Cliché as the phrase is, I think it’s appropriate to say that George R.R. Martin is a man who needs no introduction. The acclaimed author/fishing hat aficionado has become for modern fantasy what Stephen King is to modern horror and what Stan Lee is to comic books. He’s an iconographic figurehead of the genre, almost single-handedly responsible for making fantasy mainstream and broadly accessible for the first time since the Lord of the Rings trilogy bowed. Yet what many modern fans may not realize is that Martin didn’t burst onto the scene with Games of Thrones—he has a long and storied career in short fiction dating back to the 1970s, and one of his first efforts is a disturbing yet beautiful sci-fi story that resonates as much today as it did forty-one years ago.
Set at some point in the not-too-distant-future, in which man has begun interplanetary mining operations, Meathouse Man is the story of Greg Trager, a teenage boy working on a desolate world known for its harsh conditions and lack of social interaction among its residents. Because different planets’ gravity and weather conditions make traditional mining difficult—if not deadly—for humans, the corporations of Earth have developed a novel way to keep profiting from their valuable ore while avoiding pesky lawsuits. Rather than mine themselves, company employees control corpses that have been outfitted with sensors that can be remotely controlled, turning them into something of a cross between marionettes and zombie cyborgs. They have no will of their own, nor are there any hints that there’s any lingering intelligence left behind post-mortem—they are the literal meat of the story’s title, albeit meat that’s been preserved to remain healthy and life-like. In an early demonstration of Martin’s keen understanding of mankind’s depravity, businesses of the future haven’t stopped at exploiting the dead solely for mining operations. Almost just as profitable are Meathouses—legalized brothels where individuals can indulge in their every fantasy, free from the guilt of sexually exploiting a living human and completely unfettered by any sort of romantic attachment.
It’s at one of these Meathouses that we first meet Trager, an idealistic virgin being jostled by his coworkers to forget love and finally become a man. Hesitant at first, Trager finds himself enraptured by his first encounter, and thinks that he may even be falling in love with the operator who controlled the corpse. He’s later disappointed to learn that Meathouses outfit their bodies with a unique type of sensor that taps into the customer’s subconscious and that he himself was the one operating the body all along in a sort of high-tech masturbation. The revelation disgusts Trager, who resolves never to return to a Meathouse, and instead find the romantic love and adventure he’s always dreamed about reading books alone in his room at night. This is George R.R. Martin, though, and whether he’s writing in 1976 or 2017, he doesn’t do candy and roses. Trager’s enduring idealism leads him to make exactly the wrong decisions, have exactly the wrong amount of confidence (read: none) and, worst of all for him, choose exactly the wrong women to pursue. As he grows older, more disillusioned, and finds himself sinking into seedier and seedier aspects of the corpse industry (there are pit fights where the dissolute and depraved bet on which handler will gruesomely dismantle the other’s corpse first), Trager begins to come to an unsettling revelation: he’s most at home with the dead.
Martin originally submitted Meathouse Man to Harlan Ellison in 1974 for consideration as an entry in the anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Ellison rejected it but advised Martin that it wasn’t a bad idea. Martin rewrote the story, only to have Ellison turn it down again, albeit much more gently this time around (as Martin tells it, the first time he submitted the story, Ellison “eviscerated me.”) Martin wasn’t willing to give up on it, though. While he didn’t elaborate while recounting the writing process for the collection Dreamsongs, Martin maintains that Meathouse Man is an incredibly personal work. “While 1973 and 1974 were great years for me professionally, they were by no means happy years,” he says. “My career was going wonderfully; my life, not so much. I was wounded and in a lot of pain.”
That pain drips from every word of Meathouse. In just a few pages, Martin lays Trager’s entire life bare to us. We get to intimately know his hopes, dreams, fears, and most importantly, his capacity for love—and then, Martin very quietly dismantles him one disappointment and heartbreak at a time. Martin is capable of doing in two dozen pages what Nicholas Sparks attempts to do with an entire novella— shatter you on a deep, emotional level at the same time he’s doing it to his characters. It’s no wonder that, to this day, Martin has difficulty revisiting it. The story is difficult to experience as a removed reader; I can’t imagine what it must be like for Martin to relive whatever pain went into the story firsthand.
Though he would later find his footing as a fantasy author, Martin proves here that, in addition to a firm grasp of the psyche, he also has a keen instinct for how to write the sort of sci-fi story that speculates something about the future of technology while interweaving it with practical, human concerns. While the story is primarily about Trager’s descent into soul-crushing apathy, it’s also about the ability of mankind to find new and horrifying ways to exploit technology for financial gain while losing something of its soul in the process. Martin never goes into too graphic detail about the corpses in the story—we’re in Trager’s mind, and, to Trager, this is just daily life—but in between the lines the idea is always there that the characters in the story are interacting with, fighting, and—most importantly—having sex with dead bodies. Most disturbingly, we’re only given the slightest indication of where the bodies even come from in the first place. Hanging over the entire story is the idea that, sometime in the future, one of the characters whom we’ve come to know and love will die and be transformed into an anonymous tool, an anthropomorphic power drill or mindless sex slave to be used and fucked until the body breaks or wears out and it’s unceremoniously disposed of like an old broom.
I’ve tried to speak in ellipticals here because Meathouse Man is a story best experienced, not read about. Thankfully, while it remains obscure among Martin’s oeuvre, it’s no longer as hard to locate as it once was. For horror fans, it can be found as part of Splatterpunks, a 1990 anthology that, while out of print, is a staple of used bookstores, eBay, and Amazon. For fans of Martin, it’s in the aforementioned Dreamsongs. No matter where you track it down, though, Meathouse Man is a must-read. Just make sure you’ve got a dark room, bottle of whiskey, and box of tissues handy. You’ll need them.