on February 7, 2006
I'll try to be short, but I cannot resist this opportunity to bang the gong for one of our greatest American authors, the immortal JACK VANCE (b. 1917), and what will likely be his most enduring work, "The Dying Earth."
Folks, it's all here--drama, heroics, adventure, atmosphere, a keen understanding of human nature, all liberally garnished with one of the dryest senses of humor ever. I first encountered the lead-off short story of the opening collection "The Dying Earth" back in 1969 in a paperback short story collection, and it grabbed me by the throat even at age 12. I found a used paperback of "Dying Earth" just a few years later and discovered to my continuing delight that the promise of that anthologized tale, "Mazirian the Magician" was more than born out by the rest of the book.
Other critics have classified Vance as science fiction's "premier stylist" and I tend to agree. Characters in the end-of-time world Vance creates here speak in almost Shakesperian dialogue, with outlandish flourishes of verbosity. I can certainly understand if more literal minded readers are put off by what appears to be a pretentious or effete manner of writing. BUT if you can get on Jack's wavelength--and it isn't difficult--you are in for one of the most unique and imaginative collection of page-turners ever written.
I'll leave to new readers the pleasure of discovering for themselves Mazirian, T'sais & T'sain, Liane the Wayfarer, Chun the Unavoidable, and of course Cugel the Clever--not to ignore the redoubtable Rhialto the Marvellous. Fictional characters definitely, but also vehicles for Vance to express his sharply perceptive take on the human condition in all its extremes of exaltation and debasement, hilarity and wickedness. These stories represent Vance across his career as a professional author (the first of the "Dying Earth" tales were written while he was still a merchant seaman in the 1940's) through 1983, when "Rhialto" was published. Throughout, the quality and consistency of his writing is FORMIDABLE. His unique voice and style were apparent from the beginning, and if anything, as he matured, he tended more toward the sardonic humor that REALLY ran riot by the time "Rhialto" was published.
I envy you new readers the opportunity to laugh out loud for the first time at Vance's over-the-top characterizations and allegories; you like me will surely be dazzled by the threads of plot drawing all the early cast of characters together throughout "The Dying Earth" to make a complete (and intensely satisfying) story cycle. Really, the riches available here between two covers can be rediscovered for the rest of your life. For those of us who waited years between "Dying Earth" collections, you newcomers are on the shores of paradise; despite the crummy, knock off cover and shabby typos this omnibus collection is blighted with, the quality of the work outshines any such drawbacks.
-And don't stop there--Vance collections "The Demon Princes," "Lyonesse Trilogy" and "Planet of Adventure" are no less beguiling in their own uniquely Vancian way. However, for me, nothing can surpass "Dying Earth" for that thrill of discovery and the lingering golden-hour whisper of an exotic life of tingling weirdness awaiting man's last days on an indescribably ancient Earth where the sun spasms and casts long, ruddy shadows into eternity...
on June 19, 2004
There is something unusual about Jack Vance which reminds me of two of my other favorite writers, Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem. That is the conceit of hiding subtle, and nuanced social commentary beneath a veneer of light escapism. Lem, writing from behind the iron curtain, wrote brilliantly clever Robot fairy tales with sly underlying critiques of power and human folly. Those who know Philip K Dick's work also know how much biting wit he hid behind what seem superficially goofy sci fi tales.
I'm starting to realise Vance was doing much the same thing. The first time I read the Dying Earth (the original anthology of short stories) was when I found it on a bookshelf as a young teenager. I found the stories entertaining at the time, with hints of genius, but ultimately they seemed like nothing more or less than escapism, of the kind of fantasy found in the dungeons and dragons games I was into back then (no coincidence, Vance was a key inspiration for that game, for better or worse), albiet perhaps the best possible example of the genre I had encountered.
As I ran into the other Dying Earth novels over the years, and read them again and again, I think I originally had the same reaction many other people did. I was a little put off at first by the grandiose words and odd use of language (I had to read the books with a dictoinary by my side) the flowery dialogue, the 'thin' unlikely plot. But early on I recognized something about it that was unique.
