Monday, June 11, 2007

Review of Tales of the Dying Earth -- Jack Vance

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of four novels in Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth series. The books are set on a far future earth so late in its history that the sun itself could fade into darkness at any time, and whose inhabitants seem only to bide their time until the curtain falls on earth forever.

Of the four novels that comprise the omnibus, only two are directly connected. The first volume, The Dying Earth, is essentially a collection of short stories about different characters: Turjan of Miir, Mazirian the Magician, Liane the Wayfarer, Ulan Dhor, and others. In the first of these stories, Turjan of Miir create twin golem-like women, T'sais and T'sain, who frequent several of the following stories, playing major and minor parts. The last story in this first book, mostly unrelated to the others, introduces a character called Guyal of Sfere, who goes on a quest to discover a source of answers to his endless "why?" questions.

The second two books in the omnibus, The Eyes of Overworld and Cugel's Saga, center around the character Cugel, a clever and lazy anti-hero who simply wants to find a state of ease somewhere to satisfy his endless appetites. He cannot fight; he can only talk and scheme. These he does endlessly, moving from one series of adventures to the next.

The last book, Rhialto the Marvellous, begins again with a new set of characters centering on Rhialto, an intelligent scheming magician among intelligent scheming magicians. A series of stories end in a search for a lost magician on the very last planet at the end of the universe.

Technical Style for a Logical World

Vance uses the series of short stories to paint a broad picture of the Dying Earth and its people. His use of language is precise, including his choice of names for imaginary places, people, and things. Vance creates tightly formed societies which adhere to strict behaviors. Carefully positioned in the path of specifically shaped characters, these places and people interact with the characters to create riddle-like experiments.

His prose style is unique: a combination of dry wit with utterly unreal dialogue which seems stilted at first, but quickly becomes part of the fascinating scenery of the world. Here is a sample:

Guyal of Sfere had been born apart from his fellows and early proved a source of vexation for his sire. Normal in outward configuration, there existed within his mind a void which ached for nourishment. It was as if a spell had been cast upon his birth, a harrassment visited on the child in a spirit of sardonic mockery, so that every occurrence, no matter how trifling, became a source of wonder and amazement. Even as young as four seasons he was expounding such inquiries as:

"Why do squares have more sides than triangles?"
"How will we see when the sun goes dark?"
"Do flowers grow under the ocean?"
"Do stars hiss and sizzle when rain comes by night?"
To which his impatient sire gave such answers as:
"So it was ordained by the Pragmatica; squares and triangles must obey the rote."
"We will be forced to grope and feel our way."
"I have never verified this matter; only the Curator would know."
"By no means, since the stars are high above the rain, higher even than the highest clouds, and swim in rarefied air where rain will never breed."

Though set in a far future earth, this is by no means a science fiction book. It is pure fantasy, as evidenced by the plot arcs which play frequently with logic puzzles, riddles, and human nature in ways more appropriate to fairy tales.

Vision and Meaning in Tales from the Dying Earth

Upon reading tales from this omnibus, the reader will frequently find a wry smile on his face. These stories are light-hearted, the characters rarely suffer serious injury or loss, and many of the adventures are cast in sarcastic, comedic tone. This is a book to enjoy in short or long stretches, savoring the fascinating puzzles and intricate out-workings of Vance's ordered mind.

At a distance, Vance shows us a world on the verge of a cold, quiet death. The people under the dying sun are either willfully oblivious to their looming fate or nervous but powerless to affect its approach. Perhaps the reader is invited to throw a glance over his own shoulder, wondering what fate approaches in the far distance; to glimpse the vastness of his own powerlessness and temporality. But, in the spirit of Vance's light-hearted and whimsical style, we shrug our shoulders and get back to the diversions at hand.


This is a must-have book. Keep it alongside a set of good anthologies. Pick it up when you need something light to read between longer works, enjoying the relaxed pace, episodic adventures, and wondrous sights revealed by Vance's careful hand.

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