Sunday, June 7, 2015

Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective - George R.R. Martin (part 1)

Riding on the first wave of success for his massive series A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin and Subterranean  published this equally massive tome with an overview of his career up to that point in 2003. It has since been reprinted by Gollancz and Bantam under various tittles, sometimes in one volume, sometimes in two or three. I own the Gollancz edition from 2007. One of the one volume ones. It weighs in at 1185 pages and contains an introduction by Gardner Dozois, nine essays, thirty-four pieces of short fiction and a bibliography. It is, in other words, quite an exhaustive read. I've been going over it in the past few months for a Dutch language project over at Hebban. That project involves ten articles and will probably total something close to twenty-thousand words. It's a bit much to do the whole thing over again in English (it would have to be substantially rewritten for a different audience) so I figured I'd try for a more conventional review for Random Comments. With so much material to cover it turned out to be a bit on the long side so I am splitting it in three parts. The second part is scheduled for Wednesday, and the final installment will be posted next Sunday.

Dreamsongs is divided into nine sections. They are roughly chronological and sometimes thematically ordered and each cover a stage in the career of Martin. He starts in his youth and goes all the way on to The Hedge Knight (1998), which is the newest piece covered in the collection. Each of the sections is preceded by an essay by Martin in which he discusses his inspirations. They also contain quite a bit of biographical detail. Martin has selected stories that he thinks represents a certain part of his work best, and although there are a few award winning stories in this collection, it is certainly no best of George R.R. Martin. At least, that is not what he aims for.

A Four-Color Fanboy
This section of the collection deals with Martin's youth and very early writings. Martin calls them his apprentice works. He discusses what first set him on the path to becoming a writer and strangely enough, it is not science fiction. In his early years Martin read a lot of comics. He made up his own stories too and even sold them to his classmates. Later he did of course move on to science fiction and fantasy, but the foundation is still comics. Martin was a real fanboy and wrote for several of the amateur fan magazines of the 1960s. It explains something about Wild Cards I guess. Martin includes three pieces of his early writing in the collection. None of them sold, but The Fortress did get reworked in a story Marin would write in the 1980s.

Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark (1967) is essentially a comic in written form. The prose is absolutely terrible and the story a cliché superhero plot. Martin's imagination does shine through but at this point he clearly has a lot to learn about writing. Martin takes creative writing classes in college and the other two stories in this section are a result of that. The first is The Fortress (1968), which he wrote for a class in Scandinavian history. It describes the events at the siege of the fortress Sveaborg in 1808. The reasons for its surrender still puzzles historians. It is straight historical fiction. Martin does not include any speculative elements and follows history as it is known. I'm still not impressed by the prose in this story, but it has improved a lot compared to his written comics so I guess the classes are paying off.

The third story is not a particularly fine piece either. And Death His Legacy (1968) is a rather blunt political statement. Given the time Martin went to college (late sixties, early seventies) I guess the content is not even that radical, but reading it today, it mostly strikes me as immature. These stories are Martin spreading his wings, writing to learn for the more professional pieces that will follow. He is taking a chance by publishing them in this volume. They are not that interesting to read as stories, but do give a clear insight into Martin's development as a writer. As such I can appreciate them, but I am not surprised that he didn't sell any of them.

The Filthy Pro

The second section of Dreamsongs deals with Martin's early sales. He sold his first story, The Hero, to Galaxy in 1971, while still in college. After that first sale, Martin starts to publish regularly in the major magazines. The other stories in this section are from the summer that he graduated. Martin holds a Master's degree in journalism but couldn't find a job in that profession. The summer of 1971 was one of the few moments in the 1970s when he actually had plenty of time to write. It resulted in a number of stories that would help Martin establish a career in science fiction.

The Hero is the first story set in Martin's future history that doesn't have an official name. Most people refer to it as the Thousand Worlds however. The Hero is another, albeit slightly less blunt political statement. It deals with a soldier from a high gravity planet. He possesses augmentation of his already impressive physical strength, making him a formidable warrior. He feels he's getting old though, and wants to retire  before the enemy gets him. His superiors are not sure that is a good idea. Martin, who faced the draft and a likely tour in Vietnam at the time, filed for conscientious-objector status and sent this story along with his application. Given the distrust it displays of those in command of the army, I am not at all surprised it was granted. Martin spent his alternative service with VISTA between 1972 and 1974.

The Exit to San Breta (1972) is a futuristic ghost story. Martin himself insists it is fantasy and not science fiction. The story is a bit dated by now. Martin predicts the flying car sometime in the 1990s, which makes regular cars obsolete in the twenty-first century. The highways are abandoned and only traveled by those with an interest in the classics. The main character is driving his classic Edsel down a lonely stretch of highway when he is involved in a car crash. There is more to the accident than meets the eye. The story may be very dated, the one thing Martin got right in it is the status of the Edsel as a classic. It was a dismal commercial failure when it was put on the market by Ford but now an Edsel in good condition is quite valuable.

