Friday, April 08, 2011

20. The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

I've been aware of Jack Vance for a long time, but never read anything by him or knew much beyond his influence on Dungeons & Dragons. The magic in earlier versions of D&D is often called "Vancian" in the sense that there are specific spells that have to discovered and learned and kept in spell books as opposed to other forms such as ritualistic or more free-flowing. There are adherents and opponents of this approach, but whatever your flavour, Vance's imagination had a lot of influence on the origins of fantasy roleplaying games.

We feed a stray tomcat on the back balcony and he tries to sneak into the house and leave his mark. He has hit us successfully a few times, the last being a quick blast on the bottom shelf of meezly's books. Bad scene, but she did a pretty good job of getting her books mostly rid of the cat pheremones, except for a paperback of The Dying Earth. I didn't even know she had it and considering her pretended abhorrence of roleplaying games (part of the secret unwritten chick code) it was quite ironic that she owned one of the classics of the genre and I hadn't even read it! I felt it was time to delve back into a bit of fantasy, so I picked it up.

As usual, these older paperback editions never represent the contents properly. This is one area where the world has improved. When you get a genre book these days, it is usually very clear from the publisher's info where the book fits in within the rest of the author's work and exactly what it is you are getting. Back in the 60s and 70s, it seemed like they always had to obfuscate and mislead, so you could never figure out what the order of anything was, which characters would be in it and so on. The Dying Earth appears to be a novel, but it is actually a collection of short stories, all but one loosely connected through characters but having no other greater narrative beyond that they all take place in some far future earth where the sun is a dying red giant.

There is both the remmants of great magic and great technology in this world. Everybody seems aware that the planet is dying and this allows for a certain melancholy and a certain decadence, which is a great mix for adventure. Many of the stories are quests, where a hero or magician learns of some lost knowledge and seeks it out. These frameworks than allow Vance to draw out wondrous locations and fantastic creatures. It almost feels a little bit like the original Star Trek series, in which each story brings us to a new cool milieu, sometimes even with a political parable. As one gets older, one becomes less interested in the fantastic and more concerned with the human, the character, the conflict. Vance's fantastic is pretty awesome though and I found myself enjoying it for its own sake. Little people that fly around on dragonflies, trading gossip and rumours for tiny bags of salt they hang from their mounts, a demon whose face is only able to penetrate into our world and attacks with his tongue and ghosts spouting from his nostrils, a wizard who shrinks his enemy and puts him in a maze with a tiny dragon as a form of endless torture. It's really cool stuff. Furthermore, the stories themselves are quite elegantly constructed, almost little fables, neatly constructed and just as satisfyingly concluded.

There are only three other books in the Dying Earth series, but most of the rest of his work is science fiction and mystery (which surprises me somewhat, considering his impact on D&D). I hope that at least one of them is an actual full-length novel, because I would love to see his talents in the form of a longer, more deeply engaging story. As it is, I wouldn't be averse to reading more of his short stories as well.

1 comment:

Doc said...

That's a good characterization. I picked up the Dying Earth omnibus in 2008 and read it for a while. The vibes I picked up were Original Star Trek, Fritz Leiber, Harlan Ellison, Clark Ashton Smith, but unique from all of these as well. It's trippy and interesting stuff to read.