The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance
Posted January 3, 2012on:
published in 1950
where I got it: borrowed from a friend
In preparation for Vintage month, a friend lent me Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, a beautiful volume that includes the four novels of the Dying Earth series: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga and Rialto the Magnificent. For this review, I’ll only be discussing the first book, The Dying Earth, originally published in 1950. Hopefully I’ll eventually have time to read the other three novels in this volume.
First, a word on what the Dying Earth is. Like many of Vance’s works, The Dying Earth takes place on a far future Earth, where the sun is old and reddened, the Earth starved, whithered, and nearly empty of population. Residents of the doomed planet are strange, nihilistic and fairly amoral. Why worry about the future, or anything, for that matter, when the Sun is expected to burn out at any moment, followed by darkness and starvation? In this far future, magic and science are identical. Much knowledge has been lost, and wizards roam the planet, using ancient words to create and destroy. Spells must be memorized, and once used they are instantly forgotten. A wizards power depends on how many spells are owned, and how many can be memorized at a time. The world may be ending, but knowledge is still power.
Less a plot driven novel, and more a collection of interrelated short stories, Vance wrote most of The Dying Earth in the 1940s while serving in the Merchant Marines. Each chapter, a story unto itself, follows a character and their unique adventures. I noticed a recurring theme of one character trying to trick or trap another character, which made the adventures feel a bit like sci-fantasy Grimm’s fairy tales. A perfect blend of science fiction and fantasy, it’s no surprise that The Dying Earth was so inspirational to the countless people who read it, many of whom grew up to become writers themselves.
While reading the The Dying Earth I was reminded of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun (which he says Vance was of great inspiration) and M John Harrison’s Viriconium stories. The writing, and especially the dialog is on the formal side, but trust me, it’s worth getting used to.
Here are my thoughts on a few of the Tales of the Dying Earth:
Turgan of Miir - the first story in the collection, it follows Turgan, a wizard, and his search for the secret of the creation of life. Following a lead, he visits the secretive wizard Pandalume in Embeylon. But where is Embeylon? Perhaps in a different dimension all together. Upon arrival, Turgan is set upon by a beautiful dark haired woman, who has nothing but violence and hatred in her heart. As Pandalume is teaching him the secrets of the creation of life, Turgan also learns about the dark haired woman. She is T’sais, a flawed creation. Pandalume can’t bring himself to destroy her, so she lives as peacefully as possible in Embeylon. Turgan’s first creation is the woman T’sain, a twin to T’sais, but unflawed. When T’sain and T’sais meet, how will they respond to each other? To that end, who or what is Pandalume? He never lets anyone see him, is he human? alien? angel? other? Why does his secret for creating life only create one model of person? So many questions surround these characters, I couldn’t ask for a better introduction to the dying Earth.
Laine the Wayfarer - Liane is the rogue of these characters. Believing himself to be handsome, intelligent, and quite literally god’s gift to women, he can’t bear a woman who denies him. Which is exactly what happens when he meets a beautiful woman named Lith. She tasks him with rescuing the missing half of her tapestry from a dangerous castle. How can he resist the requests of a beautiful creature such as Lith, when his successful return will surely be followed by her giving herself to him? Liane ventures into danger, finds the tapestry, and meets with Chun the unavoidable. He only gets a few lines, but Chun quickly became one of my favorite characters. Darkly funny and with an unexpectedly deserving ending, this was one of my favorite stories, even though Laine himself tended to leave a bad taste in my mouth. Chun the unavoidable needs his own story!
Ulon Dhor - Ulon is tasked with visiting the ruins of an ancient city and finding two tablets, which when placed together will provide great magics and knowledge. But when he reaches the city he finds it fully populated by two religious cults, one group wearing all grey, the other group wearing all green, and each cult claiming one of the tablets in their temple. The “greys” can’t see the “greens”, and believe people wearing green are ghosts, and vice versa. Is this a type of genetically bred blindness, or a voluntary cultural choice, as many of us saw in China Mieville’s The City and The City, and how will Ulon be able to communicate with both groups?
Guyal of Sfere - young Guyal questions everything. Why is the sky red? why is the dirt brown? To the exasperation of his parents, Guyal never stops asking questions. He lives in a culture where questioning, where learning is frowned upon, unless of course, one in a wizard. Everything that can possibly be known has already been known, and for the most part has been lost. Guyal’s father sends him to find the Museum of Man, where he can bring his questions to the Curator. Along the way, Guyal stops in a city where as a treasured guest he is asked to judge a beauty pageant. Not at all what it appears, it’s not long before Guyal and the “winner” of the pageant are sent to the Museum of Man, a building plagued by ghosts and demons. Survival means fast thinking here, and smart questioning.