“The American Tolkien” trumpets Time magazine on the cover of Dreamsongs Book One. It’s just too tempting to compare George RR with John RR, the two masters of fantasy. The only problem is that the comparison isn’t really true.
Throughout his career, Tolkien worked as an Oxford don, giving truly terrible lectures while scribbling his stories in private at home. He rewrote the same stories obsessively for his own interest, leaving reams of text for his son Christopher to piece together in the posthumous Silmarillion and other works.
George RR, by contrast, was a pro from the very beginning. Almost as soon as he left college, he took a job writing up match reports of baseball games that he had never seen just to give him time for his own fiction in the afternoons. Whereas Tolkien was a gentleman amateur, Martin needed to make his writing sell from the start.
Tolkien worked in one genre, high fantasy, pursuing his obsession with Anglo-Saxon myth and a lost history that he believed he could rediscover. Martin writes in a huge number of genres from fantasy to horror to science fiction.
Dreamsongs is a collection of George R.R. Martin’s short stories, many of which were written for the magazine market in the 1970s. The surprising thing, to those of us who discovered him through Game of Thrones, is that in his early career Martin was basically a science-fiction author rather than a fantasy one. This is represented in the four parts of the shield on the covers of this two-volume collection, which fit together in quite a cool way.
Whereas Tolkien’s prose is instantly recognisable (and just as easily lampooned), Martin worked in so many genres that it’s difficult to say whether he has an identifiable style. The stories in Dreamsongs vary so much that it feels like an anthology of the work of several different authors.
There are glorious alien worlds, explored with the enthusiasm of Hemingway, like in With Morning Comes Mistfall:
Only a few feet below balcony level the mists rolled, sending ghostly breakers to crash against the stones of Sanders’ castle. A thick white blanket extended from horizon to horizon, cloaking everything. We could see the summit of the Red Ghost, off to the north; a barbed dagger of scarlet rock jabbing into the sky.
His heroes are also often trapped, frequently by their powers or their faith, like in And Seven Times Never Kill Man:
And he was sore angry. “With plowshares, then, shall you face the Sons of Hranga! With plowshares shall you slay the Horde of Fyndii?” ‘ And he left them, and heard no more their weeping, for the Heart of Bakkalon is a Heart of Fire.
‘But then one among the seed of Earth dried his tears, … And the bloodlust rose in him and he beat his plowshare back into a sword
Desperate for new material to sell to the magazines, Martin had to keep coming up with new ideas. In this collection, the well never seems to run dry. Every time, there are real human characters caught up in the crises that he manufactures.
In The Stone City, a stranded earthman lives a cat-and-mouse existence amongst ruins at the end of the galaxy. Each morning, he must beg the fox-like rulers to let him leave on a human ship, but he speaks to a different alien each time, and no ships come. Its an eerie mix of Kafka and Lovecraft at his most spaced out.
As well as being a collection of short stories, Dreamsongs also includes passages of autobiography. Martin spent his childhood in the housing projects around New York, and his parents never even owned a car. He grew up on the outskirts of everything and in the middle of nothing:
Bayonne [Martin’s birthplace] … is entirely surrounded by water with … the narrow deepwater channel … the Kill van Kull to the south. Big ocean-going freighters travel along the Kill by night and day on their way to and from Elizabeth and Port Newark.
When I was four years old, my family moved into the new projects on First Street, facing the dark, polluted waters of the Kill. Across the channel the lights of Staten Island glimmered by night, far off and magical. Aside from a trip to the Staten Island Zoo every three or four years, we never crossed the Kill.
What better start in life could one have who wishes to escape into the world of the imagination?