Wednesday, April 22, 2015

An Overview of the Dying Earth

When I was fifteen, more years ago than I like to think, I read Lord of the Rings and was lost for all time to fantasy. Of course, I went looking for more books like it, but it wasn't so easy back then. Most bookshops didn't have a fantasy section (not even combined with SF) and the internet and Amazon were a few decades away.

I did start finding books, though, and one of the first (and the most valuable in my search) was a Lin Carter anthology called The Young Magicians. This covered fantasy from roughly the first half of the 20th century, and it introduced me to classic authors ranging from Dunsany to Howard.

One of my favourite stories in the book, though, was Turjan of Miir by Jack Vance, a story I gathered was from a 1950 collection called The Dying Earth. I fairly soon tracked down, read and loved this book, then discovered a sequel, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), which I also devoured.

For a long time, I thought that was that until, several years ago, I found a copy of a third book, Cugel's Saga (1983). More recently, I discovered there was a fourth volume, Rhialto the Marvellous (1984). In fact, in searching for this I picked up an omnibus edition of all four books, which I bought in spite of already having three of them.

So, besides reading Rhialto, I've also revisited the rest of them, and I felt it would be a good time for an overview of this genre-defining series.

Jack Vance wasn't the first author to write in what's commonly referred to as the Dying Earth genre. Various 19th century authors touched on the topic (including Byron, in a poem called Darkness), but the most famous example comes in the later chapters of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. After his encounter with the Eloi and Morlocks, the Time Traveller carries on to the distant future, watching terrestrial life gradually dying out as the sun grows red and dim.

Two 20th century authors were important precursors of Vance. William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land (1912) is set on Earth after the sun has gone out, and the surface outside humanity's Last Redoubt is the habitat of monsters. Clark Ashton Smith's series of short stories set on the last continent, Zothique, were written in the 1930s and featured, like Vance's setting, a remote future where science has faded and been replaced by magic.

Vance was certainly influenced by Smith, but his tales have been so influential that he's regarded as the lynchpin of the Dying Earth genre. Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-83), perhaps the best-known later example of the genre, was strongly influenced by Vance.

Jack Vance was born John Holbrook Vance in 1916 in California. He wrote a huge quantity of fiction, mostly SF and fantasy, but also a number of mystery novels under various pseudonyms. His first published story was in 1945, but he'd already written the stories that were to make up The Dying Earth, which was to be his first publication in book form. In spite of his huge output, Vance didn't become a full-time writer till the 1970s. He continued writing, in spite of being blind since the 1980s, and died in 2013 at the age of 96.

Vance's Dying Earth stories are set in the immeasurably distant future, at a time when the sun has grown red and sluggish and is expected to wink out of existence at any moment. The time is described as the 21st Aeon (although Vance isn't entirely consistent about this). We're never told how long an aeon is, but it appears to be long enough for an ocean to turn into dry land. This seems long enough; but, at one point, a period in the past is described as "the Nineteenth Aeon of the Fifty-second Cycle," suggesting that the aeons can be counted in hundreds, at least.

By this period, the planet's last continents are sparsely inhabited by humans, and other creatures which are somewhat like humans, as well as some intelligent creatures that are utterly alien. Here and there, records survive of Earth's long, long history:

We have seen old Thorsingol, and the Sherrit Empire before it, and Golwan Andra before that and the Forty Kades even before. We have seen the warlike green-men, and the knowledgeable Pharials and the Clambs who departed Earth for the stars, as did the Merioneth before them and the Gray Sorcerers still earlier. We have seen oceans rise and fall, the mountains crust up, peak and melt in the beat of rain; we have looked on the sun when it glowed hot and full and yellow…

And that's only scratching the surface.

Most of the stories focus on two countries called Ascolais and Almery, although Vance doesn't make it entirely clear in what sense these are countries, since there appears to be no rulers or unity. All the central characters come from these two lands but often venture further afield, to the Land of the Falling Wall, the island of Lausicaa, the Shanglestone Strand, and many other places.

