Dreamsongs: Volume I by George R.R. Martin.Review by Andrea Johnson
Mostly in chronological order, Dreamsongs includes much of his early works through the early 80s, such as "The Hero", which was sent in along with an application for conscientious objection to the conflict in Vietnam, "His Tower of Ashes" written after a bad college break-up, "The Way of the Cross and the Dragon" which was born while teaching at a Catholic School after years of being away from the fold, along with so many more tales from one of the most creative authors writing today. There are stand-alone contemporary fantasy, SF and horror pieces, and many tales which take place in Martin's created universe, The Thousand Worlds, an endless futuristic playground of planets, spaceships, and intergalactic empires.
As enjoyable as the stories themselves are, my favorite part of Dreamsongs I was Martin's essays that introduce each section. Raised with television, double features, dime bookstores, and plastic alien toys, Martin jumped on the surrounding inspiration, and never looked back. He is a vulnerable, sensitive man, wearing his heart on his sleeve. If he didn't plan to tell the world all his secrets, his stories do it for him (later stories, novellas, and screenplays are included in Dreamsongs II). Not every piece in the collection is a perfect work of art. Before you get to the polished pieces that were easily sold to science fiction and fantasy magazines, you'll have to get through the superhero fan-fics and the college creative writing projects. If some of the stories sound familiar, you're not going crazy, you may have seen them in science fiction and fantasy magazines, or in those Nebula and Hugo award anthologies that come out every year.
With everything Dreamsongs I has to offer, and the beautiful artwork, the first volume is a "must-have" for any Martin fan.
Selected reviews: "The Pear Shaped Man", "Sandkings", "Bitterblooms"
"The Pear Shaped Man" is one of the creepiest, most disturbing stories I have ever read. It starts mostly normal and innocent, with a physical description of "the pear shaped man" that everyone meets at some point in their life: you know, fat, slovenly, no social skills, greasy hair, bad clothes, slightly creepy, but harmless looking. Made me think of a fellow I went to school with, and I found myself thinking "so-and-so, he is the pear shaped man that I know." The pear shaped man lives in a basement apartment, and he's lived there forever, neighbors don't even know his name. Jessie and Angela, two twenty-somethings move in upstairs, and poor Jessie simply can not get the pear shaped man out of her mind. He shows up in her paintings, her in dreams, in her conversations. It's natural for a young woman to be obsessed with an attractive actor, or a man she has a crush on, but a filthy anti-social fat man who lives in a windowless basement living on a diet of cheese doodles and diet coke? What is wrong with her? Pear shaped men exist so normal people can make fun of them, not obsess over them. Suddenly this pear shaped man was nothing like that harmless fellow I went to college with. I felt guilty for thinking they were anything alike, for thinking I could judge this character three paragraphs into the story. Martin's pear shaped man is horrifically creepy in that way that makes you want to quit your job and move away just to escape him, and that 20 foot aura surrounding him that makes everything you eat taste like stale cheese doodles and ashes. He creeps into Jessie's life, into her psyche, and simply put, he steals her. I made the mistake of reading this story late at night.
Readers who knew of George R R Martin years before he'd ever voiced the phrase "a song of ice and fire," probably knew him for his most popular short story, "Sandkings," which won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards in 1980. "Sandkings" does take place in Martin's created universe of The Thousand Worlds, and offers some nice quick references to other worlds and aliens through the protagonist, Simon Kress, a man who is always looking for new novelty pets from offworld. Believing they are fancy looking insects, Kress purchases four Sandkings, and has them installed in an aquarium in his home. As many times as he is told they are not any kind of insect, but mildly telepathic hive mind beings who will come to worship someone who feeds them, he still thinks they are insects, and he uses them for entertainment with his friends. As is expected from a SF/horror story, things go south from there. Kress starves his Sandkings, forcing them to eat each other as entertainment during his exotic parties. As once they worshipped a benign deity who fed them daily, now they worship a violent deity who thrives on death and war. If you have ever experienced a visit by a dog who is cared for by a violent, abusive person, you can see where this is going. What responsibilities do people have, if any, to creatures who view us as a god? What are the consequences for abusing worshipers? At first read, "Sandkings" is a suspenseful, fast paced, and enjoyable blend of science fiction and horror. Let the story percolate through your mind and read it again after a few days, and you'll see it's a political, theological horror story as well.
"Bitterblooms" is a fairly simple story. Two characters, no action, no space travel, no monsters, and little in the way of suspense. It was the minimalism of the story that really spoke to me. Morgan has been marooned on a backwater rural planet, and stays near her damaged ship. While trying to find shelter from the winter, Shawn comes across her shuttle. The two women become friends, of a sort, although Morgan is really manipulating Shawn, and Shawn is letting herself be manipulated. They use the functional computers in the ship to visit far off lands and aliens. With no distraction, we are free to enjoy the burgeoning relationship between the two women, and the exposure of Morgan's manipulation. For all the pain and fear set in between the lines, it is a lovely, romantic, strong piece. No one wants to die, no one wants to be left behind. When one of these is inevitable, you create your own illusions to make it bearable. Through something that appears so simple, we are fed delicious tidbits of the foundation and mythology of the populated galaxy.
Andrea Johnson lives in beautiful southwestern Michigan with her husband, and spends as much time as possible reading and enjoying science fiction and other speculative fiction. She is an administrator and book reviewer at Worm's Sci Fi Haven and an official reviewer at Multiverse.