Wednesday, October 18, 2017
Monday, October 16, 2017
“The Second Kind of Loneliness”
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
“The Exit to San Breta”
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
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”
Monday, September 25, 2017
You didn't think just because Game of Thrones is over (for now) that you'd get rid of me, did you? Nope! George R.R. Martin has done a lot besides A Song of Ice and Fire, and I plan to go through the short stories in Dreamsongs volumes 1 and 2 with a fine-toothed comb.
The stories in Dreamsongs span Martin's career, from his earliest work writing for fanzines in the 1960s to just-pre-ASOIAF in the late 1980s. I can't promise that I'm going to discuss every short story (fantasy is more my jam than sci-fi, for example, and Tales After Tolkien is primarily a fantasy outlet), but I plan to do most of them.
By the time I'm done with that, maybe the show will be back on. And maybe I'll have to move on to his earlier novels, like The Armageddon Rag or Fevre Dream. DARN.
There's no reason to delay; let's get right to it!
“Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark”
Star Studded Comics #10, 1967
“Only Kids” is one of Martin’s earliest stories, and the earliest one we have available in Dreamsongs. In the commentary preceding the story itself, he invites the reader to “have a look at [his] apprentice work, if you dare,” and indeed, for a modern reader this can be quite jarring. The prose is very pulp-y (appropriately enough) and shows clear influences from comics, Howard, Lovecraft, and even Christian mythology.
In “Only Kids,” a demon rises from an accidental sacrifice born of greed and proceeds to take over the world for a short time, stopped only by Doctor Weird, a spectral hero. The morality is very black-and-white, which can be startling for readers only/mostly familiar with A Song of Ice and Fire. The demon is a literal demon—its name is Saagael—that wants to subjugate the entire human race to its will (and succeeds, albeit briefly). Doctor Weird, also (in grand comic book form) given the appellations the Astral Avenger, the Super Spirit, and the Golden Ghost, is an avenging angel standing between Saagael and the world. The fight between them is a battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil, and of course Doctor Weird wins, though it’s a tough fight.
Even leaving aside literal demons and something resembling an angel, the story has two types of people—evil and innocent. The first two people introduced, who start the whole thing, are Jasper and Willie, who are fleeing from vague “natives” from whom they’ve stolen “sacred rubies.” They take shelter in the ancient temple (like idiots), Willie falls asleep on the altar (like an idiot), and then Jasper gets greedy and murders Willie on the altar, which is all Saagael needed to bust out of his dark realm. When Saagael begins his reign, people from all over the world—“the hard ones, the brutal ones, the cruel ones, those who had long waited the coming of one like the Demon Prince and welcomed him now”—descend on the temple to worship him, ultimately bringing in a sacrifice (the one innocent human in all this) to entice him to return to the temple. We have two named evil/idiot characters, a horde of unnamed evil characters, and a single innocent (also unnamed) girl.
Doctor Weird attempts to stop Saagael as soon as he manifests, but the demon is too strong for him—and has power over the spirit, so he can manipulate Doctor Weird’s energies to defeat him—but human sacrifice is a bridge too far for Doctor Weird, so he fights again despite his handicap. Interestingly, Doctor Weird doesn’t overpower Saagael; he finds a loophole, using Jasper’s body (made up to look like Doctor Weird) to absorb Saagael’s attacks. Then, when it looks like Saagael hasn’t made a dent on Doctor Weird, he scares the demon off with a threat. He’s made himself look far more powerful than he actually is so he doesn’t have to actually fight.
Although the morality of the story is far more black-and-white than we see in later works, Martin’s penchant for mixing his genres is clear here. He’s often said that his father lumped science fiction, fantasy, and horror together as “the weird stuff,” and as is clear from this earliest offering we’re presented, he’s never respected the genre boundaries. (Genre boundaries are crap, anyway, but that’s a rant for another time.) This blends high superhero fantasy with dark horror of the Lovecraftian variety (hence my comparison to Howard, too, who had a tendency to do things like that). The dark parts are very very dark—oppressive, even—with a tendency toward purple prose in the descriptions:
Darkness. Everywhere there was darkness. Grim, foreboding, omnipresent; it hung over the plain like a great stifling mantle. No moonlight sifted down; no stars shone from above; only night, sinister and eternal, and the swirling, choking gray mists that shifted and stirred with every movement. Something screeched in the distance, but its form could not be seen. The mists and shadows cloaked all.
Doctor Weird, on the other hand, is the light in the darkness. He stands against Saagael, and the word choices in his sections focus on various intensities of light. When he tricks Saagael, he takes the demon’s power-bolts to the chest with his hands on his hips. Doctor Weird wins because he’s the hero, more than anything else; the victory is convenient more than earned, but that’s comic books and pulp fiction for you.
The dialogue is supremely comic-booky, as well, overwrought and overwritten. If it were adapted for the screen, it would require scenery-chewing actors of the highest caliber.
“Rash moral, you presume to challenge forces you cannot begin to comprehend! Yet, I shall fulfill [sic] your request—I shall reveal myself! [. . .] You shall soon rue your foolhardy words!”“You were born of darkness and death and blood, Saagael. You stand for all that is evil and foul-made-flesh. But I was created by the Will of Powers that dwarf you, that could destroy you with but a mere thought. I stand in defiance of you, those like you, and the vermin who serve you!”
Now, in all fairness to Martin, he didn’t create Doctor Weird; the “Texas Trio” who ran Star Studded Comics did, and Martin is just playing in their world with their characters (which, considering his current hatred of fan-fiction, is interesting).
So, early work, at least this example of it, shows the seeds of what Martin’s work would later grow into, though this particular story was a bit hard for me to get through, mostly due to the prose.
Next week: The roots of Martin’s love of historical fiction.