Over the years, as I vorcaciously absorbed basically everything written in the Fantasy and Sci Fi Genres, it was Vance and one or two others that stuck with me. Returning again and again to the Dying Earth books in particular, it was the small things about them which increasingly struck me as more than merely clever and amusing... the ironic prose, the delightful come-uppances, the ruthless turn-abouts, the put downs and verbal contests. As so much else fell by the wayside, the words of Jack Vance stayed with me.
As I grew older and began to experience people from all walks of life, some of these characters and situations resonated still more. It struck me, that what had seemed like haphazard or almost random human situations in those stories were actually archetypes of many dilemmas in the human condition, some of which I had never seen expressed as clearly anywhere else. The self serving morality, the technical obfuscation, the distorted spirituality... the facility of man to delude himself. These traits shine through from the characters in the books, and I recognized them more and more often in real life. How many times have I encountered the rationaization of the "laws of Equivalency" in real life, or felt the pang of self doubt that cugel does just as he realises he's been duped yet again...
Of couse, while amusing, cugel is a fairly awful person, (though he seems to evolve ethically somewhat by the end of the second novel, finally learning something about the futility of revenge) . I think in general thinking of cugel as any kind of literal moral guide is silly. Similarly, those reviewers who thought the Murthe novella was 'mysogynisitc' miss the point. It is a swiftian parody of mans failure to understand, or even be willing to try to understand women. There is one hilarious passage where the learned Wizards discuss a profound tome purported to explain everything understood about the nature of woman at the very end of history, wherin the female genius is compared to a river which occasionally overflows it's banks. The only reccomended solution is to ride it out with 'stout boat of high freeboard'. My girlfriend found this hilarious.
Yes, cugel is a lout and a bufoon. In a sense, he reminds me of an anti-heroic variation of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote's grandiose schemes of glory and noble chivalry fall through, Cugel's equally grandiose schemes of revenge and domination over his enemies also invariably fail, in both cases causing great chaos for those around them. Cugel of course lives in an even more cynical time at the very end of the world. A time where there ARE wizards and dragons and giants, but they are as petty and manipulative as the peasants and bandits faced by Quixote. As cugel travels from one scene to another, we are treated to a lurid landscape of all the myriad forms that human self delusion and inspired stupidity can take. Even as Cervantes uses the backdrop of Don Quixote's travels to lampoon 16th century Spain, Vance uses cugel's travels across the Dying Earth to do the same thing to all of humanity, from the very beginning of time to the day the sun winks out of existence.
Ultimately, not just the protagonist cugel, but all of the characters in the Dying earth novels have one thing in common: they are all fools. Even at the very end of history, we have learned nothing except perhaps, a better vocabulary. I think this is something Vance is telling us about ourselves.
One thing I can promise you about the Dying Earth, the laughs do come harder and longer with every read, even if you feel to some degree as if you are laughing at yourself.
on July 1, 2001
"Tales of the Dying Earth" is a great series of books by Jack Vance. Set in a time so distant from ours, the sun is a dull red ball in a dark sky, futuristic cities are half-buried mounds of ancient rubble, and magic is as natural as walking.
These four books are generally regarded as fantasy, but it has elements of science fiction as well. The magic that characters perform is really just advanced science, but it's so sophisticated it looks like magic to us. (If a caveman could see how we live in the 21st century he would think everything we did was magic too.) The future in these books is so remote, there is a religous sect who won't walk on the ground because it would seem like desecration to the aeons of dead people in the soil.
The first book in the collection, "The Dying Earth", involves a range of colourful characters. They each go on a mini-quest of some sort, facing many exotic dangers. The next two books, "The Eyes of the Overworld" and "Cugel's Saga", follow the adventures of Cugel the Clever, an amoral, likeable rogue who lives on his wits. Most of the time it's his own greed that gets him into trouble. The last book is "Rhialto the Marvellous".
