Dreamsongs (Volume 1) by George RR Martin

The first of two anthologies featuring short stories by George RR Martin, ranging from fantasy to science fiction to horror to genre hybrids.

I am one of those readers who had never heard of George RR Martin before encountering A Game of Thrones, book one in his Song of Ice and Fire series. What I did not know is that Martin has had a prolific career as a short story writer, primarily in the genre of science fiction. Dreamsongs Volume 1 includes some of Martin’s most famous stories, as well as some highlights from his early career. The anthology is broken into segments, each with an introduction by Martin describing the publication history for each story as well as offering insight into his creative state of mind while writing. Naturally, his essays touch upon matters of genre and the craft of storytelling, and would be worth reading on their own.

Dreamsongs opens with four stories written when Martin was a very young man, and I found them interesting as artifacts. As stories themselves, the pieces didn’t hit their stride until “With Morning Comes Mistfall,” a tale about a world covered in an all-obscuring mist rumored to hide strange monsters. A scientist is out to disprove the existence of sentient life forms on the planet, and in doing so threatens to destroy the foundation for dreams and poetry.

The rest of the stories certainly show off Martin’s imagination and storytelling skills. “A Song for Lya” explores the intersection of psychic abilities and religious faith. “And Seven Times Never Kill Man” is a horrific look at the underpinnings of genocide. “The Way of Cross and Dragon” explores the development of a heretical branch of Christianity, one that reveres Judas Iscariot as a saint and posits him as a dragon rider who brought a dismembered Christ back from the dead.

I was most taken by two stories in the section in which Martin discusses his transition from science fiction to epic fantasy. “The Ice Dragon” takes a familiar type of story–that of the dragon rider–and adds a twist. The dragon in this story is made of ice, scaled in rime, and breathes a searing arctic chill. “In the Lost Lands” starts out seemingly as a mystical love story, but takes a dark turn towards an ironically tragic ending.

The last section in the book covers what Martin calls his horror hybrids. The first story, “Meathouse Man” was a bit too relentlessly grim for me, and “Remembering Melody” had a gimmick I spotted a mile away (knowing that Martin wrote for “The Twilight Zone” puts me on the lookout).

“Sandkings” deserves its acclaim as one of Martin’s best pieces. It’s a sci-fi/horror reimagining of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and concerns a man who purchases a sort of ant farm, with the promise that the sandkings will go to war for his entertainment. When they don’t start fighting fast enough, he starves them, and go to war they do–with horrifying repercussions.

The next story, “Nightflyers,” is just as compelling, though not quite as scary. It’s got a little bit of 2001 in it, and reminded me of the movie Event Horizon, which was billed as Hellraiser in space. “Nightflyers” has the same feel, but is a much better story.

A fantastic collection–can’t wait for volume 2!

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