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Dreamsongs: Volume I Paperback – Illustrated, October 16, 2012
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About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
A Four-Color Fanboy
In the beginning, I told my tales to no one but myself.
Most of them existed only in my head, but once I learned to read and write I would sometimes put down bits on paper. The oldest surviving example of my writing, which looks like something I might have done in kindergarten or first grade, is an encyclopedia of outer space, block-printed in one of those school tablets with the marbled black and white covers. Each page has a drawing of a planet or a moon, and a few lines about its climate and its people. Real planets like Mars and Venus co-exist happily with ones I'd swiped from Flash Gordon and Rocky Jones, and others that I made up myself.
It's pretty cool, my encyclopedia, but it isn't finished. I was a lot better at starting stories than I was at finishing them. They were only things I made up to amuse myself.
Amusing myself was something I'd learned to do at a very early age. I was born on September 20, 1948, in Bayonne, New Jersey, the firstborn child of Raymond Collins Martin and Margaret Brady Martin. I don't recall having any playmates my own age until we moved into the projects when I was four. Before that, my parents lived in my great grandmother's house with my great grandmother, her sister, my grandmother, her brother, my parents, and me. Until my sister Darleen was born two years later, I was the only child. We had no kids next door either. Grandma Jones was a stubborn woman who refused to sell her house even after the rest of Broadway had gone commercial, so ours was the only residence for twenty blocks.
When I was four and Darleen was two and Janet was three years shy of being born, my parents finally moved into an apartment of their own in the new federal housing projects down on First Street. The word "projects" conjures up images of decaying high-rises set amongst grim concrete wastelands, but the LaTourette Gardens were not Cabrini-Green. The buildings stood three stories high, with six apartments on each floor. We had playgrounds and basketball courts, and across the street a park ran beside the oily waters of the Kill van Kull. It wasn't a bad place to grow up . . . and unlike Grandma Jones' house, there were other children around.
We swung on swings and slid down slides, went wading in the summer and had snowball fights in the winter, climbed trees and roller-skated, played stickball in the streets. When the other kids weren't around, I had comic books and television and toys to pass the time. Green plastic army men, cowboys with hats and vests and guns that you could swap around, knights and dinosaurs and spacemen. Like every red-blooded American kid, I knew the proper names of all the different dinosaurs (Brontosaurus, damn it, don't tell me any different). I made up the names for the knights and the spacemen.
At Mary Jane Donohoe School on Fifth Street, I learned to read with Dick and Jane and Sally and their dog, Spot. Run, Spot, run. See Spot run. Did you ever wonder why Spot runs so much? He's running away from Dick and Jane and Sally, the dullest family in the world. I wanted to run away from them as well, right back to my comic books . . . or "funny books," as we called them. My first exposure to the seminal works of western literature came through Classics Illustrated comics. I read Archie too, and Uncle Scrooge, and Cosmo the Merry Martian. But the Superman and Batman titles were my favorites . . . especially World's Finest Comics, where the two of them teamed up every month.
The first stories I can remember finishing were written on pages torn from my school tablets. They were scary stories about a monster hunter, and I sold them to the other kids in my building for a penny a page. The first story was a page long, and I got a penny. The next was two pages long, and went for two cents. A free dramatic reading was part of the deal; I was the best reader in the projects, renowned for my werewolf howls. The last story in my monster hunter series was five pages long and sold for a nickel, the price of a Milky Way, my favorite candy bar. I remember thinking I had it made. Write a story, buy a Milky Way. Life was sweet . . .
. . . until my best customer started having bad dreams, and told his mother about my monster stories. She came to my mother, who talked to my father, and that was that. I switched from monsters to spacemen (Jarn of Mars and his gang, I'll talk about them later), and stopped showing my stories to anyone.
But I kept reading comics. I saved them in a bookcase made from an orange crate, and over time my collection grew big enough to fill both shelves. When I was ten years old I read my first science fiction novel, and began buying paperbacks too. That stretched my budget thin. Caught in a financial crunch, at eleven I reached the momentous decision that I had grown "too old" for comics. They were fine for little kids, but I was almost a teenager. So I cleared out my orange crate, and my mother donated all my comics to Bayonne Hospital, for the kids in the sick ward to read.
