October 14, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

dreamsongsDreamsongs by George R.R. Martin


As far as bargain purchases go, Dreamsongs was the second-best one I made in 2016. I signed up for a free three-month trial membership to Audible on Prime Day, and picked this up (retail value: $63.00) for one of the free credits. It’s 52 hours long. In print, it’s over 1200 pages long. Had it not been for my picking up the signed, limited edition of Joe Lansdale’s The Drive-In omnibus for 75% off, this would be the big winner of the year.

I especially like the introductions to each section, where Martin himself tells the history behind the upcoming stories. I’m one of those people who likes to know the behind-the-scenes stuff for most everything (movies, music, books, even Disney rides), so those pieces were enlightening, and right up my alley. It’s kind of remarkable how much detail Martin can remember for each section.

The first section highlights stories he wrote early in his career, when he was still more a fan than a writer. The first story, “Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark”, is notable because it was Martin’s first published story. Frankly, it shows. Like Gaiman’s “Featherquest”, this story shows us a few flashes of Martin’s style, but is otherwise a pedestrian story. It was written to feature characters that were included in a comic fanzine in the 1960s.

Next is “The Fortress”, a story he wrote for a history assignment in college. It tells the history of a key concession in the history of Finland, and is compelling, if a little heavy-handed in how it presents the facts. As a story, it seems abrupt and anticlimactic, but it has a nice flow, and again you can see the birth of Martin’s style.

“And Death His Legacy” is a story about politics and revolution, anarchy and martyrdom. There are a lot of stories like this out there, and there’s not much to set this one above the others, but it has a good pace, and should keep the reader engaged.

The next section showcases stories he wrote as he was breaking into the field. “The Hero” is the first story, and is about a space soldier who has served his time and wants to return home to Earth. According to Martin, he submitted this story along with his application as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, which he believed helped his odds in getting that designation. Reading the story, one can believe it.

The second story is a ghost story titled “The Exit to San Breta”. It’s nothing particularly original, as far as ghost stories go, but it’s set against a futuristic backdrop which gives it a touch of originality. It’s not particularly creepy, but it’s well-written and engaging.

Next was “The Second Kind of Loneliness”, a science fiction/horror story that fits right in with the fiction that was being published in the ’70s. If the two earlier stories didn’t indicate that Martin was coming into his talents, this one certainly did.

The last story in that section was “With Morning Comes Mistfall”, one of Martin’s more famous stories. It’s a poignant story about mystery and fact, environment and urbanization. It speaks to people who enjoy genre fiction, and it also highlights the importance of fiction having something to say. Stories that are just story, or just character are just fine, but when a story can be both of those things and have something to say at the same time, it’s even better.

The third section highlights his earliest science fiction stories, and includes some of his best-know works. The first story, “A Song for Lya”, is a story of love, humanity, and religion, and shows that Martin has been “doing it right” for a long time. This story was originally published in 1974, and still has an emotional resonance and theme that could convince you it was written just this year.

“This Tower of Ashes” follows, and is about relationships and love. It’s an odd story that seems like it would have a nice emotional punch, but it backfires in the way Martin presents the narrator. But maybe we’re not supposed to like him; maybe we’re just supposed to pity him.

The next story is “And Seven Times Never Kill Man”, an ambitious piece about the religion of violence. Colonizers from Earth have adopted a religion that justifies their Ethnocentrism and manifest destiny, treating any other sentient creatures as subhuman, subject to execution for not cooperating. It has the right kind of punch, similar to that of “A Song for Lya”, but its theme is much different. One can feel the frustration coming through the story.

Following that story is “The Stone City”, which follows an abandoned crew in a city populated by fox-people (and many other types of aliens). Most of the story follows the main character as he tries to keep his other crewmates alive, but then it devolves into … something. I listened to the ending twice, and then went and read it for myself, and I’m still not sure what happened at the end of the story. It was like the ending of 2001.

“Bitterblooms” follows, and reads more like a fantasy story than a science fiction story. It’s a gentler story, and like “With Morning Comes Mistfall”, it’s a story about the allure of fantasy over reality. It also has a neat nod to Arthurian legend, and has a fun reversal of the adage about advanced technology and magic. It’s not a favorite from the collection, but I liked some of the things the story did.

