Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #4: 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.

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. In the end, I think I made the worse decision by pushing on, leaving me to write 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.  Certainly not the "masterwork" in terms of prose or characterization that his other Masterworks titles, the Lyonesse and Emphyrio titles, prove to be.


  1. The Eyes of the Overworld is generally recognized as one of Vance's best. Certainly better than Lyonesse or Emphyrio. Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvelous aren't thought of so highly. Dying Earth is somewhat better.

    You're not supposed to like Cugel. He's an amoral buffoon. You're supposed to enjoy laughing at his misfortune. But you don't even really so much laugh actually. It's only slightly funny. It's more just this relaxed wandering through a fantasy world. And the fantasy world isn't that interesting. It's just that somehow it comes across as more believable because he describes it within the action. He doesn't stop all the action to spend a few paragraphs describing the setting. But instead makes passing mentions within the action thus it's so much more accepted by the mind.

    Finally, Vance is always extremely weak concerning characterization. One doesn't read Vance for characterization.

    I do think though that Vance is not remotely for everyone. He'll always have a small rabid fan base, while getting incomprehension from the masses. What is best about Vance is the mix of escapism and stoicism. Meanwhile characters and plot are generally quite weak. Possibly the least diversity, and least depth in his characters of any top level writer.

  2. I read it myself over the weekend and you're spot on, especially about Cugel's saga. The thing with the Fantasy Masterworks compilations is that they either bring out Rocks or Diamonds. There were bits of the first two that were great. The second two were boring. Not in the re-read later pile.