I have written about the first two thirds of Dreamsongs: Volume 1 with the posts linked in this sentence, then things got busy and even though I continued to read the collection I did not have the opportunity to write about it.
By this time the story of “The Stone City” has pretty well escaped my memory, so I don’t believe it could be something I would recommend. “Bitterblooms” was an odd ice story on some far away planet which ends up mixing a little bit of Arthurian legend into it. Martin was not very successful in engaging my interest with “Bitterblooms”, but one thing I have come to appreciate reading these 700 pages is that his imagination is second to none. Martin is able to create these alien worlds and cultures, and human cultures set in the stars, and make them believable, comprehensible, but utterly alien to what we know. Tis a gift. This leads into “The Way of Cross and Dragon”, an imaginative wondering of what our Earth religions would be like if stretched out thousands of years and to the stars. “The Way of Cross and Dragon” is about heresy, lies, truth, expectation, dogma, and features one of three “true” Catholic churches attempting to stamp out a heresy. Fascinating story.
Section Four: Swords of Turtle Castle. Here Martin brings us back into fantasy settings, though on a smaller scale than his epic A Song of Ice and Fire. Strangely, and sadly, perhaps, this was a somewhat underwhelming section. Martin does large scale fantasy extremely well, and “The Ice Dragon” was a solid and sad story which featured a dragon actually made of ice, breathing ice, harmed by heat (video games following this story thank you, Mr. Martin), but neither “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr” nor “In the Lost Lands” really stood out. Like “The Stone City”, I really could not say what “In the Lost Lands” was about.
Section Five: Hybrids and Horrors. This is where Martin truly shines, with the blend of fantasy and horror, or science fiction and horror. Pretty much whenever Martin is blending genres to tell the best story possible, that’s when he’s really hitting something special. We open with “Meathouse Man”, a story which in the intro Martin mentions that he had a difficult time placing. No surprise. It’s a tough story to take, but it’s a damn good one, too. One of the best in the collection (if not for “Sandkings”, I might call it the single best story here). Definitely not a family friendly story. The story features sex, depravity, and a bleak future where animated corpses are used for work and pleasure. “Remembering Melody” is yet another heartbreaker of a story (is there another kind in this collection?), something of a ghost story, and while not quite as good as the other stories in this section, it will stand up against the earlier work in the collection.
“Sandkings.” Forget the two hour episode from The Outer Limits. It got the gist of the story, but not the heart. The story is set on some far away planet (aren’t they all?), I think, but that doesn’t matter. What matter is we have a rich, eccentric man who likes exotic pets. At a store he had never seen before (isn’t it always?) the man is offered these insect like, but highly intelligent (they War on each other!) creatures called Sandkings. They build castles and can come to worship the owner like a god, engraving his or her face on their castles while they war. Because the man doesn’t just let the sandkings do their own thing in a smaller container, soon they grow and things get out of hand. This is a wonderful, amazing story that easily has to rank among Martin’s best (or anybody else’s for that matter). Martin’s descriptions of how everything spirals out control is a pure pleasure to read, as is the description of the sandkings and how they change over the course of the story. About that 2 hour episode – I watched it after I read “Sandkings” and I was very disappointed. Seemed like too much was added as fluff / chaff to the story. I know the screenplay was written by Melinda Snodgrass and she has collaborated with Martin in the Wild Cards shared universe (and still does), so I can’t imagine he was mad about the result, but the story is so far superior to not even be funny.
“Nightflyers” is another award winner set almost entirely on a starship. The passengers can’t see the pilot, he spies on them, and there is a good deal of tension and intrigue, but no matter how lauded the story has been I thought this was one of the weaker (in terms of what I enjoy) of the set. Maybe it is the fact that “Nightflyers” came immediately after “Sandkings” and in comparison did not hold up.
“The Monkey Treatment” and “The Pear-Shaped Man” are two stories which feel like Stephen King stories. “The Monkey Treatment” has shades of “Quitters, Inc”, only rather than smoking cessation Martin deals with weight loss. Creepy story, especially when you really think about what it entails. The desperation of the protagonist really comes across. “The Pear-Shaped Man” deals with that creepy guy who lives nearby. He is shaped like a pear, eats too many cheetos, and has a certain odor about him. What if he scares you, but nobody else understands and you can’t explain? What if there might actually be something to be scared about?
Dreamsongs: Volume 1 is an outstanding collection of short fiction and one that should be on the shelf of any fan of the fiction of George R. R. Martin. It shows the man’s range and his early work and even the earliest stuff is pretty good. And then there is “Sandkings.”
Volume 2 will pick up with Section Six, as Dreamsongs was originally published in 2003 by Subterranean Press as the one volume GRRM: A RRetrospective.