George R.R. Martin's 'Nightflyers' Brings 'Game of Thrones' World-Building Skills Into Space

George R.R. Martin - GOT S05 SF Premiere -Getty - H - 2016
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Earlier this week, a friend casually wondered why he and his wife enjoy Game of Thrones, even though they are not fans of violent fiction.

After sorting through a few possible theories — the rich characters (literally rich in the case of the Lannisters), the twisting and turning "no one is safe" ethos (rest in peace, half of House Stark), the provocative themes about the nature of power and the importance of resistance — we arrived at the answer encompassing all of those traits: George R.R. Martin, author of the Song of Ice and Fire novels on which Thrones is based, builds one hell of a world.

The HBO adaptation stands to cover roughly 70 hours of stories set in Westeros and the surrounding lands, but one can easily imagine spending 700 hours in this universe. (Indeed, that just might be where we're headed, given the four potential Game of Thrones spinoffs currently in the works.) Look no further than the massive encyclopedia The World of Ice and Fire for further proof of the vast depths of Martin's fantasy epic, with abundant information about places like Sothoryos and Yi Ti. 

Don't recognize those lands, even though you've watched every episode of Thrones and read every word of the flagship Ice and Fire series? That's because they aren't featured on the show or in the books; they exist on the edges of the story, within the universe but not central to the struggles of Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) by any stretch of the imagination. The existence of Sothoryos and Yi Ti (the World of Ice and Fire's southernmost known continent and oldest active civilization, respectively) demonstrates Martin's talent and interest in adding flesh, blood and organs to what's already a compelling enough skeleton on its own. It humanizes his world with a level of detail designed to draw the audience deeper and deeper into a bottomless well of stories.

Martin's impressive world-building skills are not unique to the Seven Kingdoms and the tales within, either. For instance, the award-winning author's superhero series Wild Cards contains its own sprawling history, loaded into the nooks and crannies of the various stories about the Jokers, Aces and Deuces of this alternate history Earth. Those who have not encountered those stories firsthand through Martin's writing will soon have the opportunity to see them play out in action, as a Wild Cards television series is currently in development.

Then there's the author's most recently announced adaptation: Nightflyers, based on a science-fiction novella published in 1980 and turned into a mostly forgotten feature film released in 1987. The story chronicles a mission through the stars to discover a new alien race; space horror ensues. Within the first paragraph of the tale, Martin flexes those aforementioned world-building muscles like a veritable bodybuilder:

  • "When Jesus of Nazareth hung dying on his cross, the volcryn passed within a light-year of his agony, headed outward. When the Fire Wars raged on Earth, the volcryn sailed near Old Poseidon, where the seas were still unnamed and unfinished. By the time the stardrive had transformed the Federated Nations of Earth into the Federal Empire, the volcryn had moved into the fringes of Hrangan space. The Hrangans never knew it. Like us they were children of the small bright worlds that circled their scattered suns, with little interest and less knowledge of the things that moved in the gulfs between."

In the first paragraph alone, Martin nonchalantly introduces an alien race at least as old as Jesus, evokes the name of a devastating war that consumed our planet and establishes mankind's current status as conquerers of the galaxy, if not guardians. With just a few sentences, he introduces a compelling universe filled with mysteries to be solved, the answers all buried within the mind of one man with four initials: GRRM. And as the novella becomes the subject of adaptation, Martin provides the framework for new creators to interpret the world of Nightflyers as they see fit, offering a set of blueprints that could result in years of riveting television. 

Some would make the argument that Martin's attention to detail is the exact reason why the sixth novel in his Ice and Fire series, The Winds of Winter, has yet to be finished. There's certainly truth to that. At the same time, the granular and extensive world-building is Martin's secret sauce; concepts like the Doom of Valyria, and the Long Night, though absent from the main Thrones narrative, are so full and rich that they invite endless speculation and return visits. 

If adapted properly, Nightflyers stands to bring the same sensibilities that fuel Thrones into all-new terrain. "A sci-fi series with the depths of Game of Thrones" sounds like a common pitch, but it packs an extra punch when it stems from the mind of the Thrones creator himself. And in a few years, when that same friend wonders why he and his wife are so invested in this space-dwelling journey when they have no interest in science fiction otherwise, they won't need to ponder the answer for too long.

Tell us what you're hoping to see from Nightflyers in the comments section below, and keep following for more about the fantasy series.