In the outer fringe of the inhabited universe, the rogue planet Worlorn falls darkly through space. But years ago it circled the Wheel of Fire, the brilliant wheel-shaped star system that is worshipped by many in the outworlds. Worlorn, the Wheel of Fire’s only planet, was lit for fifty years before it wandered off again. During that half-century, the outworlds held a cultural diversity festival on Worlorn, with each world trying to outdo the others when building their extravagant temporary cities on a planet they knew they’d only inhabit for a few decades.
Now that Worlorn is fading into darkness again, the cities are almost completely abandoned, but there are a few people left on the planet. When Dirk t’Larien is summoned there by Gwen, the ex-girlfriend he still loves, he discovers that Worlorn is no longer a festival planet. Now it’s dark and dangerous. Worse, though, is that Gwen is now mated to Jaantony Riv Wolf high-Ironjade Vikary, a leader of the Kavalar race which, in order to protect its few women and children, has developed some barbaric customs and codes. Most notably, men form high-bonds with a male partner and may have a wife as a shared piece of property. Jaantony, both a warrior and an academic, is eager for his peoples’ culture to become more liberal towards women, but his is a minority opinion. The man he is bonded to, Garse Janacek, does not agree. And the larger faction of the Kavalar race, including some who are hunting non-Kavalar humans on Worlorn, is happy to find any reason to pick a fight with Jaantony Ironjade. When Dirk gets to Worlorn, he unwittingly walks right into the middle of a tense situation and only makes it worse.
Dying of the Light, first published in 1977, is George R.R. Martin’s debut novel and it’s impressive. The setting is wonderful: a dying planet getting farther and farther away from its sun; abandoned cities; jungles with strange and deadly life forms; fascinating cultures. My favorite feature was the city of Challenge which is a 500-story building housing thousands of apartments and lots of cool amenities. Because it’s run by machines, much of Challenge is still operative though only a handful of people still live there. The most exciting action in Dying of the Light occurs in Challenge — I loved this part of the story.
The clashing cultures that Martin creates are also imaginative and fascinating and he hints at plenty of history and backstory that he never gives us but that make this world feel real. I wish he’d write more about it. I’d love to read about the fifty sunny years on Worlorn, for example.
Unfortunately, none of George R.R. Martin’s characters are likable. Dirk is passive and Gwen is flighty and indecisive. It was hard to root for them as a couple, especially when Jaantony Ironjade was more interesting than Dirk. I’d classify Dying of the Light as a science fiction romantic tragedy (in fact, Dirk, who calls Gwen “Jenny,” likens their situation to the disastrous love triangle in the Arthurian legend) but the romance and the tragedy would have been more effective if Dirk and Gwen had been admirable characters. As it was, I didn’t really care what happened to them in the end.
Overall, Dying of the Light is impressive and surprisingly sophisticated for the first novel of a young author. If you’re a fan of GRRM, it’s a must-read. Dying of the Light was initially serialized in Analog Science Fact/Science Fiction with the name After the Festival in 1977. The novel was nominated for the Hugo and the British Fantasy Award. I read Subterranean Press’s recent publication which has wonderful artwork by Tom Kidd (both glossy color sheets and black and white drawings). I also tried Dying of the Light in audio (recently produced by Random House Audio) and was pleased with Iain Glen’s narration.