Sun
Mar 21 2010 10:05am

Honour to your holdfast, honour to your teyn: George R.R. Martin’s Dying of the Light

I don’t know when everybody else got into George R.R. Martin, but for me it was when Sandkings won the Hugo in 1980. I immediately bought two collections he had out, Sandkings and Songs of Stars and Shadows and (now subsumed into Dreamsongs) and his first novel Dying of the Light. I still own the scabby old Granada paperback I bought new for one pound twenty-five, with a typically stupid British cover for the period, featuring an irrelevant spaceship. (We didn’t expect much of our covers back then, and it’s just as well. In fact you could exchange this cover-picture with the cover of the same-era copy I own of Delany’s Triton and it wouldn’t make any difference.) I was fifteen when I bought those books, and ever since Martin has been one of my favourite authors. Dying of the Light is a book I have read too often, and yet I still love it, and can still read it. It was perfectly designed for me to adore it when I was fifteen, and I think it helped form my tastes in science fiction.

Dying of the Light is a poetic space opera set in the far future. It’s pretty much entirely set on the planet Worlorn, a wandering planet that has wandered briefly into the orbit of a sun. The nearby civilizations terraformed it and set it up for a ten year Festival as it passed through the light and warmth, and now as it is passing away from there the Festival is over and most of the people have left. The “dying of the light” is literal, and of course it’s metaphorical as well. The whole novel resonates to the Dylan Thomas line from which the title comes.

Dirk t’Larien comes to Worlorn because he’s been sent a message from an old lover, Gwen, who he knew years ago on Avalon. (“You can’t be any more sophisticated than Avalon. Unless you’re from Earth.”) Gwen is there to investigate the way the artificial imported ecology has adapted and merged. Since she left Dirk she has become caught up with the planet and culture of High Kavalaar—she’s in a relationship that’s much more complicated than a marriage. Dirk still might love her. High Kavalaar is very weird. As Worlorn goes into the dark the story plays out in deserted cities and strange wilderness among a handful of people far from their cultures but still entirely mired in them.

As well as this novel, Martin wrote a handful of short stories in this universe, and it feels like a real place, with real long term history and consequences of that history. He’s very good at tossing in tiny details and having them add up to a kaleidoscopic picture. He’s also very good at creating weird but plausible human cultures, and people who come from them and would like to be broadminded but find it a struggle. Worlorn has cities built by fourteen different civilizations—we only see five of the cities and three of the cultures. Yet the illusion of depth and real history is there—largely built by the names. Martin is  astonishingly good at names—planet names, personal names, and the way that names define who you are.

Dirk (Didn’t you want to be called Dirk t’Larien? Not even when you were fifteen?) might love Gwen, but he definitely loves Jenny, which is his pet-name for her, or his version of her. Gwen’s highbond is Jaantony Riv Wolf High-Ironjade Vikary, and the parts of that name he chooses to use and not use reflect who he is and how he sees the world. He’s an interesting character, but the most interesting  is his teyn, Garse Ironjade Janacek. Jaan is forward-looking and progressive, he’s been educated on Avalon, he’s loved Gwen, he sees beyond the cultural horizons of High Kavalaar. Garse doesn’t care about any of that. He grew up in the culture where men bond deeply to men and women are extra, where the bond between men is symbolised with an arm-ring on the right arm of iron and glowstone, and with women one on the left arm, made of jade and silver. He was quite content in this culture, and the very bonds that fix him to it bind him to Jaan and tear him.

This is a story of love and honour on the edges of the universe. It’s about choices and cultures. There’s duelling, there’s a mad flight through the wilderness, there are spaceships and anti-gravity scoots, there’s betrayal and excitement and lamenting cities singing sad songs as the world slips into endless night. It could easily be too much, but it isn’t—the writing is beautiful, and the characters are complex enough to save it. The book begins with a two page prologue about the planet. This is like beginning with the weather, it’s probably high on the list of things they tell beginning writers not to do. However, I adore it. It’s where we start getting names and history, all in the context of Worlorn, and the planet itself is certainly one of the protagonists. If you haven’t read it, I recommend reading this two page prologue to see if it hooks you.

