Jack Vance has been, throughout his long career as a science-fiction writer, one of the most consistently creative universe-builders in the field. From the far-flung stellar civilization of The Demon Princes to Alastor and The Dying Earth, his creations are marked not only by imagination but by a degree of attention to how they work — the structure of the milieu — that makes them inescapably real.
Vance is also one of the most recognized writers in science fiction and fantasy, as well as mystery. Of the works included in Tales of the Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld was nominated for a Hugo, The Manse of Iucounu was nominated for a Nebula, and Cugel’s Saga won the Gilgamés. (The complete list of his awards and nominations is staggering — too much to list here. Take my word for it.)
Tales of the Dying Earth is an omnibus of Vance’s cycle of stories, novellas and novels about the lives and times of some of the more spectacular denizens of Earth’s last days. (And I must point out that Vance’s denizens are generally vividly portrayed and more than a little eccentric — at least, by our standards.) Vance was not much for genre boundaries — the world of the Dying Earth is what we would now call “crossover,” a mingling of fantasy and science fiction in which magic is a living art that co-exists with a wondrous technology, or the remains of it, in a world in which the sun is a dim red presence given to flickers and fits, humanity shares what’s left of the world with creatures that may or may not have originated there and who may or (usually) may not be benign, there are other realities within easy reach, and the weight of unimaginable history informs the prospect of the imminent end.
This volume begins with the story cycle The Dying Earth, which itself begins with the story of Turjan the magician, who is knocking himself out trying to create viable people — his attempts to date have been utter failures, none of them particularly appealing and all of them expiring shortly after creation. He at last resolves to seek the help of Pandelume the Great, who dwells in a different reality, Embelyon. The quest is, ultimately, successful, although there are more than a few impediments, both human and otherwise.
The two stories of Cugel the Clever, The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel the Clever, are the best examples of the picaresque nature of the books as a whole. They are, by and large, episodic, adventurous, and unexpected. To attempt plot summaries for all would be a distraction, when it comes right down to it. Much more important are the tone — light, ironic, sometimes wide-eyed in wonder, and often sardonically funny — and the sheer inventiveness. The characters alone are delightful — the mysterious Pandelume, who may not be viewed by mortals; Iucounu the Laughing Magician, whose sense of humor is somewhat less than gentle; Cugel the Clever, who is not really all that clever, although he cuts a dashing figure; and Rhialto the Marvellous, the victim of slander who gets his revenge, but not without extreme effort; and many, many more.
There is a certain madcap element to these adventures, not so much in the stories themselves, but in the sense that Vance’s most common reaction to a new idea or plot twist was “Well, why not?” There is also a feeling to them that I can only characterize as “folkloric” — characters are often abrupt, and their motivations just as often opaque as apparent. They can also be more than a little confrontational. It’s the kind of feeling one gets from reading fairy tales, a sort of flat-out, in-your-face kind of conversation that has little to do with the way we normally sidestep confrontation.
Something else worth pointing out: it’s been fashionable for a long time (although, happily, not so much as it once was) to dismiss the writers of the Golden Age as hacks who just churned it out. And, like many, I first encountered Vance as a teenager, or maybe a little before, when my measure of “quality” was based on other than formal considerations. From the vantage of an adult for whom the quality of writing is of major importance, I can say quite confidently that there are no complaints here. (A statement I’ve had reason to make again and again, as I go back to some of my old favorites. The moral is, I think, that “critics” have their own agendas. Mere reviewers, of course, can be trusted completely.)
One element that seems to have departed the area of the literature of the fantastic in recent years, as the field has become more popular and its practitioners (or their publishers) more formulaic (or perhaps merely less optimistic and/or romantic), is a sense of vision, the attitude that the universe is a place of marvels and wonders and if we stretch far enough, we can reach them. Vance was certainly one who touched them regularly. We are lucky enough to be able to tag along.
(Orb/Tom Doherty Associates, n.d. [reissue of The Compleat Dying Earth, Science Fiction Book Club, 1998])