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Zothique, were written in the 1930s and featured, like Vance's setting, a remote future where science has faded and been replaced by magic.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.