The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Fantasy authors who want to get away from familiar contemporary or historical surroundings have various broad types of setting to choose from. They can create a fictional prehistory, as both Tolkien and Howard did. They can send their characters through a magic portal, like Lewis. They can set the story on another planet such as Pern (though this will normally involve some element of SF). Or, like Martin (and me, for that matter) they can create a world that simply exists in its own right, without reference to our own.
One of the choices less often taken is to set stories in the remote future. This, too, often involves an SF crossover, and an early example is the final destination of H. G. Wells’ time traveller in The Time Machine. The idea was also used by William Hope Hodgson in his bizarre 1912 fantasy, The Night Land, set after the sun has been extinguished, and by Clark Ashton Smith for his tales of Zothique, Earth’s last continent, written during the 1930s. More recently, Terry Brooks has set his Shannara series in the distant future, and Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, is set in the last days of Earth.
Arguably the greatest far-future fantasy of all time, though, is Jack Vance’s 1950 book, The Dying Earth.
John Holbrook Vance, who was born in California in 1916 (and is still alive at the time of writing), wrote fantasy, SF and mystery fiction under several names, though Jack Vance was his regular by-line. He was described by the New York Times Magazine in 2009 as “one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices.”
Vance spent part of his childhood on his grandfather’s ranch, but after his grandfather’s death, he had to work in a series of menial jobs, though he did manage to attend college at Berkeley. At one stage, he was an electrician in the naval shipyards at Pearl Harbor – a post he left just in time to avoid being caught up in the Japanese attack.
Although Vance published his first story in 1945, and he’s had over sixty books out since then, he continued to support his wife and family with a variety of jobs, only turning full-time writer in the 1970s. His early influences ranged from P. G. Wodehouse to Edgar Rice Burroughs, but his first magazine submissions seem to have been strongly influenced by James Branch Cabell, and this particular strand of his work is especially notable in his first published book, The Dying Earth.
The Dying Earth takes the form of six interlocked stories set mainly in the land of Ascolais, one of many lands on an Earth billions of years in the future. The sun is a weak, red disc that’s so close to the end of its life that each sunset might well be the last, and the moon is long gone. Uncounted races and civilisations have come and gone in the course of the planet’s interminable history. One of the characters, who has found an ancient database of the sum total of knowledge and wandered through all its history, tells us,
“We have seen old Thorsingol, and the Sherrit Empire before it, and Golwan Andra before that and the Forty Kades even before. We have seen the warlike green-men, and the knowledgeable Pharials and the Clambs who departed Earth for the stars, as did the Merioneth before them and the Gray Sorcerers still earlier.”
In this ancient world that knows its days are numbered, most of the population pursues only pleasures and luxury. Science is a forgotten lore, and the only knowledge is sorcery, learnt by rote. The ancient sorcerers who created the spells did so using “a strange abstract lore…termed ‘Mathematics’”, but this is now lost, and the last sorcerers, who make up much of the book’s cast, merely scrabble to learn as many of the surviving spells as they can get their hands on.
The Dying Earth was the publisher’s choice of title; Vance himself preferred Mazirian the Magician, the title of the second story, and he has since reprinted it under this title. With all due respect to Vance, I’m with the publisher in this respect. Mazirian is only one of seven or eight main characters – Turjan, T’sain and her twin T’sais, Liane the Wayfarer, Ulan Dhor, Guyal and Shierl – and he doesn’t loom nearly as large as several others.
There are three factors, I’d say, make The Dying Earth the classic. First is its magnificent cast of characters: Turjan, the sorcerer obsessed with learning the secret of creating life; the artificial “twins” T’sain – brave, loyal and optimistic – and T’sais, who must overcome the flaw in her creation that makes her see the world as hideous and hostile; the ruthless, self-centred popinjay of a rogue, Liane the Wayfarer; Guyal of Sfere, born with an emptiness in his mind that makes seeking knowledge as essential as breathing.
To say nothing of the many and vivid minor characters, human and otherwise. In the final story, “Guyal of Sfere”, a man who appears only for a few paragraphs is wonderfully described as “a burly man who wore a shaggy fur hat, a cloak of brown fur and a bristling beard, so that it was hard to see where one ended and the other began.”
