One thing I enjoy writing about is authors I’ve never heard of. Today is different. I’m revisiting an author we all know, and a story I already love.
George R. R. Martin’s “Sandkings” is a weird science fiction story about why you should not torture your own pets. It concerns Simon Kress, a cruel collector who is the kind of person who feeds kittens to his shambler, a carnivorous dog-like critter.
When his piranhas eat each other, he sets out to purchase a new pet–an exotic one he has never seen before.
Sandkings, an semi-sentient hivemind consisting of a central maw and dozens of insectoid mobiles, can wage war, build castles, and worship their owners. Intrigued, Kress buys them from Jala Wo, a dealer, and brings them home.
Behaving like a malevolent deity, Kress tries to provoke them into making war before they are ready to do it on their own, by starving and abusing them. It succeeds. However, the sandkings create an image of his face on their sandcastles that increasingly resembles a cruel, twisted god.
He stages wars with his friends, safely watching the mobiles fight each other from the other side of the terrarium glass. However, his ex-girlfriend Cath M’Lane, sees his cruelty and vows to get back at him. To provoke her, Kress feeds a puppy to the sandkings and sends her the recording.
It has the effect he wants. Outraged, she visits his house with a mallet hammer to get back at him and free the sandkings. Mortified at what could happen if they escape, Kress struggles against her and, half by accident, kills her, breaking the glass of the terrarium where the sandkings are kept in the process. The hiveminds swarm into the room, panicking Kress as he flees.
Kress tries to exterminate the sandkings in a variety of ways, using an insecticide, a flamethrower, and eventually a group of exterminators. Each attempt appears to temporarily succeed before the sandkings resurge, relocate, and come back at him again stronger, in a steady series of escalations. The abuser becomes the abused.
The sandkings are evolving. Eventually, through the maws’ psionic power, Kress starts to feel their hunger. He betrays the exterminators, feeding them to the sandkings, and calls his friends to his house to do the feed them to the monster too.
This was one of the main stories I studied during the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016, so it is one I know frontwards and backwards. The delivery of background exposition in the first half is done masterfully, since the reader is just as interested in what the pet dealer Jala Wo has to say about the sandkings as a Kress is.
The sandkings go dormant next, evolving into their next stage of life. In a desperate attempt to escape, he calls Jala Wo to pick him up and runs from his house, only to get lost. In the end, he finds the evolved sandkings waiting for him: they are bipedal with four arms and, as they swarm on him to gorge themselves, they each wear Simon Kress’s face.
The escalation structure in “Sandkings” kept me riveted, making it hard not to root for Kress even though he deserves what he gets in the end. He fights the sandkings with competency, but they are simply more clever, powerful, and numerous than him.
The warring sandkings, and the castles they use to protect their maw, are evocative of the dog-eat-dog world of Westeros, the world Martin would develop years later in A Song of Ice and Fire. The red, white, orange, and black sandkings war against each other like the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, and Targaryens. In Game of Thrones as in here, the abuser soon becomes the abused; the victim of today might become the perpetrator of tomorrow.
The themes and images in “Sandkings” also have a certain history in weird fiction. For instance, the sandkings producing images of Kress’s face that reflect his current moral state is a callback to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Also, the visual spectacle of cruelty in feeding a puppy to the sandkings, which is then followed by the same cruelty being revisited upon Kress, has precedents in the fiction of cruelty in Gustav Meyrink’s “The Man in the Bottle” and Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”
“Sandkings” also forms a rich contrast with James Triptree, Jr.’s “The Man Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” whose protagonist, at least at the beginning, is a defender of animal rights, or at least aspires to be, much like Cath M’Lane.
Just as the torture device in Kafka becomes an element of the weird due to its exotic, elaborate construction, the sandkings are weird in their exotic, elaborate nature, which is that they are exceptionally efficient torturers and enactors of poetic justice.
“Sandkings” was also one of the main teaching stories used at the Odyssey Writing Workshop when I attended in 2016, which is how I first encountered it.
Next week we enter a next decade of weird fiction with Bob Leman’s “Window” (1980).