This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Fantasy readers who want to dickwave about their erudition like to use The Lord of the Rings as a benchmark. Are the only fantasy novels you can name clear imitations of Tolkien? Did you only start getting into fantasy after the Peter Jackson movies came out? Have you not got around to reading any fantasy preceding the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring? If any of those apply, there are those who’ll consider you a lesser fan on those grounds alone.
These people are arseholes and you shouldn’t listen to them; you can be a fan of something without giving much of a fuck about its history. As far as fiction goes if you don’t enjoy a book in and of itself, or you don’t have a wider interest in its place in the particular genre or tradition it sits in or the place it came from or the author who produced it, then there isn’t really much good reason to read it. But if for some reason beyond my understanding you want to impress a fantasy elitist you could always drop Jack Vance’s name; with the first volume in his Dying Earth series being published in 1950, well before Fellowship came out, he’s got the “predating LOTR” angle properly covered, and with the spellcasting system in pre-4E versions of Dungeons & Dragons being called “Vancian” (due to it being a flavourless approximation of the way magic works in The Dying Earth) he also ticks the “influenced far more people than have actually read his stuff” box. On top of that, he actually has a fairly individual and distinct style which, if you happen to enjoy it, means the books are also strong on the whole “actually fun to read” front.
Inspired by a recent burst of enthusiasm for the Dying Earth RPG in my general vicinity, I just reread the books for the first time in years. I still love them, but because of some things I noticed in this readthrough, I’m not sure it’s a love I want to parade around openly. So obviously I’m going to blab about it here for you all to see. (In the event you do decide to tackle this stuff, omnibus collections of all four books are readily available, plus Vance’s official website and Gollancz’ SF Gateway offers e-books with texts taken from the Vance Integral Edition.)
The Dying Earth (AKA Mazirian the Magician)
Originally composed during 1944, when Vance was sailing the South Seas with the US Merchant Navy, the loosely-connected short stories which make up The Dying Earth show a pronounced influence from other fantasy authors of the era, with the decadent far future Zothique stories of Clark Ashton Smith being an obvious precedent. As with those stories, really the only connecting factor here is a common setting, though a few characters are occasionally namedropped or actually appear in stories other than the ones they primarily feature in. Following a simple rule of nomenclature, each story is named after the character whose point of view is primarily followed, which is not necessarily the character we are meant to be rooting for. Turjan of Miir, Ulan Dhor and Guyal of Sfere are, broadly speaking, conventional sword and sorcery heroes in the classic style – a magician seeking the elder wisdom of the otherworldly Pandelume, a prince sent on a mission to expand his experience of the world, and a humble youth with an insatiable curiosity out to uncover lost mysteries respectively. The warrior T’sais is a more unusual figure – grown in a vat from a flawed pattern, she is unable to perceive any beauty or goodness in the world and bestows her hate upon it without partiality, but her quest to try and uncover an ethical pattern of behaviour and stir emotions in herself other than disgust makes her sympathetic enough. Conversely, Mazirian the Magician and Liane the Wayfarer are ostentatiously cruel, and show an unappealing joy in torture, murder, and rape attempts (which get foiled because Vance, whilst many things, was never really grimdark); whereas the other stories focus on sympathetic characters winning through against the odds, their stories involve them finally getting some sort of comeuppance.
In general, the stories here are the closest the series will get to conventional fantasy; there are clear sympathetic heroes and unsympathetic villains, justice wins out in the end, the focus of the stories is mainly on physical and magical peril. Added flavour arises from two sources: firstly, the basic conceit that the stories take place in Earth’s final aeon, an era where people expect the Sun to go out imminently. As I mentioned in my review of Songs, people don’t actually treat this as much of a big deal; those with the capacity to travel to other worlds or dimensions such as the mysterious realm of Embelyon will doubtless do so once the Sun finally goes out, but even then people do not give much thought to such contingency plans. Fatalism and a willingness to live in the moment are cultivated in many of the characters; those such as Guyal who are driven by lofty ambitions or burning curiosity are considered eccentric or defective.
