George R.R. Martin is well-known today as the mega-successful author of the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels. With the appearance of these stories on the small screen as Game of Thrones, Martin has become a household name, not just as one of the foremost fantasy authors of America, but as one of its preeminent authors, period.
Before he became the architect of Westeros, Martin was the editor of the Wild Cards series. If you have been reading fantasy and science fiction long enough, you would have seen these popular anthologies on the shelves of your local bookstore for many years prior to the arrival of A Game of Thrones in 1996. Before that, Martin was the author of other works, one of which was Dying of the Light in 1977, recently reprinted in a new edition by Bantam Books.
Dying of the Light is a far shorter work than we have become used to with the Ice and Fire novel series. But it shows the same seriousmindedness and attention to detail that we have come to expect in Martin’s later work. Indeed, comprehensive worldbuilding is Martin’s forte, and he creates a rich and deep far future background in which to place his troubled characters.
The story begins with the arrival of a “whisperjewel” in Dirk t’Larien’s possession, sent by Gwen Delvano, his former lover. He inteprets the jewel as a cry for help, a call for rescue, and sets off to find Gwen. Gwen, unfortunately, is trapped in a relationship with a stern but noble man, Jaan Vikary, who is not quite her husband, and she is not quite his wife. The resulting love triangle (actually something of a love quadrangle, as Jaan Vikary has a male hunting and fighting companion, Janacek, whom he places above all others people) is a complete mess, and bodes no happy ending for anyone involved.
Martin shows adroitness in developing “alien” cultures without the need for non-human aliens. The cultural stance of Jaan Vikary of High Kavalaan, with its immensely strong bonds between males, but relatively weak ones between men and women, is markedly and almost unbridgeably different from that of Dirk and Gwen, who hail from a culture nearer to our own. High Kavalaan is well-developed as an alien culture, with a seemingly plausible reason given for its development as a world where men form closer relationships with one another than with women.
The setting of Dying of the Light is the fading planet Worlorn, awash in melancholy and regret. It is a world colonized by the peoples of several other planets for the short time that it drifts through space in the vicinity of a grouping of life-giving stars. That fifty-year era is now coming to an end, and Worlorn is now nearly empty of inhabitants, much like a grand old building just before its demolition.
Dying of the Light is a love story, a planetary romance, an adventure, and an examination of how cultural preconceptions make it difficult, if not impossible, for people of radically different cultures to comprehend each other. It is worth a read.