Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective (Book 1 of 2) by George R. R. Martin (book review).

I don’t mind the naked women, it’s the blood and gore in ‘Game Of Thrones’ that put me off watching the series and it’s the plethora of pages in them that put me off reading the books. However, before he became rich and famous with Westeros, George R.R. Martin was a writer of short stories for Science Fiction and fantasy magazines and this ‘Dreamsong: A RRestrospective’ collection showcases that work, from first attempts to mature Hugo winners. My paperback is ‘Book 1 of 2’ but you can get the original 1200 page hardback for a very reasonable price second-hand.

Like Asimov, Silverberg and King, Martin includes a lot of autobiographical stuff with the stories as well as information on how and when he wrote each one. Each section starts with an introduction about his life and goes on to include the stories written during that period. ‘Four Color Fanboy’ tells of his childhood in Bayonne, New Jersey. He was born in 1948 and grew up reading Asimov, Heinlein, Lovecraft, DC super-hero comics and then Marvel Comics. His first publication was a fan letter in Fantastic Four # 20. Then he wrote for fanzines. These first stories aren’t great but don’t let them put you off. Hugo and Nebula winners came later.

‘The Filthy Pro’ section includes Martin’s first pro-sale, a military SF tale titled ‘The Hero’ about a great soldier who wants to retire. It isn’t very gung-ho for the army. Gardner Dozois was a slush pile reader for ‘Galaxy’ magazine in 1970 and plucked it out for the editor. There were other sales to ‘Analog’ under Ben Bova and a career was launched. ‘The Exit To San Breta’ is a ghost story set on the highway in a future where roads are mostly redundant but a few eccentric petrolheads still use them. ‘The Second Kind Of Loneliness’ is about a chap manning an isolated stargate who cracks up. Well-written but I thought it unlikely that one man alone would be in such a situation. Even lighthouses had three people.

The next section is titled ‘The Light Of Distant Stars’ and this is the meat of the book. ‘A Song For Lya’ concerns an empath and a telepath sent to investigate why humans are joining a suicidal alien religion on the planet Shkea. A nice exploration of the human need to belong to something greater than oneself and it won the Hugo.

The Steel Angels, a military/religious sect are terrorising primitive natives the Jaenshi in ‘And Seven Times Never Kill Man’ which was nominated for a Hugo but didn’t win. ‘The Way Of Cross And Dragon’ is a wonderful story about the One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds, set in a far future where it’s just one of many religions. Father Damien Har Veris, an inquisitor stamping out heresy, is sent to the planet Arion, a human world, to investigate a cult that has made Judas Iscariot a saint and dragons, too. It’s acknowledged that religious people are happier than atheists. Religion is more comforting than the truth of a short, meaningless life in a cold, indifferent universe and, hell, it might be true? Martin, raised a catholic, is not as dismissive or contemptuous as an earlier generation of scientist writers.

Section 4, ‘The Heirs Of Turtle Castle’ features fantasy stories. Martin explains that he always loved fantasy but there was simply no market for it back in the 70s or none that paid worth a damn. That changed. ‘The Lonely Songs Of Laren Dorr’ has Sharra fleeing from the Seven, arriving tired and bloodied in the world where Laren Dorr lives all alone. She stays there a while using it as a refuge. A melancholy piece.

In ‘The Ice Dragon’, Adara is a peculiar child who seems to be immune to the cold. To the north of her quiet village there’s a war with barbarian invaders and both side fight with flame breathing dragons. Then there’s the ice dragon.

‘In The Lost Lands’ has the Lady Melange who seeks the power to become a wolf which she hopes to get from Gray Alys. ‘You can buy anything you might desire from Gray Alys. But it is better not to.’ Another solid story. I really like short fantasy tales set in secondary worlds but the market is mostly epic novels now. Oh well.

Last but by no means least is the ‘Horrors And Hybrids’ which features the author’s more gruesome stuff and proves that Science Fiction is a genre rich with horror possibilities. Trager is a handler. Using his mind, he controls corpses which work heavy machinery doing dangerous work on distant planets. The handlers are all men and, at weekends, they go to a brothel where corpse prostitutes give pleasure, very skilfully. Trager discovers their secret on page 5 and that would have made a great short story in itself but ‘Meathouse Man’ goes on to explore loneliness and romance. In the future, they will be as they are now. Humans don’t change.

The last two stories, ‘Monkey Treatment’ and ‘The Pear Shaped Man’, are both contemporary urban horror about misfits in modern life but with a fantastic twist. These might make a reader empathise a bit with the cogs who don’t fit so well in the world.

However, the highlights of this section are ‘Sandkings’ and ‘Nightflyers’, both Science Fiction set in the far future. Martin says he thought ‘Sandkings’ pretty good when he finished it, nothing special, but it went on to earn him more money than any other short story and some novels, too. So it goes. ‘Simon Kress’ is a thoroughly unlikeable rich man living in the desert of Baldur in Martin’s Thousand World future history. In search of exotic pets, he buys some sandkings, bugs that live in a glass tank and constantly war with each other. They do this naturally and need no provocation but Simon likes to up the ante, so he plays tricks to make the wars more desperate, starving some bugs and helping others. The step-by-step progression of the plot and the rising tension are masterful. It was filmed as an episode of ‘The Outer Limits’ which I want to see.

Royd Eris is the mysterious commander and pilot of the Nightflyer, an interstellar craft hired by Karoly d’Branin to chase after, catch up with and study the volcryn, an almost legendary race of star travellers who passed Earth when Christ was a wee fella and have been heading outward into space ever since. Karoly has also taken on a crew of academics from the planet Avalon to help him with the mission but, long before they get close to their target, things start to go wrong. Just who is Royd Eris and why does he only appear to them as a hologram? This novella is more Science Fiction than horror but has its share of scares. It won the Locus Award For Best Novella and has been adapted for film and television.

Dreamsongs’ originally came out as a giant 1200 page hardback which is very cheap now second-hand but this paperback edition is only the first half of that. I paid £3.99 in a remaindered bookshop for this. Both paperback volumes are available as eBooks for slightly less than a used print copy with postage. That’s how it works nowadays. Very definitely worth a look.

Eamonn Murphy

May 2022

(pub: Gollancz, 2008. 672 page enlarged paperback. ISBN: 978-0-75289-008-1)

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Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories now and then. Website:

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