(Dirty rotten sick kids. I want my comics back!)
My too-old-for-comics phase lasted perhaps a year. Every time I went into the candy store on Kelly Parkway to buy an Ace Double, the new comics were right there. I couldn't help but see the covers, and some of them looked so interesting . . . there were new stories, new heroes, whole new companies . . .
It was the first issue of Justice League of America that destroyed my year-old maturity. I had always loved World's Finest Comics, where Superman and Batman teamed up, but JLA brought together all the major DC heroes. The cover of that first issue showed the Flash playing chess against a three-eyed alien. The pieces were shaped like the members of the JLA, and whenever one was captured, the real hero disappeared. I had to have it.
Next thing I knew, the orange crate was filling up once more. And a good thing, too. Otherwise I might not have been at the comics rack in 1962, to stumble on the fourth issue of some weird-looking funny book that had the temerity to call itself "the World's Greatest Comic Magazine." It wasn't a DC. It was from an obscure, third-rate company best known for their not-very-scary monster comics . . . but it did seem to be a superhero team, which was my favorite thing. I bought it, even though it cost twelve cents (comics were meant to be a dime!), and thereby changed my life.
It was the World's Greatest Comic Magazine, actually. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were about to remake the world of funny books. The Fantastic Four broke all the rules. Their identities were not secret. One of them was a monster (the Thing, who at once became my favorite), at a time when all heroes were required to be handsome. They were a family, rather than a league or a society or a team. And like real families, they squabbled endlessly with one another. The DC heroes in the Justice League could only be told apart by their costumes and their hair colors (okay, the Atom was short, the Martian Manhunter was green, and Wonder Woman had breasts, but aside from that they were the same), but the Fantastic Four had personalities. Characterization had come to comics, and in 1961 that was a revelation and a revolution.
The first words of mine ever to appear in print were "Dear Stan and Jack."
They appeared in Fantastic Four #20, dated August 1963, in the letter column. My letter of comment was insightful, intelligent, analytical—the main thrust of it was that Shakespeare had better move on over now that Stan Lee had arrived. At the end of my words of approbation, Stan and Jack printed my name and address.
Soon after, a chain letter turned up in my mailbox.
Mail for me? That was astonishing. It was the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at Marist High School, and everyone I knew lived in either Bayonne or Jersey City. Nobody wrote me letters. But here was this list of names, and it said that if I sent a quarter to the name at the top of the list, removed the top name and added mine at the bottom, then sent out four copies, in a few weeks I'd get $64 in quarters. That was enough to keep me in funny books and Milky Ways for years to come. So I scotch-taped a quarter to an index card, put it in an envelope, mailed it off to the name at the top of the list, and sat back to await my riches.
I never got a single quarter, damn it.
Instead I got something much more interesting. It so happened that the guy at the top of the list published a comic fanzine, priced at twenty-five cents. No doubt he mistook my quarter for an order. The 'zine he sent me was printed in faded purple (that was "ditto," I would learn later), badly written and crudely drawn, but I didn't care. It had articles and editorials and letters and pinups and even amateur comic strips, starring heroes I had never heard of. And there were reviews of other fanzines too, some of which sounded even cooler. I mailed off more sticky quarters, and before long I was up to my neck in the infant comics fandom of the '60s.
Today, comics are big business. The San Diego Comicon has grown into a mammoth trade show that draws crowds ten times the size of science fiction's annual WorldCon. Some small independent comics are still coming out, and comicdom has its trade journals and adzines as well, but no true fanzines as they were in days of yore. The moneychangers long ago took over the temple. In the ultimate act of obscenity, Golden Age comics are bought and sold inside slabs of mylar to insure that their owners can never actually read them, and risk decreasing their value as collectibles (whoever thought of that should be sealed inside a slab of mylar himself, if you ask me). No one calls them "funny books" anymore.