This series is quite an achievement. I read "The Book of the New Sun" a couple of years ago, knowing it was inspired by Jack Vance's work. I find that Vance's style of writing is easier to comprehend, it's less cryptic and less ornate. There is always something to keep the reader interested.
Anyone who likes fantasy or science fiction should read these.
The blockbuster all-time best fantasy/scifi novel "DyingEarth" by Jack Vance is back ....!
For some reason, Jack Vance's, fantasy is much better, more clever, more beautiful than his scifi (and this IS fantasy, despite the sci/fi cover). When I read his potboiler scifi, I scratch my head and say why did he write this? But Dying Earth is the greatest.
Actually the Complete Dying Earth is four books in one. This book inspired 40 years of writers, Gene Wolfe, Roger Zelazny, Michael Shea to name a few. It's hysterically funny. Set in the far, far distant future. The purple sun is old and feeble and getting ready to go out all the time (fun & games). In fact it blinks out form time to time - everyone looks up - then it comes back on. Well, as the sun has become weak, science and scientific inventions no longer work. Only magic. This may not sound funny but it's full of satire and social comment.
The spiteful wizards are full of wacky magic spells like "Forelorn Encystment" where object or their ire is transported to a very small hole (cyst) deep inside the earth!
"Eyes of the Overworld", is set in a Dying Earth place full religious fanatics and , well, waste, and the inhabitants are up to their necks in poop, but if they are good and stay in line and follow the rules of their society (for 30 years or so) they get to wear these glasses which give them visions of paradise. (While still living in waste), the owner of the glasses see themselves surrounded by luxurious exotic food, dancing girls, castles, riches, etc etc.
It is the rogue hero Cugel's task to get some Overworld glasses, by any means necessary, and bring the Grinning Magician, Iioconnu. The Grinning Magician caught Cugel trying to steal from his manse, and has , by magic, affixed an angry star creature inside Cugel on his liver. If Cugel strays from his task, the star creature gives his liver a hard squeeze.... this gives you an idea of the wackyness here!
Yes, the dialogue is arch, but that adds to the charm!
This is the one of, if not the greatest fantasy series ever written, I do not exaggerate. Ranks with Alice in Wonderland.
If something EVER deserved 5 stars this is it!! Cannot be too highly recommended!
Buy it, it will cheer you.
I am perplexed by the number of reviewers whining about misogyny in Vance. Gee, guys, gals, get a sense of humor! Vance is nothing if not pointed satire, one, and two, this series was started fifty years ago. People looked/laughed at things differently.
on November 10, 2000
Jack Vance is one of the finest stylists writing today. He is among the most inventive, clever, even seductive, makers of alien worlds ever to grace the genres of science fiction and fantasy; and THE DYING EARTH, his first novel, is his most evocative, haunting, and powerful work. Long out of print, that short book is one of the central influences on modern science fiction, and the favorite book of many readers. In his BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, Gene Wolfe writes of a "Book of Gold" used by librarians to lure children to their calling; Wolfe states that for him, the "Book of Gold" that captivated him forever in the world of letters was THE DYING EARTH. Elegaic, rich, and filled with wonders and visions you will never forget, THE DYING EARTH along justifies purchasing this collection.
The volume, however, contains not just one indescribably good book, but three other novels set in the same impossibly distant and strange future. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD is highly entertaining and contains some of Vance's best dialogue (and one of the best endings in recent literature). CUGEL'S SAGA further follows the rogue Cugel, and RHIALTO THE MARVELOUS is the (presumably) final story set on Vance's red-sunned future Earth.
Taken together, these four books are as good a reading value as you're likely to find anywhere this year, or for many years to come. Every serious reader of science fiction should own these books, of course, but everyone who enjoys wonder, mystery, and beauty should read them.
on July 20, 2011
In view of the 2 star reviews here, two warnings about the book:
1) If you expect a single cohesive story spanning the entire book, you might be disappointed.
