Tales of the Dying Earth

November 2nd, 2007

Long, long ago I (somewhat glowingly) reviewed Kage Baker’s Anvil of the World, and was recommended, as having a somewhat similar style and tone, to the works of SF luminary Jack Vance. Dutifully, I picked up the omnibus collection of 4 of his novels set in the Dying Earth universe he created, Tales of the Dying Earth, but…well, I can’t write quite so glowing a review this time. Vance’s setting is interesting enough, in concept. Presumably billions of years in the future, the Sun is dying. Mankind, the environment, and the Earth itself have been through so many traumas and evolutions that it can seem quite alien, especially as humanity’s control of its environment has advanced technologically, or psionically, or spiritually, or some combination of all of these, to the point where Magic in the traditional sense is very much in the world and readily perceived. Vance does a fascinating job presenting a world with billions of years of human history, and his environmental descriptions are almost Tolkien-esque at many points in their vivid paintings of his eerie world. Unfortunately, while I found much to admire in these books, like Tolkien I often thought his characterization and dialogue sometimes lagged far behind his other skills, although I wonder how much of that is simply the choice of stories included in this collection. The first book in the collection, The Dying Earth is a collection of stories about the wizards of Vance’s world and their creations or servants. Some of these stories have that indefinable touch that elevates a tale to the tone and impact of a legend; I particularly enjoyed “Liane the Wayfarer” (which I would have named “Chun the Unavoidable,” as Liane himself is entirely uninteresting) and “T’sais,” while others seem pedestrian and underwhelming. The entirety of its style feels old, though, in that hard to define way that the prose of Bester, Asimov, and many of the other notables from that period do…something about the rhythm of their language, even when writing in a fantastical mode, that differs from modern usage in some subtle fashion. Old art does not necessarily mean classic art…in some senses it implies a lack of sophistication which is sometimes evident here. My hesitant approval began to wane, however, after slogging through the next two books in the omnibus, Eyes of the Overworld, and Cugel’s Saga. The titular Cugel is the focal character in these stories (the former book being a collection of shorts and novellas, while the latter was written as a novel from its inception), and is in almost every regard a vile, annoying, and despicable man. That, in and of itself, is not a problem; I’ve read lots of stories where the main character begins as such a wretch. Perhaps it is due to the nature in which these were written and initally published, though, that any step forward that Cugel seems to take in competence or character is utterly reversed in the next moment; after all, if your anti-hero develops into a straight-up villain or hero, you can no longer tell the sort of story that Vance seemed to want to tell with this character, but as a reader it was inordinately frustrating to me. Likewise the humor that can be wrung from such a character wore thin quickly with me…it’s not a character device I’ve ever particularly enjoyed, to be honest. So while I often found his surroundings and supportive characters fascinating, I was equally often annoyed that I was forced to view them around Cugel’s unpleasant presence. The fourth book in the collection, Rhialto the Marvellous, was much more enjoyable to me than the previous two, thankfully. Centering around a group of aristocratic wizards and particularly the eponymous “Rhialto,” this collection of stories is humorous, whimsical, and mystical in close to equal measures. The characterization is much better, here, and the depth implied in some of the early stories is much better developed. It’s still not grab you by the brain and Wow you level fiction, though, which Anvil was for me. One of the things this series is best known for, apparently, is its influence on Gary Gygax in developing the setting and magic system for Dungeons & Dragons. I didn’t know that going in, but could totally see it when I learned about it later. It’s also the origin of several creatures that are seen in later prominent books, games, and films; Zork‘s “Grue” being just one of the ones that I noticed. So, clearly, this is a series that influenced many, and perhaps broke new and important ground in its day, but in the end it just wasn’t as much to my tastes as I had hoped.

3 Responses to “Tales of the Dying Earth”

  1. Man, you’re crazypop. The characters aren’t supposed to be naturalistic, they’re semi-mythological and highly stylized. It’s like complaining that Jeeves and Wooster lack realism.

    Ultimately, Vance is someone you read for the style and atmosphere (which aren’t old-fashioned so much as sui generis), and if you don’t like that, you won’t like this.

  2. Skwid says:

    That comparison requires that Cugel approaches the appeal and amusing qualities of Jeeves and Wooster, and he doesn’t, nor do any of the characters, save maybe only Rhialto. This is good enough fiction that I can see how influential it was, but it’s just not funny enough to pull off what you describe.

  3. Occupant says:

    Cugel’s tales are picaresques; he’s a rogue, completely self-interested and unreliable. The Cugel stories in Tales of the Dying Earth are what make the work really sing. The point where he abandons the queen, I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe.

    I love the fact his tales aren’t moralistic and Cugel isn’t romanticized in any way. It’s completely non-conventional fantasy in that regard – the protagonist isn’t concerned with larger issues, he’s concerned only with his own comfort and well-being. That actually sounds fairly naturalistic to me – most real people don’t sacrifice themselves for ideals.

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