10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 9, 2000
As a true fan of good fantasy and science fiction for some 20 years now, I've always searched for books which really fulfull the promise of those genres. In a time when both genres seem to have collapsed into a state where one rarely finds work which isn't some sort of commercial advertisement for childrens toys and tv shows, Jack Vance stands out like a beacon of pure genius. The dying earth is a series of vignettes in the fantasy realm of the same name invented by Vance. Humorous and brilliantly witty, yet darker and in many ways more believable (on a human level) than his space operas, the dying earth presents characters and situations using Vance's unique and eclectic mastery of the english language which sweep the reader away into another world from which it is hard to escape. This, ultimately is what good fantasy should do, and so often fails to accomplish. Readers should also seek out "The eyes of the overworld", "Cugels saga", and "Rhialto the marvelous", which occur in the same 'world'...
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
The Dying Earth is the first of Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth and contains six somewhat overlapping stories all set in the future when the sun is red and dim, much technology has been lost, and most of humanity has died out. Our planet is so unrecognizable that it might as well be another world, and evil has been "distilled" so that it's concentrated in Earth's remaining inhabitants.
But it's easy to forget that a failing planet is the setting for the Dying Earth stories, for they are neither depressing nor bleak, and they're not really about the doom of the Earth. These stories are whimsical and weird and they focus more on the strange people who remain and the strange things they do. Magicians, wizards, witches, beautiful maidens, damsels in distress, seekers of knowledge, and vain princes strive to outwit each other for their own advantage.
What appeals to me most is that The Tales of the Dying Earth are about how things could possibly be in an alternate reality. All speculative fiction does that, of course, but Jack Vance just happens to hit on the particular things that I find most fascinating to speculate about: neuroscience, psychology, sensation, and perception. These are subjects I study and teach every day, so I think about them a lot. One thing I love to consider, which happens to be a common theme in Vance's work, is how we might experience life differently if our sensory systems were altered just a bit. I find myself occasionally asking my students questions like "what would it be like if we had retinal receptors that could visualize electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum?" (So bizarre to consider, and yet so possible!) They look at me like I'm nuts, but I'm certain that Jack Vance would love to talk about that possibility. And even though The Dying Earth was first published in 1950, it doesn't feel dated at all -- it can still charm a neuroscientist 60 years later. This is because his setting feels medieval; technology has been forgotten. Thus, it doesn't matter that there were no cell phones or Internet when Vance wrote The Dying Earth.
I also love the constant juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the sublimely intelligent. Like Monty Python, Willy Wonka, and Alice in Wonderland. [Aside: This makes me wonder how Johnny Depp would do at portraying a Jack Vance character...] Some of the scenes that involve eyeballs and brains and pickled homunculi make me think of SpongeBob Squarepants -- the most obnoxious show on television, yet somehow brilliant. (Jack Vance probably wouldn't appreciate that I've compared his literature to SpongeBob Squarepants. Or maybe he would!)
Lastly, I love Jack Vance's "high language" (that's what he called it), which is consistent and never feels forced. This style contributes greatly to the humor that pervades his work -- understatement, irony, illogic, and non sequiturs are used to make fun of human behavior, and I find this outrageously funny. As just one example, in one story, Guyal has been tricked into breaking a silly and arbitrary sacred law in the land he's traveling through:
"The entire episode is mockery!" raged Guyal. "Are you savages, then, thus to mistreat a lone wayfarer?"
"By no means," replied the Castellan. "We are a highly civilized people, with customs bequeathed us by the past. Since the past was more glorious than the present, what presumption we would show by questioning these laws!"
Guyal fell quiet. "And what are the usual penalties for my act?"...
"You are indeed fortunate," said the Saponid, "in that, as a witness, I was able to suggest your delinquencies to be more the result of negligence than malice. The last penalties exacted for the crime were stringent; the felon was ordered to perform the following three acts: first, to cut off his toes and sew the severed members into the skin at his neck; second, to revile his forbears for three hours, commencing with a Common Bill of Anathema, including feigned madness and hereditary disease, and at last defiling the hearth of his clan with ordure; and third, walking a mile under the lake with leaded shoes in search of the Lost Book of Kells." And the Castellan regarded Guyal with complacency.
"What deeds must I perform?" inquired Guyal drily.
If you want to find out what three deeds Guyal had to perform, you'll have to get the book!
I listened to Brilliance Audio's production of The Dying Earth and the reader, Arthur Morey, was perfect. He really highlighted the humorous element of Vance's work. It was a terrific production and I'm now enjoying the second Dying Earth audiobook (which is even better than this first one!). By the way, I want to say that I'm extremely pleased with Brilliance Audio for publishing these stories!
