Monday, October 30, 2017

Martin Re-read: "Bitterblooms"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

Cosmos 1977

“Bitterblooms” is another story in which Martin mixes his genres, this time all three—scifi, fantasy, and horror—in an otherwise fairly traditional fairy story. Shawn gets lost in the woods in deep winter, comes across a weird quirk of nature (not a fairy circle, but flowers blooming where they shouldn’t), is taken into a place where time passes differently and reality itself is suspect, then returns to real life some time later, forever changed.

Obviously, because it’s Martin, it isn’t as simple as all that. Shawn isn’t just lost; she’s under threat from vampires, windwolves, and the planet itself. Much like Westeros, the season cycle in this story is extreme, with winter—“deepwinter”—lasting years, even decades. Shawn is sixteen and says deepwinter has lasted eight years so far. When her companion dies from wounds sustained in a vampire attack, Shawn has to fend for herself in the deep cold, not even daring to light a fire because it might draw more vampires. She’s in serious danger of starving, freezing, or being attacked when she comes upon the first flower, a tiny blue plant that shouldn’t exist in this weather. Then she finds the spaceship, covered in flowers, just before she’s attacked by a vampire.


“Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?

Lang hae we sought baith holt and den;

By linn, by ford, and green-wood tree,

Yet you are halesome and fair to see.

Where gat you that joup o’ the lily scheen?

That bonnie snood of the birk sae green?

And these roses, the fairest that ever were seen?

Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?”

--“Kilmeny,” James Hogg, 1813


Morgan rescues Shawn from the vampire and takes her into the spaceship, and this is where the story appears to shift entirely to science fiction, albeit still with some echoes of Celtic fairy mythology. Morgan tells Shawn she came from the sky, that she is made of magic, that she is related to Lilith and a slew of other mythological heroes from Martin’s thousand worlds stories (which includes “Mistfall”). But Shawn remembers a story from her childhood of an entire family who encountered Morgan and thought they were safe and warm and well-fed, but were found later frozen and starved to death, because of course fairy food is an illusion. Morgan convinces Shawn that the food and warmth aren’t illusions, then takes her on a whirlwind tour of the galaxy.

But of course Shawn isn’t allowed to leave the ship because, as she discovers when Morgan makes a mistake, they’ve never left the planet. The “window” is a viewing screen through which Morgan has shown Shawn the universe, but they haven’t moved. So while the story appears to go hard sci-fi for a bit, complete with space travel, it’s still not quite there. Even the science fiction elements that still exist are covered with a veneer of fantasy because Shawn doesn’t understand how any of this works, so it all looks like magic to her, not to mention that Morgan keeps telling her it’s magic. As far as Shawn knows, Morgan can change the time of day, the weather, and the time of year, besides taking her to other planets. All of this combines to keep her disoriented and trapped.

Shawn learns that the space travel has been a lie when Morgan brings her some of the blue flowers when the ship is ostensibly in a different system. She leaves and goes back home, where they tell her she’s been gone for a year. Martin summarizes the rest of her life, emphasizing the differences in her—before, she was considered young and irresponsible; now she’s respected and becomes one of the most influential members of the family. But she wanders, traveling the planet to contribute to the family rather than staying put; she’s offered the role of Voice when she’s older, but refuses it. Finally, during a bad winter, she understands that she’s too old to contribute anymore and goes back to the ship. Morgan doesn’t open up for her, but she discovers that the ship itself is named the Morgan Le Fay, registered to a planet called Avalon.


Kilmeny had been where the cock never crew,

Where the rain never fell, and the wind never blew.

But it seem’d as the harp of the sky had rung,

And the airs of heaven play’d round her tongue,

When she spake of the lovely forms she had seen,

And a land where sin had never been;

A land of love and a land of light,

Withouten sun, or moon, or night;

Where the river swa’d a living stream,

And the light a pure celestial beam;

The land of vision, it would seem,

A still, an everlasting dream.


Martin leaves a lot open to interpretation and question. Who is Morgan? Does she even exist? She seems to be ageless and shares a name with the ship; is she like Anne McCaffrey’s brainships, the physical representation of the AI that runs the ship? A hologram? A hallucination? The literal Morgan le Faye, adapting to the space age? If the space travel were real, her agelessness could be explained by that whole time-space distortion thing that happens in interstellar travel, but it’s not.