The second source of novelty here is the high priority Vance places on wit and whimsy, and the particular sense of humour he displays. Fritz Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser often had their funnier side; likewise, Clark Ashton Smith’s material contained its share of morbid jokes. Vance’s sense of humour draws mildly on both but has an original character all of its own. The dialogue is perhaps the most obvious feature of it. The Vancian dialect avoids both the sort of informality associated with modern modes of speech but also (wisely) casts aside the archaic “thees” and “thous” and other anachronisms beloved by writers who rely on the King James Bible and, at a stretch, a bit of Shakespeare to mimic the cadences of history. Rather, the principals in these picaresques express their conceptions, requests and commands in ornate fashion and with a broad vocabulary, which I suspect several commenters on this article will try to imitate. Vance would develop this style of dialogue into a fine art over the course of his career but it’s amazing how developed it is here – and in particular, impressive how Vance has already attained a style which is extremely stylised (not to mention thesaurus-taxing) whilst at the same time keeping things readable and making his characters’ speech seem natural. (In contrast, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun – which he readily admits is a tribute to The Dying Earth is so verbose and packed with archaisms that a lot of its meaning is impenetrable on a first pass.)
This cultivated mode of speech extends to more or less every entity capable of conversation as does another comedic trait: the universal desire of all persons to maximise their own advantage and comfort for minimal effort. Thus, even half-devil fiends like the deodands will banter with their prey in the hopes of convincing them to let their guard down. (This does not excuse the fact that the deodand are black-skinned anthropophagic devils in human form, mind – a trait which may explain their diminished role or outright absence from later volumes in the series, the “well-spoken creature that wants to eat you” role being filled in by the noble and entirely non-humanoid pelgrane.) Here the protagonists and antagonists of the stories tend to be less prone to sloth and easy living than in subsequent volumes in the series, though most of the supporting cast are – especially in the final tale, Guyal of Sfere, which in its travelogue style represents an early pass at the approach of The Eyes of the Overworld.
Another difference between this and the later books is that here you have the occasional female protagonist. The previously mentioned T’sais gets her own story centring on her quest to feel something other than hate; her perfected clone T’sain, meanwhile, is the true hero of the chapter focusing on Mazirian, in which she plots to lead him on a desperate chase through a series of cunning traps in order to secure his doom, so that she may free Turjan (who has been captured by Mazirian). Although both these stories involve their heroines being threatened with violence and rape, Vance permits his heroines to use every ounce of violence at their disposal to protect themselves – both T’sais and T’sain kill those who intend to rape them, and we are not asked to have any sympathy for the rapists – plus he avoids the Baker’s Boy fallacy of having a world where women are threatened with torture and rape but men are a-OK. For instance, Guyal is in as much danger from the depredations of the demon Blikdak as his companion Shierl is:
“These youths, of both sexes [sent in sacrifice by the Saponids], are his play, on whom he practices various junctures, joining, coiti, perversions, sadisms, nauseas, antics and at last struggles to the death. Then he sends forth a ghost demanding further youth and beauty.”
And Etarr in T’sais’ confides a terrible experience in his past:
“And she put me through foul degradations, and called up things from Kalu, from Fauvune, from Jedred, to mock and defile my body.”
However, The Dying Earth really shouldn’t be mistaken for a feminist text; women who aren’t T’sais or T’sain tend to be either love interests overshadowed by the protagonists of the story they appeal in or perilous witches. Moreover, the status of T’sain as a person grown in a vat for Turjan’s pleasure (Turjan liking the look of T’sais but not being to keen on the “hates the world and wants everyone to die, preferably at her hand” attitude she has) is, to say the least, massively problematic. On top of that, T’sain’s main outburst of heroism is exclusively about saving her man, and T’sais’ quest is essentially resolved by finding a man she can love through the thick haze of hate. (“I hate you with the hate that I give to all the world; I love you with a feeling nothing else arouses.”) The most you can say here is that Vance would tend to be even more sexist in later volumes of the series, and here he seems to have given a prominent place to adventurous women mainly through the influence of C.L. Moore, who had infiltrated the Weird Tales boys club by maintaining strategic ambiguity concerning what “C.L.” stood for and whose stories – such as the Jirel of Joiry series – were Vance’s sword and sorcery favourites.
