Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Dreamsongs, Volume I by George RR Martin

I have been reading George RR Martin's short story collection Dreamsongs for the last two weeks and it is a huge book, 1,185 pages long in hardcover and trade in the UK edition. The US edition has been split in two volumes, and as I have now reached the point in the UK edition where the US version is split, it made sense to review the first half by itself.

This book, originally published in 2003 by Subterrenean Press as GRRM: A RRetrospective, collects together GRRM's short fiction from the 1970s up until the late 1990s. Volume I covers the 1970s period of his work and includes some of his best-known stories, including Nightflyers, Sandkings, A Song for Lya, The Ice Dragon and The Way of Cross and Dragon.

Dreamsongs, Volume I is divided into five sections, each containing several short stories with a commentary by Martin at the start of each section. The sections are roughly chronological, but are also arranged by theme. GRRM's commentaries are biographical in nature, describing what in his life was driving him to write his stories at those times, and are fascinating reading in themselves. Regular readers of his work can pick up on elements and names that would later find their way into his novels or his epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire.

The first story, Only Kids are Afriad of the Dark (1965), was written for a comic book fanzine when the author was just 17 and is obviously a bit rough compared to GRRM's later work. Nevertheless, it is fun and colourful, pitting superhero Dr. Weird against the demon prince Saagael with the safety of the world at stake. The Fortress (1968) is a purely historical work and shows a tremendous improvement on the earlier story, even though it was written only three years later (and never published prior to this collection, at least not in this form). The story is about the inexplicable surrender of Sveaborg to the Russians by the Swedes in 1808 and is a compelling account of a minor footnote in military history. And Death His Legacy (1968), a political piece from the same year, is rather more obvious in what the story is about and where it goes, but is nonetheless readable.

The Hero (1968, published 1971) was GRRM's first professional sale and it's easy to see why. The first story in his 'Thousand Worlds' mileu, it is a compelling little tale of war, heroism and what it means to be a soldier. The Exit to Santa Breta (1969, published 1971) is an effective story which is a hybrid of SF and horror (a popular piece of genre-bending with GRRM). The Second Kind of Loneliness (1971) is the first undisputed classic in the book, a tale of solitude and delusion set at the fringes of the Solar System. With Morning Comes Mistfall (1971) is equally good, and can be read as a critique of the need to know, rather than just accept and wonder.

The next batch of stories represents some of GRRM's SF output of the early 1970s, mostly set in his Thousand Worlds setting. A Song for Lya (1973) is one of his best-known SF stories, which starts out as a simple mystery and turns into a fascinating commentary on religion and the human need for company and comfort. It deservedly won George his first Hugo Award. The Tower of Ashes (1974) is less accomplished and perhaps even predictable in its final twists, but nevertheless the story holds the reader's attention and like Lya and the later Meathouse Man it clearly comes from a personal well of emotion that is quite intense. And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1974, published 1975) is more impressive, pitting a technologically primitive people against invaders wielding advanced technology and singularly fails to go all Ewok on us, building to an impressively subversive ending. The Stone City (1973, published 1977) is a remarkable story, taking us out on a journey into the depths of the Galaxy in a haunting way. It is one of GRRM's underrated masterpieces. Bitterblooms (1977) is a very different work that functions on several levels and builds to an eerie if somewhat traditional ending. The Way of Cross and Dragon (1979) is a truly great story, based on a killer premise (Judas is made a saint by a breakaway religious sect in defiance of the Catholic Church) with a terrific ending and one of GRRM's best-ever lines:

The truth will set us free. But freedom is cold and empty and frightening, and lies can often be warm and beautiful.

The next batch of stories shows GRRM's talent for fantasy and shows that he was active in this genre long before A Song of Ice and Fire. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr (1976) is a great story, featuring the girl who travels between worlds and on each world faces a different threat that stops her from travelling onwards. Some of GRRM's most striking imagery is represented in this story. The Ice Dragon (1979) is even better, featuring GRRM's first real attempt at a work set in an epic fantasy world, but told from the smallest possible point-of-view. There are many future hints of A Song of Ice and Fire in this work, and GRRM is to be commended for not retrospectively shoehorning this story into Westeros (which could be done fairly easily). In the Lost Lands (1979) is a terrific, evil fairy tale which is great fun to read with a satisfying ending.

The final batch in this first volume is based on GRRM's love of genre-bending. Ten years ago Peter F. Hamilton won great kudos for mixing SF and horror in his seminal Night's Dawn Trilogy, but GRRM was at it twenty years earlier. Meathouse Man (1974, published 1976) is a somewhat painful read for anyone who's ever felt that they didn't get relationships or how to handle them (that will be all of us at some point or another then), but for what is often described as the darkest thing GRRM ever wrote there are rays of hope shooting through the story. It is a very powerful work. Remembering Melody (1979, published 1981) is a shorter, sharper work, a piece of psychological horror that works very well. Sandkings (1979), which netted GRRM another Hugo, was probably his most well-known individual story until A Song of Ice and Fire. An SF tale, a morality play, a horror story and a psychological profile all mixed into one, it is easy to see why the story is so well-regarded, although I would argue that there are stronger stories in this collection alone. Nevertheless, it is terrific. Nightflyers (1980) is another great story, a haunted spaceship tale set in the depths of interstellar space with a crew suspicious of one another and their unseen, unknown captain. However, the ending is mildly dissatisfying and one ponders if there could have been a stronger resolution to the story. The Monkey Treatment (1981) is a much-needed dose of sunshine in an otherwise somewhat dark collection, although it is still a satisfyingly bitter and twisted thing of a tale. Nevertheless, the ending is unusually optimistic, although it will leave the reader with an insatiable desire to eat pizza. The Pear-Shaped Man (1987) won GRRM his Bram Stoker Award and is another deeply disturbing tale of psychological horror and breakdown, with a genuinely satisfying twist ending.

Dreamsongs, Volume I (*****) is an overwhelmingly impressive short story collection. With the exception of the first story, none of these tales feels old or dated, and Sandkings, Nightflyers, The Stone City, Meathouse Man, The Way of Cross and Dragon and The Ice Dragon are up there with the very best short SF fiction I have read.

Dreamsongs, Volume I is published by Bantam in the USA and is available in hardcover. Volume II will be published on 27 November.

The one-volume edition of Dreamsongs is published in Gollancz in the UK and is available in hardcover and trade paperback. The mass-market paperback version will be split in two and the first volume will be available in the spring.

The second volume features GRRM's short fiction and screenplays from the 1980s and 1990s, including his TV pilot Doorways and some of his Haviland Tuf series, along with selected stories from his contributions to the lengthy Wild Cards series and several of his other popular short fiction, including Portraits of His Children and the prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, The Hedge Knight, which is a classic story in its own right. I will be reviewing it as soon as time allows.

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