Who Goes There?
Indeed who. George R. R. Martin is one of the most famous authors in the world today; even people who don’t read books at all (the poor devils) probably recognize him. In 1996 he began the series that would make him a household name, the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, a landmark title in low fantasy with five books so far and a sixth coming out… at some point. On top of being famous, Martin has also become infamous for, among other things, seemingly refusing to release the last two volumes of his series, and while Martin obviously isn’t obligated to finish his work for anyone else’s sake, one can’t help but get a sense that there’s a cynical motive at play here. Regardless, unless something disastrous happens—like, say, Martin coming out as a rabid homophobe or transphobe—this man’s legacy is more or less settled.
There’s just one problem, though: it’s not.
Martin’s uber-success with A Song of Ice and Fire has had the perverse effect of all but burying the fact that he was one of the most promising writers of science fiction to debut in the ’70s. Hitting the professional scene with “The Hero” in 1971, Martin would be nominated for the inaugural
John W. Campbell Astounding Award for Best New Writer, losing to Jerry Pournelle, and the nomination was well-earned! By 1973 he showed himself to be a lyrical and emotional earnest author, not letting hard science get in the way of strong character writing and evocative imagery. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” was, according to the Thousand Worlds fandom wiki (more on that in a bit), written in the summer of 1971 before being published in the May 1973 issue of Analog Science Fiction. Despite appearing at first to be just another short story, “With Morning Comes Mistfall” would go on to earn Martin his first Hugo and Nebula nominations, and as we’re about to see those nominations are very much earned.
Now, ISFDB lists “If Morning Comes Mistfall” as a standalone story, which it functionally is. However, the aforementioned Thousand Worlds fandom wiki has an article on the story, listing it as part of that shared continuity. Does it make a difference if it’s part of the Thousand Worlds series? Not really. I just think it’s funny whenever the people who run ISFDB disagree with somebody. Get a load of this:
The Thousand Worlds wiki lists this as part of that series, although by their own admission it is “only a tenuous link” based on a planet name also referenced in a different story in that series.
You don’t see that kind of note on ISFDB a lot.
This issue of Analog is…… NOT on the Archive.
I know, I’m sorry! If you want it you’re gonna have to get a used copy the old-fashioned way. I guess there’s also Luminist, but I don’t find their layout to be as intuitive, you can’t view an issue in-browser, and most importantly… their PDFs tend to be HUGE. Like we’re talking 100 megabytes or bigger, so big that you can’t even preview the file you’re about to download. It’s like I’ve entered an alternate timeline where file compression isn’t a thing.
On the bright side, it’s not like “With Morning Comes Mistfall” has only been reprinted two times. It showed up in the collection A Song for Lya, which covers a good deal of Martin’s ’70s output, and of course it appeared in some anthologies from that period, such as the third volume of Lester del Rey’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year. If you want a recent reprint, and assuming you don’t mind putting in a few more dollars, we have the first volume of Dreamsongs, which covers most of the material in A Song for Lya as well as additional stories.
Normally I don’t pay mind to story blurbs, but this one (not sure if it was written by Martin or editor Ben Bova) caught my attention:
Man’s curiosity drives him to seek the answer to every question. But it’s the unanswered questions which are the most exciting.
It’s about as succinct a mission statement as you can get, all while giving absolutely none of the plot away. Not that there’s much of a plot to begin with. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” is a hard story to spoil because it’s far more driven by characters and themes than by the movements of its narrative, which themselves are not hard to anticipate. It’s a very simple story, but it’s also Campbellian in the best way possible, in the sense that implies the existence of something great that was previously outside the realm of human knowledge; you could call it secular mysticism. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” could have very feasibly been printed in Campbell’s Analog, and this seems to be the mode in which Martin wrote his eariest professional-grade fiction. The result is a story which lacks characteristics we would now associate with Martin; there’s no foul language, nothing too violent happens, and female characters aren’t being forced into sexually degrading situations.
But more on that later.