“The Way of Cross and Dragon” concludes this section, and shows how long Martin was developing the idea behind A Song of Ice and Fire before he even thought about writing it. He already used the names Robb and Lyanna in “A Song for Lya”, but here he features legends of dragonriders, and I swear I heard the name Arryn, and one that was close to Targaryen, while listening to this story. It’s hard to tell from just listening to it, though; in “The Second Kind of Loneliness”, the story featured a woman named Karen and a station named Charon, and I kept getting them confused.

The next section is devoted to Martin’s fantasy stories, and is remarkably slim compared to the other sections; it’s made up of just three stories. The first, “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr”, is about a woman who walks between worlds, and meets up with a gentleman who has been expecting her. It’s a gentle sort of story

The second story, “The Ice Dragon”, almost has a Song of Ice and Fire feel to it, in setting and character. It’s a sad tale of warfare and family, though it’s sad for different reasons than one would expect.

“In the Lost Lands” rounds out the section, and it’s an intriguing look at religion and its purpose. Hint: Martin uses the word “lie” a lot in the story.

The next section is the one I looked forward to the most, since it comprised his horror/sci-fi stories. Unfortunately, it started with “Meathouse Man”, a story that’s as unlikable as its main character, and should come with its own trigger warning. I think Martin was intending to highlight how violence desensitizes people, but I would have liked it had he approached it from a different angle (though I suppose I should feel relieved that the story disgusted me, proving that I’m not yet desensitized).

“Remembering Melody” isn’t quite as visceral as the preceding story, but it’s another tough read due to its unlikable characters. It has a better theme — a burnt-out hippie reunites with an old acquaintance — and is better presented, but it evokes more pity and frustration than the disgust of “Meathouse Man”. It lives up to its genre, though, creating a nice, spooky atmosphere and an ending that should create a shiver or two.

“Sandkings” follows, and is likely Martin’s best known work, outside of A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s a good reason. If you haven’t read it, find it and do so. I’m not going to spoil anything about it here.

The next story is “Nightflyers”, a long piece about paranoia in deep space. I had a hard time following it, due to the number of characters and their interactions, though I blame that on listening to the story as opposed to reading it. I have this in print, as well, and expect to get a better understanding of it when I get around to actually reading it. Something to note is that this story was broken across four chapters, and the second one was of a notably poorer recording quality than the other three.

“The Monkey Treatment” follows, and it’s one of my favorite stories. I’ve never read something as equally horrifying and hilarious as it. I believe this was my first exposure to Martin, and it’s a story that holds up well.

Following that story is “The Pear-Shaped Man”, which won Martin a Bram Stoker award, and is a story I had never read before. I think the story is effective, if a little off-kilter. I find it interesting that Martin uses similar imagery in both this story and “The Monkey Treatment” to evoke horror in the readers and central characters.

The next section highlights Martin’s Haviland Tuf character, who features in the book Tuf Voyaging. The first story in that section is “A Beast for Norn”, a fun story that hearkens back to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, though with a lighter touch. I had a feeling the story was heading where it wound up, since Tuf seemed to be a more empathetic character than the story led him to be, but it was still a fun read. Er, listen.

The second Tuf story in this section is “Guardians”, a curious story about sentience and co-existence. It wasn’t quite as engaging as “A Beast for Norn”, but it maintained the character of Tuf and kept me wondering. I liked how he used the names of the kittens in the story to symbolize what was happening.

The following section is about Martin’s time in Hollywood, and the introduction gives an overview of how he got involved with it, and how he stayed in it. It also includes two teleplays, which weren’t included in the audiobook. In a way, it makes sense. A straight reading of the script would be dull, but at the same time, a script makes a perfect opportunity for a multi-narrator production. They put sound effects in the Aftermath audiobooks, but they couldn’t do it for two shorter works? I checked out a copy of the book at the library so I could read them.

