Dying of the Light by George R. R. Martin
George R. R. Martin, before he was one of the most popular fantasy authors in the world, writer of the recently incredibly successful Song of Ice and Fire series, was mostly known as a purveyor of science fiction and horror. He wrote a large amount of his sci-fi, mostly short stories but with a few novel length tales, within one setting, which he coined ‘The Thousand Worlds.’ Since the publication of A Game of Thrones in 1996, everything changed and his earlier works were largely forgotten, which is a shame because his back catalogue contains some of the best science fiction of the 70s and 80s. Although I absolutely adore his ‘Ice and Fire’ novels, it’s a shame that Martin is extremely unlikely to ever get an opportunity to return to the ‘Thousand Worlds’ setting. With the likelihood that he will live to finish the Song of Ice and Fire series somewhat tenuous, it would be very optimistic to hope for a return to his first setting. Dying of the Light is set within the Thousand Worlds, and actually has the distinction of being Martin’s first published novel. I’ve been fascinated by Martin’s career for a while, and have been working my way through his entire back catalogue, but had waited a long time before embarking upon his first novel. The novel doesn’t have a great reputation, just take a look at the Amazon reviews, but I believe that a lot of this criticism is simply because it’s not more Song of Ice and Fire, and instead tells its own story in its own way.
The primary conceit of the Thousand World setting is that, after humanity had spread to the stars, a huge conflict led to the collapse of interstellar communications between planets. In this separation from other planets, some for longer than others, vibrant and bizarre cultures arose, sharing common myths due to their shared human heritage, but also moulded by the world they have settled on. For example, Martin’s early short story The Way of Cross and Dragon deals with a Christian world which has developed as bizarre take on the Christ myth, in which Judas Iscariot, a prostitute and tamer of dragons, had crippled Jesus and having repented, in penitence carries him around the world as the ‘legs of Christ.’ The Thousand World setting is a useful one, one which allows Martin pretty broad scope to create innovative and interesting cultures whilst still retaining the sense of cohesiveness lent by a shared universe. Dying of the Light requires no knowledge on the setting however, and stands perfectly fine on its own; the shared setting is really little more than the odd little nod here and there to planets and peoples from other stories which would simply seem like background information to a reader new to the setting. Dying of the Light takes place on Worlorn, a rogue planet, one which has escaped the orbit of a star and simply drifts through interstellar space. Worlorn briefly entered a bizarre five star system, dominated by a red giant star named ‘Fat Satan.’ In this time, due to a shared perceived religious significance, Worlorn became a ‘festival planet’, upon which fourteen different cultures built fourteen cities during the brief decades in which Worlorn was habitable. Dying of the Light takes place as Worlorn is leaving the star system which sustains it, with almost all of its inhabitants returned to their native civilisations. It’s a wonderfully evocative and original setting, set amongst the abandoned cities of Worlorn; the novel is lent an extremely melancholic feeling, but far from feeling overwrought and needlessly grim in the manner of the works of Stephen Donaldson, there is a quiet dignity to the inevitable passing of Worlorn. This is a rare novel which is fundamentally about sadness and loss, and yet remains extremely readable and compelling rather than self indulgent.
Dying of the Light tells the tale of Dirk t’Larien, who is summoned to Worlorn by his former partner Gwen. Seeking closure since their separation, after which he became a nomadic wanderer among the planets, Dirk comes to Worlorn and finds that Gwen has remarried. Sort of. See, Dying of the Light is fundamentally about one of the fourteen societies to settle on Worlorn, the High Kavalars. The High Kavalars are a militaristic society with similarities to the Dothraki of the Ice and Fire novels, with duels between members routine and commonplace. Each Kavalar male takes a ‘teyn’, a male life partner who is part husband and part brother. There is certainly a pretty clear homoerotic undertone to this relationship, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. A Kavalar can also take a ‘beteyn’, a female who becomes his property. Dirk finds that his beloved Gwen has become ‘beteyn ‘ to Jaan, a moderate Kavalar who treats her as a wife rather than as a favourite slave, and seeks to preserve the spirit of brotherhood and honour of Kavalar society whilst abandoning the less respectable habit of hunting humans like animals and treating all women as property. For this he is hated. Also in the mix is Garse, Jaan’s ‘teyn’ who is much less moderate than his partner. Dirk is thrown into a complex web of love and hatred between the three in their bizarre triad, and also comes into conflict with a group of ‘old fashioned’ Kavalars who do not even believe him to be human.
It’s a cool story, with some truly excellent moments and interesting characters. Unlike Martin’s most famous works, it’s relatively short (for a sci-fi novel anyway) and so doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. The story benefits from a tight and small cast of characters, interestingly taking the exact opposite approach to the sprawling cast of thousands who populate Westeros. This lends the story a real sense of pace and focus. The abandoned shells of the cultures that resided upon Worlorn are fascinating to read about, each reflecting differing parts of the human psyche which had reined free following the collapse of interstellar communications. The novel has some genuine philosophical depth, and a lot to say about the human condition, and manages to both evoke and deconstruct the concept of the noble savage.
Pretty much everyone agrees that Martin is a master of character and world building, but his basic talent as a damn good storyteller is often underappreciated. The man can just write really, really well, even at this early a point in his career. There’s nothing particularly flashy about his writing; he’s not necessarily a literary innovator in the manner of China Miévelle of Iain M. Banks, but instead he excels with a simple style which doesn’t sacrifice philosophical or psychological depth for sheer readability. There are few writers in the genre who truly can handle both, and Martin is the best at it.
Probably the biggest flaw in the novel, surprisingly for Martin, lies in the characterisation. The protagonist Dirk t’Larien is likeable enough, but there really doesn’t seem to be anything to him. We know that Martin can do better, this is the man that gave us Tyrion Lannister for god’s sake. The same can be said for his great love Gwen, who falls into the classic sci-fi trap of being simply a female plot device to motivate the much more interesting male characters. The real interest lies with the Kavalars, particularly the fraught yet loving relationship between the reformer Jaan and the traditionalist Garse. The other Kavalars are fun to read about as well, although they aren’t necessarily particularly well developed. There are some fun moment for Ice and Fire fans as we can at times witness the gestation of his ideas; a bitter and angry warrior who is hideously burnt all along one side of his face was surely reworked into the wonderfully complex and sympathetic Sandor Clegane aka. The Hound in Ice and Fire. The focus of the novel isn’t on character, as it is in the Song of Ice and Fire, but on humanity itself, and the hubristic scale of human development.
Is Dying of the Light a little rough around the edges? Sure. It is a first novel, published a whopping seventeen years before A Game of Thrones. What is surprising is just how good it is, better than any first novel has any right to be. This isn’t much like A Game of Thrones, and if that’s what you’re after, look elsewhere, but if you just like a damn good slice of old fashioned sci-fi, this is for you.