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The Dying Earth: An Appreciation

Sunday, June 2nd, 2013 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Tales of the Dying EarthLast Sunday, May 26, veteran genre writer Jack Vance died at the age of 96. John O’Neill posted a fine overview here of his career; testament to Vance’s influence on other writers can be seen in remembrances by Christopher Priest and George R.R. Martin. Prolific and talented, Vance was a significant figure. I thought I’d do my humble bit to mark his passing with a look at perhaps his best-known series, books which named a subgenre of speculative fiction: The Dying Earth.

The first book in the sequence, The Dying Earth, was a collection of linked short stories published together as a novel in 1950. The second volume, 1966’s Eyes of the Overworld, ties together a half-dozen short stories (of which five had been previously published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) into a sprawling picaresque adventure. After Michael Shea wrote and published an authorised sequel in 1974, A Quest for Simbilis, Vance returned to his setting and lead character in 1983 with Cugel’s Saga. Parts of this book too had been previously published as short fiction, but again the episodic structure worked, creating the sense of an unwinding yarn, a shaggy-dog story — a feel similar to the previous book while still highly individual. The final book, 1984’s Rhialto the Marvellous, was a collection of longish tales featuring new main characters; one story, the last in the book, had been published in 1973.

All four books are set in the unimaginably far future, when a red sun wearily makes its way through the skies of Earth and the moon is no more. Powerful magicians memorise spells based on obscure mathematics and command otherworldly entities. The world is nothing we recognise: not only has every culture and civlisation we have ever known passed away unremembered, but the basic geography of the planet has changed. There are fewer people on the planet, it seems, though far more quasi-human entities; technology’s mostly regressed to pre-industrial levels, except for rare magical artifacts. If ‘magic’ is the right word. What seems to be magic may only be forgotten technology. Who, this far away in time, can recall?

The Dying EarthThe idea for such a setting wasn’t wholly original. Clark Ashton Smith’s “Zothique” stories imagined a similar twilight-of-the-world backdrop. And both Smith’s and Vance’s tales are marked by elaborate diction, creating an almost decadent tone — something mimicked in later dying-earth stories, such as M. John Harrison’s Viriconium books and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun. That said, there is a distinction in tone between Smith and Vance. Smith’s work is overall darker, more conscious of the vast amount of death preceding his distant era; he’s writing a consciously gothic kind of fantasy, I think. Vance is more baroque. There’s a different kind of artificiality, a grinning irony, to many of his stories; they’re less bleak. It’s no surprise to find that Vance has acknowledged the influence of James Branch Cabell on his writing. It’s a bit more of a surprise that he’s also acknowledged the influence of P.G. Wodehouse. But the surprise fades with reflection; in fact, Wodehouse’s linguistic dexterity and broad characters are nicely reflected in Vance’s fictions.

As for the influence Vance himself has had, the article about him at the SF Encyclopedia has a long list of writers who’ve taken some inspiration from his stories. The Dying Earth tales may be most notorious, though, for its influence on Dungeons & Dragons. The game’s magic system has been described as ‘Vancian,’ with specific reference to the Dying Earth stories, and in fact we get scenes (in the first book) describing magicians memorising spells from books, only to forget them once cast, and choosing what spells to learn based on how many they’re able to hold in memory. There are specific references to “the Excellent Prismatic Spray” and “IOUN stones,” so in all it’s not surprising that nods to Vance himself, under the anagram ‘Vecna,’ turn up in the game itself. More broadly, though, the style of the original Dungeon Masters Guide clearly owes something to Vance, not only in its vocabulary and convoluted sentences, but in the way it envisioned dungeon adventures: the many lists — of dungeon trappings, of titles for nobility, of gemstones and herbs and (infamously) harlots — all recall the verbal extravagance of these stories.

The Eyes of the OverworldMore: the stories themselves have the feel of a game. There is a frequent randomness, a profligacy of incident. Usually it all ties together by the end, but not always in ways one might expect. Often a story turns on finding a way around a magic or demonic power; finding the right wonder to set against another wonder. Typically that right wonder, or right means to get around another wonder, is surprisingly near to hand. So as I said above, there’s an artificiality to many of the stories. A sheer artifice so brazen it leads to a specific kind of suspension of disbelief. It’s at least similar to the kind of suspension you allow in order to play a game. You accept that you’re dealing with a model of reality, and a model that knows it’s a model; that glories in that fact. That appears to want to mimic reality, but which actually takes advantage of its lack of reality to create a specific set of narrative effects. Which is really to say that the stories are an odd mix of irony and sheer lack of irony; of cynicism and optimism.

