Dreamsongs: Volume 2 (2006) by George R. R. Martin

This is, as the title suggests, just the second volume in the “Dreamsongs” collection, that splits interesting and notable excerpts from Martin’s long career into thematic and genre sections. Preceding each section is an introduction by Martin where he describes the context in which he wrote the following stories, and shares some anecdotes from his life at those times. Those introductions are great insights into his mind, and are full of witty and insightful commentary.

Moreso than the first volume of “Dreamsongs”, this one expands on Martin’s broader philosophy when it comes to writing. He refers to genre as essentially furniture, trimmings, with the relatable human core of stories as far and away the most important element. In his words, “we can make up all the definitions of science fiction and fantasy and horror that we want. We can draw our boundaries and make our labels, but in the end it’s still the same old story, the one about the human heart in conflict with itself….Stories of the human heart in conflict with itself transcend time, place, and setting. So long as love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice are present, it matters not a white whether that tall, lean stranger has a proton pistol or a six-shooter in his hand. Or a sword…”.

Something that struck me while reading this collection was just how many aborted series Martin has. “A Song of Ice and Fire” has been perpetually “two books from completion” for decades. The “Tales of Dunk and Egg” series has stalled at the third entry, with the many more planned stories not seeming anywhere close. The second “Tuf Haviland” novel (let alone the planned shared universe) never eventuated. “Doorways” was not picked up. “The Skin Trade” was planned to be the first in a series, yet never went anywhere beyond that first entry. The “Thousand Worlds” series petered out, as Martin’s progress on the novel “Avalon” stalled indefinitely when he was struck by inspiration for “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

As Martin puts it, “…I started work on a new novel. Avalon was science fiction, a return to my old future history. The writing seemed to be going well, until one day a chapter came to me about a young boy who goes to see a man beheaded. It was not a part of Avalon, I knew. I knew I had to write it too, so I put the other book aside and began what would ultimately become A Game of Thrones.Recognising this issue himself, Martin states “Except for Avalon, the abortive novel I began before getting caught up by A Game of Thrones and Doorways, I have not since visited any of my thousand worlds. Will I ever return to them? I make no promises. Maybe. That’s the best I can do. Definitely maybe”.

Below I have individual reviews for every story in the collection, but as for the volume overall, I’d call it another fantastic anthology, though not as strong as the first volume. It’s worth reading for “Unsound Variations” and “The Hedge Knight” alone. I’d give it four seedships, and a chessboard.

3

TUF VOYAGING: A BEAST FOR NORN

Tuf is a unique, likeable, and amusing character, and it’s easy to see why Martin wrote so many short stories with him. Perhaps he’s as fun to write as he is to read.

Martin’s prose is a lot more verbose here than normal, which I don’t think suited him super naturally (well, perhaps supernaturally, but not naturally naturally). The characterisation and story work as ever with him, but beyond Tuf’s own manner of speaking, the prose felt clunky at times.

This is my least favourite Tuf story honestly. It isn’t awful or anything, it’s just the least creative of them all, and it lacks a lot of the more appealing elements that would develop more strongly later. It does set up the premise of the series well, but the interstitial story Martin wrote when he eventually connected all the various Tuf short stories in the fix-up novel “Tuf Voyaging” is much better. I give this particular story two cobalcats, and an arena.

TUF VOYAGING: GUARDIANS

This is a much, much better Tuf story than “A Beast for Norn”.

It’s more creative, more interesting, more funny, more dramatic, and handles the environmentalist themes a lot better too. The plot is compelling, the twists and turns are exciting but well-grounded, and the worldbuilding is as fascinating as some of the better “Thousand Worlds” stories (the Tuf stories are separate to those, but are in the same genre of course).

If I could only recommend one Tuf story to someone, it would be this one, because it exemplifies the best and most notable aspects of the series. I give it three mudpots, and a telepathic kitten.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

A screenplay, rather than a short story, for an episode of the mid-80s Twilight Zone reboot.

Martin crafts an effective, lean story that feels authentically like a Twilight Zone episode of yore. This would have worked well rewritten in prose form as another Martin horror short story, but I liked seeing the actual screenplay and use of the Twilight Zone conventions.

Writing in television was a big part of Martin’s career (and, for a few years, was again, when “A Song of Ice and Fire” was adapted into “Game of Thrones” and he contributed annual scripts for the first four seasons), and this screenplay made for a nice example of that, in the excellent “Dreamsongs” collection covering his writing career. I give it three ‘Nam flashbacks, and a wheelchair.

