There is a variety of contexts in which a writer’s imagination can be viewed. The profound depth of a single idea (e.g. Orwell’s 1984 or Golding’s Lord of the Flies), the degree to which a concept can be tied to the reader’s psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physical reality (e.g. Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game), the number of internal touch-points ideas have when interwoven (e.g. William Gibson’s Neuromancer), the depths of the sub-conscious plumbed (e.g. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day), the brilliance of language (e.g. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), details of word building (e.g. Tolkien’s Middle Earth or George R.R. Martin’s Westeros), etc., etc., are all different perspectives on judging the quality of imagination in a book. Its imaginative scope unparalleled, Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth is as fantastic as literature gets—somewhere between literally and figuratively.
Like Don Quixote stumbling upon Alice’s Wonderland, Jack Vance conjures some of the most fantastical and satirical of settings and events in Tales of the Dying Earth. The scenes continually topping one another for brilliance, the collection of stories is a feast for the imagination that gets more delightful with each page turned. The list of magicians and their fortes near the beginning of “Rhialto the Marvellous”, for example, contains more unique ideas than the works of fantasists like Eddings, Feist, and Brooks combined. Stories that must be experienced to be believed, there is perhaps no more colorfully fantastic book in all of literature.
Tales consists of a variety of works bound together by setting. (This connection is tenuous at best, the universe of the mind perhaps the only fully inclusive context in which to read the Dying Earth.) The collection opens with some of the first short stories Vance ever wrote. Style yet to fully mature, the adventures contained in "The Dying Earth" of the magicians and their protégés nevertheless give every indication of what is to come. Cugel—thief, hero, and human in every bone—is simply the greatest rogue in literature, and the subject of the two volumes at the heart of the collection: “Eyes of the Overworld” and “Cugel’s Saga”. Closing out the book is the collection of short stories “Rhialto the Marvellous” that, while lacking the singular antics of Cugel, nevertheless up the ante imaginatively and close the collection as a whole in style and grace.
Picaresque as picaresque can be, each of the stories, novel length or less, are imbued with a sense of enjoyment that shows Vance fully capable of bringing a smile to the reader’s face while telling an absorbing tale. A master wordsmith, dialogue—Vance’s forte—will either put readers off for reasons they have trouble identifying, or turn readers on, their eyes dancing across the pages with delight. For the latter, reading Vance is pure pleasure, the juxtaposition of situation and voice head-shakingly lovable. Subtle but poignant, each story is likewise permeated by a profound understanding of the motives underpinning human nature. Cugel’s greed, Morreion’s nonchalance, and Liane’s pride are all indicative of mankind, as are the esoteric yet wholly believable religions, cults, cultures, and characters encountered in their travels. Style inimitable, the collection is Vance at his peak.
In the end, Tales of the Dying Earth is as imaginative as fantasy gets. The people, ideas, settings, motifs, plots, etc. are truly an unmatched presentation of the capability of the human mind. Style indescribably unique, it’s best to first sample Vance’s writing before taking the plunge and buying one of his books. Numerous have tried to define it (“wry”, “baroque”, “tongue-in-cheek”, “comically over-formal”, etc), but try as hard as they like, nothing compares to the real experience. It will either be loved or hated, so best to try before. For those who find it enjoyable, the collection is the best of Vance’s work and one of the greatest treats of fantasy. It is certainly the most imaginative—from a certain point of view.