It’s a mixture that changes, book to book and story to story. The Dying Earth, the first volume, seems at first conscious of the entropy inherent in its setting, the gloom preceding the end of the world — but works against it to tell stories of amoral heroes struggling to understand their environment or improve themselves. By the last tale, a major cache of hidden knowledge from previous ages is uncovered, and there’s almost a sense of escape from death: Earth is dying, yes, but there are other planets. If you want to stay in this decaying world, that’s only your choice. Perhaps unsurprising that the later books turn away from this relative optimism and deal with characters who either don’t have enough on the ball to get away from a dying world or else seem indifferent (given the inescapable nature of entropy) as to what planet they happen to be on.

At any rate, the second and third books follow the roguish Cugel the Clever as he meddles with, and seeks revenge against, a fellow called Iucounu the Laughing Magician. Eyes of the Overworld sees Cugel attempt to steal from Iucounu, and be punished by being magically ordered to retrieve the eponymous magic items; he’s then sent halfway around the world to start him on his way. Most of the book follows him on his way back — at which point his own egotism leads him to be dropped in the same situation, and the third book follows him on the way back along a different route. The fourth book follows a different set of characters, revolving around a wizard, Rhialto, as he connives for powerful IOUN stones and plots against his rivals.

Cugel's SagaThe magic is just as whimsical as in the first book, but while there’s a real element of wonder in The Dying Earth, things are taken much more in stride in Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga; magic’s more of a tool. The first book has a fairy-tale feel, the latter two more the sense of a computer-game. Both kinds of stories are based around finding the right device or technique to use to solve a puzzle or problem; the first (I think) produces a sense almost of awe, while the second tends to create a sense of harmony or of pattern, an awareness of the neatness of plot. Rhialto the Marvellous is different again, as wizards compete against wizards; the characters are, broadly speaking, trying to figure out ways around various rules, or winkling out secrets. In that way it’s even more artificial, more game-like. The books therefore tend to move further and further away from the sense of wonder of the first book, becoming broader and more deliberately artificial, but the flip side is that when that sense of wonder does break through — as in some of the cosmic visions of the last story, “Morreion,” — it’s all the more powerful.

The tone shifts in other ways over the books. The Cugel in Eyes hardly seems to be the same rogue as that in Cugel’s Saga. The younger Cugel’s a swindler, thief, murderer, rapist, and slaver. The older Cugel’s mellowed, though it’s not clear why. It does make him easier to sympathise with, to a point; he functions almost as a kind of sword-and-sorcery version of Daffy Duck, hatching mad schemes and getting slapped down by the universe and taking out his own despicable nature on others around him. Rhialto, meanwhile, is a difficult figure to understand. There’s a cold-bloodedness to him, though you could also argue that’s a function of a less strongly-developed character relative to the world around him. If the reader’s sympathy is engaged in different ways in the two Cugel books, I personally found it difficult to get a sense of how one was to read Rhialto — which created a distinct feel of its own.

But ultimately, the tone of all the stories, as with so much else, comes out in their language. That’s what you always come back to, in writing about the Dying Earth books: Vance’s way with words, and how it fits in perfectly with the decadent sensibility of Earth’s twilight. Consider this dialogue:

“Willingly will I aid you,” said Pandelume. “There is, however, another aspect involved. The universe is methodized by symmetry and balance; in every aspect of existence is this equipoise observed. Consequently, even in the trivial scope of our dealings, this equivalence must be maintained, thus and thus. I agree to assist you; in return, you perform a service of equal value for me. When you have completed this small work, I will instruct and guide you to your complete satisfaction.”

This boils down to: “I’ll tell you what you want if you agree to do something for me.” What makes the paragraph work, though, is that Vance gets much more across. Pandelumne starts out by saying he’ll help — then throws in a ‘but.’ That back-and-forth, speed-up-put-on-the-brakes motion is typical of much of Vance’s dialogue, a specific sardonic effect he puts to great use. The fact that Pandelume resorts to universal principles is also typical. Vance frequently has his characters justify their actions by referring to laws and necessities; usually ironically, sometimes knowingly so. But this Law of Equivalences comes up repeatedly, in various guises. It’s an unrealistic conceit, perhaps, but perfectly in keeping with the game-like feel of the stories.

