Most of the writers here at The Fandomentals are fans of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (from now on, “GRRM” and “ASOIAF”). It’s how I came across this site in first place. But how many of us have read GRRM’s other, non-ASOIAF related stories? A few weeks ago, I would be forced to admit that, despite almost obsessively loving his masterpiece fantasy series, I never read anything else GRRM wrote. Enter A Song for Lya.
It’s funny how there are moments when we learn something about a story—a synopsis, a quote, an analysis—that make us decide we have to read it. After finding (careful, lots of spoilers) this amazing meta by tumblr user @joannalannister, I realized I had to read A Song for Lya. I had to know why the story ended the way it did and if it was every bit as fascinating and heartbreaking as I thought it could be.
For those of you unfamiliar with it, A Song for Lya is a science fiction novella first published in Analog Magazine in 1974. It’s one of GRRM’s oldest published literary works, winning the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 1975. It’s fast and easy to read, in two hours I was done. And, spoilers, it’s every bit as fascinating and heartbreaking as I thought it could be, and then some more.
Spoilers for the entire story from this moment on (though the analysis is mostly spoiler-free).
Content warning: suicide.
A Song of Cry and Feels
A Song for Lya follows two humans with special Talents on a disturbing quest that takes them to the distant planet of Shkea. Our narrator Robb is an empath, able to read people’s feelings, and his lover Lyanna is a telepath, with the ability to read thoughts. Lyanna is a major Talent and her abilities are stronger than Robb’s, but also more demanding.
One of the oldest civilizations in space, the culture of Shkea is more than fourteen thousand years old. Yet their inhabitants, the humanoid shkeen, seem perpetually stuck in Bronze Age. The relationship between humans and shkeen is recent, with the human settlement in Shkea being less than a decade old, but problems are already starting to arise.
The shkeen worship a blob-like parasite called the greeshka. Before they turn forty, each shkeen citizen willingly let themselves be slowly eaten by the greeshka, a process called Joining. Before they’re fifty, the process reaches its end, the Final Union, with said shkeen being completely absorbed.
This could be none of our human business, but dozens of humans are joining the Cult of the Union. Currently one percent of the people in the human settlement are, to quote one of the characters, “choosing a religion that includes a very unpleasant form of suicide.” Why? That’s the question Robb and Lyanna were called to answer, using their Talents to understand what’s going on with these people.
With the help of the planetary administrator Dino Valcarenghi, his aide Nelson Gourlay, and the extee anthropologist Laurie Blackburn, with whom Dino has a romantic relationship, Robb and Lyanna begin to understand the shkeen culture. For an alien race, the shkeen are remarkably similar to us, as Robb notices when he starts reading the shkeen’s feelings. Their emotions seem to him less sophisticated and more primitive than ours, but understandable and real. More importantly, no suicidal tendencies or anything abnormal with this species that has a 100% suicide rate.
Robb and Lyanna begin to understand the appeal of the Union when they meet their first Joined shkeen. The greeshka is a mindless parasite, lacking the slightest spark of a conscience, but they’re the medium that connects the Joined. Those Joined are still themselves, but sharing each other’s minds and feelings. And they’re happy. All of them. As Lyanna notes:
“They love us,” she said. “You must know that, but oh, I felt it, they do love us. And it’s so deep. Below that love there’s more love, and below that more, and on and on forever. Their minds are so deep, so open. I don’t think I’ve ever read a human that deeply. Everything is right at the surface, right there, their whole lives and all their dreams and feelings and memories and oh—I just took it in, swept it up with a reading, a glance. With men, with humans, it’s so much work. I have to dig, I have to fight, and even then I don’t get down very far.”
The repeated contact with the minds of the Joined, particularly after they finally meet the human Joined Gustaffson and Kamenz, causes Lyanna to question everything she thinks she knows about love and connection. Being Talents, she an Robb can enjoy love in a way most humans could only dream of. Normal humans only have “a touch and a voice”, how can they know each other? How can they know they’re loved? They’re always apart, always guessing, always trying to reach each other. Not Lyanna and Robb, though. They’re the lucky ones. Yet:
“The Joined—when they ring—they’re so together, Robb. All linked. Like us when we make love, almost. And they love each other, too. And they love us, so intensely. I felt—I don’t know. But Gustaffson loves me as much as you do. No. He loves me more. (…) Oh, Robb. Please. I don’t mean to hurt you. It’s not you. It’s all of us. What do we have, compared to them?”
