I am as much a fan of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire as anyone, especially the early volumes before he became hopelessly tangled in his own web and the HBO series passed him by. But it's not my favorite Martin work. For that, it's a series of previously published short stories collected under the title Tuf Voyaging. These follow the spacefaring adventures of Haviland Tuf, a large, bald, awkward man who chances upon control of an ancient seedship that contains unimaginable powers of ecological engineering. Tuf, along with his telepathic cat Dax, travels the galaxy peddling his services to planets that find themselves in quandaries of war, famine, or unrest that can be solved by some genetic fiddling.
What makes Tuf so compelling is his utter disdain for his customers and their desire to have a say in the solutions offered. The power of his ship increasingly corrupts Tuf, isolating him from interpersonal contact and convincing him that he is something of a demigod. No Prime Directive here: the answers Tuf provides are often draconian, unilateral, and disturbing to his clientele. And yet he considers himself a deliverer, a savior who knows better than the small minds and souls seeking his aid. The stories are incisive allegorical fables about religious fanaticism, overpopulation, racism, and a host of other societal ills.
Martin's prose is crisp and fresh here, his dialogue exceptional and his storytelling brilliant. Star Trek is probably the strongest influence on the themes and style of my own science fiction writing, but Haviland Tuf isn't far behind. If you're tired of holding your breath for the next Westeros installment, pick up Tuf Voyaging. You won't put it down.