Most writers concentrate on only one branch of speculative fiction. Those who can master more than one are rare, although Roger Zelazny and Poul Anderson proved adept at both SF and fantasy, Robert E. Howard mixed fantasy and horror equally for many of his Conan stories, and Dan Simmons's SF classic Hyperion is just one of his novels that straddle two branches well, laced liberally as it is with horror. Fritz Leiber wrote SF, fantasy, and horror with facility. Authors who bestride both the print and visual worlds are rarer. Harlan Ellison and Michael Cassutt are two who spring to mind, but the foraying of most print authors into Hollywood has been infrequent and ignoble.
There is of course one author who has become as well known for his Hugo- and Nebula-winning SF as for his Stoker Award-winning horror and has been a senior writer on TV series, returning to print to write best-selling fantasy novels. That writer is George R. R. Martin.
When the review copy of Dreamsongs landed on my doormat, my first thought—after I'd put my back into place from lifting the breezeblock-size book—was that it was way too soon in Martin's career for a publisher to be offering a retrospective. Then I read the notes.
In 2007 the oldest story in this book will be forty years old. By the time Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and Ursula K. Le Guin had been writing for forty years, they were all SFWA Grand Masters. Other—lesser—writers have had far shorter careers and earned greater recognition. Martin seems to have been writing forever, and yet one still thinks of him as a new writer (part of that, yes, is my not wanting to admit I'm not the eighteen-year-old who I feel has gotten trapped in a middle-aged man's body . . .).
The reality is that fans have short memories. Writers who cease to generate fiction in those fans' specific areas of interest are believed to have given up writing altogether. Martin's moving between print and Hollywood and shared-world anthologies led some fans to believe he had abandoned writing for several years, and when he did return, many of his fantasy fans had no idea that their new favourite already had a long pedigree, albeit as a writer of SF.
Dreamsongs will hopefully rectify that misapprehension.
The book is split into nine sections, with stories grouped initially chronologically, then thematically. The opening section contains two previously unpublished stories and one that was first published as the text of a comic book—Doctor Weird, no less! All date from the 1960s and are unpolished and naïve and break half the rules of good fiction without redeeming prose to show for it. They also display all of Martin's strengths: narrative drive, rich (in some cases almost overblown) settings, and strongly drawn characters.
The second section of Dreamsongs includes his earliest pro sales to Analog. Martin—together with Joe Haldeman, Spider Robinson, and Jerry Pournelle—was one of a quartet of writers who led the Analog resurgence of the 1970s, which culminated in the magazine publishing more than half the Hugo winners of the second half of that decade, including such classics as Haldeman's The Forever War and Vonda N. McIntyre's Dreamsnake. Like the earlier ones, the stories here are mostly notable for showing the development of Martin's career, interesting primarily to the fanatic and for comparison to later, better pieces. The exception is the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated "With Morning Comes Mistfall." Here, for the first time, Martin shows restraint, not only in drawing his everyman journalist narrator but also by using a matter-of-fact style, so the romanticism of the isolated colony-world setting, with its aborigines and planet-girdling mists, is allowed full rein without appearing lurid. The story also has a worthwhile theme in the conflict between humanity's need for understanding (with its consequential price) and its need for the romance of mystery.
The stories continue to run chronologically throughout the third section and cover a loose-linked fictional universe, which Martin christened the Thousand Worlds. They still feature exotic settings, but vary in tone from initially faux-cynical romantic to the later greater emotional control and ever-increasing authority. "A Song for Lya" and "This Tower of Ashes" share doomed love affairs at different stages of disintegration. More subtle are "The Stone City," which details a dead world whose ruins abut the site of a spaceport occupied by the detritus of visiting spaceships' crews, and the frozen world of "Bitterblooms," which is SF but often reads like fantasy. The section concludes with the wonderful, Hugo-winning "The Way of Cross and Dragon," perhaps the best story of Catholicism amongst the stars since James Blish's A Case of Conscience.
With the fourth section, chronology for the first time gives way to a thematic order, with a section devoted to fantasies from the '70s and '80s. The pick of these is "The Ice Dragon," a beautiful little tale from a child's-eye view of a war-torn land and one family who farm it even as their world falls apart.