If what Lya and Robb have is love, then what is this feeling that she shares in when she reads the shkeen? The shkeen together, truly together. Lyanna and Robb know each other as well as human beings can ever know each other, but how much is that?
“I read you, yes. I can hear the words rattling around in your head as you fit a sentence together before saying it. (…) But it’s all on the surface, Robb, all on the top. Below it, there’s more, more of you. Drifting half-thoughts I don’t quite catch. Feelings I can’t put a name to. Passions you suppress, and memories even you don’t know you have. Sometimes I can get to that level. Sometimes. If I really fight, if I drain myself to exhaustion. But when I get there, I know—I know—that there’s another level below that. And more and more, on and on, down and down. I can’t reach them, Robb, though they’re part of you. I don’t know you. I can’t know you. You don’t even know yourself, see? And me, do you know me? No. Even less.”
In the end, humans are always apart somehow, “each alone in a big, dark, empty universe”. But not the shkeen. When the greeshka absorbs them, they become part of each other. They know everything there is to know about each other, every level, every layer, the good and the bad, and they still love each other deeply. This makes Lyanna question the limits of human love:
“You say I’m perfect, and that you love me. I’m so right for you. But am I? Robb, I read your thoughts. (…) I am those things, Robb, because you want me to be, because I love you, because I can feel the joy in your mind at every right thing that I do. I never set out to do it that way, but it happened. (…) But is it really you? Is it really me? What if I wasn’t perfect, you see, if I was just myself, with all my faults and the things you don’t like out in the open? Would you love me then? I don’t know. But Gustaffson would, and Kamenz. I know that, Robb. I saw it. I know them. Their levels… vanished. I KNOW them, and if I went back I could share with them, more than with you. And they know me, the real me, all of me, I think. And they love me. You see? You see?“
Forgive me if I’m over-quoting this book, but the dialogues between Robb and Lyanna are pure gold, a proof of Martin’s storytelling abilities.
Robb and Lyanna believe they can find more answers if they visit the Caves of the Union, home of the main blob of greeshka and where the Final Union takes place. On the night before, however, Lyanna disappears.
Persuaded by Dino Valcarenghi, Robb visits the caves without her. When he meets the main greeshka and tries to read its feelings, he begins to understand what the more Talented Lyanna was sensing:
I opened myself. And the mindstorm hit. But it’s wrong to call it a mindstorm. It was immense and awesome and intense, searing and blinding and choking. But it was peaceful too, and gentle with a gentleness that was more violent than human hate. (…) It filled me and emptied me all at once. And I heard the bells somewhere, clanging a harsh bronze song, a song of love and surrender and togetherness, of joining and union and never being alone. (…) its violence was the violence of love.
Feeling one with the universe, Robb would have delivered himself to the greeshka right there, if not for the interference of Valcarenghi. He wakes up a few hours later, with Lyanna still missing.
At night, he dreams he’s alone on a darkling plain and she comes to him. She says she could no longer stay in that place, forever alone, with only a touch and a voice to keep her going. The Union called her, every night she could feel the same mindstorm that Robb felt in the cave. And she Joined it. Her Talent made her used to sharing, made her ready to go straight to Final Union.
Lya is now connected to billions of shkeen, to all shkeen that have lived and Joined the Union in more than fourteen thousand years. Now they will live forever, knowing each other entirely, belonging and sharing, in an immortal love. She’ll never be alone again. She and Robb were the lucky ones, but this is better. And she wants Robb to be a part of that happiness. To Join them. To Join her, and love her as he never could before.
But Robb doesn’t.
When he wakes up, he knows this wasn’t just a dream. And he knows he has to leave Shkea as soon as possible, otherwise he may not resist the temptation to follow Lya. Before he leaves, he tells Valcarenghi what he learned:
“That’s why your men are converting, Dino, that’s why people are going over. They’ve found God, or as much of a God as they’re ever likely to find. The Union is a mass-mind, an immortal mass-mind, many in one, all love. (…) Maybe it didn’t create the universe, but it’s love, pure love, and they say that God is love, don’t they? Or maybe what we call love is a tiny piece of God. I don’t care, whatever it is, the Union is it. The end of the search for the Shkeen, and for Man too. We’re alike after all, we’re so alike it hurts.”
The whole exchange between them is wonderful, because Dino has the emotional range of a teaspoon and is not convinced.
