Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective - George R.R. Martin (part 2)

The continuation of my review on George R.R. Martin's massive collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. You can read the first part here.

The Heirs of Turtle Castle

Martin has a lot of fans who see him primarily as a fantasy writer. He also has fans who know him as a science fiction writer. Some of those were mightily upset when Martin started A Song of Ice and Fire, even accusing him of changing sides. A slightly ridiculous accusation in the face of Martin's diverse output in the 1970s and 1980s. His works often straddle genres and he has written stories that could be considered historical fiction, horror, fantasy and science fiction. In this section Martin reaches back to his early fantasies. They are quite different from his sprawling novels, but fantasy nonetheless. 

The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr (1976) is what Martin considers to be his first pure fantasy sale. I must admit, I don't like it much. It is another story dealing with loneliness. Laren Dorr is punished by the Seven (presumably some kind of gods) to spend eternity on a planet of which he is the only inhabitant. Until Sharra, the girl who travels between worlds, arrives looking for her lost love. It is another story that was supposed to be the first in a series which would have had Sharra visit countless worlds. He never got around to writing them though. Often when I come across one of Martin's unfinished projects I wonder what the whole thing would have been like. With this story, being limited to one is fine with me. There is something melancholic about the story but Martin has done that better in other pieces.

I have already reviewed the children's version of The Ice Dragon (1980) on this blog. Martin edited the story a bit and released it for young readers in 2006. Dreamsongs contains the adult original of The Ice Dragon. Both versions are very good, but I think I like the adult version slightly better. It is written from the point of view of a little girl and there is a lot of adult stuff between the lines that the reader is meant to catch even if the main character doesn't. It works fine as a children's book but even with the light trimming Martin had to do to tone down the references to war and violence, something is lost. The story is unfortunately burdened with the debate about whether or not it is set in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire. After rereading it, I remain of the opinion that if you want to shoehorn it in, you probably can, but that it most certainly wasn't conceived that way.

The third story in this section is In the Lost Lands (1982), the first and only story in the series on Grey Alys. This story is a dark fairy tale in essence. Be careful what you wish for is clearly the morale of In the Lost Lands. I like Alys a lot better than Sharra. She is a powerful character involved in some very shady business. Martin is simply better at writing morally ambiguous characters. Sharra is too much of a romantic heroine for my taste. Martin has sold the movie rights of both In the Lost Lands and The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr (as well as Bitterblooms from the previous section) recently so we may well see either or both on the big screen soon.

Hybrids and Horrors

In this section Martin presents six stories with a clear horror element. Half of them are not uncut horror though, but mixtures of horror and science fiction. A combination that has produced some of Martin's best work. I'm not entirely convinced by Martin's more pure horror tales though. While they are generally creepy, they seem to lack the imagination Martin is able to put into his fantasy and science fiction.

The section opens with Meathouse Man (1976). It is a story in a series that made it to three and deals with a man who is a professional corpse handler. The corpses have had their brains replaced by a device that links them to the handler. A good handler can control as many as eight at a time. They are used for hard, dirty or dangerous work. Targer is quite good at his job but his life is all work. He wants more out of it. He is looking for love. It will not surprise the readers that he is disappointed repeatedly. Meathouse Man is horrific in the fact that the corpses are seen as things to use and abuse as the handlers see fit. This includes using them for sex and the scene in which Targer explores this part of his talent is absolutely revolting. He strikes me as a character who, being surrounded by corpses most of the time, has trouble understanding his own humanity and that of others. No good can come of it of course.

Remembering Melody (1981)  is an uncut horror story about a group of people who become good friends in college. They promise to support each other should one of them ever need help. Three of the four make a life for themselves after college but the fourth ends up in a life of addiction, bad boyfriends and failed careers. She calls on the others repeatedly until they have had enough and refuse to help her. I guess you could say this story is about the consequences of broken promises. It is a decent story but I could see the clou coming a mile off when I first read it. Not my favourite in this collection.

The next story is Sandkings (1979) and of all Martin's short pieces, this is probably the most successful. It won him a Nebula and a Hugo and made him more money than most of his novels until he started writing A Song of Ice and Fire. It is a science fiction/horror hybrid set in the Thousand Worlds universe. There is an adaptation for television, a comic version and it has been reprinted more times than I care to count. If you know anything of Martin other than A Song of Ice and Fire, this is likely to be it. Despite it being one of Martin's most successful works, it is another one of those one story series. One of the many opportunities in Dreamsongs to think about what might have been had Martin followed up on this story.

The story deals with a cruel man with too much money and a habit of showing off expensive and preferably dangerous pets to his friends. When he returns from his latest and unexpectedly long business trip most of his pets have died. He sets out to find something new and ends up buying Sandkings. Cruel man that he is, he raises cruel pets and that gets him in serious trouble. The Sandkings are fascinating creatures. Figuring out their lifecycle and habits is what the story revolves around. They turn into scary creatures, partly because Martin keeps it unclear what makes them tick until the very last moment. It is one of the highlights in the collection.