The book's fifth part details the short forms Martin perhaps became best known for—his horror/SF hybrids, dating from 1979 to 1983, although there is one story from four years before and one from four years after each of these dates. Martin pays tribute in the section notes for "Hybrids and Horrors" to both John W. Campbell's Who Goes There? and H. P. Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" as examples of SF invigorated by the lurking menace of horror. Certainly the award-winning "Sandkings" and "Meathouse Man"—Martin's rejected offering for Ellison's never published The Last Dangerous Visions—have a power rarely equalled in Martin's oeuvre.
Another thematic section is devoted to Martin's wonderful Haviland Tuf series and includes the award-winning "Guardians," in which the ecological engineer has to puzzle out a mysterious infestation of monsters on a water world. "The Siren Song of Hollywood" features two of Martin's TV scripts, one an alternate version of a pilot for a Sliders-type series, which gives an exemplary lesson in how to move a story along with dialogue. This section—together with "Doing the Wild Card Shuffle," in which Martin gives us two of the stories he wrote for the Wild Cards series—covers the writer's interests from the mid-1980s to the publication of A Game of Thrones, those years when Martin seemed lost to the worlds of Analog and Asimov's. I'm no great fan of shared worlds or comic books, so I'm probably not the best person to judge, but the Wild Cards stories struck me as two of the weaker ones in the book—not helped by minimal explanation of a complex alternate world.
Dreamsongs ends with the longest section in the book. "The Heart in Conflict" reads like a selection of thematic leftovers, but what leftovers! These are the stories of a writer in his pomp, from the mid-1980s to near the end of the last century. They include "Under Siege," a nifty science-fictional recycling of "The Fortress" (the second story in the book) accomplished by giving it a setting reminiscent of that in John Varley's classic "Air Raid"; "The Hedge Knight," a story from the same world as A Song of Ice and Fire; "The Glass Flower," Martin's last visit to the Thousand Worlds; "The Skin Trade," Martin's classic, almost novel-length novella about a lecherous, asthmatic debt collector who is also a werewolf and who with his PI friend finds himself hunting a killer who in turn hunts werewolves; and finally, the Nebula-winning "Portraits of His Children," which Martin describes as "a story about writing, and the price we pay when we mine our hopes and fears and memories."
Of all the stories in Dreamsongs, the very best is a novella from 1980 lurking in "Hybrids and Horrors." The story's opening page contains a potted history of the thousands of years of the alien volcryn, which goes against the dictates of almost every how-to-write class going and does so with style. Its backdrop is the Thousand Worlds, but "Nightflyers" is as much horror as SF, for all that it first appeared in Analog. When it was published in The Best Science Fiction of the Year #10, Terry Carr commented in his story notes about "the uncanny similarities to Alien," but I suspect any overlap is coincidental and may be more to do with the most effective ways of scaring people while following the same paths. What makes "Nightflyers" perhaps Martin's masterpiece is not the slow unfolding of menace leading into terror nor the star-drop and the arrival of the volcryn; great though these are, they aren't what sets "Nightflyers" apart. Instead, it is the restraint I noticed emerging in the latter part of the third section that Martin again displays, this time in delineating the slow-burning, subtle, strange little love story that lies at the crystal-cool heart of "Nightflyers." It's my job as a reviewer to remain objective, yet I wanted with an ache I hadn't felt since adolescence for the lovers to survive and snatch a few moments of happiness together.
Dreamsongs is a big read and, to be frank—at twenty pounds sterling for the hardback—an expensive one. But 1,286 pages of fiction, including almost a hundred pages of autobiographical notes, followed by an exhaustive bibliography, make this superb value for money on the page count alone. But there's quality as well. Almost every one of Martin's major stories is here; only his Windhaven collaboration with Lisa Tuttle and his Hugo-winning novella "Blood of the Dragon" are significant omissions. Both works may have been ruled out by copyright issues. There are four stories that have won Hugo or Nebula awards (or both), a Locus Poll winner, a Stoker Award winner, and a World Fantasy Award-winning novella. Almost half of the thirty-four works in the collection have been nominated for one major award or another.
Awards aren't everything, nor are sales. But as a guide, neither can be ignored completely. Martin is a major influence within the speculative field, surely on his way to Grand Master status if he continues to produce writing of such quality, and Dreamsongs is a major body of work, one that feels like a career summation for his short fiction. It's a must-have for any serious student of speculative literature.
Colin Harvey is the author of the novels Vengeance and Lightning Days as well as the prize-winning story "The Bloodhound." His novel The Silk Palace will be published by Swimming Kangaroo Books in September 2007; read about it here.
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