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Dying of the Light by George RR Martin
(Gollancz, £6.99, 365 pages, paperback; first published 1977; this edition December 4 2000.)

I haven't had time to sit down and read a fiction book for months, so I picked up George R.R. Martin's Dying of the Light with a sense of anticipation. I had heard rumours that Martin was a "good" cover scanauthor (I am embarrassed to admit that I haven't read him all these years; the book was originally issued in 1977), so I was expecting a competently written story, but I also discovered that Martin writes with a poet's ear for sound and an artist's eye for description. Here's one visual image that haunts the book:

Dirk t'Larien looked up and saw a low black barge drift slowly past in the moonlight. A solitary figure stood in the stern, leaning on a thin dark pole. Everything was etched quite clearly, for Braque's moon was riding overhead, big as a fist and very bright.

The plot begins in straightforward manner: Dirk t'Larien, living on Braque and doing nothing in particular, receives from his old love, Gwen Delvano, a jewel that he gave her many years before. The jewel is a sign that he is to come to her, possibly to renew their love affair. He learns that she is working as an ecologist on the planet Worlorn, and takes a transport there. Worlorn, a wandering rogue planet on the Galaxy's rim, was the site of a great Festival when the planet's path carried it near enough to a star system to warm the planet to livability; a Festival that showcased the cities and technology of a dozen nearby worlds. Now the planet is receding from the star system, doomed to perpetual winter and the eternal night of interstellar space. The displays and cities built for the Festival are closed and abandoned, and only a few scientists and misfits remain.

Dirk disembarks into this inhospitable setting to find that his Gwen is aloof and polite, not delighted to see him, and she has brought a co-worker along with her for their lovers' reunion. Worse still, he discovers that she has married during the years they have been separated, and apparently her invitation to him was for her to cut final ties with him in a neat and tidy manner. But hours later Dirk discovers that her marriage is an unhappy one, the jewel might be a cry for help from her to be rescued, and that perhaps she still loves him after all. Things are further complicated by the fact that some members of the tribal/ethnic group she married into, the Kavalar, have taken up illegally hunting other human inhabitants of Worlorn for sport. There is friction bordering on open warfare between the different factions of the Kavalar, and Dirk becomes the catalyst for events that spiral out of control.

Every twist in the plot is a logical extension of the personalities involved, every frailty and poor decision based on each character's strengths and weaknesses. Martin shows how culture can be both a prison and a source of strength, how each person's worldview blinds them to the worldviews of others, how heroes and villains are sometimes interchangeable. The history of the Kavalar, so central to the plot, is presented smoothly in dialogue and not in huge expository chunks; the magnificent setting of Worlorn blends with the mood of the characters without being obtrusive, and, while this is no cheery space opera, it is an ultimately satisfying story. In tone it reminded me more of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest than of most sf books.

As a final note, Dying of the Light has an excellent Jim Burns cover -- poorly framed and cropped, but still accurately showing the planet and the aircar described in the text, and capturing some of the magic of the book's setting.

For a book written in 1977, Dying of the Light hasn't the slightest air of being outdated. I'm looking forward to reading more of Martin's books -- I have some catching up to do.

Review by Lynn Perkins.

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© Lynn Perkins 12 January 2002