Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

I assembled an omnibus, under the title The Compleat Dying Earth, back in the late '90s for my then-employer, the Science Fiction Book Club. My awesome art director -- I think it was Toby Schwartz at that point, but we were gifted with a series of wonderful artistic collaborators -- commissioned a neat, atmospheric cover by Brom and designed a nice package for that art. The book itself included the four "Dying Earth" novels. It may have been the first time all four appeared in one volume together: I don't want to claim that if it isn't true, but it's my memory.

(In those days, if there was a previous omnibus, we'd just buy that one, because it was vastly easier to use someone else's files than to set the whole damn thing ourselves.)

Anyway, that was the last time I read the Dying Earth books.

That edition is now out of print, and the copy I had of it went beneath the waves in my 2011 flood, like so many other things. Some years later -- the book itself is silent as to when it was published -- Tor borrowed or bought the files for Compleat from whatever entity owned the book clubs at that point and published the same collection of words as Tales of the Dying Earth, under a lovely but really inappropriate John Berkey cover that I have to wonder if it was just hanging around the art department and needed to be used by a specific date.

I have a copy of the Tor edition now. And I thought this was as good a time as ever to re-read some Vance. So I read the first book, the original The Dying Earth, assembled by Vance as his first book in 1950 from stories originally published in magazines over the previous year or two.

If you've never read Vance or the Dying Earth stories, they might read as oddly familiar these days: huge swaths of later fantasy (most obviously, the first iteration or three of Dungeons & Dragons, but plenty of prose writers as well) borrowed, adopted or stole ideas from these books, and it might not be clear that Vance was there first. The protagonists are mostly users of magic at this point, each knowing a few powerful spells and owning a few puissant devices to protect themselves from each other and the other myriad dangers of this last dark age of the world. And they're mostly adventuring to get something: knowledge (in the form of more spells, or more broadly), some other lusted-for object or person, or just power. 

Vance's style was also solidly in place even at this point: the long sonorous sentences, filled with slightly obscure words that are exactly correct, the slightly artificial, sprightly dialogue, the casual cruelty of his worlds and many of his people. I was thrilled and happy to be reminded that Vance was Vance from the beginning.

Dying Earth contains six stories of varying length, with overlapping characters and action. Each one tells its own story, but some characters will pop up again, particularly as the title protagonist of a later piece. Some of the protagonists are heroic, some much less than that. Dying Earth came out of the pulps, so the endings tend to fit the accepted morality there: the good end well and the evil end badly -- but Vance's tone always makes it clear that is not usually the way of the world, and is never to be assumed.

I'm reading slowly these days, so I didn't dive right into The Eyes of the Overworld (the second Dying Earth book, from the mid-60s) afterward. But I was tempted. And I may need to get to Eyes before too long: Vance is wonderful and magnificent, and I haven't read any of his books in far too long.

I do have to admit that Vance is probably not a writer for everyone. If fine writing repels you and you just want to get into a story, he's not a good fit for you. You need to enjoy words and wordplay and subtlety to get the most out of Vance, and many people don't. But, frankly, I have to admit that, for my money, the kind of readers who like Vance are the best kind of readers, and hope that the rest of you will someday level up and realize that. Come join us! It's awesome here: we have Jack Vance!

1 comment:

Bill Miller said...

I still have that SFBC omnibus, one of the great ones y'all put out in those years.

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