“The Road Less Traveled” is an episode he wrote when he worked on The Twilight Zone reboot, and it’s moving and effective, though nothing new in the world of fiction. In fact, it read like a truncated version of Time and Chance by Alan Brennert, who also worked on the show.

“Doorways” is the script for the pilot of the show Martin pitched to the networks, which has a lot of similarities to the later show Sliders. Interestingly, he pitched his show to Fox, who didn’t pick it up, though he makes no mention of Sliders in his introduction. The story is engaging, and has a few elements I didn’t expect, though it contains a handful of cliches.

Following that section is one that highlight’s some of Martin’s contributions to the Wild Cards series. The first story, “Shell Games”, is the origin story of one of Martin’s characters, but the books are called mosaic novels, because they’re written by different people, all using each others’ characters. Martin includes a character who was a main character in another author’s story, and I felt like I was missing a lot of his backstory to get a good feel for him. The story is more or less self-contained, but I don’t think it works out of context of the larger work.

“From the Journal of Xavier Desmond” is an interlude story that takes place among the main stories in Aces Abroad, and is a look at prejudice through the eyes of a Joker, which is a superhero with a deformity (the superheroes who still look human are called Aces). It’s also a look at all of the social issues that were prevalent in the 1980s — AIDS, hunger in Africa, and the Ayatollah. Again, I feel like the piece would work better in context with the story that would surround it.

The last section of the book comprises a handful of stories that refuse to fit in one genre or another. In his introduction, Martin talks about how fiction, no matter what the genre, can be boiled down to just being stories. To prove it, he gives us “Under Siege”, a science fiction retelling of the same story he wrote for “The Fortress”, way back in the first section of the book. The changes are substantial, though the beginnings of both are, as near as I could tell, identical.

The next story is “The Skin Trade”, a novella I read once years before. My only memory of it was that it involved werewolves, so this re-read was a nice surprise. It’s a big story, comprising at least four chapters in the audiobook, and it does a good job of combining horror with noir. It alternates between two different characters’ points of view, male and female, so the producers had two different people read the alternating sections. I liked the story and the presentation, though it was unfortunate that a disabled tertiary character was continually described as “crippled”.

“Unsound Variations” is a chess story, which is about as exciting as it sounds. Martin manages to tell a compelling enough story (which isn’t all about chess, but serves as its backdrop), but he populates it with unlikable characters. The antagonist was less a complex character and more a petty shell, and that pettiness brought nothing of value to the story. The message of the story redeems it, and once I got to the end of the story, I realized it was one of the stronger stories in the collection, despite its inauspicious beginning.

“The Glass Flower” follows, and is about a game of minds between a Wisdom, a cyborg, and a third character who didn’t seem all that important to the story. I had a hard time getting into it, namely because it was mostly trying to set a futuristic scene, which seems to be more difficult when someone is reading it aloud. Once events were set in motion, it was easier to follow the story, but it was tough getting into at the beginning. I kept getting lost amid all the description.

“The Hedge Knight”, which at the time of this collection’s publication was previously unpublished, is well-known now as the first of the Dunk and Egg stories set in Westeros. I’ve reviewed this story before, and still like it a great deal. I’ll like pretty much anything that expands on the mythology of Westeros, on principle alone.

“Portraits of His Children” is a darker story, with a hefty theme. It looks at a writer who sees other people’s lives as material, and how it can come back and hurt him as much as it hurts the people he uses for inspiration. The ending makes the reader question what has actually just happened, but not in a good way. The story makes perfect sense until the last paragraph, and now I wonder: What was the point?

This is a tremendous collection of stories, most of which are good, and highlight Martin’s distinctive style. I was surprised at how much Martin seems to tell instead of show, though without losing the impact of his stories. He likes the word “wan” a lot, I noticed, and he sure does like the word “song”: DreamsongsSongs the Dead Men Sing; “A Song for Lya”; A Song of Ice and Fire. Like most collections, the stories are hit or miss, but there are more hits than misses here, and the hits that are here are strong enough to overcome the weaker stories. This is probably a collection best suited for the more hardcore fans, but it’s a good overview of Martin’s career, good and bad.


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