Jack Vance is my favorite fantasy author. His work probably won't appeal to the Twilighters, but for those who enjoy Pythonesque surreal humor written in high style, or for fans of Lewis Carroll, Fritz Leiber, and L. Frank Baum, I suggest giving Jack Vance a try. If you listen to audiobooks, definitely try Brilliance Audio's version!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 1998
Any attempt to convey even a vague sense of the wonder and beauty of Jack Vance's writing in this book is doomed to failure. It takes its place alongside the works of Lord Dunsany (The King of Elf Land's Daughter), E.R. Eddison (The Worm Ourobouros), and, yes, Tolkien. Read and be enchanted.
on July 12, 2013
Review Summary: The Dying Earth, is beautiful, pulpy adventure. It is a series of six connected short tales (chapters), each being a mix of (Sword & Sorcery) and (Sword and Planet)...so consider it (Sword & Sorcery & Planet). And, it is an important classic, first published in 1950; Jack Vance's codification of magic items & spells proved influential in RPG-game design.
The Dying Earth is out of print, but the Tales of the Dying Earth is available; it is an omnibus edition of the four novels written by Jack Vance (1916-2013) between 1950 and 1986; the first is simply The Dying Earth, which is itself a collection of six short stories. With the recent passing of Jack Vance (1916-2013), many are reflecting on his work this Summer: The Dying Earth (1950) is the first in the series (the next three in sequence are: (2) The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), (3) Cugel's Saga (1983), (4) Rhialto The Marvellous (1984)).
The Dying Earth The Eyes of the Overworld Cugel's Saga Rhialto The Marvellous
Codifying Magic - Role Playing Game (RPG)s: Tolkien maybe credited for inspiring "fellowships" of Dwarves, Elves, and Humans to go adventuring (a key trope for RPGs), but his magic-system was never codified well. Some ontology, or approach to classifying, was also needed ...and already provided, actually. Before "Lord of The Rings", Vance delivered The Dying Earth, and seems responsible for providing RPG-franchises with the needed approach: captivating brand names. Vance's Items and Spell titles simply exhibit self-evident credibility : Magic Items such as Expansible Egg, Scintillant Dagger, and Live Boots...and Spells such as Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, Call to the Violent Cloud, Charm of Untiring Nourishment. Three decades after The Dying Earth was published, the broader fantasy culture apparently caught on to the branding of spells and magic items (i.e. 1980's Dungeons & Dragons... or even magic-based card games like Pokemon, etc.).
Pace & Style: The title evokes gloomy adventure. The stories follow suit. The poetic, weird narratives will remind readers of predecessor Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961)'s Lost Worlds; the swashbuckling adventure and planetary exploration evoke Vance's contemporary Roger Zelazny (1936-1995)'s The First Chronicles of Amber. Each tale moves at breakneck speed. Often times, within just one page, teleportation will propel the protagonist across multiple planetary systems and vast continents. Actually, the pace is too fast and the stories appear rushed (keeping this from receiving a 5-star rating). Most encounters involve some haggling/negotiating, and some of these lead to sudden brutality:
"Then you may die." And Mazirian caused the creature to revolve at ever greater speeds, faster and faster, until there was only a blur. A strangled wailing came and presently the Deodand's frame parted. The head shot like a bullet far down the glade; arms, legs, viscera flew in a direction." -- Ch2- Mazirian the Magician
The brisk pace belies the serious, philosophical undertones that persist throughout. The milieu does involve the decline of earth, after all, but Vance does not dwell on it. The action is at the forefront, but darkness is continuously dosed. One moment he'll be describing some present urgency, and then he will sneak in a bit of epic, chronic darkness:
"At one famous slaughtering, Golickan Kodek the Conqueror had herded here the populations of two great cities, G'Vasan and Bautiku, constricted them in a circle three miles across, gradually pushed them tighter and tighter, panicked them toward the center within his flapping-armed sub-human cavalry, until at last he had achieved a gigantic, squirming mound, half a thousand feet high, a pyramid of screaming flesh."-- Ch2- Mazirian the Magician
Beauty Theme: The tales share many of the same characters, but each has a different protagonist. The protagonist from the six tale (Guyal) seems to speaks on behalf of the author's muses; he invites readers to consider:
"Where does beauty vanish when it goes?"