Rhialto the MarvellousAs a speech, it’s obviously not traditionally realistic. But when every character in every story speaks like this, when the narration follows suit, the language builds the world for you. You know you’re dealing with a baroque, formalised setting. And you know not to expect something aiming at naive realism. It works because Vance manipulates this style so dextrously he’s able to create all sorts of effects (that comparison with Wodehouse is relevant here). And there is some level of character-building involved in the language. His characters are ironic, sardonic, cynical, amoral — and use their elaborate diction to hide their brutality from themselves, or else dress it up as goodness.

More than the diction is involved, too. It’s not just high-flown vocabulary that marks out these books — though Vance’s ability to create new words and deploy old ones is remarkable, from his reimagining of ‘deodand’ (a sort of legally forfeited property) as a type of monster to his coining of terms like ‘intercongeles,’ ‘suprapullulation,’ ‘crystorrhoid,’ ‘ponentiation,’ and ‘pervolved’ (all of these in one paragraph). Still, more important is the pacing and syncopation of his extravagant passages. Implication and dry timing work together to convey a distinctive kind of wit.

I think ultimately the books put the reader in the position of having to decode ironies. It’s not usually a terribly complex task, but because you’re doing it consistently, it becomes involving in an unusual way. Once again, it’s as though you’re engaged in a game — in this case, a game of wits with the characters, figuring out their meanings and snickering at their wit. (You can get a sense of this for yourself by clicking a few times on this page, which generates random quotes from the books.)

For four books written over more than three decades, the Dying Earth series is remarkably consistent. Perhaps the biggest difference you notice from volume to volume is the shaping of the plots. The stories are more conventionally shaped in the first book, while the later books move easily from episode to episode with not much progression or obvious character development. Surprisingly, I think this may make them stronger. The later books come to feel like slices of a larger undending narrative; as if the Dying Earth is after all so huge, so sprawling, no story’s large enough to contain it. They’ll keep unwinding well past the point when the sun winks out: infinite and expansive. For all their sardonic and occasionally mordant humour, there’s something oddly generous in that.

Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.


  1. I … never realized Vecna was an anagram for Vance. I think this now proves conclusively that the Eye & Hand of Vecna are, in fact, the best artifacts in the original DMG.

    Comment by Joe H. - June 2, 2013 10:31 pm

  2. I had the great fortune of “rediscovering” Mr. Vance about 6 years ago. I had read “The Moon Moth”, “The Last Castle” and the Dragon Masters” when I was a kid in those “Hugo Winners” and “SF Hall of Fame” volumes that everyone seemed to own back in the 70s and they left me cold as a 14 year old.
    Back around 2007 or so I stumbled across an old copy of “To Live forever” and fell in love with the writing. This made me re-read the “The Last Castle” ect. and I was hooked. I went and started a Jack Vance binge that hasn’t ended yet.
    It’s a wonderful feeling to (re)discover stories and writing that make you feel as an older adult the way SF made you feel when you were first discovering it as a 12 year old.
    I consider myself a lucky man to still have quite a few Jack Vance novels and collections to look forward to.

    thank you Mr. Vance for giving me part of my childhood back.

    Comment by doug - June 3, 2013 12:47 am

  3. What a great write-up.

    I own that very omnibus, and I’ve read The Dying Earth (book 1) at least twice. I’ve only read The Eyes of the Overworld once and never moved on. It’s not that I didn’t like The Eyes of the Overworld, it’s just that I didn’t like it quite as well as The Dying Earth, which I found masterful. Maybe I’ll finally give Cugel’s Saga a try.

    I LOVED Vance’s Planet of Adventure sequence, and I devoured the first three DEMON books (should really go back and finish them). Maybe, in remembrance, I’ll get to reading them all.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - June 3, 2013 8:11 am

  4. […] more eloquently by people who knew him better. (Matthew David Surridge wrote up a nice overview at Black Gate, and John O’Neill talks about Vance’s importance in the field in another essay […]

    Pingback by Remembering a Master : Howard Andrew Jones - June 3, 2013 8:32 am

  5. He found genre of marble and left it to us of magic.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - June 3, 2013 3:13 pm

  6. […] The Dying Earth: An Appreciation […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in June - July 30, 2013 6:40 pm

  7. […] quite a bit. I’ve written enough about Robert E. Howard, early Marvel comics, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth — I’ve even written about Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and a D&D webcomic drawn in […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » A Detailed Explanation - April 4, 2015 4:04 pm

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