The surviving humans are largely marking time till the sun goes out, and a sense of ennui lies over the Dying Earth. Science is long forgotten, and even the magic that's replaced it is in its dotage. Although there are immensely powerful sorcerers — some have even created their own worlds to rule — they no longer understand how to create new magic, only to learn more of the spells the ancient wizards discovered.

The original book comprises six stories, each focusing on a different central character, although several of them wander into each other's tales. We read of feuding sorcerers, adventurers, rogues, the creation of artificial life and, finally, the one person who seems to have no place in the Dying Earth because he's been born with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

The second and third books are both novels — more or less — focusing on a single main character, the thief, swindler and adventurer Cugel the Clever. In reality, they're barely novels. The Eyes of the Overworld is really a sequential series of stories, which was how it was first published. Cugel's Saga, which takes up the story at the exact point where its predecessor finishes, is extremely episodic, but hangs together a little better as a novel.

As Cugel moves from one land and one situation to another, the books have huge casts of characters, but he dominates them. He bears more than a passing resemblance to Jurgen, the most famous creation of the great American fantasy writer James Branch Cabell, who was a clear influence on these stories. Cugel's soubriquet recalls Jurgen's repeated claim that he's "a monstrous clever fellow", and both revel in using their wits to make fools of enemies and to entice ladies into intimacy. Cugel, though, is a somewhat darker character and, while engaging, has a more unpleasantly ruthless streak than Jurgen.

The final book, Rhialto the Marvellous, consists of three longer stories focusing on a group of magicians, including the title character, a vain, conceited wizard who's constantly making enemies of his colleagues. These stories range further afield, involving time travel — one takes place largely in the 16th Aeon — and a journey through space.

Vance's style succeeds in being at the same time lush and easy to read, in a way that's reminiscent of Cabell. Like Cabell, too, both his writing and story content are a heady mixture of romantic adventure, sophisticated irony and low comedy. He's certainly no minimalist, often taking time to give an entertaining description of a very minor character. Yet none of this seems to detract from pushing the plot onwards. It's all part of the story.

The Dying Earth stories aren't perfect, and perhaps their most obvious flaw to a modern reader is their gender imbalance. It's not that there's a dearth of females; it's not even that many of them aren't good characters in their own right. The problem is that, overall, they don't show much variety, being mainly either nubile maidens, formidable matrons or perilous witches. Magic appears to be almost entirely a male preserve, and the few female magicians shown are always dangerous, if not downright evil.

It might be assumed that this is merely the norm of Vance's generation, if it weren't that the book with the strongest female characters is the first. It's the only one where anything is shown from a female point of view, and features two of Vance's most memorable characters: the twin sisters (in the sense of having been artificially grown from the same pattern) T'sais and T'sain. T'sain shows herself courageous, resourceful and loyal, while T'sais heroically battles the flaw in her making to earn the right to happiness.

Other females in this book, such as Elai and Shierl, are more secondary characters but far from being cyphers. It seems, though, that Vance came to focus more and more on his male characters as he grew older.

Nevertheless, the Dying Earth series overall has few faults, and it's been incredibly influential in various ways. Most obviously, it's inspired a great many more recent authors, both those setting stories in the last days of Earth and those who just took on board the feel of the stories. George R. R. Martin, for instance, is a great admirer of Vance and the Dying Earth.

More specifically, though, it was Vance's magical system that was used as the basis for the system in D&D. The spells Vance's magicians use — with delightfully exotic names, like the Excellent Prismatic Spray and the Spell of Forlorn Encystment — are not only incredibly complex, but also almost alive, and a magician must commit them to memory each time he expects to need them. So complex are they, though, that only a few can survive in the memory at any one time, and they're gone once they've been used. A powerful sorcerer might manage to have three or four at a time.