This book consists of a collection of stories of varying length. These stories happen in the same overall setting on old earth, with the sun having turned red already from age, and nobody knowing when it might go out. There is a common thread connecting some of the stories.
2) If your command of the English language, or language in general is lacking, you might be overtaxed by his condensed, minimalist writing. Not that its short of expression, but Vance enjoys using the least number of words possible to say what he wants to say. Conversations are terse and often hilarious.
Vance does use a lot more than the statistical ~1500 English words used by the average American, I find that refreshing and educational, but it may annoy people with short vocabularies unwilling to look them up.
He likes to hide parables about real life below the surface of his stories, just like the master storytellers of yore.
A lot of his characters are refreshingly direct and a-moral, just reacting to circumstance according to their true character without apology. Vance writes his stories in a perfectly serious tone, but his great humor is always just beneath the surface.
The setting of the stories is intriguing to me;
Science has been long forgotten, it had been replaced by magic based on mathematics, (which curves all time and space). But magic too, has been mostly forgotten, its greatest masters having lived long in the past. Earth is strewn with the ruins of thousands of cities and cultures, that rose and sank into the muck of history. Without much left in the way of transportation, local cultures are left to themselves and produce strange and different customs, often causing some difficulty for travelers.
I can't name a single favorite, but "The eyes of the over world" is one of the greatest rogue stories ever, alternating between hilarious, strange, thoughtful and heart pounding suspense.
Anyway, I hope the first two paragraphs will help people in making a decision if this book is for them or not.
Someone who would like to try Jack Vance, but would prefer a contiguous epic story, I'd recommend the Lyonesse Trilogy.
I personally find it more inventive and interesting than the Lord of the Rings, and would wish to see it made into a movie. But I probably should not make the LotR comparison, with the number of staunch fans, who might condemn any comparison or worse, expect a copy of sorts... The only thing LotR and Lyonesse have in common are that they are epic trilogies in the fantasy genre, that are hard to put down once started...
on August 12, 2004
Vance's works in this volume have nearly everything one could wish for: irony that ranges from scathing to sympathetic, meandering wit and charm, originality as baffling and unstoppable as an exploded hydrant, descriptions of subtle and self-contemplating beauty. He is daring, too. He invents monsters, for example, the way no other writer I know does - by coming up with names that sound cool and then attaching, or not attaching, shape and habits. Hence the countless erbs, gids, vasps, deodants and (especially vague, hence dreaded) leucomorphs that populate the Dying Earth's wilderness. With equal largesse Vance scatters landmarks, invents countries, seas and mountain chains and pulls eons, traditions and long-dead wizard celebrities out of a hat faster than you could say "Great Motholam." It looks like there is always more to discover on the Dying Earth, and Vance makes sure there is!
In fact that's the main attraction of the works, novelty. Judging by his books, Vance himself is a particular and rare kind of character, what you would call an explorer, always eager to see what's over the next hill or, in our age when there are few hills still worth climbing, inventing fantastical worlds in his imagination. Vance really writes for himself, and it shows, for instance, in his refusal to let go of flowery banter, a turn-off to many readers. He's not for everyone, and there is another reason for it I'll get to shortly. But the taut and even unsettling sense of freedom one gets from reading these novels, "The Eyes of the Overworld" more than the others, has to do with just this fact of self-conscious carelessness: Vance writes, and knows that he writes, for no other reason than that he wants to.
Now I did say the books are "nearly" everything one could wish for, so what's stopping me from inviting everyone to read them? Not any flaw but, if anything, a merit: neither Vance nor his characters believe in ideologies. This is important: vapid notions such as good, evil, light, dark, "cosmic balance," nation, God, soul and so forth, all those tarnished ideas that cannot stand rational scrutiny but which, though discredited by inconsistency, still dominate belle lettres and official discourse - you'll find none of them in the Dying Earth stories. Vance's characters take skepticism to the level of global cynicism, which only tends to make their lives miserable, but at the bottom the selfish Cugel is simply an aware, astute person who has seen a few cooky bigots too many. Speaking of which, if you ever get your hands on another Vancian novel, "Brains of Earth," be sure to read it, it's almost clairvoyant in its treatment of convictions as what would nowadays be called "memes."
