Following on from my earlier review of Dreamsongs, Volume I, this entry covers the second volume of Geore R.R. Martin's collection of short fiction. Whilst Volume I covered GRRM's work from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Volume II focuses more closely on his work as a scriptwriter and editor (on the popular Wild Cards series of superhero anthologies) and includes what for many people will be the primary draw of the collection, a novella set in the world of GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire novels.
As with Volume I (as this is one huge book broken in two for US publication), Volume II is divided into sections, namely four sections containing stories and a bibliography of GRRM's published work.
The first section focuses on one of GRRM's several signature characters, namely Haviland Tuf, the vegetarian, bald and somewhat eccentric master of the ancient seedship The Ark, who proclaims himself the last of the long-extinct Ecological Engineers. Tuf was designed to be the hero (if that's the right word) of a series of stories set in GRRM's Thousand Worlds mileu, and these stories were collected into the popular 'fix-up' novel Tuf Voyaging. Two stories are presented here. A Beast for Norn (1975, published 1976) is the earliest Tuf story and was revised for its appearance in Tuf Voyaging, so it's the original version that appears here. It's not a particularly original tale and the well-worn SF reader will see the 'moral' coming from halfway through the story, but it's still exceptionally amusing to watch unfold. Guardians (1981) is much stronger, with Tuf a more sophisticated, well-developed character by this time and the story more intriguing, as the colonists on a remote ocean world are being attacked by increasingly savage creatures and Tuf has to find out where they are coming from and how to defeat them.
Around the time that Tuf Voyaging appeared, GRRM was invited to submit scripts for The New Twilight Zone, the resurrected mid-80s version of the classic Rod Serling anthology series. After some rather hectic re-jigging of the credits (including Harlan Ellison storming off the show after one of his scripts was messed around with by the studio) GRRM landed the job of script editor and worked on several episodes of the short-lived show. The Road Less Travelled (1986) was GRRM's only original contribution (the rest being adaptions or developments of other people's ideas), a somwhat curious tale which combines GRRM's trademark melancholy and musings on missed opportunities with a more optimistic ending. This script was filmed by Wes Craven and is reputedly a superb episode, but when it aired it had been butchered with nearly a third of its original material edited out, and due to legal reasons it cannot apparently be released or seen even today. A shame as the script is very interesting indeed. Also included is GRRM's pilot script for Doorways (1991), an alternate-reality show about a girl who passes from world to world and inadvertantly drags a native of our world along for the ride. This was also filmed, but again the filmed version is difficult to find and reportedly not as strong as the original script as several elements had been radically changed. The script included is very atmospheric and disturbing, and the reader may or may note the similarities to another series which aired a few years later called Sliders (purely coincidental, no doubt).
The next section takes us to the world that made George R.R. Martin an SF&F household name long before A Song of Ice and Fire took off. In 1987 GRRM and several close friends and collaborators began work on the Wild Cards universe, which postulates the existence of superheroes following the release over New York City in 1946 of an alien virus. 90% of those affected by the virus die; 9% become 'Jokers', horribly disfigured by the illness; and 1% become 'Aces', superheroes wielding incredible abilities. The Wild Cards series of anthologies became one of the biggest 'shared world' phenomenons of the 1980s, rivalled only by the Thieves' World series, eventually reaching fifteen volumes before petering out. However, the series was resurrected seven years later and several new volumes appeared, with the eighteenth and latest, Inside Straight, due out in the next couple of months in the USA. GRRM presents two of his Wild Cards stories here: Shell Games (1987) introduces another GRRM signature character, the Great and Powerful Turtle, and the role he plays in restoring the self-respect of Dr. Tachyon, the alien genius who created the Wild Card virus in the first place. From the Journal of Xavier Desmond (1988) is the framing story from the fourth volume in the series, Aces Abroad, and is a more familiar story of melancholy and musings, but is nevertheless exceptionally well-written as a dying Joker gets to see some of the world before he passes, and finds much that is worthwhile and beautiful in the world, but also sees some of its darkness as well.
The final section is called 'The Heart in Conflict', based on Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner's statement that, "the human heart in conflict with itself alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about." This appears to be GRRM's philosophy and lends itself to his 'furniture rule', that a story is just a story and is an SF tale or a Fantasy or a Western purely due to the 'furniture': a guy riding into a frontier town to settle a score or anothe man riding into a castle to challenge the wizard who wronged him or another person flying his spaceship in pursuit of an alien who has a grudge against him. The stories that follow seem to particularly respond to this, defying easy genre categorization or limitations: Under Siege (1984) is a 'remix' of GRRM's much earlier historical story, The Fortress (printed in Dreamsongs, Volume I), this time with added time travel and the suggestion that pinning the hopes of the world on one small group of people might not actually be a good or healthy thing to do. The Skin Trade (1988) is somewhere between a horror story and a thriller, featuring werewolves and private detectives and rich old men harbouring secrets. It won GRRM a World Fantasy Award and deservedly so. Unsound Variations (1982) focuses on GRRM's history as a chess tournament organiser and those not particularly interested in the game may find this tale of obsession a bit odd, but GRRM captures the game as a fictional device quite well and the melding of chess with quantum theory is well done. The Glass Flower (1986) marks GRRM's last visit (for now) to his Thousand Worlds and brings in Kleronomas, one of the signature legendary characters of that setting. The story is rather downbeat and to be honest I found it even depressing. There is a tremendous depth of character in the story, however.
The Hedge Knight (1998) is a prequel to A Song of Ice and Fire, taking place eighty-nine years prior to the events of A Game of Thrones. At this time the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are still unified under the rule of the Targaryen kings and seeing the realm at peace and shorn of the political machinations of court is interesting and somewhat refreshing. The protagonist is Dunk, a hedge knight who risks everything he has to ride in the great tourney at Ashford Meadow, but instead finds himself caught in the grip of history with a squire named Egg joining him for the ride. The first of a planned series of 'Dunk & Egg' stories is nothing short of a masterpiece in itself, expertly timed with terrific character-building and a depth of detail to the setting that is remarkable. If it wasn't for the A Knight's Tale movie a few years later, I imagine that Hollywood would have snapped this up by now. A sequel followed in 2003, The Sworn Sword, although it appeared too late to make it into this collection (the original version of which was published in 2003). A third Dunk & Egg tale will appear late next year (or early the next), in the Warriors anthology edited by GRRM and Gardner Dozois.
The final story is the Nebula Award-winning Portraits of His Children (1986), which is an obvious story to end on but still a fine piece of work. The story comes across as a modern take on Dickens, with an author visited by his creations and haunted by the decisions he made about their fictional lives. It doesn't take too huge an imagination to cast George in this light, enjoying a beer and a lively discussion with Tyrion or comparing notes on living in Brooklyn with the Turtle.
Dreamsongs, Volume II (*****) lives up to the promise of the first volume and is an essential read for any GRRM fan. The book will be published on 27 November in the United States in hardcover. The one-volume UK edition is out now in hardcover and trade paperback.