My first encounter with this story was through the audio version read by Australian actress Claudia Black, whose amazing performing skills made it quite special (the different voices she can bestow on the main character’s acolytes, for example, being a case in point). Shortly thereafter I bought and read the collection “Dreamsongs”, a retrospective of GRR Martin’s stories, interspersed with information about his writing career, and it also included The Glass Flower. This time around, I decided to merge the two, re-reading the story while listening to Ms. Black’s performance, and it was indeed an enhanced experience: when simply listening, my mind tends to wander and I lose focus on the finer details, but listening at the same time as I’m reading the text makes for a total immersion, something that made me appreciate this story even more.
On the swamp world of Croan’dhenni there’s an alien artifact that allows the exchange of consciousness between the participants of the game of mind: the old and infirm, or the simply jaded in search of new experiences, must petition the game’s mistress, Cyrain of Ash, for that privilege. Cyrain is almost two centuries old and presently inhabits an adolescent’s body, the young and innocent flesh a stark contrast to the woman’s wisdom and cunning: she has held this position for a long time, and though quite aware of the danger presented by her obsequiously scheming acolytes, she is certain of her own strength and resilience and harbors no fear about the future. As she says herself, “I do not defeat easily”.
This status quo in Cyrain’s little domain is disturbed by the arrival on Croan’dhenni of Kleronomas, a cyborg: once a famous general and scholar, he was believed dead for the past few centuries but has now resurfaced in search – as he says – of death: he wants a flesh-and-blood body that will decay and die. After so much time, immortality has become a burden for the indestructible cyborg. Cyrain, who has gone through several bodies in her quest to keep the ravages of time at bay, is intrigued by Kleronomas’ desire and accepts his petition as she would a challenge: once the game of mind begins, this challenge will bring unexpected discoveries, and an even more unexpected outcome.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this story is indeed the game itself, the way it’s played and the pain that it entails, because to be able to move one’s consciousness from one body to another, the subject must be strongly motivated, and pain is indeed the ultimate instigator. And that is only the tip of the iceberg: the game requires that for every player who has been accepted, there must be a prey, a body whose mind is not strong enough to withstand the invading assault of the player. Still, not everything goes according to plan, as testified by the multitude camped under the walls of Cyrain’s keep: those who could not manage the transfer, or those who ended up in the wrong body. The mistress of the game feels no compassion for them, because, as she says, “I steal their bodies, but they lose their souls themselves.”
Inside this terribly beautiful narrative lies the story’s core concept, the value of life, and the age-old question about the merits of a long life versus a meaningful one, embodied by Cyrain on one side – she who above all values her glass flower, immutable and enduring in its perfection – and Kleronomas on the other – the man who was once flesh and now yearns for the natural decay denied to a cyborg. It’s also an exploration of the concept of self, and how much of it could survive when disassociated from the body it was born in – or in Cyrain’s own words: “Who are we after all? Only who we think we are, no more, no less.”
The contest between the two weaves between word-play in reality and willpower-play in the game, and it’s a fascinating challenge, enhanced by Martin’s skillful writing: much as I enjoy his longer works, and the richness of plots and characters I can find there, it’s in his shorter stories that I often find his best qualities, as if they were concentrated and distilled in a way that a full novel does not achieve.
The more I read this story, the more I can see its exquisite perfection, not unlike that of the titular glass flower.