Jack Vance – The Dying Earth (1950 – ’84)

dying earth1Some authors just want to make you underscore lines in the books. Terry Pratchett is one of those with his humor. Jack Vance is another. Vance, who wrote a lot of fantasy and SF from the 50s to the 90s, is one of the grand masters of the genres who helped shape the imaginary worlds that we are all familiar with now.

He has a unique writing style that is really hard to compare with that of any other writer. It’s a curious combination of elements: his characters are mostly buffoons who speak eloquent, droll sentences. Even the lowest criminals in his story have a huge vocabulary and a dry wit. Combine this with a bottomless imagination and the weirdest settings.

The Dying Earth stories are a collection of 4 short books that chronicle the adventures of magicians who live in the 21st Aeon, when the sun is red and on the verge of going out. Book 1 sets the scene. A few short stories tell about the daily adventures in this far future epoch. Books 2 and 3 are about the rogue Cugel the Clever. Cugel steals amulets from the manse of Iocounu the Laughing Magician, who punishes him by sending him to the other side of the world. Cugel schemes and steals his way back.

A few years ago, George R.R. Martin edited a short story collection named Songs of the Dying Earth. I haven’t read it yet, but the collection is a love letter to the original Vance stories by modern writers.

The 4th book, Rhialto the Marvelous, is written about 30 years after the first stories. It follows the silly adventures of a cabal of magicians who travel through epochs and through space, and all the while bickering and arguing about everything.

The 21st Aeon is populated with the weirdest half-sentient creatures. There is a feeling of deep time, of seas and mountain ranges rising and falling, and civilizations coming and going. The Dying Earth stories were the start of a new subgenre and an inspiration for other classics, such as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun and M. John. Harrison’s Viriconium. The way Vance dealt with magical spells and the names he gave the spells were also an inspiration for Dungeons and Dragons type games.

The text is like rich wine or dark strong beer. Which is fine, as long as you were not hoping for a Coca Cola. Jack Vance wasn’t very focused on plotting and the stories are very episodic, but the descriptions and the dialogue are to be savored; rolled around the tongue and cheeks. I am hugging this book close to my chest.

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