Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance is the best anthology I’ve ever read. These stories will be enjoyed by any SFF reader, but they’ll be ten times more fun if you’ve read Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, because they are all written in honor of that fantastic work. Each tale is written in the style of Vance, which is quite amusing in itself, and each takes place on the Dying Earth, that far-future wasteland in which natural selection means survival of the cleverest, nastiest, sneakiest, and most self-serving.
Songs of the Dying Earth was written by “many high-echelon, top-drawer writers” (as Mr. Vance says in the preface): Robert Silverberg, Matthew Hughes, Terry Dowling, Liz Williams, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams, Paula Volsky, Jeff Vandermeer, Kage Baker, Phyllis Eisenstein, Elizabeth Moon, Lucius Shepard, Tad Williams, John C. Wright, Glen Cook, Elizabeth Hand, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Howard Waldrop, George R.R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman. And there’s an introductory “appreciation” by Dean Koontz.
It was pure pleasure to listen to these authors emulate Jack Vance’s writing style and to fill their stories with Vance’s beloved (if I can call them that) characters such as Rhialto the Marvellous, Cugel the clever, Derwe Coreme, Guyal, Turjan, T’sais, Ioucounu the Laughing Magician, Lith, Chun the Unavoidable and, of course, plenty of Deodands, sandestins, pelgranes, and Twk-men. They used some of Vance’s neologisms and hilariously named magic spells (e.g., The Spell of Forlorn Encystment, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Spell of the Macroid Toe) and plenty of those other strange things we find in Vance novels: colors that don’t exist, baroque architecture and fashion, slimy creatures that squirm and pulsate, eyeball jelly, blue concentrate, miniaturized enemies, nostrils used as doorways, pulp, ichor, fungi, and empty eye sockets… as Kage Baker said in her afterword, the Dying Earth is like a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
These stories were so well done that much of the time I forgot that I wasn’t actually reading Jack Vance. Many of the tales give us supplementary history about some of Vance’s well-known characters and they fit into the canon so smoothly that I’m afraid I’ll forever be remembering them as original Vance! Every story in this anthology is a lot of fun (except for Elizabeth Moon’s because I have a phobia of cockroaches), and they are all highly recommended reading, but my favorites were those that best affect Vance’s florid style, magniloquent dialogue, distinctive character names, black humor, and sense of irony — not so easily done. Those that accomplish this best are:
- Tad Williams, whose story about a low-order traveling magician who gets stuck to a Deodand was the funniest
- Terry Dowling, who made me late to work because I was sitting in the parking lot and laughing at his magicians’ contest
- Kage Baker, who had won me over even before she has Cugel say to himself “What, though, Cugel! Have you not an unfailing way with the female sex? If you cannot ingratiate yourself with the old witch, you are not your father’s child.”
- Tanith Lee, whose style is spot-on in every respect and gets extra points for creating a spell “extrapolated from Phandaal’s empurpled theorem of Locative Selfulsion”
- Walter Jon Williams, who creates a delightfully clever hero, puts a disagreeable wife in a bottle, and makes up some nice new words
- Mike Resnick, who explains the origin of Chun the Unavoidable and why he sews eyeballs onto his cloak
- Matthew Hughes, whose unlucky protagonist inhabits flying insects who keep getting squashed
- Neil Gaiman, whose charming last story answers the ultimate question: what happens when the sputtering sun finally goes out?
Something that makes the Songs of the Dying Earth very special (especially to me, a rabid but newer Vance fan) were the authors’ afterwords in which they explain what Jack Vance’s work means to them. I was amazed at how similar their stories were: almost invariably they were between 13 and 15 years old, looking for something to do, found a Vance novel on their brother’s bookshelf or one of his stories in a pulp magazine, became completely enthralled, scoured the bookstores and newsstands for more, and eventually read all of his work. They consider Vance a major influence in their own writing, and (almost all of them say this) he’s one of the few authors they still feel the same way about today as they did when they were teenagers. I found this fascinating. And kind of sad, for I have never experienced the joy of needing to hunt for, and therefore eventually finding, a treasured book that I didn’t know existed. I’ve never seen an Ace Double at a newsstand. This was all before my time and I feel like I’ve missed out.
The afterwords were beautifully nostalgic, but in reality I’m thankful to Subterranean Press and Brilliance Audio, that scrounging around on used bookstore floors is a thing of the past for Vance fans. Both of these houses have lately been supplying us with Vance in print and audio, and both have published Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance. Sub Press’s print version has terrific illustrations by Tom Kidd. Arthur Morey does the narration for the audio version and, because he also narrated The Dying Earth stories and uses the same voices for the characters in this anthology, it helps give the impression that these are actually Vance tales. Mr. Morey “gets” Jack Vance — he has the wry tone just right. He really had me laughing at the bad-poetry-quoting barbarians in Robert Silverberg’s story.
Songs of the Dying Earth is a must-read for Vance fans. If you haven’t read The Dying Earth, I highly suggest that you read it first (may I recommend Brilliance Audio’s versions?). Mr. Martin and Mr. Dozois, please give us more Songs of the Dying Earth!