Guyal's Father Answers: "Beauty is a luster which love bestows to guile the eye. Therefore it may be said that only when the brain is without love will the eye look and see no beauty." - Story 6- Guyal of Sfere
Vance's work seems genuinely motivated by an appreciation of art and the mourning of lost beauty. He seemed to be following in succession from like-authors. Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft all delved into evoking emotions through their art; they were serious writers who philosophized and wrote essays regarding "Weird Beauty" in literature. The undercurrents of dark muses in literary horror fascinate some (link). Below are excerpts and comments of Beauty's themes in The Dying Earth (per story):
1) Turjan of Mirr: The books opens with a sorcerer trying to create living things. His craft, his art, is "life." He mirrors the plight of Victor Frankenstein:
"[Turjan] considered its many precursors: the thing all eyes, the boneless creature with the pulsing surface of its brain exposed, the beautiful female body whose intestines trailed out into the nutrient solution like seeking fibrils, the inverted inside-out creatures...Turjan sighed bleakly. His methods were at fault; a fundamental element was lacking from his synthesis, a matrix ordering the components of the pattern."
"For some time I have been striving to create humanity in my vats. Yet always I fail, from ignorance of the agent that binds and orders patterns."
"This is no science, this is an art, where equations fall to the elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity."
Turjan needed more knowledge to complete his goal. This compels him toward making a woman who appreciates beauty (to compete with another woman who cannot detect beauty).
2) Mazirian the Magician: This chapter has significant overtones of Clark Ashton Smith's Maze of Maal Dweeb, Xiccarph tales (1935, 1930)...in which an alien sorcerer had the "caprice to eternalize the frail beauty of women," maintaining them in a garden. Here, the beautiful T'sain dies to save her maker, Turjan, in a magic-filled chase through an alien sorcerer's garden. This excerpt demonstrates how Vance never ceases to pour out the colors!
"Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal--copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium. Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upward from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds..."
3) T'sais: The titular character, once an antagonist piece-of-art, searches out the ability to see beauty on Earth. As she describes:
"Pandelume created me," continues T'sais, "but there was a flaw in the pattern." And T'sais stared into the fire. "I see the world as a dismal place: all sounds to me are harsh, all living creatures vile, in varying degrees--things of sluggish movement and inward filth. During the first of my life I thought only to trample, crush, destroy. I knew nothing but hate. Then I met my sister T'sain, who is as I without the flaw. She told me of love and beauty and happiness--and I came to Earth seeking those."
Etarr, an ugly companion of T'sais who had his hansom face switched with a demon's, goes with her to witness a Black Sabbath. As they watch the demons congragate, Vance philosophizes:
"Even here is beauty," he whispered. "Weird and grotesque, but a sight to enchant the mind."
4) Laine the Wayfarer : Laine the arrogant magician is challenged to repair a piece of art: Lith's tapestry. Therein is depicted the Magic Valley of Ariventa, but it has been cut in half. Can he restore it?
5) Ulan Dhor: This is a fun piece, with more sci-fi than the others given the reactivation of ruined technology. The artistic elements are less covert here. There are two embattled groups that literally cannot see another. They signify themselves not with classic blazonry...but by simply by color: Green vs. Grays (vs. Reds)!
6)Guyal of Sfere: Guyal's insatiable search for knowing everything leads him on a quest to speak to the Curator of humankind's knowledge. En route, he partakes as a judge in a beauty pageant; here he meets with the maiden Shierl. They go on to explore sacred ruins, battle a demon who consumes beauty, and look upon the treasure trove of beauty, a sanctuary:
"This is the Museum," said Guyal in a rapt tone. "Here there is no danger...He who dwells in beauty of this sort may never be other than beneficent..."
All in all, a recommended read to any sci-fi and fantasy buff, and to any reader who also likes RPGs. ( )
I have been rediscovering some of the older classics of the Fantasy genre, and my latest find is The Dying Earth by Jack Holbrook Vance. This is the first book in his Dying Earth series of (four) books, and like the other is a collection of short stories.
The six short stories in this book are:
Turjan of Miir, which tells the story of Turjan the wizard, who dreams of perfecting the art of growing fully-developed humans in a chemical vat. Seeking out Pandelume, the greatest living wizard, Turjan goes to him, and learns the secrets that he craves. But, the woman he creates has a mind of her own.
In Mazirian the Magician, we meet Mazirian, a wizard who is trying to learn all of the magical spells still known to man, and has captured Turjan, with the design of forcing him to reveal the secret of successfully growing humans in chemical vats. But, a strange woman has been haunting the forest around his castle, and Mazirian will stop at nothing to capture her...no matter the cost.
T'sais is the story of the fractured woman created by the wizard Pandelume. Leaving Embelyon, she journeys to Earth to learn of love and beauty and joy, if it can be found on Earth.