Forty years ago it was very different. Comics fandom was in its infancy. Comicons were just starting up (I was at the first one in 1964, held in one room in Manhattan, and organized by a fan named Len Wein, who went on to run both DC and Marvel and create Wolverine), but there were hundreds of fanzines. A few, like Alter Ego, were published by actual adults with jobs and lives and wives, but most were written, drawn, and edited by kids no older than myself. The best were professionally printed by photo-offset or letterpress, but those were few. The second tier were done on mimeograph machines, like most of the science fiction fanzines of the day. The majority relied on spirit duplicators, hektographs, or xerox. (The Rocket's Blast, which went on to become one of comicdom's largest fanzines, was reproduced by carbon paper when it began, which gives you some idea of how large a circulation it had).
Almost all the fanzines included a page or two of ads, where the readers could offer back issues for sale and list the comics they wanted to buy. In one such ad, I saw that some guy from Arlington, Texas, was selling The Brave and the Bold #28, the issue that introduced the JLA. I mailed off a sticky quarter, and the guy in Texas sent the funny book with a cardboard stiffener on which he'd drawn a rather good barbarian warrior. That was how my lifelong friendship with Howard Waldrop began. How long ago? Well, John F. Kennedy flew down to Dallas not long after.
My involvement in this strange and wondrous world did not end with reading fanzines. Having been published in the Fantastic Four, it was no challenge to get my letters printed by fanzines. Before long I was seeing my name in print all over the place. Stan and Jack published more of my LOCs as well. Down the slippery slope I went, from letters to short articles, and then a regular column in a fanzine called The Comic World News, where I offered suggestions on how comics I did not like could be "saved." I did some art for TCWN as well, despite the handicap of not being able to draw. I even had one cover published: a picture of the Human Torch spelling out the fanzine's name in fiery letters. Since the Torch was a vague human outline surrounded by flames, he was easier to draw than characters who had noses and mouths and fingers and muscles and stuff.
When I was a freshman at Marist, my dream was still to be an astronaut . . . and not just your regular old astronaut, but the first man on the moon. I still recall the day one of the brothers asked each of us what we wanted to be, and the entire class burst into raucous laughter at my answer. By junior year, a different brother assigned us to research our chosen careers, and I researched fiction writing (and learned that the average fiction writer made $1200 a year from his stories, a discovery almost as appalling as that laughter two years earlier). Something profound had happened to me in between, to change my dreams for good and all. That something was comics fandom. It was during my sophomore and junior years at Marist that I first began to write actual stories for the fanzines.
I had an ancient manual typewriter that I'd found in Aunt Gladys' attic, and had fooled around on it enough to become a real one-finger wonder. The black half of the black-and-red ribbon was so worn you could hardly read the type, but I made up for that by pounding the keys so hard they incised the letters into the paper. The inner parts of the "e" and "o" often fell right out, leaving holes. The red half of the ribbon was comparatively fresh; I used red for emphasis, since I didn't know anything about italics. I didn't know about margins, doublespacing, or carbon paper either.
My first stories starred a superhero come to Earth from outer space, like Superman. Unlike Superman, however, my guy did not have a super physique. In fact, he had no physique at all, since he lacked a body. He was a brain in a goldfish bowl. Not the most original of notions; brains in jars were a staple of both print SF and comics, although usually they were the villains. Making my brain-in-a-jar the good guy seemed a terrific twist to me.
- Publisher : Bantam; Illustrated edition (October 16, 2012)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 720 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0553385682
- ISBN-13 : 978-0553385687
- Item Weight : 1.53 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.2 x 1.6 x 9.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #488,312 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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Martin also provides autobiographical introductions for each section which tend to be too much of a good thing; they are rather long-winded and only occasionally illuminating.
The individual stories are reviewed below:
“Only Kids Are Afraid of the Dark” – An atmospheric horror story about a demon from another realm who battles a modern-day superhero. Written while Martin was still in high school and published in an amateur fanzine. Very Lovecraftian—overwrought and melodramatic, perhaps—but his talent is evident.
