world out there, a place called Slagg. The settlement company is looking for handlers. I hear it’s awful hot, but the money is good. I figure I’ll try that for a while, then move on. To Mountainholme, maybe. I’ve heard a lot about it. A resort planet. They say it’s really nice. Maybe I’ll settle there.”
- Hardhome, also a place with a sketchy history and volcanic explosion. A place that as recent as A Dance with Dragons has slavers stealing free folk for the slave trade. Sheesh!
Rob Kenyon was polishing a glass, looking thoughtful. “As a handler?” he said.
Sykes’ grin had no humor; he knew what Kenyon meant. Deadmen were barred from Mountainholme. And handlers, though admitted, were treated icily. It was the same on most of the ‘civilized’ worlds. The good citizens called corpse handlers “meatminds” – though not to their faces – and saw the whole profession as unclear. Old Earth was like that too. And Newholme and Silversky and Zephyr. All the older, richer colonies, in fact. On those mature worlds, any sort of capital punishment was unheard of, and the particular brand used to fashion deadmen was considered particularly grisly.
In a way, it was ironic. The process had originally been discovered on Old Earth itself, almost by accident. A man, his brain smashed out by a bullet, had reached a medical center while his body was still alive. He was dead, hopelessly; but the doctors decided to try to keep the still-healthy body alive for possible use in a brain transplant. The first, experimental pseudomind was installed. And it worked; the body lived.
Only then, before any call came for a brain transplant, one experimenter tried fitting a psionic circuit to the pseudomind. He got a human robot; he called it a deadman. Later, corpse.
- Will we see an A Song of Ice and Fire version of this while ‘making’ an Other revealed in the upcoming books? If so, I suspect it will be a much more elemental transmogrification process.
More corpses were made, better ones, after that. The uses were obvious. But so were the reactions. The experimenters suddenly became pariahs. One medical center after another stopped research. And, less than five years after the process had been discovered, Old Earth banned it. Newholme, its oldest daughter, followed suit. And the others, one by one.
But not all the others. The newer worlds – far-out ones, the untamed ones, the unpleasant ones – needed hands badly. Corpse crews were welcomes. There the process was continued, in the hands of medical paraprofessionals who came to be corpse techs. They created deadmen, and tended them, but pseudomind research stopped; the colonial techs lacked the sophistication for that.
- Great Empire of the Dawn
- Bloodmages that were possibly the ones who orchestrated the dragon-Valyrian blood mix? Dragons, Wyrms, and Wyverns: Their Unnatural History
The oldest corpse was less than a century old, but already institutions had arisen. Deadman depots. Corpseyards. Meathouses. Deadman offenses. The corpse crews took over the work that was too disagreeable for men and too hard for all but the most expensive machines. They became the cheapest, crudest labor of all.
Crude. That was the word for corpse labor. And to many, for corpse handlers. That was why Sykes would not be welcomed on Mountainholme. That was why they’d whisper “meatmind” and ghoul behind his back. But he still intended to go.
“I’m not always going to be a handler,” he told Kenyon, sharply. “Just for a while. Until I get enough money together. Then I’ll go to Mountainholme and take up something else.” He smiled. “Maybe I’ll be a bartender.”
Kenyon was looking at him. “Your father didn’t want you to be a handler at all,” he said. “That’s why he wouldn’t teach you.”
Sykes shrugged. “He should have tried teaching me something else, then. Instead he sold all his corpses, scrimped away his life as a hired handler, and died. That did me a lot of good. Left me here on New Pittsburg with nothing.”
“Money,” Kenyon said. “He left you some money.”
“Not nearly enough for passage offplanet,” Sykes said. “I got that myself, my own ways.”
A Game of Thrones – Daenerys X
Wordless, the knight fell to his knees. The men of her khas came up behind him. Jhogo was the first to lay his arakh at her feet. “Blood of my blood,” he murmured, pushing his face to the smoking earth. “Blood of my blood,” she heard Aggo echo. “Blood of my blood,” Rakharo shouted.
And after them came her handmaids, and then the others, all the Dothraki, men and women and children, and Dany had only to look at their eyes to know that they were hers now, today and tomorrow and forever, hers as they had never been Drogo’s.
As Daenerys Targaryen rose to her feet, her black hissed, pale smoke venting from its mouth and nostrils. The other two pulled away from her breasts and added their voices to the call, translucent wings unfolding and stirring the air, and for the first time in hundreds of years, the night came alive with the music of dragons.
“You’re right, Glen. I can’t argue with you. But your father meant well. Didn’t want you to wind up on New Pittsburg, not one bit, not one moment. He just didn’t know how to get you off, is all.” He smiled. “That you did by yourself. You’re sort of famous, you know. The guy that got away. I guess the rest of us could do it too, if we really tried. But we’ve built up ties. And they’re hard to cut. You’re different, I guess. You were always a loner.”
Sykes acknowledged that with a nod. “I said I’d get away, and I did.” He looked very pleased.
Kenyon sighed, looked at him strangely, and reached for his glass to fill it once again. Just then there was a sound at the door. A group of men shuffled in out of the rain, led by a huge grizzly of a man in a handler’s coverall. He took one look at Sykes and roared. “Glen! You goddamn little asshole, you! Whatin-the-hell are you doing back here?”
Sykes looked at him and smiled his second smile, the real one. “Hi, Mueller,” he said, laughing. “You haven’t changed a bit…”
- This Mueller is also quite a bit like Willem Darry to Daenerys, as well as Rene Garoux of the Garoux Plantation to Damon Julian from Fevre Dream. Willem Darry is another connection that GRRM wrote Daenerys as a Bakkalon the Pale Child in human form.