With all that said, I’ll try my best to give you something of a plot summary, and for better or worse, the spoiler section will be pretty short this time around. So…
A journalist travels to the desolate planet of Wraithworld, a planet that remains almost entirely uninhabited. There’s only one human establishment on the whole planet, that being Castle Cloud, a hotel and casino owned by Paul Sanders. The journalist has come to talk to Sanders about the wraiths, a supposed mythical species lurking the depths of the mist-covered landscape. Nobody has ever gotten concrete evidence that that wraiths exist, but much like Bigfoot or the Jersey Devil, their mysteriousness makes them a magnet for tourism; while the sights of Wraithworld are nothing to sneeze at, people largely come for the wraiths. What I’m trying to say is that this story is about cryptids, which immediately makes it up my alley.
Sanders is a bit of a subversive character; despite being a business owner, and being described physically as rather rotund (something often attributed stereotypically to greedy businessmen), Sanders turns out to not be of that sort. The journalist quickly finds that Sanders is indeed taken by the mysterious beauty of Wraithworld. When the journalist notes the rising of the mists over the mountain range (Castle Cloud was built on the highest peak), we get this:
“Is it always like this?” I asked Sanders, after drinking it all in for a while.
“Every mistfall,” he replied, turning toward me with a wistful smile. He was a fat man, with a jovial red face. Not the sort who should smile wistfully. But he did.
He gestured toward the east, where Wraithworld’s sun rising above the mists made a crimson and orange spectacle of the dawn sky.
“The sun,” he said. “As it rises, the heat drives the mists back into the valleys, forces them to surrender the mountains they’ve conquered during the night. The mists sink, and one by one the peaks come into view. By noon the whole range is visible for miles and miles. There’s nothing like it on Earth, or anywhere else.”
The conflict comes in when Charles Dubowski, a renowned scienist, comes to Castle Cloud, and he too is here for the wraiths. More specifically Dubowski is here with a team to scan as far and as thoroughly as they can to see if the wraiths are real or a fabrication. We’re presented with a triangle of conflict—two sides ideologically opposed with a third as the more or less neutral presence. Dubowski wants to disprove the existence of the wraiths while Sanders wants to keep the wraiths’ existence ambiguous. Does it hurt that Sanders profits immensely off of people coming to Wraithworld to see if they can spot any wraiths? Of course not, but that’s not the point. It’s worth mentioning too that while Dubowski is written less sympathetically, he’s by no measn evil; his worldview simply conflicts with Sanders’s, whom the journalist takes more of a liking to.
Now, something that caught my eye reading the story this time around is the fact that not only is the journalist (who’s also the first-person narrator) nameless, but also genderless. There are only three principal characters in this thing and two of them are confirmed dudes, yet there’s nothing to indicate one way or another what gender the narrator is. This might be for the best. Personally I like to think the narrator is a woman, but I assume Martin wrote this voice with a man in mind. Otherwise there aren’t any female characters of any importance, which hey, it’s not like there’s any in-your-face sexism around here. I also like that the journalist, who’s a relatively passive character, is the narrator, since it focuses the action on the war of worldviews between Sanders and Dubowski.
We get to find out some more about Wraithworld, a setting which Martin chooses not to describe in excessive detail. That the narrator is a journalist (as was Martin before he got into writing SFF) helps explain the perfunctory style; we aren’t burdened with learning about anything that we don’t have to. We know Wraithworld is a failed colony. We know there was something called the Gregor expedition, in which some explorers were driven to madness, claiming they had come into contact with tall apelike creatures that were immune to bullets. There were a few deaths, and there’ve been more since then, often assumed to be due to the wraiths. What began as an anomaly soon turned into myth.
And the legend of the mist wraiths was born, and began to grow. Other ships came to Wraithworld, and a trickle of colonists came and went, and Paul Sanders landed one day and erected the Castle Cloud so the public might safely visit the mysterious planet of the wraiths.
Not that Wraithworld has much else going for it. The mists cover everything below the tops of the highest mountains by nightfall, and the soil is not good for farming. As a colony, Wraithworld’s potential would be pretty low. On the plus side, the air seems to be breathable; we never get an in-depth explanation for the world’s climate, but the atmosphere’s mix and density must be Earthlike enough for people to walk around without space suits. All the better. Martin doesn’t bog the story down with details that might distract us from what is ultimately a fable or a mood piece, and what a tightly structured fable it is. That the ending is easily predictable is a non-issue, since in order for Martin’s thesis to work, the story must end in a certain way.