“The Fortress” – While in college, Martin wrote this story about the surrender of the Sveaborg fortress in the Russo-Swedish war of 1808. I really enjoyed this true tale, especially since I have visited Sveaborg in person. This story, along with “Black and White and Red All Over”, showcase how successful Martin might have been as a writer of historical fiction rather than fantasy.
“And Death His Legacy” – Another college story; this one is too obviously tied to the civil rights movements of the 1960’s and telegraphs Martin’s political leanings. Despite its shortcomings, the depiction of an ultra-conservative Prophet who panders to fear and racism is uncomfortably similar to politicians of today.
“Hero” – An amateurish interstellar war story clearly modeled on the Vietnam Conflict.
“The Exit to San Bretis” – An engaging ghost story set on the deserted highways of the future.
"A Second Kind of Loneliness" -- A socially inept man descends into madness in the void of space while guarding the entrance to a wormhole.
"With Morning Comes the Mistfall" -- A journalist visits a haunted world shrouded in mists. This story begins as an effective science fiction horror story, but it becomes instead an elegiac meditation on man's need to seek the truth (science) versus the need for romance and mystery. This reminded me of Kij Johnson's "The Man Who Bridged the Mists".
"A Song for Lya" -- Two psychics travel to an world much older than earth to investigate why humans are being drawn towards an alien religion that always culminates in suicide. This is a strong story, with an outstanding premise built around two questions: "What is true love?" and "Does human individuality create an inherent sense of isolation?" My only complaint is that it drags on a bit too long with too much repetition. Won a 1974 Hugo Award.
"This Tower of Ashes"--A man struggling to get over his divorce leads his ex-wife and her new lover on a hunt through an alien forest where a sentient civilization may have once lived. This story has some narrative shortcomings--it is always a bad sign when I turn the page expecting another scene, only to find the story has already finished. However, I really liked the vivid descriptions of this world, its ecology and especially the dream-spiders.
"And Seven Times Never Kill Man"--An excellent portrait of two cultures at war with one another. One is a group of humanoid settlers who follow a militaristic form of Christianity warped by centuries of intergalactic conflict. The other is a primitive tribe that exalts art and pacifism. The author purposefully leaves many questions unanswered, but this story defies the easy answers and still has enough meat on the bone to satisfy.
"The Stone City"--Martin calls this an important story in his Thousand Worlds cycle. It introduces the basic geography of his universe as well as an inter-dimensional hub that facilitates faster-than-light travel. Unfortunately, the characters are vague and the plot meanders. It is a long, dull tale that I struggled to complete.
"Bitterblooms"--A woman caught in a snowstorm finds rescue in a spaceship. This is an attempt to blend science fiction and fantasy ,but neither the story nor the relationships between the central characters ever really gels.
"The Way of Cross and Dragon"--An imaginative, fun exploration of what the Catholic Church might become after man spreads out among the stars. Won a Hugo Award.
"The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr"--Sharra is a woman who travels between worlds looking for a lost love; Laren Dorr has been exiled on his world for over 200,000 years because he angered the Seven gods. Their lives briefly touch in this excellent tale that hints at a rich, larger mythology.
"The Ice Dragon"--The adventures of a young girl and her dragon made of ice. I read this story back in 1999 and it did not make an impression on me. I appreciated it more this time around . An illustrated edition of this story was also published as a children's book.
"In the Lost Lands"--A well-executed fantasy/horror hybrid story. The opening line grabbed me: 'You can buy anything you might desire from Gray Alys. But it is better not to.'
"Meathouse Man"--This story qualifies as horror because it features gruesome scenes of zombie rape, but the real darkness is its heart-wrenching message about all the many ways love can spoil and go wrong. This may be the truest, most effective story of failed relationships I have ever read.
"Remembering Melody"--A lawyer finds his comfortable life disrupted when Melody, a close college friend, shows up on his doorstep. A story that uses traditional horror elements to examine co-dependent relationships and unhealthy boundaries. Adapted for television by HBO.
"Sandkings"--A man raises a colony of sentient pets, but after he mistreats them, they run amok and nearly destroy his life. This is my favorite Martin story; it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards.
