George R. R. Martin has become nearly ubiquitous since the advent of his massive, multi-volumed and cable-networked Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as The Game of Thrones (even though that is only the title of the first book in the series). Before that, he successfully helmed a network television series, Beauty and the Beast, and before that he worked on the excellent reboot of The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s.
Even before that, however, he was establishing a reputation as a fine writer of speculative fiction and fantasy with a handful of novels and short story collections. His first novel, Dying Of The Light, published in 1977, demonstrated his strengths and served notice that what would follow would be worth anyone’s time and attention.
Returning to early work like this can sometimes be a dubious exercise. Writers grow into themselves, rarely doing anything approaching their best work in the beginning. But sometimes the talent and skill are evident from page one and early work is as polished and significant as anything that comes after. That appears to be the case with Martin. Dying Of The Light is work one might expect from mid-career, a deft exploration of complex themes of identity and myth set against a background of rich cross-cultural shifts, all vividly portrayed.
Dirk t’Larien, living in the husk of a life in a city laced with canals, receives an esper jewel from the woman he lost years before. t’Larien has been wallowing in self-pity and ennui ever since Gwen Delvano left him. Before parting, they had these jewels made, psychic encodings of their emotional selves, and exchanged them with the promise that when one sent their jewel to the other, the receiver would come at once. Dirk sent his, years before, and Gwen did not come. He has mourned her since, mourned himself, and has been slowly crumbling in on himself since. Now he has received hers, a summons he swore he would honor.
Should he, though? She did not answer his call, why should he answers hers?
He does. He has nothing else. This is the last obligation, the last devotion he has. Without Gwen, he has nothing. As he sits in his room, debating what is undebatable, he watches a gondolier drift by in the waning light of day, and in that image we understand the story about to unfold.
This a journey to the underworld, a quest to rescue Eurydice from hell. That gondolier is Charon and Dirk t’Larien is a phlegmatic Orpheus. Worlorn, the rogue planet briefly brought back to a kind of life by its passage close to a group of stars on its way out of the galaxy, is a kind of Hades.
Too-close comparisons have the drawback of forcing a reading that limits truth-seeking. The framework of the Orphic Myths is here, but it is only a framework, because our erstwhile Orpheus is neither a musician nor a particularly attentive lover. He dwells too much on a past that turns out to be partly mischaracterized, as Gwen, when they are reunited on Worlorn after Dirk responds to her summons, bluntly schools him.
“I did call you. You didn’t come.”
A grim smile. “Ah, Dirk. The whisperjewel came in a small box, and taped to it was a note. ‘Please,’ the note said, ‘come back to me now. I need you, Jenny.’ That was what it said. I cried and cried. If you’d only written ‘Gwen,’ if you’d only loved Gwen, me. But no, it was always Jenny, even afterwards, even then.”
Dirk, during their time together, had created a persona for her which he—playfully, he thought, affectionately—used as a private sign of their love. But “Jenny,” his alternate Gwen, was not Gwen. And what Gwen teaches Dirk now, on Worlorn, is the power of names. When you name a thing, she tells him, it becomes that thing. Whether he intended it or not, Gwen had been becoming someone for him she was not for herself. She had to leave and when he called the wrong woman back, she had to refuse or surrender.
The novel is replete with this game of names. The men, the “family” to which Gwen has tied herself, are Kavalars. Kavalan is a harsh world, one that had been cut off from all the other human colonies by a long, savage war, part of which was conducted on Kavalan and formed them into the tradition-bound, violent society of codes and honor and ritual commitment into which Gwen—because she met Jaan Vikary while he was visiting one of the older, more cultured worlds and fell in love with him—has given herself. Names mean everything, and yet they mask inaccuracies parading as history, myth as religious practice, race memory as an excuse to remain unchanged.
Vikary wants to change it all. He is a scholar, something of an oddity among his people, and he has learned the real history of what happened on his world, and understands how that history had been transmuted into myth. Now that the war is long past and recontact with the older colonies has been made, Kavalan looks like a barbaric, hide-bound world of obsolete ritual. Vikary sees the necessity of change if his world is to enter as an equal into the fold of human civilization.
But it will be difficult, almost impossible. Tradition is all the Kavalar have as a source of identity.
Dirk arrives on Worlorn well after the major event that clearly will one day become part of new myths. The Festival. When the world was detected and it was understood that its proximity to certain stars would thaw it, allowing a brief window during which it would support life, 14 of the human worlds came and built exemplary cities and held a great festival. Doomed, to be sure, but a momentary, beautiful gesture, a testament of life against the inevitability of eternal night. For as Worlorn continues on, it will once more freeze and die. All the forests transplanted to its surface will perish, the oceans will turn to ice, as will the atmosphere, and these lovely cities will become fossils for the archaeologists of another galaxy to find and puzzle over. A pointless gesture, in some ways, but a fist in the air and a rude gesture to the gods of entropy.
Gwen is here with her co-spouses because she is, as further resonance with the myth of Eurydice, an ecologist, a woman of the woods, so to speak. She’s here to study the interactions of all these varieties of never-before combined plant and animal life, even as the world itself is dying.
Yet Dirk is convinced she wants to leave her Kavalar husbands, return with him, try again. And for a short while it almost seems true.
What plays out subsequently is a contest between tradition, bigotry, and a desire to cast off chains. Dirk is a catalyst in all this, the necessary ingredient to create the transformations. In so being, he undergoes his own rebirth, which, after all, is the whole point of journeys through the underworld.
The dying in all this is not so nihilistic and tragic as the lines from Dylan Thomas might suggest. The light is fading from several people and institutions in this novel, but that is not Martin’s major revelation. He deftly weaves an understanding of how myth works and how traditions are created and at the same time shows how they become bonds that hold back even while they provide sustenance. But it is not death at the center of this novel but enlightenment, and the things dying are ancient and near-parasitical distortions. Misinterpretation, mischaracterization, and misapplications all dies in the full light of truth. Jaan Vikary is casting light on his own past; Gwen shines new light on Dirk’s incomprehensions; the essence of human is newly revealed by fearless looking. And even if it is not a wholly successful venture, a new accord is struck by the end, that new ways will at least be sought.
Paradoxically, Dirk, who is largely a cipher throughout the novel, finds the possibility of rebirth in an embrace of a very old and oft misunderstood trait learned from the Kavalars he has come to respect—honor. In keeping with the game of names Martin plays throughout, Dirk’s name is telling. t’Larien. Larien is a variant of Lawrence, which comes from the Latin Larentum—place of the laurel leaves. Laurels usually indicate honors, but it can also be seen as a criticism, as is “resting on one’s laurels.” This is the case for Dirk in the beginning—and also the case for some of the other Kavalars present on Worlorn. At the end, Dirk decides it is time to stop living in the past. It may mean a new name. Certainly it means a new beginning. Even as he goes to face a potential death, he has found a new way to live.