Jack Vance is gone now, and I've read everything he wrote about the Dying Earth. But not everything that's been written. A number of other authors, with his blessing, wrote stories set in this universe, and some of them are out there. In particular, I recently discovered that an anthology called Songs of the Dying Earth was published in 2009, in which many eminent SF and fantasy authors contributed stories set on the Dying Earth. Needless to say, it's on my to-buy list.

And maybe Vance's estate will allow these tributes and continuations to continue. The Dying Earth should never be allowed to die.
Note: All books illustrated are available are available from Amazon and good bookshops, and are essentials for the shelves of any fantasy reader.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The History of the Alphabet

When people are asked about the greatest design achievements of all time, they might mention anything from the Periodic Table to the Tube Map. Those are certainly great examples, but no-one ever seems to bring up perhaps the greatest design in human history: the alphabet. Yet the alphabet is behind everything our civilisation has achieved in writing, from the works of Shakespeare to the last text you sent. Any of us who are writers rely entirely on the alphabet.

There was writing long before the alphabet, and there are still important writing systems around the world that have no connection to it. Widespread systems range from the ideographic Chinese characters to the semi-alphabetic Devanagari in India and beyond 1, as well as more localised systems, such as Sequoia's wonderful Cherokee script. Nevertheless, Latin script is by many orders of magnitude the most common system in the world, while two of the next four most common (Arabic and Cyrillic) are also descended from the original alphabet.

The earliest writing systems were probably ideographic, as Chinese characters still are. This means that the symbols indicate a concept, rather than a spoken word, a technique we use occasionally in the West. For example, "2" means exactly the same in every language, regardless of whether it's pronounced two, dos, zwei etc.

Chinese proves that ideographic writing can produce everything from great literature to great record-keeping, but its drawbacks can be illustrated by the history of printing. The Chinese didn't take to movable type, as the Europeans did, even though they had printing long before Europe. It wasn't that they hadn't come up with the idea of movable type, but it was impractical for the simple reason that printers would have needed to have been surrounded by thousands of different characters.

Many early writing systems, on the other hand, used syllabic scripts. This means, for instance, ba, be, bi, bo, bu and by would each be represented by a separate symbol, and words word be written simply with two or three of these. It was more straightforward than ideograms, but still required a hundred or more symbols to be learnt before you could read or write it.

No-one knows exactly who came up with the alphabet 2, nor exactly when, but it seems to have been invented by the Semitic 3 peoples of late Bronze-Age Canaan — roughly what's now Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. One hypothesis suggests that it was begun by a Semitic tribe in Egypt, simplifying the hieroglyphic system. Inevitably, this has prompted speculation that Moses was responsible, but that's a pretty long shot. Even if the breakthrough did happen in Egypt, there were many Semitic tribes living there during the relevant period.

Whatever its exact origins, the invention transformed writing in Canaan and beyond. The decision to reduce the symbols so that only those for each consonant were used had the advantage that there were now only a couple of dozen to learn, making reading and writing easier for non-specialists to master.

It came at a price, though. The Canaanite alphabet, whose closest modern descendent is the Hebrew system, didn't have any way of indicating which vowels to include in the words. If English were written this way, it would be impossible to tell whether bd meant bad, bed or bud — or, for that matter, bide or abode. All reading would be like the final round of Only Connect. 4

Still, the plusses must have outweighed the minuses, because the alphabet not only thrived but spread, most importantly in two directions. For one thing, it eventually formed the basis of the Arabic script, which is now one of the most widespread writing systems in the world. Arabic script developed out of the system used by the Nabataeans, a northern Arabian culture that flourished in what's now Jordan and the surrounding areas — their most important centre was Petra, the "rose-red city, half as old as time". The Nabataeans borrowed the alphabet from Syria, where it had spread from Canaan, and passed it on to the Arabian Peninsula.

More relevantly to the English-speaking world, the alphabet also spread west. The seafaring Canaanites from ports like Tyre and Sidon were known as Phoenicians — from the Greek word for purple, because their speciality was the insanely expensive purple dye everyone wanted — and they settled and traded all over the Mediterranean and beyond.