"Nightflyers"--A group of scientists are tracking the oldest known alien vessel through deep space. When they begin to die one by one, they blame their enigmatic captain. This is an outstanding character-driven piece with strong science fiction and horror elements. It was made into a forgettable 1980's movie; also currently in development as a television show.
"The Monkey Treatment"--Losing weight is difficult. The monkey treatment guarantees results, but at a horrific price. This reminded me of Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc." only funnier.
"The Pear-Shaped Man"--The author channels his inner Stephen King in this supernatural urban horror story. The writing and characterization are great. It is at times funny, sad, disturbing, and gross. The phallic image of cheese doodles will unfortunately take a long time to fade away. Won a Bram Stoker Award.
The stories are advertised as being in the horror, science fiction and fantasy genres. That is true. But science fiction is the most heavily represented here. The fantasy and horror stories usually have a lot of sci-fi in them as well. Martin actually explains in the book that sci-fi was by far the most popular genre in the early days of his career. Fantasy was niche and not very lucrative so he aspired to be a sci-fi writer. Lucky for us because his sci-fi is masterful. Each story takes you to a new, amazing world. Most stories take place in the 1000 World Universe. Every new place is beautifully imagined, with interesting character and species.
There is a lot of Twilight Zone in his stories as well. Every story becomes a page-turner because you can feel them building up to something. A lot of them have a twist or a big pay off at the end. It was so hard to put this book down. As soon as you finish a story you want to start a new one and see what the next world will be like. There is a deep sense of melancholy to all his stories as well. It just add to the richness to this beautiful universe he has created.
There are five sections to this book split up by Amateur, Early Pro, Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror. In between each section is about 10-20 pages of biography and background. These pages were just as fascinating as the stories. He explains how he started and what his inspirations was for the stories were. It is extremely interesting and invaluable to peer inside the mind of such a talented writer.
One word of note. The first story is really the only weak one in the whole book. He wrote it while he was in high school. Its nice to have for aspiring writers to see that even great writers had to start somewhere. Don't give up on it. The book really gets moving once you hit the pro stories and never slows down again. If only this book didn't have to end. On to Vol. II.
My favorite stories in the collection were The Second Kind of Loneliness, The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr, The Ice Dragon (which takes place in a similar world to ASOIAF, nor would I be surprised if a dragon of ice did manifest there), and Nightflyers, which was apparently made into a B horror movie, mores the pity, since the story deserves far better.
All in all, it was an excellent volume revealing the earlier offerings and showing the upward progression of Martin's work.
Top reviews from other countries
It’s divided into five sections. The opener devotes itself to juvenilia, featuring a story from an ancient comics fanzine (not great, but far better than you’d expect given its age and source), plus two previously unpublished non-genre works, which are actually pretty good, their unpublished status probably more dependent on their falling outside conventional markets rather than their quality.
The remaining four sections are more conventional. We go through an overview of Martin’s earliest years as a professional writer, a selection of his “Thousand Worlds” SF stories, some fantasy tales, and a final section which mixes three horror stories with three SF stories with a degree of horror in them, including perhaps his most celebrated stand-alone story, "Sandkings". All sections are preceded by the author’s reminiscences on writing the stories (there’s also a generous overall introduction by Gardner Dozois).
I found the three fantasy stories rather inconsequential, but I speak as someone who couldn't get more than halfway through the first book in "A Song of Ice and Fire", which bored me to tears, so your mileage on fantasy may differ from mine. That said, as stories with dragons go, "The Ice Dragon" is quite hard-hitting. Similarly – and I speak as someone with little interest in the genre – two of the three non-SF horror stories were rather blah, though the cynically-toned "Remembering Melody" is genuinely chilling even before you get to the actual Horror and the neat twist ending.