The second factor is the richness and variety of the world Vance presents. He presents us in the first story with “white-walled Kaiin” where “Orange lanterns floated in the air, moving as the breeze took them…Here was a Melantine bargeman, here a warrior of Valdaran’s Green Legion, here another of ancient times wearing one of the old helmets. In a little cleared space a garlanded courtesan of the Kauchique littoral danced the Dance of the Fourteen Silken Movements to the music of flutes.”
But the Dying Earth also contains dark forests, ancient ruins, remote lands “shaded with subtle colors, washed with delicate shadows” and the magical land of Embelyon, where the sky is “a mesh of vast ripples and cross-ripples, and these refracted a thousand shafts of colored light, rays which in mid-air wove wondrous lace, rainbow nets, in all the jewel hues.”
The societies presented are as varied and entertaining. Besides the decadent city-dwellers we’ve met, we’re introduced to the inhabitants of a half-ruined futuristic city, where implacable enemy factions, the Greens and the Grays, intermingle without being capable of seeing one another, and a village that keeps giant humans as beasts of burden and (it’s hinted) as food. The perilous forest has its own society of carnivorous Deodands and tiny Twk-men, which travellers such as Mazirian and Liane must either placate or overpower.
The third factor – which I hope I’ve already illustrated sufficiently – is Vance’s elegant, poetical style, where the influence of Cabell is very clear. Lin Carter suggested in Imaginary Worlds that in “his irony and sardonic understatement, his lapidary surface and delicate precision of phrase, he hearkens back…to an almost extinct breed. H. L. Mencken affectionately, but accurately, once called Cabell a ‘lingering survival of the ancien régime: a scarlet dragonfly imbedded in opaque amber.’ The term is a bit baroque, but it could be applied to Jack Vance.”
The six stories that make up The Dying Earth, while each can stand alone, intertwine with one another, and many characters appear in more than one. Liane, for instance, is mentioned in the second story, appears briefly in the third and is the main character of the fourth. It’s only the final and longest story, “Guyal of Sfere”, that has no character in common with any other story.
Vance has published three more books set on the Dying Earth. The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) and Cugel’s Saga (1983) introduced the splendid rogue and thief Cugel the Clever, essentially a more likeable variation of Liane the Wayfarer, and his unwilling servitude to Iucounu the Laughing Magician. Rhialto the Marvellous (1984) comprises three stories about the eponymous magician and his colleague Ildefonse, all dealing in various ways with time-travel to earlier ages of the Earth.
In addition, Michael Shea has written a couple of authorised Cugel stories, while a tribute anthology, Songs of the Dying Earth, was published in 2009.
The books are fantasy, rather than SF, dealing with magic and quests, but the scientist in Vance tends to get the last word. The lost, abstract lore of Mathematics has been mentioned – the true knowledge, compared with the rote-learnt spells.
In the last story, Guyal contrasts his own thirst for knowledge with “the normality of minds…The habitants adroitly perform the motions which fed them yesterday, last week, a year ago…’ Why strive for a pedant’s accumulation?’ I have been told. ‘Why seek and search? Earth grows cold; man gasps his last; why forego merriment, music, and revelry for the abstract and abstruse?”
Guyal, though, stands for a human imperative that Vance clearly admires and values, and it leads him to dare everything for the greatest store of knowledge the ancient Earth has ever known. It’s fitting that the book ends with him.
Nevertheless, it’s the glittering, gorgeous diversions of the last humans that linger most in the memory from this book, and have influenced so many fantasy authors since. One of my favourite aspects (which I’ve stolen, I mean borrowed in a few stories) is the limitation he places on magic. The spells are so powerful that the human mind can only hold a few at a time. This means that the sorcerer must anticipate the perils they might face and choose their spells accordingly. Anything too unexpected could be – and sometimes is – fatal.
Whether you choose to follow the varied people of Ascolais, follow Cugel across the old Earth, or travel in time with Rhialto, all fantasy readers should visit the Dying Earth, and especially read the original book. It’s only 140 pages, so the effort it takes is hardly the end of the…oh yes, it is.