One of Martin’s greatest strengths as a writer is this ability to pull together genres and make something new and interesting. A traditional underhill journey made over as a sci-fi story with elements of horror and fantasy isn’t something you see very often, and Martin does it very well.

I’ll be skipping over “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” but it’s worth a read; it’s essentially the Spanish Inquisition in space, with some really interesting philosophical and religious discussions. Instead, next week, I’m moving on to “The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr,” which kicks of a section of Dreamsongs that’s primarily fantasy rather than merged genres.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Martin Re-Read: "With Morning Comes Mistfall"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

“With Morning Comes Mistfall”
Analog, 1973

In 2000, Martin gave an interview with Locus magazine (unfortunately not linkable) in which he discussed the value of “necessary lies,” or cultural myths that “allow us to live richer, happier lives.” He says losing the ability to believe in those myths is actively harmful both to the individual and society. In “Mistfall,” he puts this idea in fiction form. Even though it’s science fiction, “Mistfall” explores the necessity of belief, mystery, and mythology to the human psyche and society.

Wraithworld is covered in mist. In the morning, the sun burns off a good deal of it, but down in the valleys and forests, the mist lingers. At night, the mist rises again and blankets all but the highest mountains. It’s a world of beauty and charm, but its main draw is the rumor of ghosts that live in the mists. People come from other planets to traipse through the mists in search of the wraiths, which of course remain elusive. Now a team of scientists, accompanied by a reporter, have descended on the planet to prove once and for all whether the wraiths exist or whether there’s a perfectly normal explanation for the sightings, the missing people, and the strange ruins out in the forest.

Martin sets up three approaches to cultural mythology through three different characters. Sanders owns Castle Cloud, a resort at the top of a mountain that affords a gorgeous view of the mists. He is passionate about the beauty of Wraithworld and the necessity of the mystery of the wraiths (whether he believes they exist is another question). When the narrator asks him if he doesn’t just want to keep tourism going, he gets very angry and doesn’t speak to the (I assume) man for weeks.

Dubowski is empiricism personified. All he cares about is the science, proving that wraiths don’t exist. The planet has no charm for him at all; he never watches mistrise or mistfall, and even mixes up which one is which (morning = mistfall, evening = mistrise). He believes that finding out the facts of things is what humans are all about, claiming that “There’s no room in my universe for unanswered questions.” Sanders remarks that his universe is “very drab,” and Dubowski shoots back that Sanders lives “in the stink of [his] own ignorance.”

Knowledge is what man is all about. People like you have tried to hold back progress since the beginning of time. But they failed, and you failed. Man needs to know.

The narrator (again unnamed; I’m starting to sense a pattern here) is interested in the outcome of Dubowski’s research, but wants to believe (not as hard as Mulder) that there’s something special about Wraithworld. He spends lots of time out in the wilds, taking in the beauty and mystery of a planet constantly shrouded in mist. When Dubowski offers “proof” that the wraiths don’t exist (in the sense that they find absolutely zero evidence that they do exist), the narrator suggests several reasons that they might not have found anything rather than immediately accepting that they don’t exist.

Once Dubowski’s results get around, tourism drops off—precipitously. As the narrator puts it, “Scenery they can get closer to home, and cheaper. The wraiths were why they came.” The planet, he says, stays exactly as it is; “Only the wraiths are missing. Only the wraiths.” The sense of mystery, of something untouched, of adventure, is what brought people across the galaxy. People need to believe in something, or at least have questions about the world, and Wraithworld no longer offers that, so they stop coming.

Yet there’s a hint that going too far in the other direction is detrimental, as well. Sanders is adamant about the need for myth, to the point that if anyone disagrees with him at all, he flies into a rage. He nearly attacks Dubowski for mixing up mistfall and mistrise, and when everything’s over, his refusal to do the practical thing—buying in to Wraithworld’s new wine production—and the hotel goes out of business, falling in on itself from disrepair. So while I think we’re supposed to like Sanders more than Dubowski—because Dubowski, frankly, is a smug know-it-all—neither one of them ends up in a good place. Dubowski is completely closed off to the beauties of nature, and Sanders loses a business he put his whole soul into. Only the narrator comes out with any long-term happiness, having experienced the beauty of the planet, enjoying the odd wine that comes out of Wraithworld, and still being able to move on when the wraiths are “gone.”

But is that the only thing man needs? I don't think so. I think he also needs mystery, and poetry, and romance. I think he needs a few unanswered questions to make him brood and wonder.

