Millions of years hence, the Sun has grown old, bloated and red and is about to go out. In these dying days humanity, now capable of great feats of magic, shares the much-changed Earth with hostile races such as the deodands and pelgranes. This is the vivid setting of Jack Vance's Dying Earth series, four books (now usually published in one volume) which now stand as one of the cornerstones of modern fantasy.
Songs of the Dying Earth is an all-star 'tribute album' by some of the biggest names in modern SF and Fantasy, featuring twenty-three stories set in the Dying Earth setting. Some of the authors employ existing characters (Cugel makes several appearances and is central in Kage Baker's The Green Bird, whilst Rhialto plays a strong supporting role in Glen Cook's The Good Magician), whilst most create their own characters to explore various stories and ideas. Robert Silverberg's entry deals with a peculiar form of maudlin depression brought about by the imminent end of eternity, whilst Matthew Hughes' Grolion of Almery is a crazy mash-up of the Dying Earth and Cthulu with a bit of Little Shop of Horrors chucked in for good measure. Some of the stories are extremely funny, others are tragic or very dark in tone.
One thing that stands out about the collection is its very high quality. The weakest stories in the collection are the ones where the writer tries to evoke Vance's language and fails - 'Caulk the Witch-Chaser' by Liz Williams and Jeff VanderMeer's 'Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod' are notable examples - but even they successfully capture some of the setting's tone and feel. The strongest stories in the collection, most notably Dan Simmons' novella 'The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz' and Tad Williams' 'Lamentably Comic Tragedy', not only get the language right but feature their own memorable characters and explore interesting concepts in a well-developed manner.
Given the number of major star names on display, it's frequently the lesser-known authors who impress the most. Matt Hughes, Paula Volsky and Terry Dowling are not authors I'd encountered previously, but their stories are excellent. The old hands do rise to the occasion though, with Simmons and Tad Williams on top form, Walter Jon Williams delivering a knock-out tale and Tanith Lee writing the best story about a snail you'll ever read. George RR Martin, in only his second non-Song-of-Ice-and-Fire-related piece of fiction written in over 15 years, also delivers a dark and rather horrific story that invokes his background as a horror writer.
The collection is rounded off by a nice piece by Neil Gaiman. The collection has an interesting on-going subplot about the Sun reaching the end of its life, and in the final story we finally get to see what happens when it goes out. The results are unexpected, to say the least.
Songs of the Dying Earth (****½) is an exceptionally strong collection, a rich and sumptuous banquet of tales from the end of time. The weak links here are not enough to dilute the impact of the best stories in the collection, and the best stories are thought-provoking, memorable and sharply funny.
on 21 October 2013
Many years ago, when I was still a moody teenager, I was browsing in a local used book store. I read a lot in those days – still do, but sadly not as much as when I was a teen, as life has a habit of interrupting like it never did when I was a kid. I enjoyed mostly horror and fantasy, with the occasional foray into science fiction. Sci-fi hadn’t caught my attention as much as the other two genres, though I did enjoy Ray Bradbury’s stories, and the Dune series.
I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I just had nothing better to do on that particular day. Nothing had caught my fancy on any of the many shelves, so I turned my attention to the cheapest of the cheap books, piled in wooden boxes set on the floor. And there it was – Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. At the time, I’d never heard of Jack Vance, didn’t know what he wrote, didn’t know if he was any good. But the title had caught my attention. In the midst of my depressing and negative teenage angst, the Earth dying had a certain appeal to me. I paid a few coins for the dog-eared paperback and ambled off home.
Hours later, bleary eyed and yawning, I read the final page and closed the cover. Although tired, with a slight headache from reading for too long in poor light, I was ecstatically happy and grinning like a loon. What I had just read, just experienced, was, for me, nothing short of amazing. Pure brilliance. That world, under it’s fading red sun. Those people, in their crumbling cities. The magicians, sorcerers, thaumaturges, with their spells. Spells so vast many years were needed to memorise just one. The creatures, the demons, the created beings. And the stories! Oh, what imagination, what creative genius! I fell asleep a very happy teenager. And when I awoke the next morning, I turned straight to page one and read it all again.
Songs Of The Dying Earth – an anthology of short stories by 21 notable authors, and edited by George R. R. Martin, was put together as a tribute to Jack Vance and the fabulous world he created.
Each of the stories is lovingly crafted, trying – and succeeding – to capture the essence of the original tales. Some use characters and places created by Vance, others use their own original people and cities in the style of Vance. Each one is a thoroughly enjoyable read but, in my opinion, there are two that are weaker than the others. It seemed to me that they were trying too hard to emulate Jack Vance – most notably the unique language that he uses. That’s not to say they’re not good short stories though, as they are.
Reading this anthology transported me back to my youth, to the joy, wonder and amazement I experienced when I first read Jack Vance’s work. It was almost as if I was back in the bed of my teenage years, curled up under the covers, desperately reading as fast as I could, trying to reach the final page before the dying batteries in my torch finally gave out.
If you haven’t already read The Dying Earth by Jack Vance then I implore you – buy it as soon as you can and lose yourself in it’s magnificence. And once you have done so, make sure you get your own copy of Songs Of The Dying Earth and travel back to Mr. Vance’s masterpiece.
Trust me, it’s worth every penny. Go get it. Now.
on 16 August 2010
Jack Vance's Dying Earth setting is one of my favourite of all fantasy settings. It's an Earth so far in the future that the Sun is pale and red and ready to sputter and die at any moment, all of which tends to lend the characters who inhabit the world a certain inevitable melancholy. Add to this peculiar setting Vance's own eccentric turn of phrase and you get a truly glorious fantasy sequence.