Somewhere around 800 BC, the Greeks encountered the Phoenician alphabet. The original Greek syllabic script (Linear B) had been lost in the dark age that followed the fall of the Palaces, and the Greeks took up this new idea with enthusiasm. However, aware of its shortcomings, they came up with the crucial idea of turning some of the letters they didn't need into vowels.

The original Greek alphabet wasn't quite the one used today. Over the next couple of centuries, they dropped a few letters and added others. One of the best-known Greek letters, omega, was a late addition, which is why it comes last. Before that process started, though, the great Italian civilisation of the Etruscans adopted the primitive Greek alphabet, and through them it came to a small city-state called Rome.

The Roman alphabet preserved letters lost in later Greek, such as F and Q, but it had its own problems. The Etruscans hadn't needed a G (originally the third letter, as in the Greek gamma) and took to pronouncing it the same as K, creating the modern C/K duplication. The Romans, however, did need a G and so converted the seventh letter, properly the Z, into their G.

The Roman alphabet expanded as they added letters needed to write foreign words. The Z was reinstated, but put at the end, and the Emperor Claudius (of "I" fame) invented the letter Y — which, by the way, is really a vowel occasionally pronounced as a consonant, not the other way round, whatever your teachers might have told you.

As the Roman Empire spread, so did both the Greek and Roman versions of the alphabet, Greek spawning various other forms, such as the Armenian and possibly Georgian scripts. When it was necessary to translate the Bible for the newly converted Slavs, Saints Cyril and Methodius (allegedly) came up with a new alphabet, which combined Greek letters with other symbols for Slavic sounds the Greek alphabet didn't cover. There's been considerable scholarly debate over whether these were derived from one or more other writing system, or whether they were invented. Whichever is true, varieties of the Cyrillic alphabet are now used throughout much of eastern Europe and a good deal of Asia, including most of the languages from the former Soviet Union.

Many of the letters have been written in several different ways even by the same people, and different forms were passed on as the alphabet spread. Both the Greek and Cyrillic versions include a number of "false friends", such as perhaps the most famous Cyrillic acronym, CCCP. This is the Russian name for the old USSR, but in fact C is the Cyrillic letter for S (derived from a form sometimes used in early Greek) and P is the R in both alphabets. CCCP should actually be pronounced SSSR.

Meanwhile, the Roman alphabet spread throughout western and central Europe, though like Cyrillic it was adapted to the needs of different languages. Old and Middle English, for instance, had four letters that we don't use now, including the þ, representing th. This was later often written lazily as y — hence all those "Ye Olde Tea Shoppes".

On the other hand, there were modern letters missing. Until the 17th century, I/J and U/V were each considered no more than different ways of writing the same letter. 5 The Romans had pronounced the consonant form of U/V like our W, but this gradually changed, both in Church Latin and the vernacular languages, to V as in Victor, so the W was invented to replace it.

By the 18th century, the 26-letter alphabet we know now was in place, although some languages (in Scandinavia, for instance) still use extra letters, and different descendants of the original Semitic alphabet are used all over the world. It may change again, of course, if it needs to. Just like all those other design classics — including the Periodic Table and the Tube Map — it has adaptability built in to accommodate change. One thing is certain, though — there's some long-dead Canaanite who deserves to be picking up a hell of a lot of awards.

1 One theory suggests that Devanagari is ultimately descended from the Semitic alphabet, while another insists that it's indigenous to India. The jury's out.

2 Technically, scholars of writing systems classify the Semitic system as an abjad, rather than an alphabet, since it doesn't use vowels. However, as we'll see, there's a direct lineal descent to the alphabet we use today.

3 Semitic is usually used today as synonymous with Jewish, but it actually refers to a group of languages (and, to a lesser extent, the peoples who've spoken them) which includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, Arabic, the main languages of Ethiopia, and even Maltese.

4 For anyone not familiar with this fine quiz show, the final round involves two teams racing to be the first to recognise phrases from the consonants only.

