Fiction Reviews

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

(2009) George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois (eds), Harper Voyager, £12.99, trdpbk, 660pp, ISBN 978-0-007-27750-6

Songs of the Dying Earth contains 22 stories set in the world of The Dying Earth, the series created by Jack Vance when he was a merchant seaman on trans-Pacific cargo ships, as he explains in his Preface. Each contributing writer explains in an Afterword how he or she came to discover them, or found Vance through other works, so, for the record:

I came across The Dying Earth” in the 1962 Lancer paperback edition, imported by Thorpe & Porter: it still has the blue sticker reading 'TP 3/6 British Edition'. I had just joined the Scottish Branch of the British Interplanetary Society, which became independent as ASTRA the following year, and its Vice-President Andy Nimmo was encouraging me to broaden my SF reading beyond Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham. I was in a summer job at Butlin’s holiday camp on the Heads of Ayr, working as a chalet porter in long tedium punctuated by episodes of surreal absurdity, with Mantovani and Percy Faith playing endlessly from the speakers, no matter what else was happening. I was at the end of my second-last year at school, and had just sat my first batch of Scottish Certificate of Education Higher examinations, followed (because we were the transition year) by the first SCE O-Grades (normally taken at around 16 years of age), which we had to pass in order to qualify retrospectively for the Highers (normally taken at around 18 years of age) we had already taken.

It all primed me to find escape in the exoticism of The Dying Earth, and to cheer the iconoclasm of characters like Guyal of Sfere ("In this case, I innovate a welcome reform…"). John C. Wright tells us here that he and Shierl did go to the stars, though he returns to Earth with temporary amnesia. It is a little strange that the stars he visited still go by the names of our time (page 394), especially since some of them should no longer exist; that distances are still measured in light years (page 404), and the Moon, which on the back of the Lancer paperback was 'an almost-forgotten memory', still bears our names for the craters (page 399) – but it is no great matter.

One aspect, which especially appealed to me in 1962, was that the stories anticipated Clarke’s Law, 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. I followed the later series in Fantasy & Science Fiction which became Cugel the Clever, but I felt those stories lacked that ambiguity; as Vance says here of them and Rhialto the Marvellous, "these books are quite different from the original tales in mood and atmosphere”. The stories in Songs of the Dying Earth take their inspiration from all three, so the more faithful they are to the originals, the less easily they sit together – but that too is not a major problem, as they are best read one at a time.

Cugel is one of the characters recreated here, in 'The Green Bird' by Kage Baker, 'Sylgarmo’s Proclamation' by Lucius Shepherd, who brings in his cousin (with a nod to Iocounu the Laughing Magician) and 'The Collegium of Mauge' by Byron Tetrick, who brings back Iocounu in person and introduces Cugel’s son for good measure. Iocounu appears again in 'Evillo the Uncunning' by Tanith Lee, and Rhialto reappears in 'The Good Magician' by Glen Cook. Derwe Coreme, one of Cugel’s many victims, comes back in 'Sylgarmo’s Proclamation' and in 'The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderöz' by Dan Simmons. But for me the greater pleasure lay in fresh encounters with the bestiary, the places and the characters of the original book – a throwaway reference to the pillaging of Bautiku and the reappearance of T’Sais in Jeff Vandermeer’s 'The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod', a mention of the Cobalt Mountains in 'The Return of the Fire Witch' by Elizabeth Hand, Guyal’s return to Earth as above.  Not surprisingly, two of the authors are drawn to the short but unforgettable encounter with Lith and Chun the Unavoidable in Vance’s 'Liane the Wayfarer'. Mike Resnick gives us the beginning of their story in 'Inescapable', and Phyllis Eisenstein gives it closure in 'The Last Golden Thread'. Neil Gaiman, last in the book, is one of several authors who speculate on how the Earth and Sun came to be dying in the first place, as well as what happens next.

By now any enthusiast for The Dying Earth should be set on acquiring this book. If you have not read it, read it first; you will get far more from Songs of the Dying Earth if you do.

Duncan Lunan

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

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