Monday, September 19, 2011

The Dying Earth

As you may recall, I've been trying to understand the acclaim accorded Jack Vance. He's often praised as a great writer that transcends the fantasy genre, and I've tried to read a number of his things to first be exposed to this hidden treasure and then later to understand the praise, since I am finding his works to be somewhat less than advertised.

Recently, a tribute to Jack Vance was published, a collection of short stories written by various authors including George R. R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, and Neil Gaiman. A New York Times article was written as an accompaniment, describing the reviewer's love for Jack Vance but without ever really talking about the source for that love. Intrigued, I sent an email to Neil Gaiman's Web site, asking if he had any suggestions for this poor soul who just doesn't get Vance. His response was to read the book on which the homage was based, The Dying Earth. It took some searching to find an inexpensive copy of the book, but I finally did and plowed through it pretty quickly.

The setting is an Earth thousands of years in the future, one in which mankind has lost all its technological knowledge and fallen back into a stereotypical fantasy world, Middle Ages or Renaissance in the broad strokes but not nearly so dirty or pestilential. It turns out not to matter so much where the stories are set; while the narrative often invokes the fact that the planet is coming to its end and the sun shines red in its cooling rather than the yellow we currently know—and sometimes even the characters mention the planet's slow fade—it's just window dressing. The fact that the Earth is dying has no bearing on the pith of the stories at all; they could just as easily take place in any other simply constructed fantasy setting. And though this is described as a novel, it really is a collection of loosely connected short stories and novelettes and a novella.

The stories are quick reads and the characters somewhat memorable for their depiction despite their lack of roundedness. They tend to be especially strong in one or two facets of their characterization: Guyal is curious and Liane is a rogue, for example. Their stories are fascinating journeys into the crux of the stereotypes of golden age fantasy: characters go on quests for magical knowledge or on the run from evil sorcerers. Bad people often do stupid things and end up meeting their demise, while good people win through, sometimes on sheer pluck.

Of more interest is the high language that Vance uses, primarily in his descriptions. He mixes exotic terms with names he has made up to sound exotic, spinning them about until it is unclear which might be real. He spends paragraphs describing the scenery that surrounds the characters as they act, pulling the reader into his world through both provocative description and sheer mass of words.

As I read, I was reminded over and over again of the classic fantasy cartoon, Thundarr the Barbarian, and who's to say that the show's creators weren't exposed enough to the genre that they weren't aware of Vance's work? (Given the writers include Mark Evanier, Steve Gerber, and Roy Thomas, I would not be at all surprised.) I do not mean the comparison to be mean; I enjoyed Thundarr and I did actually enjoy The Dying Earth as well, more so than any other Vance work I've read. And while the comparison seems obvious, especially regarding a setting of an Earth far in the future where sorcery has returned, the similarities run somewhat deeper. Bear in mind that Thundarr was a cartoon of the 80s, its purpose nothing more than to tell engaging stories in a fantastic setting in a 22-minute format. And as such, the stories in this setting have to be immersive and somewhat fast moving, leaving little time for character development. In many ways, they must become distillations of the tradition of fantasy storytelling.

And this is what The Dying Earth is to me, a breakdown of all the constituents of good fantasy storytelling into especially pure but short-lived elements. The general mood of otherness is set immediately by the book's title—The Dying Earth is evocative without any aid whatsoever—and Vance's flowing style and extensive descriptions constantly bolster the knowledge that this is not a place with which the reader is familiar. And then through the setting pass characters who are so distilled that could be arguably described as clich├ęs by readers with a depth of knowledge to fall back on. Nonetheless, they are engaging and somewhat whimsical, even when they are evil. Their adventures are familiar to readers of fantasies and even those whose fantastic experience does not extend beyond fables and fairy tales. While it's somewhat easy to predict how the stories are going to end, there is some fun in the journeys to those endings.

Another way I look at The Dying Earth is as a companion piece to Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars. If you are past a certain age when you first read Burroughs's stories of Barsoom, they will strike you as ludicrous and juvenile. But if your first reading is at the right age, then every time you read those books, the memories and joy in the series come rushing back. There is more value in the Barsoom books than nostalgia but it's not obvious and forces the critic to accept as a premise that what they are reading is good in the first place. So it goes with The Dying Earth—if you already have some fondness or curiosity for the stories, they are charming and fun. But if you are beyond that, expecting great things from your stories as they move you to moral consideration, it simply is not available here. The stories in The Dying Earth are well-packaged whimsy, at their core the essence of the origin of all speculative fiction, whether science fiction or fantasy—a means of escape from our mundane lives.


  1. Your point on the age you read a particular series is well taken. I read "The Dying Earth" in the late fifties, when I was in my early teens, and remember it fondly. Much of it may seem sterotypical, but those stereotypes were still in their infancy at the time. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and the vast explosion in fantasy works that followed it were still in the future when the book was published. Fantasy was more varied and idiosyncratic in those days. If you had read him back then, it was easy to spot his influence on the works that came after. I think in some ways he's analogous to the Beatles. Their music sounds somewhat dated now, and it's easy to wonder what the fuss was about, but that's only because so much of modern music is based on, and springboards from, what they did, that it's hard for a modern listener to grasp how revolutionary they were at the time.

  2. You make a good point--I generally am pretty aware of a book's place in genre history, but I was so focused on trying to "get it" with The Dying Earth that I failed to make the connection between Vance and those who followed. And Mrs. Speculator, who claims to despise the Beatles, makes exactly the same point you do about them. She recognizes their significance but the original things sound very dated to her.

    However, that all said, I think a lot of readers of my generation, who told me how great Vance is, could not have been reading him in the 50s (Gaiman was born in 1960, for example). I think for them the element of the right writer at the right time of life plays a big part.

    And that's okay. A lot of people like Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the same time, a lot of people think he's childish and simple (philistines!). My job as a reader is to find books that I like to read. And my job as a quasi-critical wannabe leader of literary discussions about genre examples is to explain why I do or don't like what I read. Reading and liking Vance is the end of a long quest for me; I get it, so far as The Dying Earth goes. Maybe when my reading stack gets thin again, I'll try something else by him. For know, I'm just basking in the glow of being hip, if only by reflection....