With the recent release of The World of Ice and Fire, I am revisiting (like he gives a shit) some of Martin’s older stuff. I’d only read his short stories and work in anthologies before, and I have heard wonderful things about his earlier work, so I thought I’d try.
My quick take after reading Fevre Dreams and The Armageddon Rag – while neither touches A Song of Ice and Fire (seriously, how could they?), they show a writer who has a wide range of interests, voices, and material, who thinks passionately about grand subjects and wants to revisit them, who doesn’t always make characters as interesting as the Lannisters nor make plots as subtle and full of twists as ASOIAF but who also doesn’t fall into traps of ease in either plot or character development.
Fevre Dreams is a vampire story set in a steamboat, with a species twist. Vampires are simply another species, but one that is closely akin to humans (another line of evolution? Martin can’t invoke Darwin because this story is set pre-Civil War) and that features a prophecy of its own. The characters are weak (in that they can’t simply do what they want), and the ultimate bad guy is actually someone who wants to die, who is sick of living his hunter lifestyle and can’t wait for the heroes to finish him off, even if his animal side disagrees. The themes are also interesting, as the idea that vampires aren’t creatures of the night, the product of some sort of bargain with demonic forces, anticipates the ways that zombie stories will morph in the near future (FD was written in 1982).
The Armageddon Rag features less well developed characters, but it also has bigger ideas. It’s a bit fascinated with the demonic power of rock, but no one is truly evil (other than a right-wing keyboard kommando millionaire writer perhaps), and the concern is more with the large forces that move pop cultures, and how those forces get commandeered and diverted (and manipulated, although that word seems unfair).
Martin is definitely a big idea guy, using a variety of genres to do something like explore theories by constructing entire worlds and letting them run their course.