In an earlier interview (also not linkable), Martin said that “someone who loves books too much, or lives too much in the world of imagination, is going to have this faint sense of disappointment about what life actually brings them.” While it seems, at first glance, that he holds two different views about fantasy and the imagination, I believe his views are somewhere in between; it’s important to have beliefs and mysteries, but not to lose yourself in them to the point that you can’t function in reality. This balance is clear in “Mistfall,” and it’s part of what gives it a melancholy, almost nostalgic air, especially right at the end.

Next week I’ll be skipping over a good chunk of Dreamsongs and heading to “Bitterblooms,” not because the stories in between—“A Song for Lya,” “This Tower of Ashes,” and “And Seven Times Never Kill Man”—are bad or not worth reading, but because they’re pretty solidly sci-fi and I’d like to get to more fantasy.

In case you want to look at those interviews (and have the library access necessary to get them), here’s the citations:
“George R.R. Martin: Necessary Lies.” Locus, vol. 45, no. 6, 2000, 6-7 & 80.
Levy, Michael. “George R.R. Martin: Dreamer of Fantastic Worlds.” Publishers Weekly, 26 August 1996, 70.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Note of Congratulations!

Our founding president, Helen Young, tells us that she has accepted a position at Deakin University. On behalf of the Tales after Tolkien Society, congratulations, Helen!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Second Kind of Loneliness"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

“The Second Kind of Loneliness”
Analog, 1972

Martin describes this and “With Morning Comes Mistfall” as the stories that made his career, the ones where he really broke through and became a writer. Having read everything he’s offered in Dreamsongs, I have to agree. “Loneliness” was certainly the first story in Dreamsongs that made me sit up and take notice. He also says it was emotionally raw, written much more from the heart (“and the balls”) than the head, and that also shows. The first time I read it, it hit me right in the gut, for a lot of reasons.

“Loneliness” is about a man (again, unnamed) who’s an engineer on a wormhole out past Pluto; his job is to open the wormhole when ships come through. He’s been out here for about 4 years and is anticipating his relief and going back home, but thinking about Earth and his last relationship sends him into a spiral of anxiety, depression, and finally psychosis (though it could be argued that he’s psychotic the whole time).

While he’s waiting, the man broods about lots of things: loneliness, boredom, the reasons men might come out here and be completely alone to do something like this, his relationship. The bit that punched me right in the gut the first time I read it is kind of the thesis of the whole story. He’s talking about loneliness and says there’s two kinds: the first kind is the “solemn, brooding, tragic loneliness” of men physically isolated from others—people who man lighthouses, for example. Walt Whitman. You know. But:

And then there is the second kind of loneliness.

[. . .]

It’s the loneliness of people trapped within themselves. The loneliness of people who have said the wrong thing so often that they don’t have the courage to say anything anymore.

The loneliness, not of distance, but of fear.

I am an introvert who also suffers from anxiety (not at a clinical, disorder level, but enough to be irritating), and this resonated with me, as did his brooding examination of the relationship he had with Karen. The tendency to revisit past incidents, to remind yourself how stupid you were, to cringe at how people must know you’re a complete idiot, is not unfamiliar to me. That kind of obsessive thinking leads, as it does in “Loneliness,” to depression. The “hero” has nightmares about Karen, ones that he can only curtail by spending more and more time looking at space and even opening the wormhole when there’s no reason to. He uses space time as a drug, isolating himself even further from everything else. Then he starts drinking heavily.

In the last few diary entries, Martin reveals that the man has been insane for a while. He remembers that it’s actually months later than he thought it was, that his relief already arrived, and that he blew up the ship. He was afraid to go back and afraid not to go back and had been alone with his own disorders for so long that he freaked out and opened the wormhole, which the ship in question wasn’t designed to go through.

And then he breaks the calendar and forgets again and begins waiting for his relief to arrive.

Another interesting facet of the story is the treatment of Karen. We know very little about her except what the protagonist tells us, which is mostly that he loved her more than she loved him. This is pretty standard for lonely-guy stories, but it’s really interesting that, despite setting her up as kind of a manic pixie dream girl, the protagonist doesn’t blame her for not being what he needed.

She’d tried to help, to give him some of her self-confidence, some of the courage and bounce that she faced life with.