And sword and sorcery is what these tales actually are, once you peel back the Vancian dialogue and the enchanting prose and the surreal and imaginative range of monsters and the quirky magic. Daring action wins the day more often than it does in the later books, and violence is more common – ugly, visceral violence at that. As such The Dying Earth possesses a unique atmosphere in which morbid, dark fantasy and witty, erudite comedy exist in a delicate balance. Though Vance declared that the subsequent books in the series better represent the tone that he was going for, I think the first book’s distinctive flavour makes it very much worth the perusing of any fantasy fan for whom the whole deodand thing or the variable treatment of women isn’t a dealbreaker.
The Eyes of the Overworld (AKA Cugel the Clever)
The Eyes of the Overworld emerged over a decade later, first as a set of loosely-connected short stories and later in the form of the fix-up novel we know today. It centres on the travels and misadventures of Cugel “the Clever” (a distinction he assigns himself but is not necessarily reflected by his actions), who as the story begins is cajoled into attempting a burglary of the manse of Iucounu the Laughing Magician. Caught red-handed and preferring the option of performing a service for Iucounu in lieu of suffering Iucounu’s Spell of Forlorn Encystment, Cugel is transported to a distant region of the Dying Earth and charged with obtaining one of the titular Eyes. These violet cusps are the remnants of the sense-organs crafted by the demon Unda-Hrada for its invasion of this plane; just as they allowed Unda-Hrada, a creature from the sub-world of La-Er, to perceive goings-on here they also allow wearers hailing from our plane to perceive matters in the Overworld, the wonderful realm where all blossoms to its full potential. To make sure Cugel does not shirk in the task of obtaining one of the Eyes, or dawdles in his efforts to return to Almery, or neglects to report promptly to Iucounu on his homecoming, Iucounu infects Cugel with Firx, a parasitic creature which will make sure to give Cugel’s internal organs a tight hug if Cugel procrastinates.
Between the opening episodes, in which Cugel is dispatched on his quest and obtains an Eye, and the closing episode in which he completes his mission and attempts to get the better of Iucounu, the book essentially consists of a series of unfortunate events – some inflicted upon Cugel, some precipitated by him – that occur during Cugel’s journey across this naughty Earth. Essentially, the novel represents a fantasy-based revival of the picaresque travelogue as was in vogue in the 18th Century, complete with morally bankrupt antiheroic protagonist. And let’s make no mistake: Cugel’s a piece of shit and Vance knows it. Whereas the previous volume in the series had some sympathetic protagonists who generally prosper after their travails and some unsympathetic protagonists who get what’s coming to them, here Cugel plays both roles. In some episodes he is clearly a victim of circumstance, and we cheer him on as he uses his wits to get out of the predicaments he finds himself in, whilst in other episodes he behaves abhorrently and we can’t wait to see the next twist of fate which will rob him of the ill-gained benefits of his treachery and avarice.
If the episodes were read in isolation from each other, that would be one thing; as a reader you could compartmentalise them a bit more. Strung together in a novel like this, you end up on a bit of an emotional roller-coaster, in which each peak of “Yay! Go Cugel!” is followed by a dizzying descent into “NO CUGEL WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?”, and whilst I personally quite like the effect other readers might find it draining, or irritatingly at variance with how they prefer to relate to fantasy protagonists. On top of that, some of the things Cugel does are really vile, to the point where I wouldn’t blame any reader who says “You know what, fuck this guy, there’s no way he’s getting my sympathy back after this.” Cugel is more violent in this story than he is in the sequel, and at one point brutally murders an innocent clam person who plays a harmless prank on him. What’s more, in one story he marries Malinka, a resident of a village where he takes on an exalted job (temporarily, just long enough so that he can snag some treasure to fund the voyage home – or so he tells Firx), and when she refuses to have sex with him (because the marriage was a complete sham for the purpose of gulling Cugel) he ends up raping her, and later she dies in a disaster of Cugel’s own (albeit inadvertent) doing. (There’s another instance where Cugel cajoles a different woman – Derwe Coreme, who seems to be a bit of a roguish sort herself – only to sell her into slavery a bit later.)