I do learn things from infinite re-reads of books I know really well, and from writing about them. I just realised as I said that about wanting to be called Dirk t’Larien when I was fifteen that there’s only one woman in this book. Gwen is central, and who Gwen is and what she chooses is central, but nobody would want to be her or identify with her. She’s more than a McGuffin but not much more. Dirk (“You are weak, but nobody has ever called you strong”) has been drifting between worlds, he wants to believe in something, and the book ends with him making an altruistic choice. Any fifteen year old would want to be him, gender irrelevant. Gwen, though she has a job, is entirely defined by her relationships to men. It was a first novel—and how astonishingly good for a first novel—and Martin’s got a lot better at this since. Indeed, for 1977, Gwen was pretty good, and perhaps I shouldn’t complain.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

24 comments
john mullen
1. johntheirishmongol
Hi Jo...This was actually not the first thing I read by GRRM. That would have Windhaven in a serialized novel in Analog. That and Courtship Rites are the two books I really remember from back then. For Dying, I actually thought GRRM let his prose get in the way of the story. I found it a bit tedious because of that Perhaps it's because I prefer to read about actions and results rather than inner angst.
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
I think I need to go back and read this one again. I still have it, but I've never picked it up after my first read.

I discovered Martin about the same time you did, also from Sandkings although from its appearance in Omni. I started buying his stuff a little later, say mid-80s. I would have been in my early 20s when I read this, but the whole time, my only reaction was, "Dude, she left you. Get over it all ready." We didn't have the term then, but I would have categorized it as emo. Maybe I need to take a more mature look at it.
Elio García
3. Egarcia
My own first encounter with GRRM would have to be Sandkings, in some collection or other that I read when I started reading SF in junior high school, and then I recall flipping through the Wild Cards series at the comic book shop and really wishing I had extra pocket money to start reading those.

It wasn't until "A Song of Ice and Fire" that I had the wherewithal and time to delve into his earlier works, and since then I've read most of it. Fevre Dreamis perhaps my favorite of his novels outside of the big fantasy series, but I admit, Dying of the Light has always struck me as one of the more eerily beautiful of his works.

Part of the interest is indeed Garse -- a terrific character, and one who is later mined for certain elements in two of the ASoIaF characters -- but it's also Worlorn itself. There's something very Vancian about the concept, about this beautiful, exotic place, stocked with life from half a hundred worlds, on the cusp of a entering a long, cold night. Its treated more seriously, and with a great deal more reflective melancholy, than is Vance's wont (though Suldrun's Garden first section comes close, I think).

This may be the most romantic of GRRM's novels, all-considered, written at a time when I think it's fair to say that heartache and longing were very relevant to his writing. I have seen some describe the novel as maudlin, which I think is ungenerous, but I suppose everyone has a different tolerance for pathos.

How do you feel about the ending, Jo? It's somewhat controversial, given reactions I've seen from those who've read it after coming across ASoIaF.
James Davis Nicoll
4. James Davis Nicoll
Not only was the serialized version of Dying of the Light the first Martin I read, it was in the first issue of Analog I ever bought, April 1977.

That and Courtship Rites are the two books I really remember from back then.

Courtship Rites is a bit later, 1982. I wonder if you were reading Analog back then if you might not have encountered his novellas for them in the 1970s, "Shipwright", "To Bring in the Steel" and "The Moon Goddess and the Son" (Later expanded into The Moon Goddess and the Son)?
Joe Sherry
5. jsherry
This is probably the one Martin novel I don't like. Left me cold.