Liane the Wayfarer is the most handsome and desirable of men (in his own estimation), and what more logical course should he take but the win the hand of Lith the Golden, the most beautiful of women? But, when Lith makes her love conditional on Liane fulfilling a quest, he little realizes what he is in for. It is not without reason that his opponent is called Chun the Unavoidable!
Ulan Dhor is the story of the nephew of Prince Kandive the Golden, who uncle has set him a most dangerous quest. He must travel to the lost city of Ampridatvir and learn the secrets of its long-lost wizard-king, Rogol Domedonfors. But, little does he know that Rogol may have plans of his own.
And finally, Guyal of Sfere tells the story of a young man who has an overwhelming desire to learn the secrets that most other men do not worry about. Sent to the fabled Museum of Man, to learn from its famed curator, Guyal encounters many dangers, but the greatest dangers seem to await him within the doors of the Museum itself!
I must say that I really enjoyed these stories. The author spins six fascinating stories, each with fascinating monsters and people. I love stories of strange and powerful wizards, and this book is chockfull of them! So, if you like good fantasy literature, then read The Dying Earth, you won't be disappointed.
on February 3, 2013
_The Dying Earth_ (1950) is a "fixup" novel of six related stories set on an exotic, colorful, far future Earth. One of the stories, "Liane the Wayfarer," was originally published in _Wolds Beyond_ in 1950. The other five tales first saw the light of day in _The Dying Earth_ itself.
The original book publication by Hillman attracted little attention when it first appeared. Today, I find it incredible that a book as hauntingly beautiful as this one could have escaped instant fame-- but it is so. Gradually, however, its reputation grew. It is now considered a fantasy classic-- and rightfully so.
The Earth is the "character" that dominates all of the stories. The planet is now incredibly old. The sun is now feeble and red, flickering in a purple sky. Continents have changed. Most of the old cities have crumbled to dust. There are a few thousand individuals left on Earth, some human and many nonhuman. There is ancient evil and and distilled decadence afoot:
Turjan hesitated and then opened his eyes. It was night in white-walled Kaiin, and festival time. Orange lanterns floated in the air, moving as the breeze took them. From the balconies dangled flower chains and cages of blue fire-flies. The streets surged with wine-flushed populace, costumed in a number bizarre modes. Here was a Melantine bargeman, here a warrier of Valdarine's Green Legion, here another of ancient times wearing one of the old helmets. In a little cleared space a garlanded courtesan of the Kautchique littoral danced the Dance of the Fourteen Silken Movements to the music of flutes. In the shadow of a balcony a girl barbarion of East Almery embraced a man blackened and in the leather harness as a Deodand of the forest. They were gay, these people of waning Earth, feverishly merry, for infinite night was close at hand, when the red sun should finally flicker and go out. (9)
Yet there are a few who seek some kind of goodness against the coming night. Turjan of Miir strives to find it in magic. "I find herein a wonderful beauty," he says. "This is no science, this is art, where equations fall away to elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity" (13).
Young Guyal of Sfere, though he he is not fully aware of it, is practicing the long lost discipline of science:
As Guyal grew to youth, this void in his mind, instead of becoming limp and waxy, seemed to throb with a more violent ache. And so he asked:
"Why do people die when they are killed?"
"Where does beauty vanish when it goes?"
"How long have men lived on Earth?"
"What is beyond the sky?" (89)
The beautiful T'sais has been created with a warped personality which causes her to see all things beautiful as ugly and all things good as evil. But when she meets her sister T'sain, she has a revelation that changes the course of her life:
T'sain stepped forward, put her arms around T'sais, and kissed her.
"You are my sister and I will love you."
T'sais' face froze. Rend, stab, bite, said her brain, but a deeper surge welled up from her flowing blood, from every cell of her body, to suffuse her with sudden pleasure. She smiled.
"Then--I love you, my sister. I kill no more, and I will find and know beauty on Earth or die." (16)
The sharp-eyed reader may have noticed that Vance employs a baroque style of writing similar (but not identical) to that of Lord Dunsany. One story in particular seems to be fairly imitative of Lord Dunsany in terms of of plot as well: "Liane the Wayfarer" (chapter 4 of the novel). It's the one in which a clever, ruthless thief seeks a fabulous prize but is betrayed in a rather nasty double-cross. Liane reminds me a lot of Cugel the Clever of later Dying Earth tales.