Nightflyers (1980) is a horror story in space. It is also set in Martin's Thousand Worlds and was made into a craptastic movie in 1987. I've seen it so you don't have to. Don't. Read the story instead. There are two versions of this story. Martin has opted to put the longest of the two in this collection. He feels the shorter version is too constrained by its length. He may well be right there. Another author might have made this into a full novel. It would certainly have been possible.

Nightflyers is about a poorly funded expedition to find the mysterious Volcryn. Beings who have been spotted for thousands of years, traveling from the centre of the galaxy to the rim. The expedition's leader has trouble finding a ship that will stop in interstellar space and so he turns to the Nightflyer. The captain of the ship is decidedly peculiar. He will only show himself as a hologram. There is always something claustrophobic about a spaceship where all is not well and Martin uses that to the full extent in this story. The ship is the only thing that keeps them alive in the hostile environment of deep space. Where do you turn if it is also trying to kill you? It is a solid story. I have no idea how the makers of that movie managed to screw up so badly. Maybe someone should have another go at it.

The Monkey Treatment (1983) is another of the stories in this section I don't particularly like. It is a play on words mostly. The main character has a monkey on his back. Literally. The story about a man who likes to eat and is seriously overweight because of it. He feels bad about his weight and even blames his lack of success with women on his posture. Desperate to lose weight he opts for radical treatment. We see the entire story from the point of view of the main character. He clearly doesn't like being overweight and associates his size with being ugly, gross and repulsive. He does so in no uncertain terms. It is probably not a pleasant read for people who are not happy with their posture. There is nothing to balance the main character's opinion on these matters either, since he provides the only point of view in the story. I like the concept of the story but I don't particularly like the execution.

The final story in this section is The Pear-Shaped Man (1987), which is without a doubt the most creepy tale in the bunch. A young woman moves into a new apartment building. In the basement lives a peculiar man everybody knows as  the Pear-Shaped Man. He seems harmless but the main character slowly becomes obsessed with him and is convinced he means to do her harm. Martin manages to make the man creepy without him actually doing much of anything early on in the story. The unease the main character feels does grow into full blown horror later on though. I feel Martin slips a bit at the end of the story. The climax is very surreal and doesn't really seem to fit whit the rest of the story. Still a supremely creepy bit of writing though. Of his uncut horror stories, this one is probably the best.

A Taste of Tuf

Where 1971 was a big year in Martin's life, 1979 and 1985 prove to be equally important to his career. Martin produced a steady stream of short fiction throughout the 1970s. His first collection appears in 1976, followed by a second in 1977. that year will also see the release of his first novel Dying of the Light. He is selling reasonably well but still has to keep a day job to get by. He organizes chess tournaments to supplement his income and 1976 till 1978 he teaches English and Journalism at Clarke College in Dubugue, Iowa and becomes their writer in residence in 1978-1979. When his first wife graduates Martin decides to take the plunge. They decide to move to New Mexico where Martin will devote himself to writing full time. His marriage does not survive the relocation but Martin is more productive in these years than in any previous period in his career.

His second novel Windhaven, a fixup written in collaboration with Lisa Tuttle appears in 1981, followed by the historical horror novel Fevre Dream in 1982. For his fourth novel he gets his biggest advance yet and Martin uses it to finance a bigger house. While the critics love The Armageddon Rag (1983), the novel doesn't sell at all. It is a novel that is hard to place in a genre, and completely different from what Martin has written before. Personally I think it is very good but it must have been a pain to market. In 1985 it becomes clear that his agent is unable to get anyone to make a bid on Martin's fifth novel, which by that point is partially finished. Martin is in serious trouble now. He abandons what should have been his fifth novel and looks for other sources of income. Tuf Voyaging is one of the projects he takes on in this period. Part of the unfinished novel was later published in the collection Quartet: Tales From the Crossroads (2001).

In 1986 Baen publishes Tuf Voyaging. It is sometimes called a novel but in my mind it is a short story collection. Stories about Tuf, an eccentric trader and ecological engineer traveling Martin's Thousand Worlds universe, fixing all matter of ecological problems, appeared between 1976 and 1985. I reviewed the collection earlier this year so I'm not going to go into too much detail about it. Martin has selected two of the stories from that collection. Of the first one, A Beast for Norn (1976) is the oldest of the lot and was rewritten before the publication of Tuf Voyaging. In Dreamsongs Martin includes the original version. It is a bit shorter than the one in Tuf Voyaging, with a more abrupt ending. The version that ended up in the Tuf collection is definitely more polished and more in line with the other stories. It is interesting to see the changes Martin made to the story and how the character of Tuf developed but of course you do need access to both versions to appreciate that.

The devastation Tuf causes in this story also shows that Martin's expertise on the subject of ecology is limited. The casual way in which species get released into an environment they did not evolve in borders on the criminal but Tuf seems to think the ecosystem will find a new balance. Whether that new balance is capable of supporting human life is anyone's guess. The second story is Guardians (1981) which is chronologically set before A Beast for Norn. Interestingly enough, Tuf is a lot more concerned in this story about the effects of meddling in an ecosystem he doesn't fully understand. Fortunately he solves the puzzle before species go extinct.

End of part two. Come back on Sunday for the final part of this review.

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