5 Which makes a nonsense of the "Name of God" scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I and J were the same letter in Latin, as they would have been when the trap in the film was first set.
Image courtesy of Tom Magllery, Creative Commons licence

Saturday, April 4, 2015

We Were Badass Too, Back in the Day

Grimdark is definitely flavour of the month (or the decade) in fantasy. Wherever you look, fantasy worlds are populated by characters who range from cynical jerks to psychopaths — and those are the good guys. In the words of a section-header quote from Joe Abercrombie's The Blade Itself, it's "a battle not between good and bad, but between bad and worse".

I've read and enjoyed both Abercrombie and Peter V. Brett, and I intend to read more Grimdark, but I do have a couple of quibbles with their attitude. For one thing, I don't see that having everyone a cynical bastard who cares nothing for others is any more "realistic" (as they claim) than having noble, virtuous heroes. For me, realism is a broad range of characters, including some at least trying to do the right thing.

For another, like most "new waves", they seem to be under the impression that no-one's done this before, and every work of fantasy before Martin introduced his "knights who say fuck a lot" uniformly offered us the variety of knights decked out in shining armour.

While I'm not saying there was necessarily anything quite as bleak as Prince of Thorns, or "sympathetic" characters working as torturers like Glokta, it certainly wasn't all honour and virtue. Below, I've picked out a few dark heroes or rogue heroes from classic fantasy.

Vathek — Arguably* the first fantasy novel in the modern sense was Vathek by William Beckford (1786), in which case the genre starts with a hero as dark as midnight. Set in an Arabian Nights version of the classical Islamic Empire, it tells the tale of the Caliph Vathek (very loosely based on the historical Al-Wathiq, 842-847, grandson of Harun al-Rashid) who practices black magic and sacrifices children to a demon in order to gain immense supernatural powers. He eventually gets what's coming to him, but not before he's corrupted a naïve young girl into sharing his quest and his punishment.

Jurgen — The eponymous hero of James Branch Cabell's best-known novel (1919) isn't particularly dark, but he's something of a rogue, living on his wits and abandoning without regret his succession of female conquests when he gets tired of them. Ostensibly on a quest to find and recover his kidnapped wife — kidnapped, he thinks, by the Devil, although it turns out not to be quite that simple — he makes little effort to advance his quest, preferring instead to have fun with a succession of beautiful women. Jurgen has a very inflated idea of his own cleverness and frequently demonstrates it by outwitting his opponents — though this tactic doesn't always succeed, and once results in him being consigned to Hell. Even here, though, he outwitted "Grandfather Satan" and finds a way out.

Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser — One of the three key series of classic sword & sorcery (written by the man who coined the phrase) began in 1939 when Fritz Leiber's story Two Sought Adventure (later retitled The Jewels in the Forest) introduced the giant barbarian Fafhrd and the diminutive, sophisticated thief and swordsman the Gray Mouser. Like Jurgen, they're rogues more than dark heroes, but are willing to sell their swords to anyone who pays well enough. Though they're usually on the better side of any conflict, they're not generally motivated by altruism. Leiber continued working on the series, on and off, until 1988, four years before his death. Fafhrd and the Mouser grow noticeably older in the course of the stories, though their characters don't greatly change.

Skafloc — "The other" fantasy novel about elves published in 1954 was The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson, a bloodthirsty saga combining the Viking age and Norse mythology. Skafloc is a mortal taken as a changeling by the Elf-King and raised as an elven warrior. Anderson's elves, though beautiful and magical, are a far cry from their noble namesakes of Middle Earth. They're no-holds-barred warriors with no conscience whatsoever, and Skafloc, in his personal feud against the trolls, arguably commits more atrocities than his foes with his demonic Black Sword that must drink blood before it's sheathed. He also has an affair with his sister and makes her pregnant — though, in his defence, neither is aware of who the other is.