At any rate, Cugel's ultimate goal in this crazy world - quiet luxury - comes down to a desire to be left alone, to get away from insane wizards, scheming monsters, deluded peasants and corrupt powers that be. Not to whitewash the vagabond, of course, but he (always a traveler) does have within him this ability to see through others' madness and pretense, though not through his own conceit. In short, Vance is, or writes as, an existentialist: the universe, he tells us, is ultimately a lifeless and uncaring place, only animated by sparks of genuine intelligence and emotion, and rarely at that.
And that's why most fantasy readers will be unhappy with the Dying Earth novels, even if they could be motivated to peek into a dictionary every three lines and embrace unorthodox wit. They will be put off by Vance's honesty, integrity and the fact that he writes for adults. This is not a TSR paperback, not Prozak in print; it has as few heroes as there are in real life. Nor is this collection escapist in the traditional sense of looking for some kind of dissolution, nirvana, moral cuddling. If anything, the place Vance invites us to escape to is harsher than reality but, because vast and not entangled by a single ideology such as our ideology of progress, also freer and more beautiful. There is something Nietzschean about the Dying Earth where everyone is trying to get the better of everyone else: a laissez-faire arena for excelling or failing, except that the Old Moustached One wrote for fighters and Vance for rogues.
Important: If you end up buying the book and enjoying it, and if you have friends who are also sympathetic to Cugel, and if you wish there were more Dying Earth stories to read, listen to this: there is a role-playing game out there based on Vance's work and by him approved! The style, the humor are every bit as fine as those in the source books and there are hilarious and thought-provoking adventure modules. Search Amazon.com for it.
on July 18, 2003
A long-time admirer of Vance's works, I have little to add to the praise of other reviewers. His style is his single best quality: elegant, dry, amusing. The purple passages of "The Dying Earth," while beautiful and stylistically meaningful in themselves (decadent prose for a decadent Earth), begin to give way in the book's last tale to the livelier, witty picaresque that becomes Vance's hallmark in the Cugel books, in "Rhialto," and in his Lyonesse trilogy. And, not sufficiently mentioned, Vance can be funny as hell, especially in the later works.
There are some interesting criticisms on this site, some with little merit. If you don't like short stories, or if the only acceptable prose is modeled on Hammett and Hemingway, then don't expect to like Vance. It helps to be an aesthete, or wish you were one.
And as for the lack of continuity in the Cugel stories, (1) they were originally published in magazines, not composed as a single narrative, and (2) the picaresque is, just about by definition, one damn thing after another. Vance loves strangeness for its own sake, weird cultures, bizarre customs. He has a touch of the Enlightenment-era anthropologist about him: with so many diverse ways of living, can we say that any one is the "right" way? The picaresque plots let him do what he does best, move from village to village (or, in his SF, planet to planet) and invent something new every time.
The misogyny complaint is the most accurate criticism that I see here. Vance is a conservative in many ways, in a classical sense rather than in the bible-thumping American sense. (Note the laissez-faire attitude to politics & religion in the Lyonesse books.) Men are men, women are women, and that's it. Any homosexual in his books is a degenerate villain. Cugel certainly is brutal to the women he meets in "The Eyes of the Overworld," though since he's a cutthroat and a scoundrel in any event, that's not to be wondered at.
But characters like T'sais in "The Dying Earth" show the promise of a broader perspective, and for whatever reason-the 20th century rubbing off on him, perhaps-Vance has more sympathetic females in his later works, including of course Suldrun, Glyneth, and Madouc in the Lyonesse books. The case of Cugel is interesting: he kidnaps and, effectively, rapes Soldinck's comely 3 daughters in "Cugel's Saga," but when their trick on him is revealed, they don't miss the opportunity to scoff at his erotic inadequacies.
