Sunday, June 14, 2015

Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective - George R.R. Martin (part 3)

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

The Siren of Hollywood

Tuf Voyaging was a success and Martin even sold a second book that, as you will already have guessed, never got written. Tuf didn't bring in enough to get Martin back on his feet financially and so he moved on to other projects. The Armageddon Rag, while derailing his career as a novelist, did provide him with an opportunity in Hollywood. He sold the film rights of the novel and got to know people working in television. Soon, Martin was writing scripts for the second incarnation of the horror show Twilight Zone. That show got canceled rather quickly and Martin moved on to writing for a new series called Beauty and the Beast, starring Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman. It ran for three seasons and Martin wrote a total of fourteen episodes. After the series got canceled, he tried to pitch a number of projects. One even got to the stage where a pilot was shot but eventually none of them ever made it to the small screen.

Martin worked in Hollywood for ten years and to cover this period he includes two of his scripts. These texts are mostly dialogue with brief descriptions of actions and location in between. They also include information on camera angles, closeups, fadeouts and the like, making for a very unusual reading for someone who is used to novels and short stories. The first, The Road Less Traveled,  is a Twilight Zone episode. This one did make it to the small screen but was so horribly mutilated in the cutting room that Martin intensely disliked the episode that was eventually broadcast. He includes the full script as he had intended it to be shot. 

The story is about a man who dodged the draft in the late 1960s and relocated to Canada. He later returns and settles into a career as a teacher when he is suddenly confronted with a version of himself that did go to Vietnam. It probably works better on television than on paper. Shoot it properly and it can be a very suspenseful story. If you read the script you really need to try and put it on a screen in your head to make it work.

The second script included in this section is called Doorways. It is the pilot for a series Martin had hoped to make for ABC. The concept of the show was based on two travelers journeying between alternate versions of earth. The script Martin included is a bit different from the one that was eventually shot. In the second half of the pilot, the characters move to a different world and where Martin had imagined a post-apocalyptic world in the original script, they later changed it to a world without oil. If you look really hard you can still find that pilot. It was released on VHS in 1993. Despite it being quite a good pilot, the show was never made. To add insult to injury, 1995 saw the premiere of a new show on Fox called Sliders, with pretty much the same concept. It is one of many what might have beens in this collection.

Whatever caused ABC to cancel the show, it most likely wasn't the writing. The pilot is quite fun to watch and this alternative script would have worked well too in my opinion. I have no doubt that this series would have done well. Doorways is not the only project Martin tried to develop after Beauty and the Beast was canceled. The collection Quartet: Tales From the Crossroads contains another script for a pilot that was never produced and Martin tried to rework several of his short stories for television as well. In the end it all came to nothing. Maybe his disappointing experiences in Hollywood made him hold out on selling the rights for A Song of Ice and Fire for so long.

Doing the Wild Card Shuffle

Martin didn't completely stop producing works in print during his years in Hollywood. He wrote several short stories in this period, but his most important side project was undoubtedly Wild Cards. Wild Cards is a shard world in which an alien virus hit New York City in 1946. Of those infected, 90% died a gruesome death, 9% was mutilated in unimaginable ways and the remaining 1% developed superpowers. The series is clearly inspired by superhero comics, allowing Martin to return to his earliest love. Most of the books in the series are what Martin calls mosaic novels, with six to eight people doing the writing and Martin editing the whole thing into one story. The first volume of the series appeared in 1987 and by the time Dreamsongs was published, sixteen Wild Cards volumes had been released with a seventeenth on the way. Right now there are twenty-two volumes available with a twenty-third expected in the not too distant future.

Martin includes two of his own contributions to the series in this collection. The first  is Shell Games (1987) from the first book in the series. In that volume, the writers cover the years between the release of the virus and the 1980s, making it more of a short story collection than a mosaic novel. As such Shell Games can be read as a standalone easily. It introduces one of Martin's own characters, the Great and Powerful Turtle. When we meet him he is a boy with impressive telekinetic gifts but no idea of how to use them. His childhood friend helps him figure it out however. The story shows us the dark side of New York and some of the more brutal effects of the virus. It is a pretty dark story as many of the other Wild Cards stories would be.

The second piece is called From the Journal of Xavier Desmond and is taken from the fourth book in the series, Aces Abroad (1988). An expanded edition has recently been reissued by Tor but it is still on my to read list. In Aces Abroad Martin provides the parts of the story that ties the other contributions together. As the title suggests it is entirely written in the form of diary entries and not quite as readable without context as Shell Games. Desmond refers to a lot of affairs the reader of Dreamsongs doesn't get to see as well as things from the previous three volumes. It gives the reader some insight into the process of editing one of these volumes, but for the reader who isn't familiar with the series the storyline of Desmond himself (he is dying and making his peace with the world and the fact that the virus affected his life to a large degree) is a bit thin.

The Heart in Conflict

The final section of Dreamsongs contains a number of stories from the mid 1980s onwards. It is a mix, stories Martin felt were important but couldn't really be placed in any of the other sections. To find something that unifies them, he refers to William Faulkner's speech at the Nobel Prize winners banquet in 1950 in which he said that "the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing". Martin agrees with that. He doesn't want to be limited by genre conventions or the genre/literature divide. What interests him is the motivation of his characters and that is what has made A Song of Ice and Fire such a resounding success. This section contains six stories, generally longer pieces, and takes up almost 300 pages in my edition of Dreamsongs.

