Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Readings — A Song For Lya

A Song For Lya
by George R.R. Martin

A collection of Martin’s early short fiction, including the Hugo-winning title novella, the ten stories here range from solid genre work to strong thought-provoking material. None of them seems to me to be at the level of his Song of Ice and Fire series, or of his fiction in the Wild Cards series, but they’re generally entertaining pieces. It’s intriguing to see Martin working in genre-standard forms — short-shorts with twist endings, humans cautiously coming to understand alien worlds, even a ghost story.

In some ways, in fact, the book reads like it could be a collection from the 1950s. That’s not a bad thing; what I mean is that it’s vaguely reminiscent tonally and to some extent structurally of work by writers like Theodore Sturgeon or Alfred Bester. You see some of the heritage of Campbell-era sf mixed with a more humanistic tone; you have square-jawed space heroes, but most often they’re undercut in some way, viewed more cynically. You see plotting that isn’t cliched, but does hew to well-worn traditions and points of view; little sign here of the New Wave of SF.

I don’t know that there really needs to be. In his book Engines of the Night, Barry Malzberg argues passionately that the 50s SF that I’m talking about is an often-overlooked treasure-trove of fiction. If Martin, at the start of his career, was writing out of that tradition, then this book goes some way to support Malzberg’s point. So perhaps it hints at an alternate history for SF, in which the genre didn’t go through the contortions of the New Wave, but evolved at a statelier pace. Consider Martin’s own career in the years since; Wild Cards wasn’t so much later than this book, about ten years or so, but there’s a huge leap in sensibility, more audacious and more radical in its dialogue with the traditional idea of the hero. These stories don’t really suggest that audacity, or the multilayered storytelling of A Song of Ice and Fire, but they’re a solid start for what has turned out to be an excellent career.

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