“Dying of the Light” was George R. R. Martin’s first published novel, and displays his great skill in strong and nuanced characterisation that pervades his later, more successful works. It’s a very melancholy, poetic affair, far more concerned with exploring the psyches of its characters than providing any sort of propulsive plot. It oozes decay and death.
Taking its title from the lines “Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light” in Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”, the novel is part of the “Dying Earth” fantasy/science-fiction subgenre, popularised by one of Martin’s favourite authors, Jack Vance. Dying Earth stories take place in some form of decaying setting, whether the end of the universe, or the slightly less dramatic death of a planet, as is the case in this novel. The genre lends itself to a world-weary, melancholy tone, and this novel certainly has that. Rather than plunge into any real science-fiction
Rather than plunge into any real science-fiction aspects however, Martin spends the vast majority of the novel’s time exploring the relationship between protagonist Dirk t’Larien, and his ex-girlfriend Gwen Delvano, who now is married (in a fashion) to roughly the equivalent of a clan chief in a somewhat barbaric culture. The novel begins with Dirk travelling to the planet Gwen currently lives on, many years after she left him, after she activates a signal she said she’d only ever activate to summon him if she truly needed him. The themes of decay, loss of innocence, and world-weariness rise through the exploration of their relationship (both as it was, as it is, and as it could be) rather than more science-fiction focused concepts. The novel is definitely soft science-fiction in that sense, which is vastly more interesting to me than any sort of hard science-fiction story focusing more on technology and ideas than characters.
Dirk has deeply missed Gwen, the person he was when he was with her, and how happy and fulfilled he felt when in his relationship with her. Gwen’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations are murkier, and steadily revealed throughout the novel – learning more about their relationship, and her perspective on it, drove me on in the novel, even when the pacing wasn’t particularly well-done (any real time-sensitive plot movements don’t really spring up until over halfway through the novel).
I can see the somewhat “ambiguous” ending frustrating some, but the novel was never about plot, it was always about its characters and how they approached life, death, and the decay in-between, so it worked for me. It fits tonally, so it’s melancholy, but it is liberating in its own way.
The novel is part of Martin’s “The Thousand Worlds” “series” – I hesitate to call it that, since it’s far more a setting. Series implies works to be read sequentially, and that’s not the case with “The Thousand Worlds”, which is just a science-fiction setting Martin set many short stories, and a few novels, in. More “Wild Cards” or “Star Wars” than “A Song of Ice and Fire” or “Dune”.
Again, the characterisation is absolutely excellent. The chief five characters – Dirk, Gwen, Jaantony, Garse, and Ruark – all feel strikingly realistic (they’re all detailed roughly in descending order too). Every movement in the plot is a natural extension and consequence of the personalities of these characters; everything is cohesive and feels organic.
At my particular time of reading now, the novel resonated with me plenty, and I felt it was an excellent – though not exactly pleasant – exploration of decayed people, and decayed relationships. I give it four glowstones, and a city of ghosts.