DOORWAYS (PILOT)

Unlike the preceding screenplay in “Dreamsongs”, the Twilight Zone screenplay, “Doorways” is much more of an original Martin invention, rather than something beholden to a television show of the past.

The pilot screenplay depicted here was actually shot, in 1992, but was not picked up. The story reeks of early 90s science-fiction conventions, which is sometimes enjoyable, and sometimes a tad groan-inducing.

There are no interesting subversions here, and no great characterisation (as a pilot, I don’t blame it too hard for that, as perhaps the show would have gone on to rectify it), so there’s little of the classic draws of a Martin story. What remains is a decent script that feels more interesting as an artifact of 90s television and Martin’s career, more than as a good story in its own right. I give it two geons, and a bloodied nose.

WILD CARDS: SHELL GAMES

Ah, “Wild Cards”. A labyrinthine shared universe of anthologies, novels, mosaic novels, and comics, all set in alternate history United States of America with a complicated superhero mythology. It’s a passion project for Martin, the culmination of his childhood (and adulthood really) love of comics.

For most of the history of “Wild Cards” Martin has acted as editor, overseeing and editing the stories various other authors write, but in earlier anthologies, he’d also contribute stories. This is the first full short story story he would contribute, “Shell Games”.

The main character, Tom, is likable, and his story is enjoyable. The side POV characters feature a lot more repetitive scenes, and are much more heavily connected to the vast backstory and lore of the series, so I found them harder to connect with. The pulpy vibe of the story really comes out in Tom’s sections, but the other characters feel a lot more glum and dull, and they dragged down the story for me.

There’s some fun imaginative imagery at play here, and Martin clearly has enormous intimacy with, and love for, the genre, but it definitely feels more like a story written out of fulfilling childhood obsessions rather than a fantastic work in its own right, the way some of Martin’s short stories such as “A Song for Lya”, “Sandkings” are, or even another short story set in a series with a complicated history, “The Hedge Knight”.

It’s not a short story compelling enough to make me want to read more in this vast series, but it’s not an entirely unenjoyable experience either. I give it two aces, and a joker.

WILD CARDS: FROM THE JOURNAL OF XAVIER DESMOND

Less a story than a vast collection of infodumping, exposition, and convoluted worldbuilding.

Perhaps it works wonderfully in the actual “Wild Cards” anthology it was written for. But taken as an inclusion in “Dreamsongs”, or on its own, it’s not an enjoyable experience, in my view. I have no interest in worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake. I’m interested in stories, not fictional universes without any meaning to them. I don’t enjoy Westeros just for being Westeros, I love it for the stories it gives rise to. Without compelling stories, the world of “Wild Cards” holds no interest for me.

Vast and complicated backstories for characters I only saw a glimpse of in the preceding story do not excite me. Perhaps there are scores upon scores of fantastic “Wild Cards” stories, but I wouldn’t know from the two included in “Dreamsongs” – they do not make for an enticing taster.

I give it a stuffed grape leaf, and a black dog.

UNDER SIEGE

A very curious oddity, “Under Siege” is a heavily rewritten “The Fortress”, the historical fiction short story Martin wrote as a college paper, about the Siege of Sveaborg, a short siege in 1808 during the Finnish War, where the fortress of Sveaborg was surrendered to the Russians mysteriously. Here, as in that earlier work, Martin shapes a story around a possible series of events leading to the surrender.

Unlike “The Fortress”, where the events were plausible and fell under the realm of historical fiction, here the story is reenvisioned and recontextualised as a science-fiction time-travel story. It’s a fascinating idea, and reading it after “The Fortress” makes for an interesting comparison. Martins’ development as a writer is clear – he’s a much better author by the time of the writing of this story – but I miss the charm of “The Fortress”, a college paper by a youthful Martin. “Under Siege” is a good story, and a fascinating one when examined as part of Martin’s career, as it is here in “Dreamsongs”.

Taken completely on its own right, however, oddly enough I feel it’s more standard and unoriginal than “The Fortress”. Martin writing a historical fiction story is rare, and a story written by a Martin as young as he was back then is a charming historical curiosity in terms of his own career, but “Under Siege” is a standard clever, well-enough-written science-fiction short story. More Martin’s usual fare. Ultimately, I give it what I gave “The Fortress”; two stores of powder, and a frigate.

