Sunday, April 27, 2008
The Dying Earth
Jack Vance's The Dying Earth is one of the most original and most entertaining fantasy novels I've read in quite some time. Long considered a classic, it is (as Beth pointed out) rather odd that I hadn't gotten around to reading it before now. That's mostly because I'd never come across a copy in all my bookstore wanderings. Though all the Dying Earth material has been reprinted in one volume in recent years, I can't recall ever seeing a copy of the original. It has this in common with Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, another fantasy classic that I never seemed to encounter and have read only recently.
Last Sunday, while at a favorite used bookstore in Marietta, I was wandering the end of the SF section, looking for Karl Edward Wagner books (Yes I've read them all but I don't own all the paperbacks.) I looked up and saw The Dying Earth. Since I'd been meaning to read it for some time, I took this as a sign that the time had come.
In case you're not familiar with the book, it's not really a novel, but rather a collection of loosely related short stories that tell of our world in the far future, when our sun has almost gone out, and the world has been returned to a technological level roughly equivalent to the late middle ages. Magic works and there are quite a few strange and dangerous monsters and inhuman races wandering the lands. There is some indication that this may be the result of nuclear cataclysm or some other great disaster, but it's never really spelled out.
This is a darkly poetic book about the end of many things and Vance writes in a suitably poetic style. I've read some of his science fiction (The Big Planet series) and the style he uses there, while certainly well crafted, isn't as rich or ornate. Nor should it be. The prose is The Dying Earth is suited to the material. I think I can hear the echoes of Clark Ashton Smith in Vance's elaborate turns of phrase, though he's a far more straightforward writer than Klar-Kash-Ton.
Probably the most interesting thing to me about The Dying Earth is the sheer level of imagination. This is a pre-Tolkien fantasy and contains none of the elements that have come to dominate the fantasy genre in the last decade or so. No elves, dwarves, or any other recognizable creatures. Instead, Vance populates his world with his own races and monsters. With tkk-men, grues, and leucomorphs. My favorites are the deodands, a race of humanoid cannibals that lurk in the deep woods. For some reason I see them as looking like comics artist Wally Wood's character Ani-Man.
There is considerable dark humor in the book. In that way it reminds me a little of Fritz Leiber, and in fact the hero of many of the later Dying Earth stories, Cudgel the Clever, is a rogue much like Leiber's Gray Mouser. In one story, the nominal hero Liane the Wayfarer runs across a character called Chun the Unavoidable, who as it turns out, is truly unavoidable. All the names in the stories have an exotic feel to them. Turjan of Miir. Mazirian the Magician. The mad T'sais and her sane sister T'sain. The coining of names for a fantasy world isn't as easy as it looks and Vance's sound just right.
Now a word about the magic system used in the book. I'd long heard that the creators of Dungeons and Dragons had ripped off Vance. It's true. Magicians in the Dying Earth use spell books from which they can only memorize four or five spells at a time. Once a spell is used, it vanishes from the mage's mind and has to be memorized again. One of the spells Vance's magicians favor is the Prismatic Spray, which I remember using in the D&D Baldur's Gate PC game. But you know what they say. Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.
Speaking of which, as much as I admire the Lord of the Rings, I do wish some of the current crop of fantasy authors would draw influences from something else. It certainly wouldn't hurt more of them to do their homework and go back and read some of the other classics of fantasy. Lord Dunsany. E.R. Eddison. Clark Ashton Smith. And Jack Vance. Definitely Jack Vance.