Most of the stories in _The Dying Earth_ are quest stories. Sometimes the quest is made as the result of a bargain with someone else. Liane agrees to a quest in the hopes of winning the favors of the beautiful blond witch Lith (though with a name like that, he should have been warned). Turjan accepts a quest to gain knowledge from the magician Pandelume. Prince Kandive the Golden sends his nephew, Ulan Dhor, on a quest from their home city. Some quests (like those of Guyal and T'sais) are personal in nature and are undertaken in order to resolve an internal conflict or defeat a personal demon. A few quests fail. Many eventually succeed, though not in a manner that the questers might have predicted. Two quests are resolved by a _deus ex machina_-- a god who comes out of the machinery to mete out justice. But most of the time, conflicts are resolved in a less arbitrary manner.
The last two chapters of the novel-- "Ulan Dhor" and "Guyal of Sfere"-- are novella length stories that are much more originally plotted than chapter 4. They are the best tales in the novel. Both stories end with a hint of hope. To be sure, Vance does not follow through with this ray of hope in his later Dying Earth tales. But that qualified optimism is here, sure enough. And it enriches the book.
on October 21, 2011
I was uncertain on what this was at first.
It's a collection of interrelated short stories from 1950. The Pocket books paperback you're probably looking at is a reprint from March 1977.
The six stories are interrelated and share many of the same characters.
It's fantasy fiction, with wizards and monsters and so forth. It's a short book, though: 146 pages. One thing that's kind of annoying is that there's one of those heavy card stock cigarette ads right in the middle of the book (for Kent and Newport) that can't be removed. They used to do this with mass market paperbacks in the 70s. Thank God that went out of style.
It's a bit confusing at first: Vance gets right into his world and all the names and allusions can be quite disorienting, especially when you realize that no clarification will ever be forthcoming (e.g., you never get any specifics on why the world is "dying").
However, the writing is superb. If you can get into it, it's quite a feast for the imagination and Vance proves himself a capable wordsmith. I am not alone in my high opinion of this book: in 2001 it won a "retro-Hugo," an award designed to recognize superlative SF that was overlooked or unappreciated at the time of publication.
I actually read this through twice. It's not that it contains a lot of deep, subtle lessons. It's that it's such a pleasure to be in the hands of someone who's got such a disciplined style with English.
Note that Vance's conception about how wizards know and use spells was seminal in the Gygax's conception of them when he created Dungeons and Dragons with Dave Arneson.
on November 27, 2014
This was a fascinating look at a shaper in the genre, and I can see so much that evolved from this. Some of that evolution was awful, and things like the Gor series and Blade come to mind.
It seems apparent that they were published chronologically, as they definitely get better as the style evolves and world gels. I was generally unmoved by the first four stories but "Ulan Dhor" and "Guyal of Sfere" will keep me reading the collection. Both of these had the plotting I am more used to, with a beginning, middle, and end.
"Ulan Dhor" does a great job of building an intensely weird society and integrating future tech with the magical setting. "Guyal of Sfere" read to me as a retelling of a classic faery tale in the tradition of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" or "Orepheus and Euridice". It had serious elements of the hero's journey coupled with concepts from faery tales like not eating their food and not leaving the path. I loved this so much more than "The Einstein Intersection" by Delaney, because of the traditional plotting.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 1997
A exquisite exotic, as terrible in beauty, and sweet in dreamworlds as any penned since Poe, very much it's shadow. Vance weaves a world as bejeweled in color and fantastique as readers could imagine, in a earth perched at the end of time, while the sun sputters its last gasp. Magic rules, and poor Cugel, its hero wanders from the lilac-flavoured poisons of Mazirian's garden to the autumn-cut glass palaces of the Dying Earth. He is betrayed, bewitched, and perplexed by his environs, all to our joy, and such is his adventures that we hope for more, but it takes a genius such as Vance to realize it. Some say NIGHT LAMP is his last, but his readers, his children, will reimagine the lost lands of this book long after he is gone, perhaps to the end of this incredible, dream-haunted journey.
on July 13, 2013
I think it's safe to say The Dying Earth was my first fantasy novel. It's a collection of six short stories. It was a joy to read the words of author Jack Vance. He's very wordy with his grandiloquence style, picturesque details, and lavish vernacular. See what I did there.
You should definitely read this book if you're Dungeons & Dragons fan. You know how D&D GMs are basically telling a story the players are acting out. In The Dying Earth, the third person narrator is the GM and the characters are the players. It's all here; going on an adventure, discovering new places, meeting other characters, obtaining rare items, solving puzzles, taking initiative, escaping danger, engaging in combat, and casting spells. Keep in mind The Dying Earth was published in 1950 and D&D was published in 1974. It will all make sense.