In a way, it’s a testament to Vance’s skills as an author that he is able to present us with such a terrible person and convince us to sympathise with him when we need to and boo and hiss at him when it’s called for. On the other hand, I couldn’t blame anyone who finds that they hate Cugel so much that they can’t take any pleasure in his triumphs, fleeting though they are, and also find that his setbacks don’t quite make up for this. The novel has other baggage on top of that; women are essentially background figures for its duration with a few exceptions, who usually do not prosper. There’s racefail in here too: though deodands are scarcer (but are still encountered), Iucounu is described as “yellow of skin” with eyes that “resembled knots in a plank”, which makes it sound as though he’d be in Fu Manchu territory if he grew his moustache out.
And yet, somehow this one and its sequel have somehow wormed their way into the category of “problematic things that I like”. Part of this is the fact that the text so often gives me permission to dislike Cugel that I feel free to do so without feeling as though I’m approaching the text in bad faith. (Compare, say, the Conan stories, where it feels as though treating Conan as an unlikable antihero would be flying in the face of the tone and prompts of the narration.) Another part of this is that aside from when Cugel is doing something that’s well and truly beyond the pale the novel is funny as hell; Vance’s wit is in full flower here, the dialogue sparkles, and many of the disputes and arguments Cugel gets involved in are hilarious. (There’s a fantastic bit where Cugel gets captured by some very skaven-like rat people, who tell him and the other prisoners that any captive who can lure two more people into being trapped by the rat folk, and Cugel and his fellow prisoners set to bickering as to who counts for whose score.) On top of that, the way Cugel always finds some way through his stupidity, arrogance, greed or simple shittiness to sabotage himself never gets old. None of this excuses the problematic elements of the book but between that and Vance’s evocative prose I think the novel (and, in fact, the entire Dying Earth series) has enough to offer that I personally can enjoy it despite its flaws, though this is a calculation individual readers will have to make for themselves.
Cugel’s Saga (AKA Cugel: The Skybreak Spatterlight)
At the conclusion of The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s ineptitude at magic allowed Iucounu to banish him once again to the very beach he was dispatched to at the start of the whole fiasco, without Firx or a mission to dignify Cugel’s exile with a purpose. In the intervening years, Michael Shea wrote a sequel (A Quest for Simbilis) with the apparent blessing of Vance, but in the early 1980s Vance found himself in a fantasy mood (it was around this time that he was also composing the Lyonesse trilogy) and decided to craft his own sequel, rendering Shea’s account non-canonical.
Here, Cugel decides to return to Almery again, this time to take a definitive revenge on Iucounu. Opting to take a different route, Cugel’s travels soon lead him to an encounter with Twango, who operates a curious business scouring a fetid swamp for the scales of Sadlark. Sadlark, a demiurge from the Overworld, descended to the Earth during Unda-Hrada’s invasion in order to show him what for, and ended up disintegrating over the swamp; as it turns out, I pays handsomely for these scales for some unknown reason. This suggests an avenue by which Cugel can seek his final revenge on Iucounu – but, of course, he has to take the long journey home once again before he can put his plan into effect.
Although in terms of plot Cugel’s Saga is near-identical to its predecessor (Cugel is stranded and has to go on a long journey crammed with whimsical episodes to get a magic artifact to Iucounu), I don’t actually mind that; the novel feels like a natural refinement of and response to its predecessor. In particular, Cugel seems to be somewhat more mellow and less outright monstrous than he was in the previous book – perhaps because of a shift in Vance’s perspectives and tastes over the intervening years, but it also seems that having all he accomplished in the last book nullified so absolutely has taught him a lesson or two. Not that he’s above doing bad or unsympathetic things this time, but they seem to get less common as the novel proceeds, as though Cugel has finally got some sense of where to draw the line and quit while he’s ahead. Bloody violence and killing this time are mainly restricted to people who are trying to do the same to Cugel – or, indeed, to others, since Cugel actually occasionally acts on alutristic impulses this time – the most notable exception being Iucounu, but then again it seems clear that Iucounu was about to do something completely appalling when Cugel intervenes and by stopping him Cugel might have saved the world. (Not that he deserves massive props for this, given that the world is so close to being used up anyway…)
That said, Cugel hasn’t exactly become virtuous. Nor has Vance, in some respects. There’s one startling part of the book where Cugel steals a ship at an opportune moment (for his purposes), where only Madame Soldinck (wife of the owner) and her three daughters are onboard. They dupe him to the ruination of all his plans, of course, but part of the process of this involves the daughters distracting Cugel with sexual favours. Although they make every show of going on with it willingly, there’s still a murky consent issue there under the best of circumstances, and even if this really was a plan wholly of their own choosing it’s depressing that Vance has the main instance in which women dupe Cugel in this volume revolve around them tricking him with sex (which plays into a million different misogynist myths about women totally controlling men with their sex powers).
