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Literature / Nightflyers

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Nightflyers is a 1980 sci-fi/horror novella by George R. R. Martin.

In the distant future, the mysterious volcryn are passing within a few light years of human space. Eager to study them, a crew of xenologists led by Karoly D'Branin charter the cargo ship Nightflyer to take them to the volcryn. However, someone or something doesn't want them to reach their destination. Their elusive host, Royd Eris, seems to know more than he lets on, but he remains sequestered in his own cabin, and every time someone tries to tease out his secrets, they meet with a horrible fate. Enhanced human Melantha Jhirl must figure out who's attacking her crewmates before their mission is completely compromised.

Later adapted into a 1989 movie and a 2018 miniseries by Syfy.

This story contains examples of:

  • The Ace: Melantha Jhirl, due to being genetically enhanced before birth. She's stronger, more physically adept in general, and quicker to puzzle out the mystery of Royd Eris. It's deconstructed slightly in that the crew sees her as kind of an annoying know-it-all, and her support of dosing Thale with esperon to boost his psi talent in order to scan Royd from across the ship ends up getting him killed.
  • All Planets Are Earthlike: Most aliens evolved on Earthlike planets and breath oxygen. It's noted that humans started ignoring gas giants after faster than light travel was invented and would just fly to the next system to find a habitable planet.
  • Brain Uploading: Cynthia Eris uploaded her consciousness into the Nightflyer before her death so that she could live on forever. In the end, Royd follows suit, in order to stop his mother from killing Melantha.
  • Bubble Boy: Royd Eris is confined to his own quarters, because he was born in space and has almost no immune system to speak of, and thus can't safely mingle with the others.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Melantha's sleeping her way through the crew, Rojan's a drunk, Thale is half-insane, Alys is a slob, Lommie spends most of her time hooked to the computers, Agatha's a hypochondriac, and Dannel and Lindran swing back and forth between Sickening Sweethearts and bitter hatred. And meanwhile, D'Branin's head is so far up his own ass that he doesn't realize what a mess his crew is. When things start falling apart, the team completely fails to pull together.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: The stardrive.
  • Free-Love Future: The crew often have casual sex even if they're already in relationships. According to a few other of Martin's short stories this is apparently commonplace on Avalon, where the protagonists come from.
  • Hates Being Touched: Lommie keeps to herself, the better to avoid others touching her.
  • Humans Are Psychic in the Future: The Nightflyer has two psychics onboard.
  • Insufficiently Advanced Alien: The Volcryn are notable for not having faster than light travel.
  • Lightworlder: Royd can barely survive in gravity.
  • Masochism Tango: Dannel and Lindran constantly argue, but they keep going back to each other.
  • My Beloved Smother: Cynthia Eris took this to whole new levels, having raised her son Royd to continue her work after her death. He has little choice in the matter, as his immune system is nonexistent and his muscles are too atrophied, so he can't ever leave the Nightflyer.
  • The Pigpen: Alys Northwind eats frequently, bathes seldom, and only takes off her clothes for sex.
  • Power Crystal: The Nightflyer's computer core.
  • Projected Man: Royd mostly only appears as a hologram.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: When the crew is discussing Royd Eris and the circumstances of their mission, Agatha Marij-Black notes that none of the crew are "first-rate scholars", all of them were without attachment to any projects that would have kept them from being assigned by Academy administration (though Melantha says she specifically volunteered) so their presence wouldn't be missed, and that Karoly only got the mission approved because the Academy was pleased with his longtime work in xenomythology, but they doubted the venture would be fruitful so instead of giving Karoly an Academy ship they gave him just enough of a budget to shut him up, which then lead him to hire the cheapest ship possible that would agree to the parameters of the mission. Karoly grudgingly admits Agatha's assessment is correct.
  • Really Gets Around: Melantha has sex with nearly every other member of the crew.
  • Sapient Ship: Several crewmembers die suspicious deaths when they start investigating the nature of their unseen captain. Turns out the captain is real, but his misanthropic dead mother is psychically imprinted into the spaceship's system. In the end the captain is killed trying to protect his crew, but in dying manages to imprint himself into the ship as well, and the Final Girl chooses to stay on board to help him fight his mother's constant attempts to wrest back control.
  • Sealed Evil in a Duel: Royd and his Mother battle constantly for control of the ship by the end.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: The Volcryn do exist, but they aren't the ancient and wise wanderers Karoly was hoping for. In fact, there's only one of them, and it's not even sapient. On top of this the psychic energy it emits is enough to give Agatha a massive cerebral hemorrhage and kill her.
  • Skewed Priorities: Karoly is so focused on trying to reach the Volcryn that he's utterly unaware that the crew are all neurotics, and when things start falling apart, he refuses to abandon the mission.
  • Solar Sail: Human ships before faster than light travel was invented. The Volcryn are theorized to be the propelled by a laser variant.
  • Starfish Alien:
    • The volcryn are utterly incomprehensible to humans. It's actually just one massive organism that is barely even sentient, having to use all of its brainpower to keep its component parts together.
    • Alys theorizes that Royd could be a methane breather from a gas giant like Jupiter; the others think the very idea is ridiculous.
  • Telepathic Spacemen: A lot of the aliens in the setting have more powerful telepaths than humans to the point where they could explode heads.
  • Terms of Endangerment: An unintentional example; Karoly compulsively calls everyone "my friend" even as his extremely skewed priorities keep getting everyone killed.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Melantha is black and bisexual.
  • Your Head Asplode: Thale's head explodes when Agatha injects him with esperon in an attempt to boost his psychic abilities.