THE SKIN TRADE

George R. R. Martin has many aborted series. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is fantastic, and wildly successful, but has currently been stalled at some years as the sixth instalment has taken Martin longer and longer to finish. The “Tales of Dunk and Egg” sister series, originally planned and vaguely plotted out for around a dozen stories, has been stalled for some six years as of my writing of this review, and the fourth story does not seem particularly close. “The Thousand Worlds” never relied heavily on continuity, but its potentially great novel of “Avalon” was abandoned by Martin when he was struck by inspiration for “A Game of Thrones”. There were to be more Tuf Haviland stories, a complete novel sequel and potentially a shared universe for other writers to play in, but that never happened. “Doorways” was to be Martin’s proper ongoing television series, but it was never picked up. “The Skin Trade” is not the only novella of Martin’s to be conceptualised initially as the first entry in an ongoing series that never ended up happening, but emblematic of a larger trend in his career.

As for the actual novella itself – it’s not bad. Fine horror craftsmanship from Martin. There are no glaring flaws, but there’s not much magic at play here. There’s nothing as iconic or memorable as other horror short stories of his like “The Pear-Shaped Man” or “The Monkey Treatment”. The worldbuilding is interesting enough, for urban fantasy, but not likely to stick with me. The werewolf sequences are interesting to read as a precursor to the wolf-POV sequences in “A Song of Ice and Fire”, but when you start enjoying a story purely for how it hints to the later greatness a writer would achieve, I think that indicates one is not enjoying the specific story they’re reading for its own merits.

This isn’t a bad story, but it’s a wholly unremarkable one, and without the planned series to follow it, there’s not much meat worth chewing on the bone here. I give it two silver bullets, and a full moon.

UNSOUND VARIATIONS

An absolutely fantastic, masterful short story by George R. R. Martin. It revolves around concepts Martin is great at writing – regret, old relationships reexamined years after their prime, the influence of the past upon the present, human nature at its more spiteful and cruel, chess, and clever genre concepts used to tell stories about “the human heart in conflict with itself”.

While ostensibly a science-fiction story, there’s very little focus on any worldbuilding or technology, with the few science-fiction conventions present used just to provide some justification to the structure of the story. Chess is the more blatant metaphor and example used to construct the plot around, and bounce the characters and themes off.

The depiction of resentment, spite, and acidity in the marriage of the protagonist feels painfully real, in the same vein of all the best Martin stories drawing from what feel like very real (and very deep) emotional wells born of Martin’s life experiences.

Some of Martin’s best and most profound writing is found in this story. One dialogue I really liked went: “I remember, back in college, how many possibilities life seemed to hold. Variations. I knew, of course, that I’d only live one of my fantasy lives, but for a few years there, I had them all, all the branches, all the variations. One day I could dream of being a novelist, one day I would be a journalist covering Washington, the next oh, I don’t know, a politician, a teacher, whatever. My dream lives. Full of dream wealth and dream women. All the things I was going to do, all the places I was going to live. They were mutually exclusive, of course, but since I didn’t have any of them, in a sense I had them all. Like when you sit down at a chessboard to begin a game, and you don’t know what the opening will be. Maybe it will be a Sicilian, or a French, or a Ruy Lopez. They all coexist, all the variations, until you start making the moves. You always dream of winning, no matter what line you choose, but the variations are still…different….Once the game begins, the possibilities narrow and narrow and narrow, the other variations fade, and you’re left with what you’ve got—a position half of your own making, and half chance, as embodied by that stranger across the board. Maybe you’ve got a good game, or maybe you’re in trouble, but in any case there’s just that one position to work from. The might-have-beens are gone”.

A fantastic short story, one of Martin’s best. I give it five rooks, and a queen.

TALES OF DUNK AND EGG: THE HEDGE KNIGHT

My first introduction to the writing of George R. R. Martin was nearly ten years ago now, through a copy of Robert Silverberg’s 1998 “Legends” fantasy short story and novella anthology, featuring stories by Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett, and some authors I had never read, like George R. R. Martin. I was reading the anthology for the Robert Jordan story, which I enjoyed well enough, but I read the anthology cover to cover too. Most of the stories were quite good, with only one real dud in my view, but among them was a story so fantastic I’d read it again, and again, and again, and never get sick of it. That story was “The Hedge Knight”.

