I’ve been reading Jack Vance recently. My interest was initially piqued by the beautiful collections of his earliest stories from Subterranean Press, The Early Jack Vance, including the upcoming fifth book, Grand Crusades. Two weeks ago I started a project to examine the current crop of omnibus volumes collecting his most popular series, starting with Planet of Adventure.
Part of the reason I do this, of course, is that these books are a terrific value for collectors and new readers alike, gathering as they do multiple novels — many of which have been out of print for decades — in inexpensive trade paperbacks. But seeing these fat volumes on bookshelves doesn’t always do anything for me… until I have a clear picture of exactly what’s inside.
I’m a visual guy, so for me that usually means the covers of the original paperbacks. Once I see those, these handsome omnibus volumes become a lot more desirable.
Of course, we’re dealing with Jack Vance here. His books were some of the most popular fantasy of the Twentieth Century, and went through multiple editions from a whole host of publishers. And his Dying Earth novels are perhaps his most popular and enduring works — I count more than two dozen English language editions just of the first book alone, since it first appeared in paperback in 1950.
So that presents a bit of a quandary. What I’m aiming to do here is provide a snapshot of the books contained within Tales of the Dying Earth that will jog the memory of the casual reader… perhaps remind them of that fascinating paperback they picked up at the cabin back in 1979, or that forgotten series they briefly glimpsed on bookstore shelves in 1994. I won’t attempt to catalog every appearance of the four novels in the Dying Earth sequence here, but instead just focus on the most popular editions that have been in circulation for the last sixty years or so.
I hope that if this article does jog your memory, perhaps reminding you of that long-forgotten paperback copy of Eyes of the Overworld or Rhialto the Marvelous you devoured twenty summers ago, you’ll seek out one of these omnibus editions and give it a try. The publishers who have brought these vintage classics back into print deserve your support.
Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series is probably his most enduring work, and not just due to its own literary merits. Gary Gygax famously based the magic system for Dungeons and Dragons — what’s today commonly referred to as “Vancian magic” — on the magical rules Jack Vance developed for these novels. In a nutshell, Vancian magic dictates that a wizard or sorcerer must have a spell book, and must memorize the spells in that book before she can cast them. Once she does, the spell vanishes from her memory, and must be read and memorized again before it can be cast again.
Just as Dungeons and Dragons became the template for every role playing game that followed — from Baldur’s Gate to Final Fantasy to World of Warcraft and Zelda — Vancian magic has likewise become the de facto standard underpinning most modern magical systems. If you’ve played an RPG video game or rolled dice in a tabletop role playing game, you’ve likely encountered a version of Vancian magic, and you’ll find the spell system on display in these books comfortingly familiar.
The omnibus volume Tales of the Dying Earth contains all four Dying Earth books:
The Dying Earth (1950)
The Eyes of the Overworld (1966, also released as Cugel the Clever)
Cugel’s Saga (1983)
Rhialto the Marvellous (1984)
The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld and Rhialto the Marvellous are all linked short story collections; Cugel’s Saga is the only novel. The books follow an assortment of characters, including Turjan, a wizard whose spell book contains every spell know to Man, the cruel and ambitious Mazirian, the stylish and carefree Rhialto, and the adventure-seeking Cugel.
But it’s the Dying Earth itself — a far-future Earth buried beneath in the ruins of countless civilizations, warmed by the last rays of a sun that will soon go out — that’s the real star of the books. It is one of the most famous settings in all of fantasy. Here’s Vance’s description, frequently reprinted on the back of the various omnibus editions:
A dim place, ancient beyond knowledge. Once it was a tall world of cloudy mountains and bright rivers, and the sun was a white blazing ball. Ages of rain and wind have beaten and rounded the granite, and the sun is feeble and red. The continents have sunk and risen. A million cities have lifted towers, have fallen to dust. In place of the old peoples a few thousand souls live. There is evil on Earth, evil distilled by time… Earth is dying and in its twilight…
The Dying Earth was originally published by Hillman in 1950 (below left, cover artist unknown). It has appeared in a number of editions since, including the popular Lancer paperback in 1962 (middle, cover by Ed Emsh). Most recently, it has been reprinted in a gorgeous illustrated hardcover edition from Subterranean Press (right, cover by Tom Kidd).