The Second Kind of Loneliness (1972) is where Martin really hits his stride. It is the first story in what was meant to be a series. Martin has written a lot of first stories but not many seconds and even fewer thirds. It is written in the form of diary entries and deals with, as the title suggests, loneliness. A theme that Martin would revisit frequently throughout the 1970s. Although Martin puts his main character in the most lonely place imaginable, a space station on the edge of the solar system, the loneliness that the main character is concerned with is the kind of someone who is awkward in the company of others. It's a very tragic story and in my opinion the best in this section.

The readers at the time probably didn't agree with me though because Martin got his first Hugo and Nebula nomination for another Thousand Worlds story. With Morning Comes Mistfall (1973) is a mood piece really. Not much to the plot but the central question. Do we really need to know it all or are some things better left a mystery? Martin clearly believes we need a bit of mystery in our lives. Martin didn't win, the Hugo went to Ursula K. Le Guin that year and the Nebula to James Tiptree, Jr. He  had settled into his writing career though, and more awards nominations would follow.

The Light of Distant Stars

The next three sections all cover work from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s. Martin attempts to present them as science fiction, fantasy and horror respectively although he admits he often blends genres. The Light of Distant Stars is the section dealing with science fiction and contains six stories, all set in his Thousand Worlds setting. It opens strongly, with one of Martin's most famous stories. A Song of Lya (1974) would get him a Hugo, Locus and Nebula Award nomination. He won the Hugo but lost the other two to Robert Silverberg. It is a heartbreaking tale and one of many in Dreamsongs that deals with broken hearts and unanswered love. These stories are in part a reflection of Martin's own love life at the time. He ceases to write them in the early 1980s, when Parris McBride moves in with him. He would marry her in 2011. Martin builds a good science fiction story out of it, but essentially it is about lovers drifting apart. I can definitely see why it is one of the most popular stories Martin ever produced.

In This Tower of Ashes (1975) we meet another character with a broken heart. He has distanced himself from everybody and broods out in the wilderness. It is not nearly as strong as A Song for Lya. The main character is being childish and petty. He keeps seeing himself as a victim and that makes him uninteresting for the readers. Not the strongest story in this section.

And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1975) is much better. It was inspired by a bit of poetry from The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling in which a wolf teaches its pups the law of the jungle. Martin shows in this story what happens if you do kill man and as you can probably imagine, it isn't pretty. Interestingly enough, pacifism plays an important role in the plot. Given Martin's political leanings and his stance on the Vietnam War, perhaps it isn't surprising but I don't know many writers who would deal with the type of conflict described in the story in such a way. Another interesting element is religious madness as a theme. Something that will show up in Martin's later work as well. Maybe not quite as much personal drama as in some of Martin's other stories but in And Seven Times Never Kill Man we do get to see Martin at his best.

Martin got into editing in the 1970s as well. One of his projects was a series based on Campbell Award nominated writers called New Voices in Science Fiction. He would edit six of them although the final one never got published. The publisher Bluejay went bankrupt before it could be published. For the first edition he got to buy one of his own stories (Martin was nominated for the Campbell Award for best new writer in 1973) and that story is The Stone City (1977). The main character is a galactic traveler who gets stuck on the planet Greyrest. Apart from huge fields of ruins from an extinct civilization, there doesn't appear to be much of anything on the planet. It's a haunting tale where the main character eventually looses himself chasing his dream to see the galaxy. The main character is a bit like Martin himself in this period. Hopping from world to world, sampling each but never committing to one. It would be a while yet before Martin could make himself abandon that approach.

In Bitterblooms (1977) we see another character trapped in a fantasy. This story contains a bit of Arthurian mythology and plenty of references to the planet Avalon, a name that shows up in many Thousand Wolds stories. It is tempting to live in a fantasy, but real life and responsibilities are calling. It is indeed a bitter story about choices and their consequences. The experience changes the main character in ways that make it hard for her to really fit in her old life. It's another very good story in what is a very strong section of Dreamsongs.

The final story in this section, The Way of Cross and Dragon, takes us to a planet where Judas Iskariot has been pronounced a saint. One of the distant successors of the Catholic Church is not amused and sends in an inquisitor. Another story dealing with religion. It is very cynical really. The story is not so much about faith as about doubt, and of that there is plenty. The characters have a hard time admitting it though. It probably won't be a favourite with deeply religious people but I thought it another strong piece.

End of part one, come back on Wednesday for more.

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