Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review of "Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance" ed. by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois

(Note: this review is for the collection as a whole rather than individual short stories.)

Encomium is a tribute album created in the ‘90s in honor of Led Zeppelin.  (Have patience, this review is about the Dying Earth.) The artists who contributed were given free rein, save repeat performances.  With Zeppelin’s oeuvre the field of choice and all musical interpretations welcome, some of the performers decided to contribute safe, emulative covers much in the vein of the originals, while others chose to experiment, trying their own band’s style on a Zeppelin tune.  The result is an eclectic album that remains listenable for both its differences and similarities to the Zeppelin originals, not to mention the limited number of tributes.  Sadly, Songs of the Dying Earth, the anthology of short stories in honor of Jack Vance, does not parallel this concept. 
Vance being one of the most important writers in sci-fi, the idea of creating a tribute anthology in his honor seems wholly appropriate.  But when actually made a reality, something was lost.  Rather than leave the gates wide open for the all-star cast of writers to contribute as they pleased, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, editors of the 2009 anthology, saw fit to limit them to the Dying Earth.  While this setting alone is imaginative enough to allow an infinite number of yarns, such limitation would be the same as Encomium’s producers preventing bands from interpreting anything other than “Stairway to Heaven”.  What kind of tribute would that be?

Another problem is quantity.  With twenty-three stories in play (almost twice the number of a typical short story collection), it seems anybody who contributed was published, no filter in place to weed out sub-par performances.  With such a large number of writers solicited, surely the editors could have chosen the best of, rather than simply putting them all in the 620 page (620 pages of short stories!) collection?

When these two issues are combined, suffice to say, the individual pieces of Songs of the Dying Earth too quickly meld together, individuality and unique expression muddled in the press.  Every story in the anthology seems to feature a red sun fading on the horizon, wily magicians, pelgranes, roguery, attempts at clever Vancian dialogue, deodands, as well as a dearth of magical-mystical names for spells and places that only sometimes live up to the quality of the originator’s. 
Vance’s oeuvre—Durdane, Alastor, Lyonesse, etc.—would have been a much better playground for Martin and Dozois to allow their talented cast of writers to frolic in.  Vance having probably penned his last, such a collection would give readers one more opportunity to experience the Pnume, check in on what Kirth is doing now, or learn what events have transpired on Blue World since the death of King Kragen.  Creative writers like Dan Simmons, Robert Silverberg, Jeff Vandermeer and the like would have also been free to come up with their own Vancian settings, characters, and motifs.  Alas, such is not the case.  These writers must huddle together, bumping elbows, and drawing lines over one another in the relatively limited space of the Dying Earth.
For readers who indulge only in epic or high fantasy, the length and uniformity of the collection will probably go overlooked, and the similarity of the details, unnoticed.  However, for readers who prefer variety, the never-ending take on the Dying Earth theme may quickly become stale.  For the latter, it’s quickly apparent that reading the book straight through is not the best option.  Taking in a story here and there between other reading projects seems wise if the imagination and individual efforts of the contributors are to truly be appreciated.  Otherwise, the monotony may overwhelm.
And there is imagination.  Reading the stories, there can be no doubt that each of the contributing authors has an affection for Vance.  But like most short story collections, readers will enjoy some and despise others--a point exacerbated by the quantity.  Affection does not automatically translate to quality.  Many attempt to emulate the master but fall flat.  Whether it be dialogue, tone, or plot development, some aspect of Vance’s talents is often missing.  Others succeed mightily, but very few of the contributors actually capture the feel of Vance’s craft, strengthening the argument that the collection should have been culled. What remained would have been a stronger collection--and tribute--for it.

In the end, Martin and Dozois’s intentions are beyond reproach. Vance is truly a grand master of the genre and is fully deserving of the recognition.  The manner in which the two pay tribute, however, falls suspect.  By limiting writers like Silverberg, Simmons, Tad Williams, Tanith Lee, and a host of other well-known authors to one setting alone, in addition to including more than twenty stories, their efforts get lost amongst one another.  The pair would have been better off opening the doors to Vance’s oeuvre to allow every sort of adventure its place, space to the fantastic, thus providing the reader a more varied experience, not to mention eliding the less quality contributions.  This would have paved the way for a more justifiable tribute to Vance’s works.  Thus, Songs of the Dying Earth will not be for everybody, including die-hard Vance fans.  The imagination is there, but when funneled into a single bottle, the colors get mixed, producing a uniform rather than varied result. 
…and did I mention the sour notes on which the anthology opens and ends—Dean Koontz’s self-indulgent pity party with Vance pushed to the background for an introduction, bookended by Neil Gaiman’s equally self-indulgent anti-Vance story as a saccharine bow out?  Not very stylish…

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