The Dying Earth is the first of Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth and contains six somewhat overlapping stories all set in the future when the sun is red and dim, much technology has been lost, and most of humanity has died out. Our planet is so unrecognizable that it might as well be another world, and evil has been “distilled” so that it’s concentrated in Earth’s remaining inhabitants.
But it’s easy to forget that a failing planet is the setting for the Dying Earth stories, for they are neither depressing nor bleak, and they’re not really about the doom of the Earth. These stories are whimsical and weird and they focus more on the strange people who remain and the strange things they do. Magicians, wizards, witches, beautiful maidens, damsels in distress, seekers of knowledge, and vain princes strive to outwit each other for their own advantage.
What appeals to me most is that The Tales of the Dying Earth are about how things could possibly be in an alternate reality. All speculative fiction does that, of course, but Jack Vance just happens to hit on the particular things that I find most fascinating to speculate about: neuroscience, psychology, sensation, and perception. These are subjects I study and teach every day, so I think about them a lot. One thing I love to consider, which happens to be a common theme in Vance’s work, is how we might experience life differently if our sensory systems were altered just a bit. I find myself occasionally asking my students questions like “what would it be like if we had retinal receptors that could visualize electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum?” (So bizarre to consider, and yet so possible!) They look at me like I’m nuts, but I’m certain that Jack Vance would love to talk about that possibility. And even though The Dying Earth was first published in 1950, it doesn’t feel dated at all — it can still charm a neuroscientist 60 years later. This is because his setting feels medieval; technology has been forgotten. Thus, it doesn’t matter that there were no cell phones or Internet when Vance wrote The Dying Earth.
I also love the constant juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the sublimely intelligent. Like Monty Python, Willy Wonka, and Alice in Wonderland. [Aside: This makes me wonder how Johnny Depp would do at portraying a Jack Vance character…] Some of the scenes that involve eyeballs and brains and pickled homunculi make me think of SpongeBob Squarepants — the most obnoxious show on television, yet somehow brilliant. (Jack Vance probably wouldn’t appreciate that I’ve compared his literature to SpongeBob Squarepants. Or maybe he would!)
Lastly, I love Jack Vance’s “high language” (that’s what he called it), which is consistent and never feels forced. This style contributes greatly to the humor that pervades his work — understatement, irony, illogic, and non sequiturs are used to make fun of human behavior, and I find this outrageously funny. As just one example, in one story, Guyal has been tricked into breaking a silly and arbitrary sacred law in the land he’s traveling through:
“The entire episode is mockery!” raged Guyal. “Are you savages, then, thus to mistreat a lone wayfarer?”
“By no means,” replied the Castellan. “We are a highly civilized people, with customs bequeathed us by the past. Since the past was more glorious than the present, what presumption we would show by questioning these laws!”
Guyal fell quiet. “And what are the usual penalties for my act?”…
“You are indeed fortunate,” said the Saponid, “in that, as a witness, I was able to suggest your delinquencies to be more the result of negligence than malice. The last penalties exacted for the crime were stringent; the felon was ordered to perform the following three acts: first, to cut off his toes and sew the severed members into the skin at his neck; second, to revile his forbears for three hours, commencing with a Common Bill of Anathema, including feigned madness and hereditary disease, and at last defiling the hearth of his clan with ordure; and third, walking a mile under the lake with leaded shoes in search of the Lost Book of Kells.” And the Castellan regarded Guyal with complacency.
“What deeds must I perform?” inquired Guyal drily.
If you want to find out what three deeds Guyal had to perform, you’ll have to get the book!
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of The Dying Earth and the reader, Arthur Morey, was perfect. He really highlighted the humorous element of Vance’s work. It was a terrific production and I’m now enjoying the second Dying Earth audiobook (which is even better than this first one!). By the way, I want to say that I’m extremely pleased with Brilliance Audio for publishing these stories!
Jack Vance is my favorite fantasy author. His work probably won’t appeal to the Twilighters, but for those who enjoy Pythonesque surreal humor written in high style, or for fans of Lewis Carroll, Fritz Leiber, and L. Frank Baum, I suggest giving Jack Vance a try. If you listen to audiobooks, definitely try Brilliance Audio’s version!