[Click for bigger versions.]
Vance started out as a prolific contributor to pulp magazines in the 40s and 50s. During this period he wrote most of the stories that were eventually collected as The Dying Earth. Vance was unable to sell the book to genre publishers, and so one of the most important works of American fantasy was published by tiny Hillman Periodicals, a publisher who mostly specialized in comics. The Hillman edition is highly prized today.
In 1987, The Dying Earth placed 6th in the Locus Poll for All-Time Best Fantasy Novel. It was a 2001 nominee for a Retro Hugo Novel.
As often as they have been reprinted, only one published released all four books in the series: Baen. They released The Dying Earth in April 1986, followed by The Eyes of the Overworld (August 1986), Cugel’s Saga (November 1984), and finally Rhialto the Marvellous (in hardcover November 1984, and paperback November 1985). The first two had covers by Victoria Poyser; the last two were by Kevin Johnson.
I think my favorite editions, of course, are the ones I first encountered in Canada from Pocket Books. Pocket released The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld in Canadian editions (note the maple leaf on the cover) in March and February of 1977 respectively, both with striking covers by The Brothers Hildebrandt. They were eventually reprinted in the early 80s with a new set of covers (artist not credited.)
I’m also quite fond of the British Mayflower editions, both released in 1972. Mayflower published only the first two in the series; the first cover was by Chris Foss; the second is uncredited.
The British publisher Granada/Panther published the second two books in 1985, followed by the third in 1986. All had covers by Geoff Taylor. When set side-by-side the first two almost form a panoramic image… almost.
Tor/Orb was not the first publisher to assemble all four books in the Dying Earth sequence. The Science Fiction Book Club got there first, with the hardcover edition of The Compleat Dying Earth in February 1999 (cover by Gerald Brom); Millennium / Gollancz followed in April 2004 with Tales of the Dying Earth, book #4 in their Fantasy Masterworks series (cover by Geoff Taylor again.)
The Tor/Orb omnibus edition of Tales of the Dying Earth was published nearly fifteen years ago on December 1, 2000, and is still in print. It is 752 pages, priced at $23.99 in trade paperback. There is no digital edition. The cover by John Berkey appears to be recycled art, as it doesn’t reflect any scene in the book I can recall, but I admit I still quite like it.
Matthew David Surridge wrote a marvelous appreciation of Vance’s Dying Earth books here.
According to legend, Michael Shea found a copy of The Eyes of the Overworld in the lobby of a hotel in Juneau, Alaska in the early 70s, and carried it with him for four years, through his extensive travels through France and Spain. He finally wrote A Quest for Simbilis, an homage to Vance and a sequel to his novel; it was published in paperback by DAW Books in 1974. It was a finalist for the British Fantasy Award, and launched Shea’s career.
If you’re a Dying Earth fan, I urge you to check out the Dying Earth RPG, published by Pelgrane Press in 2001.
Our most recent coverage of Jack Vance includes:
The Omnibus Volumes of Jack Vance, Part I: Planet of Adventure
Dream Castles: The Early Jack Vance, Volume Two
Magic Highways: The Early Jack Vance, Volume Three
Minding the Stars: The Early Jack Vance, Volume Four
Grand Crusades: The Early Jack Vance, Volume Five
Big Planet by Jack Vance
Jack Vance and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D
The Dying Earth: An Appreciation
Jack Vance, August 28, 1916 — May 26, 2013
New Treasures: Songs of the Dying Earth
New Books: Tales of the Dying Earth
See all of our recent Vintage Treasures here.