Fiction Reviews

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in honour of Jack Vance

(2011) edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardener Dozois, Harper Voyager, pbk, £8.99, 569pp, ISBN 978-0-007-27749-0


It was over sixty years ago that Jack Vance introduced the world to The Dying Earth (1950) and in honour of this the editors commissioned short stories from a number of well known authors. And what a list of authors, twenty two of them: Robert Silverberg, Mathew Hughes, Terry Dowling, Liz Williams, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams, Paula Volsky, Jeff Vandermeer, Kage Baker, Phyllis Eisenstein, Elizabeth Moon, Lucius Shepard, Tad Williams, John C. Wright, Glen Cook, Elizabeth Hand, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Howard Waldrop, George R.R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman, as well as an Appreciation from Dean Koontz and a preface from Jack Vance himself.

It being a dull, damp day, I sat down to take a quick look at the book, to get a feel for it, before I did something 'more useful'. I dipped into the story by Tanith Lee, just intending to read a couple of pages as I finished my after-lunch coffee; inevitably I found myself reading the next couple of pages, and the next couple, until, thoroughly immersed in the story, I reached its end. It was the first time I had revisited the 'Dying Earth' in many years and it was so good to be back - thank you, Tanith, thank you so very much!

It left me realising that as well as reviewing the book in its own right I should also be looking at how well it represented Jack's creation. So, 'in preparation', I attended my bookshelves and reread The Dying Earth and the later stories Jack set in that world before continuing with reading this collection, and I confess that it was a pleasure to do so.

In case you are unaware of Jack Vance and his many creations, let me explain a little. Jack had experienced a variety of jobs in his younger days and, the war being over, settled for a while as an able seaman on cargo ships which mostly plied their trade across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. It is in the nature of such work that a sailor can find himself with little to do for hours at a time and so the young Jack would pick up his fountain pen and clipboard, sit out on deck, and write stories. Being well read and having an active imagination, he wrote many stories and created many worlds in which to set them.

One of these was the 'Dying Earth': it was our own world but so far in the future that our yellow-white sun had faded to red and was not expected to even glow for much longer - the sun was dying and so, soon, would all life on earth. Civilisations had risen and sunk by their thousands and all but the most recent had been forgotten even by the legends. Science had advanced to the point where it could be encompassed and controlled by mere words; indeed science had to all intents and purposes become magic. By the time of these stories science as such had been forgotten and only the magic was remembered, and only a little of that, and by magicians who struggled to master what remained of it, bickered between themselves, and stole from each other those spells which still existed. Buried in some of the ancient ruins were remains of old technologies, but only the extremely brave, the utterly foolhardy, or those most desperate, ventured into such places. At times in the past mankind had ventured out to the stars and settled other planets, some had even created their own planets and universes in which to live, but the remnants of the human race remaining on the Dying Earth had descended into medieval-like societies, often living in the ruins of the ancient cities. There were magicians, scoundrels, thieves, heroes, victims, and the merely downtrodden, and they were all simply trying to remain alive for as long as they could and, for most of them, they were certainly not enjoying a particularly good life!

The Dying Earth had started out as a series of short stories which had been published earlier in magazines before being assembled into the one book; often they were linked as, say, a minor character in one story became a major character in another. What I particularly enjoyed was that the stories were filled with such wonderful characters and scenes and had an almost magical feel as Jack introduced us to their strange names and even stranger lives. We met Turjan of Miir as he studied under Pandelume and also the beautiful T'sain and the equally beautiful but flawed T'sais; Mazirian, who had trapped Turjan for his own amusement but reckoned without T'sain; Etarr, whose efforts to bring Javanne to justice also resulted in the cure of T'sais; Liane the Wayfarer, whose meeting with Lith caused him to discover why Chun is called the Unavoidable; Ulan Dhor, who explored the remains of the ruined city once ruled by Rogol Domedonfors; and Guyal of Sfere, who rediscovered the Museum of Man.

Later he wrote more stories set in the same world and introduced us to further lands and their many very different societies: again these were often first published in magazines such as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. These were written in a somewhat different style and had less of what (because I know no other way of describing it) I would refer to as the whimsical wonder of the original; these later works concentrated more on longer stories which followed the adventures of particular individuals. Whilst many of these characters were hardly nice people, they were, in their own way, merely struggling to survive, and their wanderings through life in this far future were a joy to follow. One of the things I particularly enjoyed was that, with many of the characters being both unpleasant and unscrupulous, frequently they were ultimately rewarded with poetic justice; sometimes they achieved their desires only to find, in their remaining moments, that perhaps they should have desired something else.