I was vaguely aware of “A Song of Ice and Fire” as a popular fantasy series, but I was more into the likes of Jordan and Tolkien back then. So much of “The Hedge Knight” felt so fresh to me. Even putting aside the actual story itself, the style, the genre specifics, were a compelling way to write fantasy that I hadn’t really seen before. In an introduction to the story in the collection “Dreamsongs”, Martin writes that ’The Hedge Knight’ is high fantasy, nothing could be plainer. Or could it? Doesn’t fantasy require, well…magic? I have dragons in “The Hedge Knight,” yes indeed…on helmet crests and banners. Plus one stuffed with sawdust, dancing on its strings. Oh, and Dunk remembers old Ser Arlan talking about seeing a real live dragon once, perhaps that should suffice. If not, well…you can say “The Hedge Knight” is more of a historical adventure than a true fantasy, except that all history is imaginary. So what does that make it? Don’t ask me, I just wrote it”. My mind back then was full of the convoluted magic systems of Robert Jordan, and the near-religious mythic lore of Tolkien, so a story like “The Hedge Knight”, one so down in the dirt, so much closer to actual history, so human, felt really fresh and exciting to me.

The story itself is extremely charming and likable. Dunk is a relatable, endearing protagonist, and Egg an amusing, but layered sidekick. The story features more than one tragic death coming too soon – in fact, it opens with one – but it never feels truly dark, glum, or depressing the way “A Song of Ice and Fire”, set nearly a century after the events of the story, does. This isn’t some utopian age in Westerosi history, but it does truly feel like a simpler, less depressing one. And unlike the next two stories in the “Tales of Dunk and Egg” series, there is precious little backstory or worldbuilding here, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s a simple, strong story, told with brevity and clarity, and succeeding on every level it aimed at.

There are some minor oddities when reading it in the context of the wider universe Martin created – for example, why is the Blackfyre rebellion, an enormous event in Westerosi history taking place not that long before this story, not mentioned once? You could contort an in-story reason, but the simple fact is these were comparatively early days for Martin’s writings in Westeros, and it seems the Blackfyre rebellions just hadn’t been thought up in Martin’s head yet. I find the simplicity and slight off-kilterness from not meshing as fully into the vast interconnected backstories Martin would develop charming rather than jarring, as there are no contradictions with his later writings, just omissions of detail, which suits Dunk, as he’s a young man, living a simple life, in this simple story.

My enjoyment of this story led to me seeking out its sequel, “The Sworn Sword”, as well as the series it was a prequel for, “A Song of Ice and Fire”. I’d become a great fan of the series, devouring not only the books over and over again, but also participating in the online fandoms, reading the supplementary materials, playing the video games, and when it ended up being developed, watching the television adaptation “Game of Thrones” as well. While “A Game of Thrones” is a great fantasy novel, and the intended entry into the series, I’m much happier with this charming little story being my entry into Martin’s vast world. I give it four puppets, and a shooting star.

PORTRAITS OF HIS CHILDREN:

A George R. R. Martin riff on “A Christmas Carol”, “Portraits of His Children” is a twisted short story in the vein of magical realism, that also feels like a curious commentary and criticism by Martin on his own writing and career.

The story features a man – prolific author, terrible father – haunted by portraits of the protagonists of his novels come to life, who each illustrate a moral lesson for him to learn in much the same way the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future did for Ebenezer Scrooge. This is a much darker, more twisted story than Scrooge’s, however, with truly depressing family situations and sexual violence a focal point. The metacommentary of the story on Martin himself was the most fascinating aspect of the tale to me. Martin has been criticised for the sexual violence (amongst other things) in his own work. In my reviews for many of his stories, I’ve noted how Martin seems to be drawing from emotional wells born of his own life experiences, using fictional characters and situations as stand-ins for parts of his past. “Portraits of His Children” criticises both such impulses of a writer. Martin is not a monster like the protagonist of this story, but it was interesting to see something of a meditation on how justifiable such writerly impulses can be.

I wish the story engaged with those aspects more. Alas, they never get explored much beyond the superficial, at least in my reading – it’s more than possible there’s hidden depths or nuance here that I missed. It’s an interesting story, but it never gelled perfectly for me, and I feel like there was an unfortunate amount of lost potential between the fascinating premise and the story it ended up in. I give it three portraits, and a plate of runny eggs.

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