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Dreamsongs: A Retrospective – Book One by George R. R. Martin

Dreamsongs: A Retrospective – Book One by George R. R. Martin
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Book Name: Dreamsongs: A Retrospective - Book One
Author: George R. R. Martin
Publisher(s): Bantam
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Science Fiction / Horror
Release Date: October 30, 2007

George R. R. Martin is not just one of the most popular writers in fantasy right now, but in fiction full stop. Game of Thrones has been one of the most talked about TV series of the last couple of years, but as fantasy bores love to remind you (including myself) many of us have been fans of him since the late 90s. But in actual fact Martin has been active in the genre for long before that even, and this fantastic anthology charts his career as a short story writer and as a TV writer, right up to the Song of Ice and Fire days. For the purposes of this review I will just review Volume 1, which include his juvenilia, his early days as professional writer, and a selection of his best stories from the sci-fi genre, the fantasy genre, and the horror genre. Though, as Martin stresses in his excellent introductions to each section, the genre boundaries in his writing are often blurred. For him a great story is a great story regardless of genre, and I for one agree with him one hundred percent.

Part 1 of this anthology is entitled “A Four Color Fanboy” and is a selection of his best juvenilia: though actually the best part of this is the introduction, a fascinating account of how he became interested in reading and telling stories and his early experiments in writing and trying to get published, including writing for fanzines and joining creative writing classes.

The introductions for every section throughout the collection are well worth a read for any aspiring writer, as Martin is very candid about his trials and tribulation as a writer throughout and how he worked to get himself noticed. The actual stories themselves are, as Martin honestly admits, early pieces by himself as he tried to find a voice, though already there are signs of the writer he would become, and “The Fortress” would be reworked as a far more successful short story later on in his career.

The next section is “The Filthy Pro”, his earliest published short stories. And while there are still no stories here that I would term as ‘classic’ Martin, and the wistful nature of all four displays an adolescent writer going through his first heartbreaks and professional rejections letting his pain pour out onto the page, both “The Exit to San Breta” and “With Morning Comes Mistfall” are very good and show already a writer willing to blend genres together and stick long in the memory after reading.

The final three sections of Volume 1 of Dreamsongs are neatly divided into “The Light of Distant Stars” (Martin’s sci-fi short stories), “The Heirs of Turtle Castle” (his fantasy short stories), and “Hybrids and Horrors” (hybrids and horrors obviously!). Each section again comes complete with an introduction by Martin talking about his love of each respective genre, his personal history in reading, writing and trying to get published in each genre. And finally each usually ends in a reflection of how he tries to blend all three genres together where possible and his frustrations with the narrow mindedness of certain publishers in how they define what stories of the respective genre should resemble.

The quality here shoots up immeasurably from the stories in the first two sections and includes some of the very best short stories ever written in the speculative fiction genre. Whilst sadly I cannot review each story individually, I will highlight some of the very best in the collection. Though I will make one observation here, Martin is at his very best in this volume at writing horror stories and hybrids and bizarrely when you consider that he is most famous now as a fantasy writer, he is at his weakest here at writing in the fantasy genre.

“A Song for Lya” is our first stand out. A hauntingly beautiful sci-fi novella about two telepaths investigating religious suicides on an ancient world, which won the Hugo and was a joint winner for the Nebula, the story has the same wistful feeling of the stories in the second section, but whilst there it felt self indulgent, here it is a far more universal contemplation on the human condition and the need to belong.

All of Martin’s sci-fi stories are set in his imagined version of the universe in the future called The Thousands Worlds and “Stone City” is one of the core stories of this future history, and I think we can best review this using Martin’s own words.

“This one is also a bit subversive … when we go far enough from home, rationality, causality, and the physical laws of the universe itself begin to break down. And yet, of all the stories that I‘ve ever written. “The Stone City’ is the one that comes closest to capturing the yearnings of that boy stretched out in the summer grass beside the Kill van Kull, staring up at Orion. I don’t know that I ever evoked the vastness of Space or that elusive ‘sense of wonder’ any better than I did here.”

These two stories along with the novella “Nightflyers” which is placed in with the hybrids and horrors, a terrifying sci-fi tale set on a space ship reminiscent of classic sci-fi horror films like Alien, 2001 or Event Horizon, make you wish that Martin had written more sci-fi, perhaps when he finally finishes A Song of Ice and Fire

Martin’s best fantasy short story in this collection is “The Ice Dragon”, which puts a clever twist on dragons and shows him already playing with the two motifs that would come to define his Magnum Opus.

But as I already said, Martin is at his very best in writing horror hybrids. “Sand Kings”, “The Monkey Treatment” and “The Pear Shaped Man” are genuinely three of the most terrifying, creepiest and the very best short stories that I have ever read. “Sand Kings” has been adapted for The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, spoofed by The Simpsons, South Park, and Futurama, and won both the Nebula and the Hugo, and most readers even if they have never read anything by Martin will recognize the concept instantly. A man becomes a god for four competing factions of a miniature alien species that evolve over night and who worship him, but he is both neglectful and abusive towards his charges and they quickly turn on him with horrendous consequences. The story is incredibly powerful as well as terrifying, and will haunt you as a reader for a long time to come. “The Monkey Treatment” ( a tale of a novel way of losing weight) and “The Pear Shaped Man” (the tale of that creepy man that lives in the apartment below yours) are more straight forward horror tales, but are almost creepier for being that bit more relatable and both like “Sand Kings” also have incredibly strong concepts behind them.

Overall, a highly recommended anthology which shows that George R. R. Martin is a far more varied writer than just the guy who writes A Song of Ice and Fire. The introductions for each section are a fascinating insight into the craft of being a writer in the fantasy, sci-fi, and horror and a must read for any aspiring writer in these genres.

Next month I will review the second volume in which we learn about Martin as writer of TV scripts, The Wild Cards, Tuf Voyaging, werewolves, and the first of his fantastic prequels to A Song of Ice and Fire.

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Rating: 10.0/10 (8 votes cast)
Dreamsongs: A Retrospective - Book One by George R. R. Martin, 10.0 out of 10 based on 8 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Khaldun says:

    I absolutely loved everything I read in this book. Sandkings is of course a standout, and the Monkey Treatment is just pure awesome. There’s just so much good stuff here it’s almost ridiculous.

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