The OF Blog: Jack Vance, Tales of the Dying Earth

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Jack Vance, Tales of the Dying Earth

"In ages gone," the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, "a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills. Today, as Earth dies, a hundred spells remain to man's knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books...But there is one called Pandelume, who knows all the spells, all the incantations, cantraps, runes, and thaumaturgies that have ever wrenched and molded space..." He had fallen silent, lost in his thoughts. (p. 4)
There is something powerful about a ruin. Seeing grandeur cast down, witnessing the failing of a majestic vision, viewing a ruin inspires in many a mixture of wonder and contempt. Who could have created such majestic structures so long ago? What sort of folly befell this civilization for only broken, ivy-covered remnants remaining to serve notice of that culture's collapse? Does such a fate await our own?

Jack Vance in the four stories collected in his Tales from the Dying Earth takes these questions and fast-forwards things millions of years into the Earth's future, to a time in which the Earth's resources have been exhausted and its inhabitants live among the ruins of civilizations about which they know less than we do of the ancient Egyptians or Chinese. For them, Arthur C. Clarke's adage about advanced technology being scarcely distinguishable from magic in the eyes of those who cannot comprehend the technology being employed holds true.

The four stories in this omnibus, The Dying Earth (1950), The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Cugel's Saga (1983), and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984), share little in common with one another except the same far-future setting and in the case of the middle two volumes, the protagonist called Cugel. While I knew going in that these stories were best viewed as being separate tales that perhaps ought to be considered separately, as a whole I found myself struggling at times with the stories.

So this little post will not be the in-depth, formal review that I have written so far for the classics this blog's readers have voted upon. Or rather, it'll be in-depth to the extent that I explore what it was about this volume that didn't appeal to me, as well as the few things that I did enjoy.

I've had this omnibus for almost five years now, but I never could get beyond the first pages of The Eyes of the Overworld before putting it down in favor of another book. The first volume's rather dated narrative approach (it feels like an odd inversion of the action/adventure stories in the stamp of an Edgar Rice Burroughs in its exotic-yet-somehow-familiar setting and the 1930s-style matinee adventure hero) was trying enough, despite at times Vance's prose rising above that rather pedestrian level. But there was something about Cugel at the time that just irritated me. While on this most recent read, where I sat down one afternoon and just forced myself to keep reading despite my attention waning at times, Cugel's banter seemed more palatable, it wasn't until the very end of The Eyes of the Overworld that I began to warm to Cugel's rakish charm.

Cugel's Saga, however, dashed that charitable feeling. At nearly 300 pages, it was by far the longest of the four tales, and I just felt as though the story dragged the entire time. While there were occasional sharp, witty exchanges between Cugel and those around him, on the whole the story just felt lifeless to me, as if it were just one more foray for Cugel, one more time into the breach, but with nothing of import to show for it. By the time I reached the final tale, Rhialto the Marvellous, I just was eager to finish the damn thing, as I was beginning to feel caught between trying to finish the omnibus so I could review the book the voters had voted upon, and just giving up again and crying "mea culpa" for having the book among the choices listed. In the end, I think I made the worse decision by pushing on, leaving me to writing something that was more akin to a confession that this tale didn't work for me and that at least part of the problem lay with my own past problems with a few elements early in the omnibus.

Will I try again in the future? Perhaps, since I hate the fact that I disengaged myself from processing this book about halfway through and that there is that suspicion that if I had tried just a bit harder, I could have wrung something from it other than the feeling that this collection was rather disjointed and that dying earth stories have been done better by those who followed Vance than by Vance himself. However, it'll be some time (likely a couple of years at least), but if I do try again, I'll at least try to accentuate the positive more than I did here.

Thankfully, the next couple of classics to be reviewed, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities and Junot Díaz's 1997 story collection Drown, will be much easier to write about. Expect reviews of those in the next couple of days.


MatsVS said...

Interesting how Jack Vance inspires such fervent dedication in some, yet such utter boredom in other. Myself, being a big Dan Simmons fan wanted to like him so much, but, like you, could not force myself through the body of his work. A shame it is, too, that you also failed, as I had so hoped that you would pick up on some element that justified the near-religious following this man has, and would so inspire me to do the same. Hell, you've done it before... =P Oh well, I hardly blame you, as it really is a droll affair.

Oh, by the way, the first paragraph of your review was excellent! The promise of mystery when an author describes some ancient ruin can be truly scintillating, and one of the many things that can help make a sf story great (hello, Bakker).

Gabriele Campbell said...

I was one of those evil people who voted for the Vance omnibus. I've read several reviews, most of them on the critical side, but I wanted your take on it. :)

I bought The Broken Sword, btw, and since I was at it, War of the Gods, too. Now I only need to find the Hrolf Kraki book which alas, isn't listed on

Aaron said...

While I love the Dying Earth and Cugel stories, I can see why some folks would not. But please do not make the mistake of judging Vance's work based on this omnibus alone. Vance has written several novels and series. Try something else by him. The man is very talented and it would be a shame to see so many people put off him because of this, a tiny fraction of his work. Sure, he made his name with the Dying Earth stuff, but he went far beyond those. BTW, his SF is especially good. Give it a try.

Eileen said...

I've heard about the Dying Earth subgenre. The Wikipedia article describes it rather evocatively as taking "place at the end of Time, when the Sun slowly fades and the laws of the universe themselves fail, with science becoming indistinguishable from magic." It is typified by "science fiction works set in the far distant future in a milieu of stasis or decline. Themes of world-weariness, innocence (wounded or otherwise), idealism, entropy, (permanent) exhaustion/depletion of many or all resources (such as soil nutrients), and the hope of renewal tend to pre-dominate." I was reminded of Martin Silenus's story in Dan Simmons's Hyperion, which remains one of my all-time favorite books. I loved the first paragraph of your review - I'll have to add this one to my ever-growing list of sci-fi/fantasy books to check out.

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