Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Dying Earth, by Jack Vance

Old-school swords & sorcery that deserves its reputation as a "foundational" work of sci-fi/fantasy.

The Dying Earth

Hillman Publishing, 1950, 175 pages

The stories in The Dying Earth introduce dozens of seekers of wisdom and beauty - lovely lost women, wizards of every shade of eccentricity with their runic amulets and spells. We meet the melancholy deodands, who feed on human flesh and the twk-men, who ride dragonflies and trade information for salt. There are monsters and demons. Each being is morally ambiguous: The evil are charming, the good are dangerous. All are at home in Vance’s lyrically described fantastic landscapes, like Embelyon, where, “The sky [was] a mesh of vast ripples and cross-ripples and these refracted a thousand shafts of colored light, rays which in mid-air wove wondrous laces, rainbow nets, in all the jewel hues....”

The dying Earth itself is otherworldly: “A dark blue sky, an ancient sun.... Nothing of Earth was raw or harsh—the ground, the trees, the rock ledge protruding from the meadow; all these had been worked upon, smoothed, aged, mellowed. The light from the sun, though dim, was rich and invested every object of the land ... with a sense of lore and ancient recollection.” Welcome.

I read a couple of Jack Vance's books years ago, but I had never read any of his classic Dying Earth series before. This is the first book in the series, containing a series of short stories set in this world.

It's one of those fantasy settings that were all the rage for a few decades, where you'd gradually learn that this fantastic, magical world is actually Earth in some distant future where technology has become ancient black magic and somehow the world is now overrun with magical mutants and people can channel otherworldly powers. This is kind of old hat now, but Vance was one of the pioneers in the genre. His description of the Dying Earth with its fading red sun is melancholy and poetic at times, and his characters are kind of somber, grim, not entirely without humor, but you really get the sense that they all know they are living in the last days of mankind.

It resembles Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun in many ways. Vance's prose is more full of vivid imagery, though, and less psychological introspection. His worldbuilding is more piecemeal and at least in this book, there's no main plot, as The Dying Earth is a collection of short stories with only a few characters appearing in more than one. Vance seems to be recording fables from a future age of myth. His characters exclaim! And declaim! And speak in stilted, formal prose.

The stories in this collection are:

  • Mazirian the Magician
  • Turjan of Miir
  • T'sais
  • Liane the Wayfarer
  • Ulan Dhor Ends a Dream
  • Guyal of Sfere

If the Made Up Fantasy Names make you think this is just old-fashioned D&Dish pulp fantasy, reconsider. Vance, first of all, is a superior writer to most of his peers. Second, the stories each have a certain amount of subtlety and depth not usually seen in plain old swords & sorcery tales. Although if you like pulp swords & sorcery, these stories work that way just fine.

Also remember that this book was written in 1950, so Vance helped create a lot of these now-old tropes.

AD&D players will certainly recognize a lot of names. The magic system that dates back to the original Dungeons & Dragons, where wizards can "memorize" a finite number of spells from a list, cast each one once, and then they can't use it again until they relearn it from their spellbook? That was lifted straight from Vance's Dying Earth. And the good old Prismatic Sphere, which has survived every edition of AD&D and reappeared in World of Warcraft? Lifted straight out of The Dying Earth. So were Arduin Grimoire's deodanths. The legacy of Jack Vance is stamped all over modern fantasy RPGs.

If you're in the mood to sample an old genre classic, The Dying Earth should definitely be on the list of 1001 Old Fantasy Paperbacks You Must Read Before You Die.

Verdict: Vance's Dying Earth may not have quite the influence of Hyboria or Melniboné or even Amber, and it's not quite as literary as Gene Wolfe's Urth, but Vance is still a hugely influential writer without whom modern fantasy (and particularly fantasy gaming) would not be quite the same. The characters and stories in this book aren't extremely memorable, but the prose is lyrical (a term I don't use often) and it's an interesting, fantastic, slightly alien world that will nonetheless be familiar to anyone who's read a lot of genre fantasy. In other words, it's well-written and a lot of fun.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, fantasy, reviews

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