As for Rhialto, he's a ladies' man, and he knows it. The rescued princess in "Fader's Waft" is treated as a free agent, albeit one who finds R. charming & accepts his advances. As for the tale of the Murthe, let's just say I found it a tad obnoxious *before* I got married, and now find it actually kind of sweet. Whether that tells something about Vance or just about me, how can I say?
Vance will never be a feminist (when Glyneth has kids, she drops off the map, and so on), but I think "misogyny" is too strong.
on April 13, 2005
Others here have described this collection in detail, so I shall limit myself to a few observations:
1. This is the origin of "Vancian magic," the basis of all Dungeons & Dragons magic in which the caster of a spell forgets it immediately after casting it. Vance actually explains why this is so, and he does it far better than any D & D writer ever has.
2. This is the origin of many D & D spells and magic items, including Ioun Stones. It is interesting to see how their creator used them, compared to how they came to be used in D & D.
3. This is a wonderfully written collection! It's more than "just sci-fi," it is *literature*. Although there are some weak spots and slow parts, it is easy to be swept along for fifty or a hundred pages at a time by Vance's wonderful characterizations of heroes, anti-heroes, and villains alike, and his Swiftian descriptions of exotic societies. One thing which may not be apparent at first to the casual reader is that by "Dying Earth," Vance means an Earth hundreds of millions of years in the future, when the Sun itself is believed to be on the verge of death; whether this is before or after the sun has gone red and burned up the Earth is impossible to determine -- the sun has either done so in the past and the people and animals of the "Dying Earth" have arisen since then and the sun will soon dwindle to a cold little star unable to sustain advanced forms of life on Earth, or else it is getting ready to erupt unexpectdly and wipe out the inner planets, including Earth. There is also NEVER any indication that the characters of the central narratives are human beings as we are, only that they have certain body parts with which we may identify: arms, legs, heads, etc. When the heroes face bizarre-looking creatures, they do NOT write them off as "monsters" just because of their looks, as often happens in D & D. Rather, strange-looking humanoids are regarded as just another form of person, albeit physically different from the main characters. Thee are a few exceptions, though -- creatures so inimical to "people" that they are always considered monsters, including the "grue," a strange beast which will stir familiar memories in those who played "Adventure" years ago, before it became "Zork."
I have read this book and want to read it again. I have commended it to friends to purchase and read. Despite its occasional slow parts, I give it 5 stars -- you really should give this a try if you like fantasy or science fiction. It is something which will bless your literary palate with sensations strangely familiar, but nevertheless exotic, like a spice which you can recognize but cannot name. Bon apetit!
on June 29, 2002
Jack Vance, who is possibly a nonagenarian, began writing for the pulps in the 1940s, just after the war -- mostly science fiction, but other genres as well. He is plausibly the successor of Leigh Brackett, one of the supreme practitioners of the subgenre known as planetary romance. But Vance is a bigger talent. Brackett's forte was the long short-story or novella, sometimes in cycles, adding up to an episodic longer tale. Vance used a bigger canvass than Brackett. The title of one of his early significant tales is, indeed, "Big Planet." Vance created not only whoe societies, but whole world jostling with distinc societies. "Tales of Dying Earth" are set, as the title suggests, on a far-futural earth in the sidereal decadence of the solar system. The sun has cooled; the human race has aged -- into a kind of senility. The whole planet has lapsed into a new feudalism and magic, perhaps the remnants of a previous superscience, is once again part of the technical repertory of mankind. The main character is a picaroon, in the mold of the protagonists in Quevedo and the Spanish Sevententh Century writers. He is a would-be master magician whose spells generally go disastrously wrong. The plot, such as it is, is not very important. What holds the reader's interest is the richly imagined background of weird, end-of-time societies. The action is semi-comic, but the atmosphere is eery, and this makes for a pquant mixture. Call it Lazarillo de Torres meets Oswald Spengler. Recommended.