Unsound Variations (1982) by George R. R. Martin

An absolutely fantastic, masterful short story by George R. R. Martin. It revolves around concepts Martin is great at writing – regret, old relationships reexamined years after their prime, the influence of the past upon the present, human nature at its more spiteful and cruel, chess, and clever genre concepts used to tell stories about “the human heart in conflict with itself”.

While ostensibly a science-fiction story, there’s very little focus on any worldbuilding or technology, with the few science-fiction conventions present used just to provide some justification to the structure of the story. Chess is the more blatant metaphor and example used to construct the plot around, and bounce the characters and themes off.

The depiction of resentment, spite, and acidity in the marriage of the protagonist feels painfully real, in the same vein of all the best Martin stories drawing from what feel like very real (and very deep) emotional wells born of Martin’s life experiences.


Some of Martin’s best and most profound writing is found in this story. One dialogue I really liked went: “I remember, back in college, how many possibilities life seemed to hold. Variations. I knew, of course, that I’d only live one of my fantasy lives, but for a few years there, I had them all, all the branches, all the variations. One day I could dream of being a novelist, one day I would be a journalist covering Washington, the next oh, I don’t know, a politician, a teacher, whatever. My dream lives. Full of dream wealth and dream women. All the things I was going to do, all the places I was going to live. They were mutually exclusive, of course, but since I didn’t have any of them, in a sense I had them all. Like when you sit down at a chessboard to begin a game, and you don’t know what the opening will be. Maybe it will be a Sicilian, or a French, or a Ruy Lopez. They all coexist, all the variations, until you start making the moves. You always dream of winning, no matter what line you choose, but the variations are still…different….Once the game begins, the possibilities narrow and narrow and narrow, the other variations fade, and you’re left with what you’ve got—a position half of your own making, and half chance, as embodied by that stranger across the board. Maybe you’ve got a good game, or maybe you’re in trouble, but in any case there’s just that one position to work from. The might-have-beens are gone”.

A fantastic short story, one of Martin’s best. I give it four rooks, and a queen.


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