This is an ugly, off-putting story, clearly drawing from the same emotional experience that drove “This Tower of Ashes” and “Dying of the Light”, but in a much more repulsive way. The characterisation and worldbuilding is in as fine form as ever, notably better than many of the other “Thousand Worlds” short stories. Martin also has a clearer grasp of his strengths here; there’s no huge emphasis on plot twists or mechanically clever endings. Instead, the story speaks for itself, as a primarily character and theme focused work.
Anyone who’s had difficulties with love will find things to relate to in this story, but where “Dying of the Light” described the ensuing pain, clumsy attempts to deal with, and eventual emotional resolve in a way I found eminently relatable, “Meathouse Man” takes a much uglier, cynical turn. Honestly, it was quite sickening. This is not a criticism in the slightest; it’s very clearly what Martin was going for, and he very much succeeded.
I’ve heard criticism of how Martin writes sex scenes, but have always found it an odd, somewhat unfounded criticism. His prose tends to reflect the character’s thoughts and worldview. It makes sense to me that a clumsy, awkward, insecure scholar in “A Song of Ice and Fire” would use the clumsy, awkward, insecure term “fat pink mast” to describe his penis. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in “Meathouse Man”. The sex scenes are so clearly designed to reflect the protagnist’s sad and ugly views on texts (this actually goes from subtext to text, in an inspired bit of science-fiction mechanics), that I have no idea how someone could criticise them as unpleasant to read, as if that wasn’t the intention.
I’m somewhat divided on the ending of the story. It works for the story itself, but I feel like it’s fundamentally juvenile in a way that makes me uncomfortable. I certainly hope Martin himself didn’t subscribe to the worldview the character espouses in the last few pages, but even if he did at the time, “Dying of the Light” came out a year later and shows a much progressed worldview on love and rejection, and it’s now decades later and Martin seems happily married, and has described quite a few healthy romantic relationships in later works.
This is not an “enjoyable” short story in the strictest sense of the term, but it’s very much a strong one. I give it four trips to the meathouse, and a bout in the arena.