He’s aware that the problem is all on his side and doesn’t hate her or whine about being friendzoned or any of the other things you might expect from a situation like this. He goes back and forth on whether to try to contact her again when he gets back to Earth, but it’s missing a sense of entitlement. He doesn’t seem to think he has the right to inflict himself on her, even though he’s tried to change, partly because it would just hurt him and partly because he knows she doesn’t love him back and it would be pointless.

If “Loneliness” is a psychological, internal story, “With Morning Comes Mistfall” is a sociological one, an exploration of myth and belief and their place in society. We’ll look at that one next week.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Exit to San Breta"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

“The Exit to San Breta”
Fantastic, 1972

The early 1970s were a time of immense creativity and increased production (and publication) for Martin, and the way he describes the period from about 1971-1973 makes me wildly jealous. One of the stories to come out of that burst was “The Exit to San Breta,” an interesting mix of sci-fi and the Gothic supernatural. It’s not quite horror—there’s nothing particularly scary about it—but it is a ghost story and sci-fi . . . both at the same time. As mentioned before, Martin has pretty much no respect for genre boundaries, and I think that makes him a stronger writer. Genre is less important than the story, the characters, and the setting; whatever “genre” lets him tell the best story he can is where he’ll end up.

In “The Exit to San Breta,” cars are pretty much obsolete due to transportation technology yielding personal helicopters, hovertrucks, and “grav packs.” Only collectors really own cars or drive anymore, so the roads are falling apart and for the most part empty. Our hero (who I don’t think has a name; if he does I didn’t spot it) is out driving one night, deep in the desert of the southwestern United States, when he comes upon another car—an Edsel—gets in a wreck with it, and it disappears. Dun dun dun. Of course, he talks to someone at a rest stop and he’s told that motorists have had the same story going back forty years, that it’s a ghost car, a remnant of a horrible crash that killed an entire family.

This sort of thing is a fairly standard ghost story now, though I’m not sure how typical it was back in the 1970s. Many American urban legends have this same structure—a horrific incident that involves violent death sends ripples through the fabric of space-time, echoing over and over, with people occasionally coming into contact with the echoes. Sometimes those people get away unscathed, as our “San Breta” hero does, and sometimes they die horrible deaths. Nearly always, though, there’s an older person (a father, a grandfather, the wise old sage of the town) who relays the original story and tells the protagonist that they’ve just had an encounter with a ghost. Supernatural was all about this kind of story back when it started and was still mostly doing monster-of-the-week, and Seanan McGuire’s Sparrow Hill Road has a hitchhiking ghost as a protagonist.

What’s particularly interesting about blending sci-fi into a ghost story is that the Gothic, nostalgic element that is required for the story to work is centered on now. The setting is fifty or sixty years in our future (okay, fifty or sixty years in the future of 1970, but since we still aren’t at personal-use helicopters, hovercars, or grav-pacs, we can still read it this way), so the incident that caused the ghost wasn’t in our past, but in our present (again, ish. Go with me here). Instead of looking back to a time before us for the ghost, Martin is looking “back” to now, imagining a society that’s as far beyond us as we are beyond the usual times for our ghosts to come from—50 to 100 years in our past. The wise-old-sage character who explains the incident to the hero also explains to us why there’s this particular ghost:

Violent death, that’s what. Ghosts were the products of murders and of executions, debris of blood and violence. Haunted houses were all places where someone had met a grisly end a hundred years before. But in twentieth century America, you didn’t find the violent death in mansions and castles. You found it on the highways, the bloodstained highways where thousands died each year.

America has its own history and its own folklore that don’t rely on the medieval or Gothic traditions of Europe. Neil Gaiman once pointed out that magic doesn’t really have a place in America, and I think that shows here. This isn’t fantasy-horror, after all; it’s sci-fi horror. The only magical element is the ghost, and everything else is advanced science. He doesn’t go the late Gothic route of explaining away the ghost as some sort of natural phenomenon—it’s definitely a ghost—which I appreciate because I’ve always felt that that sort of thing is a horrendous cop-out on the part of the writer.

“The Second Kind of Loneliness,” which I’ll be covering next week, is also sci-fi/horror, but in a different way; it’s a psychothriller instead of a supernatural ghost story.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Martin Re-read: "The Fortress"

Read the previous entry in this series here.
Read the next entry in this series here.