As he leaves Shkea, Robb wonders why he didn’t follow Lya if he believed what he told Valcarenghi, if could feel what she felt:
“Maybe because I’m not sure. Maybe I still hope, for something still greater and more loving than the Union, for the God they told me of so long ago. Maybe I’m taking a risk, because part of me still believes. But if I’m wrong… then the darkness, and the plain… But maybe it’s something else, (…) perhaps there is a human answer, to reach and join and not be alone, and yet to still be men.”
Laurie Blackburn is also going back home, in the same ship as Robb. It’s implied she left the planet because of Dino, who gave her everything she could’ve asked for “except himself”. Robb and Laurie spend the night together, both heartbroken but still human, softening each other’s darkness.
Though the emotionally devastating ending becomes obvious soon, that’s hardly important. The novella is beautifully written, a touching and heartbreaking story with rich and complex characters, raising important questions on the human condition and the relationships we create with each other.
If you think GRRM is a nihilist, you haven’t been paying attention
I have to confess I can’t, and I don’t really want to, avoid the lens of being an ASOIAF fan. It fascinates me to see in this story some of the themes that will play a major role in ASOIAF. Beyond familiar names like “Robb” and “Lyanna”, beyond songs and towers, A Song for Lya is about isolation, relationships, and trying to endure the darkness together. It’s “the human heart in conflict with itself” at its finest.
I always had trouble understanding readers who see Martin as a nihilist and ASOIAF as an exaltation of grimdark, and this novella only reinforced that opinion. Yes, I’m aware that Westeros is a hellhole full of violence and rape and ice zombies, where everybody we love dies horribly. Yes, I’m aware that A Song for Lya basically suggests that we’ll be alone forever in the darkness, unable to reach each other unless we’re devoured by a parasite. Yes. But that’s not the point.
Just because GRRM doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts, it doesn’t mean he glorifies them. He simply doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships of our reality, and that’s even clearer in A Song for Lya. Don’t expect from him a standard fantasy happy ending, with all good characters living a long and fulfilling life and all bad ones getting their comeuppance. Life doesn’t work this way and he knows it. Not every one gets a happily ever after, why pretend otherwise? He can’t give us certainties because there are none. He can’t give us easy answers because they don’t exist. The only thing he can give us is hope. Just a fool’s hope, as I have been told…
And he does give that. A Song for Lya is heartbreaking story, with a bleak and sad ending. It’s also a hopeful ending. It’s an ending that acknowledges the world kinda sucks sometimes, it’s not like we planned for it to be this way, it’s just how it is. But hey, there’s this light in the end of the tunnel, there’s this possibility that we make the darkling plain less dark, even if for a moment, and isn’t that kind of the point?
The darkling plain is not the point; the touch and the voice are. The point is not the grimdark, but how to survive it, and to value the small moments and connections that keep us going.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
The concept of a “darkling plain”, central in A Song for Lya, comes from a poem called Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Though the poem is not quoted directly, it’s constantly referenced and said to be one of Lyanna’s favorites.
In A Song for Lya, being alone on a darkling plain is a part of being human. We can find each other, reach each other, yes, but how much? For how long? Do we ever really know each other? Could we? Would we love each other if we knew all there is to know, about ourselves and the other?
The shkeen offer the ultimate love, with wholeness, togetherness, never being alone again. It’s tempting, right? Yet it takes away what makes us… us. We’re incomplete creatures, each of us flawed in our own particular way. And because we’re flawed, because we’re missing something, we develop our dreams, our desires, our goals. We act, we create, we create connections, to people, to things, to places. If we became whole, if we became one with the universe, would we still do that? Would we still be us?
And look at us. How beautiful is that, even imperfect and lacking as we are, with our limited and incomplete love, we can still make such strong connections? We can still reject the darkness, even if for brief moments? And though we’re tired and alone, we keep going, we keep forging new relationships, we keep loving. We are the lucky ones, even if the darkling plain is still there.
A Song for Lya celebrates the connections we do manage to forge, the small moments we feel we’re not alone, and our capacity for love even among loss and fear. And it’s not just people: we can find comfort in art, in our pets, in nature, in places… even in stories. I connected to this book, it meant something to me, it made my darkling plain a little less dark. Think about it: a 68-year-old American writer told a story more than forty years ago and this story reached me, it resonated with me, it affected me, even if he never learns about that. How amazingly wonderful this is? And now you, my reader, becomes a part of that, sharing this feeling, building your own thoughts about it.
Yes, all we have is a touch and a voice. But oh boy, how powerful those can be.
Image credits: cover art for the French edition by Marc Simonetti and cover art for the GRRM’s sci-fi story collection published by Babbage Press.