In essence, this is both the strength and the weakness of Cugel’s Saga: it’s more of the same. The nice thing about episodic picaresques, of course, is that “more of the same” isn’t that all bad so long as the author has fresh ideas for episodes, which Vance offers in spades; the downside is that if The Eyes of the Overworld wasn’t your thing, this won’t be either. Consequently, I don’t have much to add here that differs markedly from what I’ve said about Overworld.
Rhialto the Marvellous
The final volume in the series (very final, now that Vance has retired from writing) sees Vance switching his attention from the lowly Cugel to the doings of the grandest arch-magicians in the realms; a mighty association bound by the rules of the Blue Principles, presided over by the Preceptor Ildefonse, they who command the sandestins and covet the precious IOUN stones and for whom the magic of Turjan and Mazirian and the like are mere party tricks. Our protagonist is Rhialto, ally of Ildefonse, whose adventures are the main focus of the three stories collected here.
I’m not sure Rhialto the Marvellous really fits here, to be honest. It comes across as a standalone book in an entirely original series which was grafted onto the Dying Earth setting at the last minute, but the job of integrating it into the existing series was only half done. There are no mentions of IOUN stones or sandestins in the earlier books, and despite being grandees in Almery the mages here show no knowledge of Iucounu and he never alludes to them in the Cugel books. The magic system as explained here seems only loosely connected to the magic system of the earlier books at best. The implied war between the arch-magicians of Earth and the alien archveults of Jangk (who were first to discover the utility of the IOUN stones) has no previous mentions in the Dying Earth setting. If you changed the place names and a very few references to particular monsters and spells you’d never know that this was connected to the rest of the series.
On top of that, there’s glaring continuity errors in the book and the order the stories are presented in is illogical, further suggesting a job that was only half-done when the publishers came calling. For instance, according to the foreword the stories take place during the 21st Aeon, and yet in Morreion, the last story, the 21st Aeon is spoken of as being several aeons past (and the mentions of IOUN stones in the other stories establish that they must also take place after the war against the archveults at the close of the 21st Aeon). Furthermore, in The Eyes of the Overworld there are mentions of history being divided into 23 or 28 Aeons (depending on which side of a theological divide you happen to sit on). In addition, at the end of Fader’s Waft Rhialto has fallen in love with Shalukhe the Swimmer, and yet there is no mention of her in Morreion, as though she had never existed – or as though Fader’s Waft, being the most substantial and detailed story in the book, was meant to be the concluding one. Also, in Fader’s Waft the wizards all carry monitors to warn them against misuse of the Spell of Temporal Stasis, but they don’t have them in Morreion and there’s no evidence that they ever existed, which suggests that the monitors were a later innovation. (That said, these continuity issues might be corrected in the Vance Integral Edition text.)
The individual stories are also of variable quality. The opener, The Murthe, is cartoonishly sexist: the titular Murthe, cosmic paragon of gender essentialist femininity and queen of all witches, has emerged from the depths of time and is casting ensqualmations on the arch-magicians, turning them into women and thus members of her dark forces. The transformed wizards behave like stereotypes straight out of the 1950s, Rhialto and Ildefonse react as though they were schoolboys desperately trying to contain a yucky outbreak of girl germs, the Murthe’s boyfriend emerges from History to patch things up with her, end the war of the sexes, and stroll off with her to start a new Eden in a distant star system. The story exists solely to confirm Vance as a boring old reactionary and to reiterate that Moorcock’s End of Time is a much cooler destination (at least for the main three novels) for time travellers holidaying at terminal Earths than this particular iteration of the Dying Earth.