Túrin Turambar — Hang on, Tolkien appearing in a list of dark heroes? Well, Túrin, from the Silmarillion, is certainly his darkest, and actually has striking similarities with Skafloc. There's no possibility of either influencing the other — Tolkien wrote his first version of Túrin's story in 1917, but nothing was published till 1977 — but they were drawing on the same ancient influences, particularly the Finnish Kalevala and the Norse Volsunga Saga. Like Skafloc, Túrin is a grim warrior with a Black Sword that has a mind of its own, especially when it comes to drinking the blood of his friends, as well as having an unwitting affair with his sister. Túrin perhaps has a little more sense of morality than Skafloc, but he's not always particular about who he kills. The fullest version of Túrin's story, illustrated here, was The Children of Húrin (2007). 

Elric — Completing a trio of Black Sword wielders, Michael Moorcock's Elric stories are another of the essential S&S series (the third being, of course, Conan). Moorcock's acknowledged his indebtedness to The Broken Sword in creating his tortured albino prince and the demon sword Stormbringer. Aside from physical colouring, Elric's about as dark as they get. A vassal of Arioch, a lord of Hell, his first action in print (1961) was to betray his people by leading enemies to sack his home city — and then make his escape, leaving his allies to perish. Stormbringer, in common with other Black Swords, likes nothing better than to drink the blood of those its user loves, and Elric, though against his will, ends up slaughtering pretty much everyone close to him.

Cugel — Many of the protagonists in Jack Vance's Dying Earth series — even the nice ones — display dubious morality, and that's certainly true of the most ubiquitous of them. Thief and swindler Cugel the Clever is the hero of both The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) and Cugel's Saga (1983), and one of the tricksiest. Vance is said to have been strongly influenced by Cabell, and there's a distinct similarity between Cugel and Jurgen — even Cugel's favourite epithet reflects Jurgen's repeated assertion that he's "a monstrous clever fellow". Like Jurgen, many of Cugel's deceits are to seduce women, but with much darker overtones — in one or two cases, his conquests are closer to "seduction with a capital R". Similarly, he ruins lives for his own advantage, and once actually kills an innocent creature merely for playing a childish prank. Cugel is fascinating, but definitely not a nice person.

Kane — Possibly the least-known of the dark heroes listed here, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane (original publications 1973-1985) is perhaps one of the most intriguing (and, on a personal note, an important influence on my character the Traveller, though partly by contrast). Literally meant as the biblical Cain, wandering through prediluvian civilisations, Kane is an immortal swordsman and sorcerer who's sometimes the hero of his stories and sometimes the villain. Weary of his undying existence, he has little time to spare for conventional morality and kills without conscience. He's not entirely immune to pity, but tends to fight destruction with destruction. On one occasion, disgusted with a terrible siege causing untold suffering, he ends the war and brings a kind of peace by opening the gates of the city he's supposed to be defending and allows it to finish in a bloodbath.

These are just a few examples of the more obvious dark heroes from classic fantasy, but others come in all shades of grey. The thief as hero goes back as far as Lord Dunsany (and a lot further if you include traditional legend); E. R. Eddison's characters, on both sides, are schemers who'd make Machiavelli proud; and classic S&S was full of heroes, including Conan, who were mainly out for what they could get, even if they ended up protecting the world from evil. Even the genuine heroes often needed their armour polished before it was shining, like Simon Tregarth, hero of Andre Norton's Witch World, a disgraced soldier who finds his salvation in a new world.

And yes, I admit that I do love the occasional Aragorn in among all this. Humanity is a complex mixture of every shade from heroic to despicable, and it all deserves to come out to play in fantasy. Eventually, I suspect, the pendulum will swing away from Grimdark to a more middle ground. In the meantime, excellent though many of its works are, they're really just riffing rather heavily on a theme that's as old as fantasy.

* Or arguably not. It isn't important.

 Note: All book covers are copyright by the individual artists or publishers, and are reproduced on the principle of "fair use" as subjects of this article.