A Game of Thrones – Daenerys I
She had been born on Dragonstone nine moons after their flight, while a raging summer storm threatened to rip the island fastness apart. They said that storm was terrible. The Targaryen fleet was smashed while it lay at anchor, and huge stone blocks were ripped from the parapets and sent hurtling into the wild waters of the narrow sea. Her mother had died birthing her, and for that her brother Viserys had never forgiven her.
She did not remember Dragonstone either. They had run again, just before the Usurper’s brother set sail with his new-built fleet. By then only Dragonstone itself, the ancient seat of their House, had remained of the Seven Kingdoms that had once been theirs. It would not remain for long. The garrison had been prepared to sell them to the Usurper, but one night Ser Willem Darry and four loyal men had broken into the nursery and stolen them both, along with her wet nurse, and set sail under cover of darkness for the safety of the Braavosian coast.
She remembered Ser Willem dimly, a great grey bear of a man, half-blind, roaring and bellowing orders from his sickbed. The servants had lived in terror of him, but he had always been kind to Dany. He called her “Little Princess” and sometimes “My Lady,” and his hands were soft as old leather…
They drank until closing, him and Mueller and the Andersons, who came in later, and others, friends and enemies and people that Sykes had long ago forgotten. Then they went to Kenyon’s apartment behind the tavern and drank some more, and big mouth Mueller laughed uproariously and told stories about the old days and dirty jokes about his corpses and asked Sykes what the tail was like on Vendalia and Skrakky. Then, finally, Mueller passed out and the others left and Sykes got some sleep.
But he was up before dawn. He woke Kenyon and spoke to him briefly, borrowing a worn raincape and asking directions. He said goodbye, too. That was his last night on New Pittsburg.
The graveyard was way beyond the town, sprawling over two hills and the valley in between. Sykes walked there, in the rain, thinking. The tombstones had been stones, in the old days. Now they cast them of the same grey plastoid they used for the sidewalks. The constant rustrain had eaten away at them, and already the letters were dissolving. In another three years, they’d be gone.
But Sykes found the right marker; a pitted slab graven with the name DONALD SYKES. He cursed the plastoid tombstone, and the Company, and New Pittsburg. And he stood there silent in his cape, while the rain fell around him and bit at bare skin, and he wondered briefly how they told this man-grave from the ones they dug for corpses. Then he realized; they didn’t.
He stayed a long time. It was, after all, his first visit.
Finally he turned and headed back towards the town, and the depot. He had corpses to pick up, a ship to catch, a world waiting. They buried his father here. But not him. Not him. He was the one that got away.
Sykes the corpse handler thought on that, and smiled, on the long walk back to his deadmen.
Want more GRRMspreading? Try one of these…
- The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr – Discarded Knights guards the gates as Sharra feels the Seven while searching for lost love. Many Sansa and Ashara Dayne prototyping here as well.
- …And Seven Times Never Kill Man– A look into a proto-Andal+Targaryen fiery world as the Jaenshi way of life is erased. But who is controlling these events? Black & Red Pyramids who merge with Bakkalon are on full display in this story.
- The Last Super Bowl– Football meets SciFi tech with plenty of ASOIAF carryover battle elements.
- Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg– first in the Corpse Handler trio, and sets a lot of tone for future ASOIAF thematics.
- Closing Time– A short story that shows many precursor themes for future GRRM stories, including skinchanging, Sneaky Pete’s, catastrophic long nights…
- The Glass Flower– a tale of how the drive for perfection creates mindlords and mental slavery.
- Run to Starlight– A tale of coexistence and morality set to a high stakes game of football.
- Remembering Melody– A ghost tale written by GRRM in 1981 that tells of long nights, bloodbaths, and pancakes.
- Fast-Friend transcribed and noted. Written in December 1973, this story is a precursor to skinchanging, Bran, Euron, Daenerys, and ways to scheme to reclaim lost love.
- The Steel Andal Invasion– A re-read of a partial section of The World of Ice and Fire text compared to the story …And Seven Times Never Kill Man. This has to do with both fire and ice Others in ASOIAF.
- A Song for Lya– A novella about a psi-link couple investigating a fiery ‘god’. Very much a trees vs fire motif, and one of GRRM’s best stories out there.
- For A Single Yesterday– A short story about learning from the past to rebuild the future.
- This Tower of Ashes– A story of how lost love, mother’s milk, and spiders don’t mix all too well.
- A Peripheral Affair (1973)– When a Terran scout ship on a routine patrol through the Periphery suddenly disappears, a battle-hungry admiral prepares to renew the border war.
- The Stone City– a have-not surviving while stranded on a corporate planet. Practically a GRRM autobiography in itself.
- Slide Show– a story of putting the stars before the children.
- Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark– rubies, fire, blood sacrifice, and Saagael- oh my!
- A Night at the Tarn House– a magical game of life and death played at an inn at a crossroads.
- Men of Greywater Station– Is it the trees, the fungus, or is the real danger humans?
- The Computer Cried Charge!– what are we fighting for and is it worth it?
- The Needle Men– the fiery hand wields itself again, only, why are we looking for men?
- Black and White and Red All Over– a partial take on a partial story.
- Fire & Blood excerpt; Alysanne in the north– not a full story, but transcribed and noted section of the book Fire & Blood, volume 1.
If you want to browse my own thoughts and speculations on the ASOIAF world using GRRM’s own work history, use the drop-down menu at the top of page for the most content, or click on the page that just shows recent posts -> Recent Posts Page.
Thank you for reading the jambles and jumbles of the Fattest Leech of Ice and Fire, by Gumbo!