That leaves the SF, and this stuff is cherce. Intricate plotting isn’t Martin’s strongest suit in his SF, and he’s not a great idea-machine, but he plays very well with the toys that are already in the box, and I absolutely love the bruised and bloodied romanticism of his SF. His visual sense is gorgeous (and I say that as one of those philistines what gets very quickly bored with “description”) and his SF is gloriously evocative, an ideal home for the defeated romantic protagonists who populate his work. It’s Brackett and Vance filtered through someone who came of age in the late sixties, with a touch of a Zelazny whose characters aren’t infallible superheroes but have had the stuffing knocked out of them (which, come to think of it, is the Zelazny of "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" and too few other stories). It’s clear from Martin’s introductory writings that the rapid and deserved professional success of his early career years wasn’t matched by a happy personal life. It shows, but in a good way. Far-ranging SF stories set against a colourful interstellar backdrop are rarely touched by deep personal feeling, but these are, and it gives even the simplest plot real bite and turns what might otherwise be routine genre work into something truly resonant. Martin manages to make his protagonists bruised and sceptical, but not bitter: no matter how badly they’ve been let down by love, they never descend into cynicism or misogyny. They turn their pain inwards. It’s very much the perspective of a young man with a good heart and naïve expectations which life, inevitably, fails to fulfil, but if - and it's a big "if" - it’s a callow world view, it’s beautifully expressed and beautifully suited to the stories Martin tells. He finds his voice with 1973’s justly-celebrated "With Morning Comes Mistfall". In this book, it’s followed by six gems from the “Thousand Worlds” universe (his fine novel "The Dying of the Light" shares the same setting). Some of these – "A Song For Lya" and "The Way of Cross and Dragon" are famous within the SF world. The others - "The Tower of Ashes", "And Seven Times Never Kill Man", "The Stone City" and my own favourite, the magnificent, almost mythically resonant "Bitterblooms" (ignore the idiotic comments on this story in another Amazon review - it's brilliant), are less well-known, but they’re all pretty much of equal quality. The six tales make one of the most magnificent sequences of stand-alone-but-related SF stories I’ve read in a long time, perhaps since Ballard’s "Vermillion Sands". Martin’s worldview has very little in common with Ballard’s, but they do share visual brilliance and a highly personal worldview.
That leaves the three “SF horror” stories. "Sandkings" is one of the most famous SF stories of the last fifty years, and mixes a fascinating SF premiss with sound horror plotting to considerable effect. "Meathouse Man", a definitively post-New Wave SF story (it appeared in one of Damon Knight’s "Orbit" anthologies, and it’s hard to think of a better home for it), mixes the bruised romanticism of the "Thousand Worlds" stories with some brutal, carnal body horror and it’s very hard-hitting. "Nightflyers" returns to the "Thousand Worlds" setting, though that seems more of an Easter Egg for fans than an essential part of the tale being told. It starts well with an amiably unlikeable starship crew reminiscent of Bob Silverberg at his most mordant, but the wry characterisation rather gets lost as Martin, for once, gets to work on an atypically tight plot. There’s some interesting stuff en route, and a genuine sensawunda at one point, but what is the longest story in the book didn’t quite work for me.
The other thing that must be praised is the fan perspective revealed in Martin’s interstitial material. He clearly loves comic books, SF, fantasy and horror, but he is brilliantly effective in stating why this stuff should be loved (on Tolkien: ‘By the time we got to Weathertop, Tolkien had me. “Gil-Galad was an elven king,” Sam Gamgee recited, “of him the harpers sadly sing.” A chill went through me, such as Conan or Kull had never evoked.’ Preach, brother!). Genre fiction fans (and writers) can be a rum old bunch, but Martin seems to exemplify us at our best. It’s very easy to see how this smart, enthusiastic kid with the good heart ended up writing all these great tales of crushed romantics in his late twenties and early thirties. He speaks for us all. In view of all that, although the occasional longeurs suggest four-and-a-half stars as the actual rating here, Amazon don't allow us half-stars, and four feels churlish, so five it is.
Mostly excellent stories, well written and good ideas -- but there are a few stinkers, as you always get in compilations like this. The story "Bitterblooms" is, for instance, a fine example of "well written rubbish" -- no real idea behind the story but it gets wri about anyway, and some halfwit editor bought it off him. Ah well, nobody said the world is perfect. Always with Martin, though, a thoroughly engaging read, whatever the actual story content of his narratives.