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Selections from Dreamsongs 1: Fan Fiction and Sci-Fi from Martin's Early Years: Unabridged Selections

Selections from Dreamsongs 1: Fan Fiction and Sci-Fi from Martin's Early Years: Unabridged Selections - George R.R. Martin Before George R.R. Martin became famous for writing 1,200-page epic fantasy, he was revered for his short fiction, which is kind of funny when you think about it. He's like a smack dealer for his longtime fans -- the first ones were small, just a taste; suddenly they need more and more pages to get that same high. "Oh, Warriors, a new Martin book, so sweet, so thick and fat... what the fuck? He just EDITED it? What is this weak methadone shit? Who the fuck cares about Wild Cards?"Much of his short fiction -- early-, mid- and late-career, has been collected in the two-volume Dreamsongs, which was released in three volumes on audio. Because you care, I will give brief reviews of the stories as I listen. (Though I should also mention that the real fun are the biographical interludes, narrated by Martin himself). I'm only doing Volume 1 for now. I can't handle 30-plus uninterrupted hours of short fiction.Part One: A Four-Color Fanboy -- Fan-fiction and early writingOnly Kids Are Afraid of the Dark - This story was written for a comic fanzine when GRRM was 17 and his beard probably wasn't quite so majestic as it is today, and he liked to convey atmosphere by writing stuff like, "Darkness was all around, black as night, and the dark castle loomed blackly in the dark blackness of night's deep dark blackness. Of night." D- (Hey, I'm not grading on a curve here. I still have to listen to this shit.)The Fortress - Written just three years later for a college class, the improvement between this story and the prior one is stunning, at least in terms of simple prose. It's... kind of boring though. GRRM takes the historical fact of the mysterious surrender of the Finnish fort Sveaborg to the Russians in 1808, and imagines what really happened: the Finnish surrendered the fort... to the Russians in 18... Hmmm. Well, I'm sure his teacher gave him a better grade for the nice writing alone, but I kept waiting for demons or aliens or something to pop out. Nope. D+And Death His Legacy - Another college-era piece. Have you talked to any college students about politics recently? Remember how nuanced and non-reactionary their views aren't? That's this story. A guy takes it into his own hands to deal with a foaming-at-the-mouth rightie politician. Rather grim and on the nose, albeit amusing if only because the villain's speeches are pretty much the Tea Party/Sarah Palin/Michele Bachmann talking points writ large. The narrator even uses a cornpone accent! C-Part Two: The Filthy Pro -- Early sales and award contendersThe Hero -- The first (readable) story that really seems to fit into Martin's genre wheelhouse; not coincidentally, also his first professional sale. Find within: a lightly sketched sci-fi setting on an alien world, a brief, underwritten battle scene, a twist-the-knife ending. Er, except the ending is totally obviously coming from about a quarter of the way through. Some nice writing though -- Martin has quickly progressed to a point where his prose isn't going to be a distraction. CThe Exit to San Breta -- So, this is a nicely written piece and all, with some lovely poetic bits about nighttime driving, and it marries supernatural elements with a near-future sci-fi setting, but the story... the story is pretty much Stephen King light, or C-grade Twilight Zone. Actually, no, I'm pretty sure I read it in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It might have been a bit fresher a few decades back, but... CThe Second Kind of Loneliness - Ahh, that's more like it... here is a story that I enjoyed without making caveats or looking too hard for what to praise. A man posted to a remote output in space muses on life, solitude, and loneliness that can exist within, even when in the middle of a crowded party. Sure, isolation and space are obvious subjects/tropes/topics/whatever, but GRRM handles then with insight and sensitivity here, albeit layered to with sheen of a young man's angst (these are journal entries, did I mention that?). Plus, a cool black hole gate to another universe! BWith Morning Comes Mistfall - I had high hopes for this one, since I knew it was Martin's first Hugo-nominated story, and though I can't say I'm disappointed, I wasn't blown away. Another sci-fi story, set on a mist-shrouded alien world that may or may not be inhabited by mysterious mist-wraiths. Really, though, it is about the unknown as a driver for the human imagination, and how with too many answers comes the death of wonder and a lessening of what it means to be human. Obviously, this means a great deal to someone who creates and inhabits fantasy worlds for a living. Once again, very finely written, but perhaps a bit obvious about what it's about. BPart Three: The Light of Distant Stars -- '70s sci-fi storiesA Song for Lya -- I am in the midst of this, the longest story yet (when released, it was nominated for the Hugo for best novella), and at the halfway point, it feels like nothing so much as a deleted chapter from Hyperion, somehow transported into the past. Not saying that's a bad thing. (...) Ok, I am finished, and yeah, I feel the same: very Jack Vance/early Dan Simmons. One of those alien encounter stories that is really all about humanity. It hammers the theme a bit hard (Can you ever truly know another person? Well? CAN YOU???) but does so with lyricism and a gentle sadness, while exploring an interesting concept of religion. Certainly the strongest story thus far. A- This Tower of Ashes -- Hmm. I am beginning to see a theme here: another story about a guy pining for a girl, and the shattering loneliness of it all. George, George, George, I know you were just a troubled, unlucky-in-love twentysomething, but ease back on the emo themes a bit, huh? Even a cool alien jungle setting, complete with drug-producing killer spiders, can't do much to liven up another mopey a tale of unrequited love. B-And Seven Times Never Kill Man -- So this Hugo-nominee is a very Song for Lya-esque story about space colonizers oppressing the "alien" locals, a struggle built around religion, etc. And I'm sure I would think it was really good if I had ANY IDEA WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING. The POV jumps around a lot and I never was quite sure what scene I was in (listening to it rather than reading didn't help matters), and the ending gets a bit... vague. It doesn't help that there is almost no online discussion about it, which surprises me. Grade? A somewhat arbitrary... CThe Stone City -- Another longer entry, this one wanders a bit for the first hour or so but ends very well. I like the general concept a lot: a young boy dreams of traveling the stars, heading into the inner core of the galaxy, where no man has gone before (you know, literally). But when he gets there, he finds it isn't so easy to leave. Not easy at all. And yet the planet where he is stranded, with its ancient stone city, holds a whole universe of mysteries all its own. BBitter Blooms -- Advanced technology as a power indistinguishable from magic: a young girl living on a harsh world is seduced by the "magic" of a local witch who can fulfill all of her heart's desires. It is very easy to see where this one is going, and the concepts are very familiar (by now, anyway -- tough to rag on a near 40-year-old story for not feeling fresh enough), and yet... something about the writing carries it the way it didn't in a few of Martin's other trope-filled tales. And maybe I have A Dance with Dragons on the brain, but there are a lot of seeds of his fantasy saga in here: endless winters, clans and sigils, even some familiar names (Royce!). B+The Way of Cross and Dragon -- "So Jesus called back the dragons, and they came, and everywhere the fires went out." Hmmm... I don't remember that part from Sunday school. I love this concept -- an exploration of the way a religion would shape and mutate if exported across stars and galaxies. You think you know where it is going when you find out the main character is an agent of the church tasked with putting down a heretical sect that has canonized Judas Iscariot. Then you find out that in this tradition, Judas never betrayed Jesus, but laid waste to the countryside with dragons after the crucifixion. Neat! B+--Final thoughts? As you might expect, a bit of a mixed bag pulled from the earliest period in an esteemed writer's career. I have a feeling the best is still ahead in the future volumes of this collection, but this is a nice taste anyway.Best story: A Song for LyaWorst story: Only Kids are Afraid of the DarkFavorite story: A tie -- Bitter Blooms and The Way of Cross and Dragon