It opens with Under Siege (1985), which is the rewritten version of The Fortress we encountered in the first section. In this story a desperate group of time traveling nuclear war survivors try to stop the Soviet Union from forming and the siege of Sveaborg might just be the turning point in history they are looking for. I'm not too fond of time travel stories, I just can't wrap my head around the logic most of them employ, but I must admit this one is pretty good. Very little is left from the original historical piece but there is enough for people familiar with this bit of history to sink their teeth in.

The Sikin Trade (1988) is probably the longest piece in the entire collection. It is a horror novella that Martin had tried to develop for television at one point. I have a feeling it might make a better movie than a series though. The story is set in a decaying industrial town that is shaken by the brutal murder of a young woman in a wheelchair. Memories of a series of murders twenty years back begin to stir. Questions about those killings remained unanswered at the time. Now PI Randi Wade is looking into the matter on behalf of her friend Willie who knew the victim. During the investigation she finds out things about the city she has lived in her entire life that shock her to the core.

This novella is one of the strongest pieces in the collection. It is a classic horror story of the type monsters-are-among-us. It is sometimes quite bloody but Martin mostly focuses on what these events do with his two main characters. They are good examples of the flawed heroes Martin likes to write about. It's very well paced and has a great climax. As horror stories go, I don't think you can improve much on Martin's execution in The Skin Game. Someone really should make it into a movie.

Next up is Unsound Variations (1982). A story inspired by chess. Martin clearly uses his experience in organizing tournaments in this story. It is about a man invited to visit one of his old teammates who has become fabulously wealthy after they last saw each other in college. They don't particularly like each other. Rich he may be, but he wasted the opportunity to win against one of the best university chess teams in the nation by giving away a match he had already practically won. It's a strange story that combines chess with time travel. The supposed won position becomes an obsession for the characters and while I don't know that much about chess, just the very basics really, Martin manges to describe it in a way that drags you along with the characters desperately trying to find a solution to the problem.

The Glass Flower (1986) is Martin's final story in the Thousand Worlds universe. Of course he didn't actually say he wouldn't write any more but it doesn't look likely he will return to it any time soon. In the early 1990s he did try his hand at a Thousand Worlds novel but ended up writing A Game of Thrones instead. Maybe he should return to it because I can't say I particularly like this story. It doesn't really seem like a fitting conclusion to a series that produced so much interesting work.

The story is nominally a science fiction story but takes such surreal turns that for a lot of readers it will stretch the limits of what they consider SF. It deals with immortallity and one of the legends of Matin's future history finally makes an appearance in person. Kleronomas, who by the time the story opens has already lived many centuries, shows up on the doorstep of Cyrain, who deals in eternal life on an out of the way planet on the edge of human explored space. He is not looking for eternal life however, that is something he already possesses, he is looking for death. Both of the main characters in the story strike me as incredibly jaded. It doesn't make for pleasant reading. It's also a fairly slow moving piece. With eternity at your disposal I guess there is no need to hurry. Definitely not my favourite story in the collection.

More than a thousand pages in Martin treats us to a little bit of Westeros. The Hedge Knight is one of the prequel novellas about Dunk and Egg. It is set some ninety years before the main series and besides a few references to both Dunk and Egg in the main novels, the novellas are very much their own story. You can read them independently. They share the background of Westeros and the brutality of life in that world with the main series though. These novellas are quite good reads. It is interesting to see the kingdom under the Targaryens and in these stories we get to see society from one who starts pretty much at the bottom. As prequels go, it is quite successful. Martin has written three of these novellas at this point and wants to write more. They have been postponed while he works on the main series though. Yet another project that I would not mind seeing Martin return to.

The final story in the collection is another horror tale. Portraits of his Children (1987) is about a writer so caught up in his writing and fictional characters that he alienates the people around him. The last one to leave is his daughter. Alone in his house and unable to continue his writing, he broods about his family, his writing and the arguments. Then, a package arrives from his daughter. It contains a surprisingly accurate picture of one of the characters from his books. For the main characters of the story, the line between fiction, fiction based on real people and events and real life is blurred. They all seem to put it somewhere else and it is the root of many of their arguments. His wife and daughter frequently see  his writing as wish fulfillment or an expression of his dissatisfaction about life with them. All three of them get very bitter about it. It's a disturbing story, and probably even more so to writers. How transparant is your writing to people who know you well?

And with that we reach the end of over 1100 pages of Martin's short fiction. While I did not like every piece in the collection, I do think it succeeds in giving an overview of Martin's career up to that point. The essays Martin includes make for very interesting reading and the majority of the material included ranges from very good to outstanding. In a time when everything Martin wrote is overshadowed by A Song of Ice and Fire, and lately even more by Game of Thrones, it is good to be reminded that he is much more versatile than that. Do not let the collection's impressive size discourage you. Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective  is well worth reading. After finishing this reread I came away with the feeling I should have done it sooner.

Book Details
Title: Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 1185
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08148-2
First published: 2003

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