Seekers of wisdom and beauty include lovely lost women, eccentric wizards and man-eating melancholy deodands. Twk-men ride dragonflies and trade information for salt. There are monsters and demons. Each being is morally ambiguous: the evil are charming, the good are dangerous.
A collection of short forms by Jack Vance, his first book and the beginning of one of his most popular series, the Dying Earth. Vance isn’t really that widely discussed these days, but during his long (1916-2013) life he wrote many influential works and is one of the genre’s legends. And this short (only 156 pages!) tome is a good place to get a taste of him.
Series so popular that the list of authors contributing to the tribute volume of short fiction include: Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Mike Resnick, Robert Silverberg, Tad Williams, Tanith Lee, Glen Cook and Jeff Vandermeer. Wow! So Vance is the author your favourite authors read. In 2009 I almost coughed up huge amount of money for a perfect Subterranean Press edition. I might despise blurbs, but it’s another matter when they loved Vance’s work enough to write special stories… and was it the only time fanfiction-hating GRRM wrote a fanfic :D?
So, what we have here, in Vance original works, are stories of decadence, futility and cruelty, set on a melancholic setting of Earth just before the Sun’s collapse, when magic reappeared for a few final moments. Full of irony, its style and imagery dominate over usually rather simple plot.
What great minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a low voice. “What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvellous creatures are lost past the remotest memory … Nevermore will there be the like; now in the last fleeting moments, humanity festers rich as rotten fruit. Rather than master and overpower our world, our highest aim is to cheat it through sorcery.
Inhabitants of this sad, barren world spend its last moments searching for power and pleasure, largely unconcerned with morality. Wizards jealously guard their secrets – and hunt others to gather more. Creatures they make (usually in the form of beautiful women, wonder why…) are the only ones capable of innocence, but usually end up badly.
That’s how it starts. There are brighter episodes, people finding love and purpose against all adversities. Some young magicians seek long lost knowledge with a sense of wonder that fits better times. The final, least pessimistic story, Guyal of Sfere, seems to be readers’ favourite and I agree.
Vance influenced, among others, Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun is considered the most important example of Dying Earth subgenre. The style and cadence of Tanith Lee’s stories also bear clear influence of Vance. And tabletop rpg creators, especially the architects of D&D (the game they play in Stranger Things 😉 ) magic system. A rather frustrating one, when a wizard is capable of preparing a very limited number of spells per day – and is in deep s*t when he or she exhaust their arsenal. Practically the only reason for having non-wizard co-players is for them to defend their betters in such a situation 😛
Not all is great. Parts are kind of sexist, definitely not on purpose, but with a casual sexism of almost-everything-pre-XXI-century. Some tropes, while fundamental to genre’s development, are served rather raw. Personally I believe Wolfe did it better.
Yes, well, it’s good to meet classic masters from time to time. These stories are good on their own, but also deepen ones understanding of genre and its roots.