George R. R. Martin, Dreamsongs, Volume I (Bantam, 2007)
George R. R. Martin, Dreamsongs, Volume II (Bantam, 2007)
Like many, I was introduced to the writings of George R. R. Martin through his much-beloved series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Being a somewhat lackadaisical fan (in the world of fandom), I never bothered to look up Martin's earlier works. I had no idea he was integral to the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone (which I didn't watch at the time) and Beauty and the Beast (which I did). Without this two-volume collection of works and essays, Dreamsongs, I would most certainly never have read Martin's youthful, somewhat confusing, earliest efforts. His final words of introduction/warning before his opening story, "Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark" -- copyrighted by Larry Herndon for Star-Studded Comics, 1967 -- are "have a look at my apprentice work, if you dare."
I dared. I'm not saying I completely grasped everything he was trying to accomplish, but it was fascinating to wade through this incredibly dense two-volume set, meandering through works from so many periods of a lifelong writer's career. And what a career! Though it was fantastic fun to become acquainted with such a diverse collection of writings created over the course of decades -- exactly four decades, if we mark the publication with Star-Studded comics as a debut for the purposes of this collection -- by far the most intriguing, the most compelling and the most appealing components of Dreamsongs are the personal, mostly autobiographical essays which run between fiction offerings.
If we are to truly mark the first words Martin ever saw of his to come to print, they would have to be "Dear Stan and Jack," addressed to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, printed in the letters column of Fantastic Four # 20 in August of 1963. Martin was just sixteen years old, if I've done my math properly. He says: "My letter of comment was insightful, intelligent, analytical -- the main thrust of it was that Shakespeare had better move on over now that Stan Lee had arrived."
The fiction collected in Dreamsongs is far from universally excellent. I still find the Song of Ice and Fire series the most likeable, the most powerful, of all the George R.R. Martin fiction I've read. Fans of Martin's television work, most notably the '80s series Beauty and the Beast and the Twilight Zone reincarnation, might be interested in reading "The Road Less Traveled," a script he wrote for Twilight Zone for CBS in 1986. It was not very interesting to me, personally: but then again, that particular series was never very interesting to me, so I'm not surprised. Vastly more entertaining was the script "Doorways," written (and produced) to air as a pilot episode for a new television series originally planned for launch in 1992/1993. It never aired. " 'Doorways,' " writes Martin in his preceding essay, "will always be the great 'what if' of my career."
Dreamsongs includes other pieces which found great success with wide audiences. "The Sand Kings" is often cited as a favorite, and Martin says it earned far more -- in revenue and acclaim -- than he would ever have imagined. It's no small testament to personal taste that I was not at all keen on "The Sand Kings." Too "Twilight Zone" for me. In fact I was surprised, and disappointed, by the number of stories featuring main characters so repulsive, their actions so reprehensible or inscrutable, I couldn't garner any sympathy for them or their fates. In this group I would have to include "In Death His Legacy," "Remembering Melody," "The Sand Kings," and most especially "Unsound Variations," a chess revenge story in which everybody behaves despicably up to the last page. "The Pear-Shaped Man," about a disgusting basement-dwelling neighbor who eats only cheese curls, was just too creepy to be enjoyable on any level, though I chalk this up to personal (dis)taste. "The Monkey Treatment," a story about extreme efforts at extreme weight loss by the desperate and foolhardy, might slip into this same category.
Not to say I didn't like any stories with distasteful or distressing elements. Some of the most painful stories to read were also the most haunting, the most beautiful. "The Second Kind of Loneliness," "And Seven Times Never Kill a Man," "The Glass Flower," "The Ice Dragon" and the absolutely tragic but thoroughly compelling "The Meathouse Man" -- all stories featuring death, loss, and destruction -- are excellent, and great reads. The two Wildcard stories, "Shell Games" and "From the Journal of Xavier Desmond" also deserve peripheral inclusion in this group.
I found Martin's best stories, or at least the ones best suited to my particular tastes, to be the ones which most closely tread that fine line between melancholy and pathos. I absolutely loved "With Morning Comes Mistfall," a slow-paced and gentle story about the beauty of mystery and the tragedy of its disappearance from the Universe. "A Song for Lya" and "This Tower of Ashes" both tapped my sympathies with their open-ended sense of loss and lost relationships. Even more memorable are "The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr," about a dimension-traveling warrior woman whose path crosses that of a lonely magician bard, and perhaps my favourite of the entire collection, "Bitterblooms," the life story of a woman from a hard, cold world and a hard, cold culture.
I can't neglect to mention the relatively recent "The Hedge Knight," published in Tor's anthology Legends in 1998. "The Hedge Knight" is the forerunner to the Song of Ice and Fire series. An excellent story in its own right, it absolutely stands out in the best possible way. Main protagonists Dunk and Egg are strong, compelling characters, with just the right mixture of humble and noble purpose and motivation.
Surprising low point: the two Haviland Tuf stories. Haviland Tuf (great name!) is an ecological engineer (great career!) who travels the Universe in his ship full of lost technology and the genetic materials of countless creatures from countless worlds (great premise!). According to Martin's introductory essay for Volume II, Tuf has a diehard fanbase which endures to this day, though no Tuf stories have been written for some time. The stories here were quite interesting, but I found Tuf so obnoxious I could barely read them. Ah well: no artist can be everything to everybody. In Martin's extensive and diverse career to date, he's certainly given it his best shot.
Absolute high point: all the personal autobiographical essays throughout, though most particularly his essay opener for Chapter Nine in Volume II, "The Heart in Conflict." Martin begins by reprinting the early '50s back cover copy for Galaxy Magazine, in which editor H. L. Gold scorns the spacewestern, personified by Bat Durston. Some of us, myself included, will be far too young to remember the side-by-side paragraphs, one beginning "Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. . . ," the other: "Jets Blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light-years from Sol. . . ."
"Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself," writes Martin, "transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a whit whether that tall, lean stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand." Martin goes so far as to add his own contribution: "Armor clinking, Lord Durston rode toward the crumbling old castle, hard by the waters of the Dire Lake, a drear land a thousand leagues beyond the realm of men. . . . I love Martin's echo of my own deep-held sentiment:
"Fantasy? Science fiction? Horror?
'I say it's a story, and I say the hell with it.'"
Read Dreamsongs to see if you agree.
George R. R. Martin's official site is here.
George R. R. Martin's Podcast is thisaway.