In Fader’s Waft, the naughty Hache-Moncour trolls the shit out of his fellow arch-magicians and pins the blame on Rhialto, causing him to be tried in absentia for being a prankster, a vandal, and one of those jerks who steal girls away from Nice Guys. Returning to his manse to discover that his best buds have ransacked the place, Rhialto seeks restitution; in a desperate bid to avoid justice, Hache-Moncour tampers both with the Perciplex, the magic blue gemstone in which the definitive text of the Blue Principles is inscribed, and with Sarsem, the sandestin charged with protecting it. Eventually, Rhialto has to undertake a perilous journey to past Aeons to recover the Perciplex – but the main obstacle he faces is the obstinate and tricksy ways of Osherl, the sandestin Ildefonse lends him to help out.
A fairly lengthly quest in the vein of Guyal of Sfere from the first volume, Fader’s Waft feels like Vance on autopilot. The usual Vancian wit is in evidence, but it doesn’t have a strong plot or even particularly novel scenarios to back it up, and Rhialto’s struggles to get Osherl to obey seem to serve little purpose other than to pad the story out until Vance hit the page count he was aiming for. A similar pointlessness infuses Morreion, the concluding tale, in which the collective mages hustle off to the rescue of the long-lost Morreion, realise why they didn’t want him around in the first place, and wipe his brain. The details on the archveults offered are interesting, I guess, as well as the depiction of IOUN stones in action, but it still comes across as though Vance is phoning it in.
The pointlessness, of course, may be the point: as Ildefonse says at one stage:
“Of all questions, why? is the least pertinent. It begs the question; it assumes the larger part of its own response; to wit, that a sensible response exists.”
However, the Cugel stories seem to embody a point-ful pointlessness in a way which the Rhialto stories don’t. Cugel’s journey seems to have been constructed as a deliberately absurd travelogue, after all, whereas Rhialto the Marvellous is a volume which can’t quite seem to decide whether it wants to be a nonsense picaresque or something more like The Dying Earth in which the sympathetic are rewarded and the unsympathetic are punished in the end and there aren’t many characters who cross the line from one to the other. Vance doesn’t give me an impression here that he really had a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish here, which isn’t the case for any of the three previous books.
As far as stories about godlike wizards at the end of time go Moorcock wipes the floor with Vance on more or less every measure with the core Dancers at the End of Time trilogy. Then again, the Vancian qualities of that particular saga only proves how influential the earlier stories were. Rhialto is fun but it doesn’t feel as special to me as the preceding books do, making me far less willing to look beyond its problematic features to find the good in it – what’s more, its problematic features are ridiculously overt to the point of self-caricature. Personally, I think it would have been better if the Sun had gone out once Cugel’s story were done.
Being a Fan of Problematic Picaresques
Like Howard’s Conan stuff, I can’t give any sort of excited universal recommendation of The Dying Earth material because there’s points where Vance’s sexism is really overt (and, in the case of The Murthe, ends up resembling the sort of sexism a six-year-old boy might express).and it’s not exactly brilliant on race either. What I will say is that on a personal basis I can enjoy it far more than I enjoy Howard.
It helps that the stories are (with the exception of The Murthe) not based on inherently bigoted axioms, it helps that they’re clearly the product of serious time and reflection rather than being knocked out at speed in order to feed the pulp machine, it helps most of all that I find Vance’s prose, wit, and authorial voice more enjoyable and engaging and rewarding than Howard’s. Howard’s writing often puts me in mind of an angry little man lashing out at the world and the people he perceives as making it soft and weak, whereas with Vance I get the impression that he’s enjoying writing this stuff as much as I enjoy reading it. Rereading the Cugel stuff this time around was particularly eye-opening because I think I grasped better that you aren’t really meant to be cheering him all the time, and in general Cugel isn’t meant to be someone you look up to or whose actions reflect a particular ethical system: even at his best he’s a scoundrel whose actions entertain and titillate in the way charming villainy tends to, and at his worst he’s a bastard whose reversals of fortune are richly deserved.
This is not going to be enough to let everyone look past the problems of the material in order to enjoy its better qualities, but it’s enough for me.