Saturday, October 3, 2020

Review of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Before I knew anything about anything (some would argue that is still the case), I read that Jack Vance was a hidden gem of yesteryear science fiction and fantasy. Seeking out his best, all fingers pointed to Tales of the Dying Earth—what I thought was a loooong novel, but turned out to be a collection of short stories and novels. I was blown away. I literally had never encountered a voice that inspired such delight, humor, and pure enjoyment of story and writing. I have since gone on to read what I think is everything in Vance's oeuvre, and having done that, what better than start back at where it started, all over again.

My joy in Tales of the Dying Earth was not a hit off the bat, however. I struggled with the opening stories—the stories taken from Vance's collection The Dying Earth. While highly readable, they didn't have that singular, unique voice that I would discover in the Cugel novels, and in essence define what Vance is as a writer to me. Dare I say it (will Vance's fans kill me?), the Dying Earth stories hovered somewhere just above normal, average. But will they feel that way the second time round—ten years and hundreds upon hundreds of science fiction and fantasy stories from all points later?

If The Dying Earth can be taken as anything as a whole, it would be a chain of cause and effect where each story that follows is triggered by events happening prior, save unfortunately, the final two stories. But “Turjan of Miir” at least sets the cue ball rolling. About a young magician who is having trouble creating sentient life in his vats, he sets out one day to find the master magician Pandalume who knows the secret. A tit for tat required, Turjan quickly finds himself in hot water—but not in over his head.

With the amulets, manses, and arrays of gem-like color, in “Turjan of Miir” readers get the impression they are in a fantasy land. But there are a tantalizingly small number of details which hint at far future—a place where science and magic are indistinguishable. In “Mazirian the Magician”, the impression only becomes stronger. The titular mage thinking himself clever and tricky, he meets his match one day while trying to rid himself of a pesky creation (a pesky creation none other than Turjan himself concocted).

Appearing in “Turjan of Miir” as a secondary character, the young woman who is cursed to see all beauty as ugliness comes to the forefront in “T'sais”. Desiring her freedom from Pandalume, the magician sends her to Earth to find herself. Indeed she finds herself, but not until threading a gauntlet of demons and fears. She also escapes a certain rogue, the main character of the next story, “Liane the Wayfarer”. An ill-minded young man dressed as a jester, he thinks to woo a certain young lady by helping her with a magical hoop he's found, but comes to discover just whose eyes the wool has been pulled over.

While there is a linking character, “Ulan Dhor” is the point at which the collection makes a departure from the “cause and effect” linkage of the first four stories. A bizarre tale, the titular man is sent on a mission to a far away kingdom to solve the riddle of two tablets, untold wealth awaiting him if he returns successful. But upon arrival in the kingdom, not all is as it seems. One half of the people are unable to see the other half and vice cersa, and a race of strange beasts stalks the streets, taking and eating the unaware. Dhor ultimately getting to the heart of the matter, it's a mashup of science fiction and fantasy that's the stuff of the pulps.

The final story and the longest in the collection is the novella “Guyal of Sfere”. An improved version of “Ulan Dhor”, it follows the same pattern (man goes to exotic lands to discover something, encountering strangeness along the way), but is developed in more robust, relevant fashion. Born with a 'void' in his mind that needs to be filled with answers to his innumerable questions, Guyal decides to travel to the Museum of Man where he believes the source of truth, and subsequently answers to all his questions, exists. Vance juking and jiving this adventure as only Vance can, Guyal has his questions answered, but perhaps not in the fashion he'd hoped. Everything one could love about Vance is here.

In the end, I have a more positive impression of The Dying Earth than my first reading. The stories, while simplistic at heart, are not as simplistic stylistically as I remember. If there are any criticisms, one would certainly be that the final two stories are not consistent in style/setting compared to the first four. The first four forming a loose chain or network, the final two barely connect, and have a slightly altered motif, that while enjoyable, does not precisely parallel the voice and tone of the first four. The Jack Vance I know and love is in the pages—not perhaps in tip-top form as with Araminta Station or the Cugel novels, but certainly better than when Vance was writing simply to meet a deadline or get commission. This time around, I was also searching more deeply for a 'dying Earth' feel. As hinted at earlier, this ultimately amounted more to an epic fantasy feel than sf, but the possibility exists. Compare this to the Lyonesse trilogy, for example, which is relatively Arthurian, and there is a strong resemblance. I daresay Gene Wolfe took the sf side of 'dying Earth' and did more with it Book of the New Sun—an unfair criticism, I know, considering I doubt Vance was aiming at a “proper setting”. Plot and diction are where Vance's focus is, and in those areas these stories still have a bizarre beauty that allows then to transcend time in the same fashion as Lord Dunsany or Tolkien.

The following are the six stories contained in The Dying Earth:

Turjan of Miir

Mazirian the Magician


Liane the Wayfarer

Ulan Dhor

Guyal of Sfere

No comments:

Post a Comment