It Might Be Dying But It’s Still a Naughty Earth

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.)

Continue reading “It Might Be Dying But It’s Still a Naughty Earth”

The Apprentices Perform For Their Master

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.

In certain important respects it is impossible for me to review Songs of the Dying Earth, because the anthology of all-original stories, compiled by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois and published in 2009, was not entirely composed with a mass audience in mind. As the subtitle states, these are Stories In Honour of Jack Vance, and the book was published at around the same time as Vance finished his autobiography This is Me, Jack Vance! and retired from writing, after a career spanning some six decades.

It is, in other words, a retirement gift from the SF and fantasy writing community to a beloved elder, and it’s structured accordingly. It opens with a forward by Dean Koontz entitled Thank You, Mr Vance, in which Koontz discusses how he first encountered the great man’s work and its influence on him, and after each story the authors take their turns to share their memories of Vance as a writer and Vance as a person. Like in any retirement party, the retiree is given an opportunity to say a few words, and in Vance’s preface he glosses over the actual process of writing The Dying Earth in favour of enthusing about his own influences – naming Robert Chambers, L. Frank Baum, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jeffery Farnol and Lord Dunsany amongst them, but surprisingly (and delightfully) naming C.L. Moore as the queen of them all. Yes, this is a commercially published product, produced both with an eye to turning a profit in its own right and promoting the work of the authors who contribute stories (each of whom gets a full-page biography summarising their important work at the start of their tales), but it’s also a carefully-prepared present from a collection of “high-echelon, top-drawer writers” (as Vance calls them) to one of the highest-echelon science fantasy authors of them all.

Continue reading “The Apprentices Perform For Their Master”

Jumping the Shark On a National Trust Planet

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.

In 1988 Jack Vance took a break from writing his classic Lyonesse Trilogy to begin a new science fiction series, the Cadwal Chronicles. The series is notable for two reasons: it is the last group of non-standalone novels Vance wrote before the mediocre Ports of Call duology, and to my mind represents the point where Vance’s output jumps the shark. While 1996’s Night Lamp did represent a return to form, I can’t help but consider it a swan song; the ending of the Cadwal Chronicles reminds me nothing more of the disappointment I felt reading Ports of Call and Lurulu. In this article, I’m going to review each book of the series and painstakingly reconstruct Vance’s shark jump.

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Book Review: Ports of Call and Lurulu

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.

Jack Vance’s reputation in SF and fantasy is nigh-unimpeachable, with good reason. The Dying Earth fused the pulp fantasy approach of Clark Ashton Smith with the whimsical playfulness of Dunsany to produce something which, arguably, has had as much influence on the fantasy genre as Lord of the Rings (which it preceded by four years). Lyonesse, his other major fantasy series, was a striking reimagining of Arthurian myth. His various science fiction novels – including The Dragon Masters (which Anne McCaffrey drew on shamelessly for her Pern series), Emphyrio, The Demon Princes, and the brilliantly-named Servants of the Wankh – have been praised by just about everyone who’s written or read science fiction in the 20th Century.

Which is why I was keen to get to grips with his latest two-part series, Ports of Call and Lurulu – his previous novel, 1996’s Night Lamp, was excellent, after all. This pair of books may have an unoriginal concept – young man struck with wanderlust becomes crew member of space ship, gets to see universe – but you can forgive a man for writing traditional space operas if he was one of the pioneers of the genre, right?

Continue reading “Book Review: Ports of Call and Lurulu”