The Armageddon Rag, on the other hand, is possibly his best novel. I think.
Stefan Raets
6. Stefan
There's a great short story set in the same universe in his "Dreamsongs Vol 1" collection. It had a very Jack Vance-like atmosphere, and made me wish he'd write more material set in that universe.
Chuk Goodin
7. Chuk
I just finished Tuf Voyaging after reading the two volumes of Dreamsongs last year, and I'm a moderate Song of Ice and Fire fan and a rabid Wild Cards fan. (I think the first thing I remember being by Martin was "Sandkings", but I don't remember where I read it...was it in a Dangerous Visions? When I re-read it recently, I was amused to find I'd been conflating it with the TV version. :-) ]

I think Martin's got a very different voice now than he had back then -- I like them both, and I wouldn't go quite so far as to say he's a completely different writer, but I don't think I'd necessarily recommend early Martin to someone who liked his current stuff.
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Egarcia: I like the ending a lot. I see it as Dirk growing up. And, you know, dying, but.
James Davis Nicoll
9. James Davis Nicoll
Stefan: do you mean "A Song for Lya", by any chance?

I think the setting as a whole is called the 'The Thousand Worlds' and it can be divided into two broad periods: the one when humanity was still unified in he Federal Empire (?) and actively engaged in a slap fight with aliens and a later period after things fell apart and then began to recover, the period of Dying of the Light. Martin has a bunch of stories set in both periods. I don't know of a list offhand but it would be easy enough to create.
James Davis Nicoll
10. Fenric25
Despite this being one of the first things GRRM wrote, its one of the last I still have yet to read. I love almost everything of his that I've found, and all the Thousand Worlds stories in the Dreamsongs collections are extremely good. I shall have to find this one sometime and give it a try-it sounds like another great book, though the lack of more female characters does sound a little disappointing...still, can't wait to find this one and read it (being born in 1985, I didn't have the chance to read most of his stuff the first timne around. Hell, Feast For Crows and the Dunk and Egg stories are the only ones, I think...)
James Davis Nicoll
11. OtterB
The first thing I remember reading by GRRM was "A Song for Lya" in Analog. I wrote him a fan letter afterward, and he responded graciously.

I remember my first reading of Dying of the Light as an intense, immersive experience. By my memory of the house I was living in at the time, that was around 1979-1980.

I know it's on the shelf downstairs. It's survived numerous moves and book purges because I remember loving it so, but I've never brought myself to reread it. I probably should.

I dislike the ending. I think a wrong, wrong, wrong choice was made - but I'm operating off a 30-year-old memory of that choice.
Karen Lofstrom
12. DPZora
I can't read GRRM. He's a damn fine writer, but his worlds are so damn depressing that I don't want to visit. I'm depressed already, thank you, I can't take any more.
Gray Woodland
13. Greyhame
Oh. These Thousand Worlds are new to me: this sounds like something I might really enjoy. Scale, kaleidoscope fragments, 'poetic space opera'... and, of course, 'most romantic of his works'. I have, shall we say, an ambivalent relationship with the romantic approach to life and literature. But when I find no flattening lies in it, I'll maudle proudly along with the best of them. I haven't found such in my Martin so far, either in A Song of Ice and Fire nor in Fevre Dream, which are pretty different samples.

This may have something to do with why I don't find his books depressing so far, as I do many that ought to be far easier going. I mean, do it right, and I will read a story that ends with the last mortal in the world closing the eyes of the last but one in the ruins, and saying, "This, with it all: that I did love thee." - and cry, but not book-hurl, nor need the cry be, "Thanks a sodding lot!" Martin strikes me as among those who could pull such a thing off - Zelazny is one of the few others I'd trust for it - and I'm now mighty curious to visit not only this wide world, but this suspect ending, for myself.

I have no idea how you can possibly review so appetite-whettingly and at such a rate, but while I think of it: Thanks an honest lot!
Marcus W
14. toryx
I really wanted to love Dying of the Light but I just couldn't get into it. I've tried several times without success. Oh well.

