Telepaths, soul-sucking blobs, and humanoids on an alien planet are not the three keys to selling an intelligent, mature sci-fi story. Yet these are precisely the main plot devices of George R.R. Martin’s 1974 A Song for Lya. Rooted in the poem “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, the novella is undoubtedly amongst the author’s most thoughtful, most human works, and well worth a read for anyone interested in the ruminative side of the author.
Lya a telepath and her partner Robb able to read emotions, the duo are called to the main city on the planet Shkeen to solve a problem the human colony have with the native population. The Shkeens existing for 14,000 years without evolving, they practice a mysterious cult which at first was only a novelty to the colonists. But it has begun claiming humans too, and the colony’s governor Valcarenghi wants to know why. Called the Cult of the Union, joiners become deliriously happy and walk the streets ringing bells, a Greeshk now attached and eating away at their body. In a year’s time, the Greeshk becomes full grown, leading its host to full Union and death in the city’s caves. Valcarenghi concern growing as more and more humans abandon their posts and join the mysterious cult, he sends Lya and Robb to investigate the reason for the attraction. What the two discover will change their relationship forever.
Whether it be through drugs, the senses, dreams, or technology, Robert Silverberg’s A Time of Changes, John Varley’s The Peristence of Vision, Ursula Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, Joe Haldeman’s Forever Peace and many other books have in some way examined the concept of the communal mind. Emotion and spirit based, A Song for Lya is Martin’s take on the concept, and by examining the idea of giving one’s mind and body to a larger community, the author proves that he’s not all dragons and vampires. In fact a deeply human story which does not cheat the reader by featuring maudlin dialogue or a trite ending, the novella is a mature read that exposes something real and unanswerable in humans. A beautiful story written in fluid, graceful prose, its ideas linger, perhaps even haunt the reader after they’ve turned the last page.