Dying of the Light
by George R.R. Martin
Cover Artist: Tom Kidd (also interior illustrations)
Review by April Disney
Subterranean Press Limited Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596062542
Date: 30 September 2012
Dying of the Light is George R.R. Martin's first published novel. Originally released in 1977, it shows Martin as a rising star in worldbuilding. As a debut effort, it's outstanding, but not without flaws.
Worlorn is a rogue planet, cold and lifeless. As it approaches the great black sea, a vast empty area of space, it is terraformed and made into a place of celebration for a few short years before continuing on into the void. The nearby "Fringe" planets each build a city on Worlorn and celebrate the festival for ten years. Now, the planet is moving on away from the suns that temporarily gave it life, but before the terraforming fails, there is unfinished business to be conducted on a world with no codes and no laws. We follow Dirk as he comes to the aid of his ex-lover, Gwen, who is ostensibly on the planet to study the results of mixing ecologies from different worlds in one place. Dirk has no idea what he's getting himself into, of course.
As many fans will attest, Martin has a way with complex characters and complicated relationships. Each member of this cast is fully realized. The biggest flaw in characterization here is with Dirk, the main character. Not enough of his thoughts and feelings are available to the reader, so it feels as though he is only a partially known quantity, despite being the focus of the story. In a way, though, it provides some interesting entertainment - occasionally Dirk does something surprising, so his actions are not all clichéd and predictable.
There is a line between subtle, clever surprises that are within character and those that an author - especially an inexperienced one - places in just for shock value. For the most part, Dirk's actions fit what we know of him, and it's hard to pinpoint what is off about him. It is just that there is a jagged edge to the journey he takes to know and like himself better: his actions and thoughts don't always line up perfectly within that framework. What's great about his character, though, is the way he can be generous and selfish at the same time. He wants to do what's right for those he loves and cares for, even when it hurts him; he also tries to get what he wants out of a given situation, and that's something most people can relate to.
The other characters and their relationships, as well as their relationships to Dirk, are fascinating as a study of human nature. Through these relationships, Martin attacks definitions: what is love? What is slavery? or brotherhood? While it is true that Dirk's (and others') growth of character is subtle, readers will find that there is definitely an arc of philosophical bent present in the story, and it adds to what is otherwise a borderline generic plotline.
The strongest aspect of this novel is the setting and worldbuilding. The concept behind the story is very - dare I use the word? - original and exciting. Building on the idea of a mixture of cultures that come together for the festival, the setting itself can almost be seen as character. Each city is an avatar of the people who built it - people who have gone home now that the festival is over. The cities, man's way of shaping meaning to the chaos, provide contrast to the mashed ecological diversity of Worlorn. This relationship between city and wilderness mirrors mankind's struggle to conquer animalistic instincts, a consideration deeply explored in the novel.
Martin's debut novel has a fantastic concept, enchanting environments, and some great, flawed characters. In any debut, there will be some lack of polish, but there's little enough in this offering that I would recommend it to any Martin fan, as well as any science fantasy fan.