I do love Fevre Dream and Armageddon Rag though. And I've got a lot of his short stories that I enjoyed, including some of the original Analog printings.
David Goldfarb
15. David_Goldfarb
"Sandkings" is well after either of the Dangerous Visions anthologies. It was first published in Omni.
Stefan Raets
16. Stefan
@9 It wasn't A Song for Lya (although I love that story too). It's set in a subterranean maze-like structure, with dimensional warping or gates of some sort. I (obviously) don't recall the details, but remember reading it and wishing he'd written more material in that universe.
James Davis Nicoll
17. James Davis Nicoll
A lot of his SF is set in that universe: I will try and make a list tomorrow.
Elio García
18. Egarcia
@16,

That story is "The Stone City". It is, indeed, terrifically atmospheric.

Other of his "Thousand Worlds" stories that come to mind (besides the aforementioned "A Song for Lya") are "The Hero", "Bitterblooms", "And Seven Times Never Kill Man", "Tower of Ashes", "Nightflyers", "The Way of Cross and Dragon", the Haviland Tuf stories collected in Tuf Voyaging...

You would have read most all of these in Dreamsongs, though.

Maybe Windhaven, too, but I'm not certain of that one.
Stefan Raets
19. Stefan
Oh, I never realized Tuf Voyaging was connected to that universe. It's been a few years since I re-read it, though.
James Davis Nicoll
20. James Davis Nicoll
With the help of the people who read my journal, a first pass:

A Song for Lya
And Seven Times Never Kill Man
Bitterblooms
Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels
In the House of the Worm
Men of Greywater Station
Nightflyers
Sandkings
Starlady
The Glass Flower
The Hero
The Stone City
This Tower of Ashes
Warship (with with George Guthridge)
With Morning Comes Mistfall

Haviland Tuff:
The Plague Star
A Beast for Norn
Guardians
Call Him Moses
Loaves and Fishes
Manna from Heaven
Second Helpings

Dying of the Light

Except for the last, all novella length or shorter.
Michael Lorenson
21. Mlorenson
I got into Martin late, but I was under a year old when this novel was first published. As an adult reader, I think most of these books were out of print and unavailable in stores even if I had known of them. As a reader of epic fantasy, my own introduction to Martin was through A Game of Thrones, but I went looking for his other books afterwards, once they started seeing reprinting. I didn't enjoy Windhaven, Fevre Dream was good, and Dying of the Light was my favourite (I haven't read Tuf Voyaging yet).

Thanks for this write-up, and thanks for pointing out that there are other stories connected to this one. I'm going to have to go book-hunting soon.
individ ewe-al
22. individ-ewe-al
I thought it was a Ragnarok book, and I generally can't cope with those because you know from the initial set-up that it can only end in utter destruction and despair. But the characterization and world-building are fantastic even so.

I found Gwen a bit the woman who gets in the way of the all-important male bonding, but not too much so. The narration almost too heavily underlines the point (with the whole Jenny thing) that she comes across as only existing in relation to men only because we see things from Dirk's self-centred viewpoint. (I didn't want to be him at all, I found him whiny, but then I wasn't fifteen when I read the book.)

What I really do like is the portrayal of a conservative, misogynist character as sympathetic. With the level of nuance and originality in the relationship between Garse and Jaan, it's easy for me to forgive having Gwen as little more than an aspect of that relationship. This is one book where I don't think passing the Bechdel test would improve it at all.
James Davis Nicoll
23. James Bradford DeLong
So what is wrong with the ending? He comes to Worlorn. In the course of the novel he decides that he has come to Worlorn to save her--and Jaan Vikary. And he does so.

The wind was blowing. It was very cold.
Bob Blough
24. Bob
I love this book and always will, My first memory of Martin was a short story (which was also the Analog Dec 1971 cover story - with a terrific painting by Freas) called "The Second Kind of Lonliness". I was in awe and followed him through SF (my favorite genre) to Fantasy to Horror (my least favorite genre) and back to Epic Fantasy. And even though I often did not like the genre he tended to choose I always loved his writing. He is just too damn good. And we are too damn lucky.

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