The Dying Earth: A juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the sublimely intelligent

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fantasy and science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Jack Vance The Dying EarthThe Dying Earth by Jack Vance

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.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhat 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:fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

“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.fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

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!

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTales of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance science fiction book reviewsThere aren’t any other books in SF/Fantasy quite like Jack Vance’s TALES OF THE DYING EARTH. (I read the omnibus version shown here.) They have had an enormous influence on writers ranging from Gene Wolfe and George R.R. Martin to Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons & Dragons. These stories highlight Vance’s amazing imagination, precise yet baroque writing style, and somewhat archaic dialogue that disguises an incredibly dry wit and skeptical view of humanity. I’ve read SF and fantasy all my life, and I can say with confidence that his voice and imagery are unique. If you’ve encountered anything like it, it’s most likely that those writers took their cue from Vance.

The Dying Earth

This book, first published in 1950 by Hillman Publications, is very short (around 175 pages), and is actually a collection of six slightly overlapping but self-contained stories set in an incredibly distant future earth where the sun has cooled to a red color, the moon is gone, and humanity has declined to a pale shadow of former greatness, struggling to survive amongst the ruins of the past. The world is filled with various magicians, sorcerers, demons, ghouls, brigands, thieves, adventurers, etc. The events are episodic but are compulsively readable, and really beautifully written. The sense of melancholy and decline are ever-present, yet the characters themselves are not cowed by this situation, and strive to achieve their own goals even as the world moves toward a time when the sun will eventually snuff out like a candle. Despite this, many of the situations they find themselves in are quite funny, in a dark and ironic sort of way. For my money, this book is by far the best of the four and worthy of its classic reputation.

 

TALES OF THE DYING EARTH is a great way to experience the baroque language and fertile imagination of Jack Vance. The stories are worth reading for his understated sense of irony and humor alone, along with the bizarre creatures, magical spells, and quirky societies. It’s amazing that Vance was able to maintain a similar tone over 30 years of writing. For my money, though Cugel the Clever is Vance’s most memorable scoundrel, my favorite book was The Dying Earth, as it had a perfect balance of science and fantasy in an unforgettable setting, even 65 years after the initial publication.

~Stuart Starosta


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, N.K. Jemisin, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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9 comments

  1. Kat, Your enthusiam for Vance really has got me wanting to give him a try. I’m almost sure that I have read some of his stuff before when I was a kid. (I think DC Comics Warlord series had them as bonus feature).
    I can’t believe Amazon doesn’t have a Kindle version of Dying Earth…What the :censored: !?!??!

  2. You’re not allowed to read this, Greg. You have to read something we don’t have reviewed yet. :whip:

    • Brad Hawley /

      Greg, Amazon now has all four books available for the kindle at reasonable prices. However, they have been issued under different titles. Do a search for Jack Vance, then find Mazirian the Magician. It will say, previously titled The Dying Earth. The other 3 books have similar, plain covers.They are official editions approved by the author and part of a 44 book ongoing project. I’m reading the series right now. Great stuff.

  3. Thanks for the heads-up Brad. I’ll have to check that out. (pssst.. don’t tell Kat) ;-{)

    oh hi Kat, didn’t see you there…ummm.. yeah I really need to get my slack @$$ together and do a review. I sux. :-{(

  4. whips can be fun. ;)

  5. THE DYING EARTH was one of my favorite books when I was a kid, and it’s another one I’m hesitant to reread for fear it will lose its twilit magic. I think Gene Wolfe and CJ Cherryh (especially the Morgaine series, GATE OF IVREL, etc) were also influenced by this masterful writer.

  6. I’ll have to look for some of Vance’s work during my next trip to the library. Thanks, Stuart!

  7. These are definitely great books, and the Orb omnibus edition is a nice way to read them in one place. Kat, I can totally see how Cugel the Clever could come to life with a good narrator. I’m very tempted to get The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld on audiobook, along with the Fritz Leiber’s Fafrd and the Grey Mouser series. But I’m rapidly running out of credits…(shuffling through belonging for something to take to the pawn shop)

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  1. Sunday Status Update: September 16, 2012 | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews - [...] by the author has a different title: Mazirian the Magician. Check out Kat’s excellent review of The Dying Earth,…

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