There Be Spoilers Here
After accompanying Dubowski and his men through the forests and mountains in search of the wraiths, the journalist gets the creeping feeling that Dubowski is right, that the wraiths were a product of hysteria—a hunch that turns out to be correct. Shortly before Dubowski is about to give a press conference about his findings, he lets Sanders and the journalist in on the conclusion of his research: the wraiths aren’t real. They didn’t find any, no matter how much manpower and tech they used. Sanders is not a happy man as he tries, with hope fading, to convince Dubowski that there might be wraiths in the mists after all.
Sanders raised his eyes from his drink. They were bitter eyes. “Gregor,” he said stubbornly. “Gregor and the other classics.”
Dubowski’s smile became a smirk. “Ah, yes. We searched that area quite thoroughly. My theory was right. We found a tribe of apes nearby. Big brutes. Like giant baboons, with dirty white fur. Not a very successful species, either. We found only one small tribe, and they were dying out. But clearly, that was what Gregor’s man sighted. And exaggerated all out of proportion.”
The discovery ruins Sanders’s business, of course. People no longer come to Wraithworld looking for wraiths. It does, on the other hand, take off as a colony, albeit a minor one. More people come to the planet, but all three main characters go their separate ways, with the journalist leaving to cover other events, Dubowski continuing his studies elsewhere, and Sanders leaving Castle Cloud to be condemned; we never find out what becomes of him, ultimately. It’s a somber ending, but it’s not the end of the world by any means, as the journalist comes to find. Normally I don’t like to quote the endings of stories, but I have to do it with this one—I think it’s too lovely. The yearning in these final words is palpable.
“Otherwise the planet hasn’t changed much. The mists still rise at sunset, and fall at dawn. The Red Ghost is still stark and beautiful in the early morning light. The forests are still there, and the rockcats still prowl.
Only the wraiths are missing.
Only the wraiths.
Gets my emotions going, even more so the second time around. Martin knows what the perfect note to end on is and he goes with it. Like everything else it feels like the act of an artist who is totally in control of his faculties, and I just adore it.
A Step Farther Out
This is a very different kind of writing from Martin than what most people are used to. It’s poetic, but not over-encumbered with purple language. It’s retrained, coming in at about fifteen pages, exhibiting a very young writer (Martin would’ve only been 22 when he wrote it) who’s also trying his utmost to be disciplined with his craft. Apparently Martin wrote “With Morning Comes Mistfall” shortly before another great early outing of his, “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” though the latter would be published first. I would not have guessed, since while “The Second Kind of Loneliness” certainly does hone in on the mood it wants, the slightly older story here feels more like the work of a mature writer. On top of that, Martin comes through with a discernable statement here, about the nature of beauty and about a certain quality that something beautiful should ideally have—that is to say, an air of mystery about it.
Despite Paul Sanders being a bsuiness type, Martin clearly sympathizes with him because, in the context of the story, Sanders is also an artist, with Wraithworld as his piece or perhaps his muse. That Sanders never comes to understand totally how this planet works, and that we the readers are denied a lot of details (What does a rockcat look like, anyway?), reinforces this notion that in order for something to bewitch us with what seems to be an unspeakable beauty, we can only know so much about it. Indeed, there are things about a thing of beauty that we shouldn’t know; too much knowledge would take away the mystery of it, and after all, the most mysterious things are also the most alluring.
I think “With Morning Comes Mistfall” is Martin’s early masterpiece; it’s certainly the best of his ’70s output that I’ve read so far, or at least it’s my favorite of the bunch. It lost the Hugo that year to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the Nebula to James Tiptree Jr.’s “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.” Now that’s some pretty intimidating competition right there! “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a stone-cold classic, one that’s still being much read and talked about today (God forbid if you’re forced to have a classroom discussion about it), and undeniably it’s more layered than Martin’s story. Still, if we’re talking about pure enjoyability in the act of reading a story, about reading something perfectly simple and yet poignant, about catching a young writer at the very moment when he becomes a serious artist, then I would have voted for Martin.
See you next time.
3 responses to “Short Story Review: “With Morning Comes Mistfall” by George R. R. Martin”
Count me intrigued — I still have yet to read any of his early SF short stories. I have a collection and two early novels on the shelf. I’m relentlessly intrigued by the strange alien world with its mysterious. The best along these lines I’ve read so far is Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow (1981) which I placed on my best reads of 2021 list.
*with its mysteries. Feel free to modify the original comment to reflect the edit. Alas, didn’t press cancel fast enough.
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