“The Fortress”
Previously unpublished

According to Martin’s between-stories discussion in Dreamsongs, “The Fortress” was his first professional rejection and the bug that bit him and made him want to become a professional writer. It’s the reason he enrolled in a creative writing class in which, as a genre writer, he felt woefully out of place (been there myself). “The Fortress” was, as far as I can tell, never published before making its way into this collection, but it’s still incredibly important for a look at his development as a writer.

Martin wrote “The Fortress” a couple of years after “Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark,” and there’s marked improvement in the writing style. Some of this might be because he’s not trying to live up to the overdone, overwrought comic style of the fanzines, and some might just be because he was a little older and had read more. That doesn’t mean the styles are completely opposed; there’s some of the same atmospheric scene-setting at the beginning of “The Fortress,” and occasional notes of scenery-chewing from the characters, but overall it’s much easier to read.

This (and “And Death His Legacy,” which I won’t be covering here) is a clear marker of his interest in history and why things happen the way they do. He has a clear, laser-focus on the choices people make and why they make them, much like A Song of Ice and Fire. A lot of historical fiction has kind of an inevitability to it; the writer can only do so much creatively because history happens the way (historians say) it happened. Martin shows some real skill, even this early, in being able to avoid that sense of the characters being railroaded.

“The Fortress” is historical fiction about the surrender of Sveaborg during the Finnish War in the early 19th century. Martin manages (unsurprisingly) to pack a lot of politics in here, and while I don’t know how “accurate” any of this is (19th century history isn’t exactly my jam), he does a reasonably good job at conveying all the different ideas and thought processes that (may have) gone into the ultimate surrender of Sveaborg to the Russians. These are conveyed through four very distinct characters: Col. Anttonen, who wants to hold Sveaborg through the siege; Col. Jägerhorn, who wants to surrender; Adm. Cronstedt, who gets to make the ultimate decision; and Capt. Bannersson, who helps Anttonen and delivers history’s verdict to Cronstedt at the end of the story. The immediate conflict in the story is between Jägerhorn, a Finnish nationalist who doesn’t think Swedish rule has been good for Finland and thinks Russia might be better, and Anttonen, who doesn’t trust Russia further than he could throw it. They compete for influence over Cronstedt, though he’s already pretty much made up his mind by the time Anttonen gets to him, mostly because he’s been given a whole lot of Russian propaganda that says they have massive numbers of troops and guns poised to bombard Sveaborg. When Anttonen is unsuccessful in changing Cronstedt’s mind, he attempts a mutiny aimed at taking over the armory to prevent surrender, but Jägerhorn anticipates him and Anttonen is killed in the ensuing fight. Cronstedt surrenders, and twelve years later, Bannersson finds him on his deathbed and confronts him with all the evidence that he was utterly wrong about the situation and Sveaborg could totally have held out against Russia.

Aerial view of Suomenlinna, formerly Sveaborg, from Wikipedia

Martin comes down pretty hard on the side of Sweden here; Anttonen is pretty clearly the hero, even with a mutiny attempt. Jägerhorn, who wants Finnish independence, is shown as deluded for thinking Russia’s going to give it to them. Also, he’s a moustache-twirling villain who may be feeding Cronstedt false information on purpose to manipulate him into surrendering. Most of the remaining over-the-top dialogue in “The Fortress” comes from Jägerhorn, while everyone else is more or less reasonable.

“We figured you’d try something like this, and we’ve been watching every move you made since the armistice was signed. Your mutiny is finished. [. . .] Don’t be a fool. Our men captured the ensign and his squad before they even got near Admiral Cronstedt. You never had a chance.”

I can actually see the seeds of Petyr Baelish and Varys in Jägerhorn, though obviously they’re much more subtle. But the careful dissemination of information aimed at getting a specific reaction from the person in power, the awareness of his opponent’s thought processes that allow him to stop their plans in their tracks, and the occasional dramatic pronouncement (“I did warn you not to trust me,” anyone?) are characteristics that show up in the spymaster and sleazy manipulator of A Song of Ice and Fire. “The Fortress” has a much smaller scope than A Song of Ice and Fire, but it shows Martin building the awareness of politics and “grey” heroes (mutiny isn’t exactly honorable, but we are obviously supposed to sympathize with Anttonen) that shows up in later works (not just A Song of Ice and Fire, but also Hunter’s Run and The Armageddon Rag). I wonder, also, if the structure of Sveaborg was any inspiration for Pyke.

Next week: Martin again disrupts genre conventions in “Exit to San Breta”