In The Eyes Of The Overworld (1966), Cugel the Clever (who could equally be called Cugel the Devious, or Cugel the Thief) is caught in the home of Iucounu the Laughing Magician where he had intended to “liberate” a few of the magician's possessions; as a punishment Cugel finds himself sent to a very distant land and tasked with finding and bringing back objects required by Iucounu. This leads Cugel to many adventures on his long return journey! In Cugel's Saga (1983), due to a misplaced pervulsion during a spell, Cugel casts himself right back to that very distant land and having again to find his way 'home', this time following a different route and eventually taking his revenge on Iucounu. Rhialto The Marvellous (1984) follows Rhialto and other magicians as they squabble amongst themselves; they meet the Murthe, visit Fader's Waft to consult the Judicial Egg, and search for Morreion, a long lost member of their group, and the source of the powerful IOUN stones. [Note that various sources quote slightly different publication dates for these books - revisions? - republishings?]

I cannot remember when I first read The Dying Earth, though I note that my copy is dated 1972, but it and its sequels have remained with me ever since. These are books that brought me much reading pleasure and that I am so glad to have discovered.

But what of the Songs Of The Dying Earth, this compendium of stories written in Jack's honour? All the stories are well written and a pleasure to read. They do not duplicate Jack's writing style - only Jack could do that - but they all fit well with his stories and add delightfully to the canon. Some of Jack's characters are reprised or at least referred to, the various strange creatures that roamed the original pages roam these pages, and the feel and flow of the stories (and of the typical 'justice') has been maintained. I thought a couple of the stories were not especially of the Dying Earth and could have been set in any similar society, but this did not detract at all from my enjoyment of them.

In brief, the new stories tell us of: the melancholy Puillayne of Ghiusz and the unexpected visitors who wish to relieve him of his many possessions; Grolion of Almery, who discovers that Phandaal's Discriminating Boundary has trapped him in the house in which he had taken refuge; Amberlin the Lesser, who is determined to pass through the Copsy Door to the treasures of the long lost wizard Eunepheos; Caulk the Witch-chaser and his discovery that there are other ways of living than chasing witches; the early days of Lith the golden witch and the origin of Chun the Unavoidable and his cloak of golden eyes; Vespanus of Roë and how he uses his architectural talents to forge an unexpected new career; Farnol of Karzh, who's laziness leads him to learn vital lessons the hard way; the Wizard Sarnod, who's Nose of Memory sends his servants on a task which proves more far-reaching than he had expected; Cugel and his pursuit of the magics of Daratello the Psitticist; Bosk, apprentice to Turjan, and his encounters with Lith and Chun; Petry, general dogsbody at the inn, who sees an advantage to be taken at the roach racing in Uskvosk; Thiago Alves and Derwe Coreme as they pursue Cugel to settle old scores; Lixal Laquavee, who finds that you should understand the limits of spells before depending on them for your living; Manxolio Quinc, Grandee of Old Romarth, who encounters Guyal the Curator and learns far more of the Museum of Man than he ever expected; Alfaro Morag, who rediscovers the lost city of Amuldar; Saloona Morn and her involvement in the devious scheme of Paytim Norigal; Dringo, who learns of more than magic at the Collegeum of Mauge; the journey of Evillo the Uncunning; of how Shrue the diabolist and Derwe Coreme locate the remains of Ulfänt Banderõz, the oldest magician of them all; how Tybalt also finds the Museum of Man; Chimwazle's unusual night at the Tarn House; and how Farfal escapes the Dying Earth to earlier times.

I often complain that there has a been a trend of recent years for books to become unnecessarily long but this, at 660 pages, is an exception. Some of the stories are quite short, others quite long, but all twenty two are satisfying and it was with regret that I finally reached the end. Like Jack''s originals, this is a book I shall enjoy rereading.

As it says in the dedication: 'to Jack Vance, the maestro, with thanks for all the great tales, and for letting us play with your toys'. Jack's tales are great, indeed legend, and these folks have played very well with his toys. If you like the Dying Earth, you will love this book.

Peter Tyers

See also Duncan's review of Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance.

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