Influential too, and not just in fantasy literature. The D&D magic system was based on that in the Dying Earth and Cugel the Clever, the cunning and amoral anti-hero of 'The Eyes of the Overworld' and 'Cugel's Saga' has been identified by Gary Gygax as the model for the D&D thief class.
Vance is still with us, but he's in his nineties now. It's nice that this tribute anthology was published now and not too late for him to see.
And what an impressive anthology. I don't know who it was who assembled the authors (22 in all) who each contributed a Dying Earth short story, but there are some very good writers here (including genuine A-listers like George R R Martin, Robert Silverberg and Neil Gaiman).
Some of the authors have used existing Dying Earth characters. Some (but not all) have attempted to write in something approaching Vance's style - a tough challenge for any fantasy author I would imagine. They all, without exception, manage to capture that strange end of days melancholy that is such an important part of the original stories.
Incidentally, if you haven't read The Dying Earth, read Vance's stories first, even if you are tempted to read a short story here by your favourite author. Trust me, you will get so much more out of reading in that order.
I won't review each of the 22 short stories, but I would like to pick out my personal favourites.
Mike Resnick's 'Inescapable' is a fable of unrequited lust featuring one of Vance's best creations from the first Dying Earth book.
Kage Baker's 'The Green Bird' sees Cugel once again attempting to devise a cunning plan to acquire a magical treasure. As is ever the case, Cugel turns out to be much less clever than he thinks he is.
Glen Cook's 'The Good Magician' takes us back to the competitive group of archmages we met in Vance's 'Rhialto the Marvellous'.
Byron Tetrick's 'The Collegeum of Mauge' sees a young man searching for the father he has never met, and brings back a couple of Vance's best characters.
George R.R. Martin's 'A Night at the Tarn House' is one of those collection-of-weird-and-wonderful-characters-take shelter-at-a-strange-inn kind of stories. It reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman's 'Worlds' End'. Which brings me on to...
Neil Gaiman's 'An Invocation of Incuriosity', in which East Grinstead's finest gets the honour of finally killing the Sun.
All in all, a great collection of fantasy writing. But do read the Vance works first.
on 28 October 2009
Songs of the Dying Earth is a magnificent anthology of 22 tales authored by established writers in expressed tribute to Jack Vance's remote future Dying Earth ("DE"). Jack Vance is widely lauded as that rare writer's writer, and his unique style reaches near inimitability, so that replication is a very tall order indeed. Yet to be able to write Vancian is no sole criterion for evaluating an homage, (though if an obvious attempt is made to "sound" like Vance it is fair game for assessment). Some authors stick to their own voice, thus their tribute to Vance's DE can be adjudged on factors, such as faithfulness to Vance's DE conceptions and themes, or contributing advancements to his fantasy creations.
Seven entries are absolutely outstanding and alone make this book WORTH BUYING, so that among all 22 entries, 7 are BEST, 11 are really quite GOOD, 3 are MIXED, and 1 is WEAK. Reviews given below describe these BEST, sequenced solely by chapter order, followed by brief comments on selected GOOD, followed last by the 3 MIXED & 1 WEAK and reasons thereof.
Story 3 by Terry Dowling. Wins "Most Faithful" Award for conscientious employment of many DE allusions, all lending to the story's DE ambience and authenticity. It offers wonderful Vance-like names (Eunepheos, Sarimance), and hosts a fantastical spell competition that is marvelously visualized. The ending is suitably ironic.
Story 6 by Walter Jon Williams. The writing is stylistically quite Vancian. Great sounding neologisms, a hard-to-imitate talent Vance was renown for. Delightful throw-away digressions, something again Vance's prolific imagination was famed for. Colorful Vancian characters, all with creative Vancesque names (even Twest the donkey). Dialogue echoes the Vance quality of urbane, archaic politeness. The protagonist is a young man who wins the day against impossible odds - a quintessential Vancian scheme. The story contains many a wry note. Nicely integrates elements (memrils, sandestins) from Rhilato. Makes advancement to madlings of DE (story's caricaturizing Hegadil).
Story 9 by Kage Baker. It is a great risk to undertake a new Cugel story without it devolving into a presumptuous hack job, but this story succeeds most decisively. A near seamless Vance-emulation, capturing style, voice, plot-pacing, characters (Dickens-like), names and neologisms, tone and nuance, and that ineffable Vance "presence". The story even includes that frequent Vance device of arriving at a solution but hiding specifics from readers until it unfolds in the story. For any Vance-fan pining for more on Cugel, this is the story. A most remarkable homage.
Story 14 by John C. Wright. Aside from having the best Afterword, this story is a most worthy capstone sequel to Guyal of Sfere. Poetically written passages. Occasional wry notes. Names sound authentically Vancesque. The story is a treasure trove of DE allusions (Magnatz, IOUN stones, Archveult, forest-gleft, oast), but furthermore provides tribute nods outside of DE, as Ska (Lyonesse), ahulph and Anomus [Anome] (Durdane), Sacerdotes from Aerlith (Dragon Masters), Pnumekin (Tschai), and even Effectuator. Presents a most imaginative futurian "mechanics" of the Curator's magical staff/baton. This story (as others) may send readers to the dictionary, but it finds a place for one of Jack's evident favorite unusual word: nuncupatory. A tremendous tribute story.
Story 16 by Elizabeth Hand. An elegant and jeweled prose befitting of DE but clearly in the author's own voice. It is a female-centric revenge tale of witches, even hosting a Twk-woman. While bountifully offering throw-away digressions of exotic things (as Vance), the tale showcases wonderful creations such as the sentient prism ship "like a rainbow bubble" that unfolds petals to fly. Contains many delightful neologisms (gysart, tusked maskelons, sleepy gorgosaurs), as well as uncommon words ("ustulating spell"). Contributes advancement of DE's basilisks.
Story 17 by Bryon Tetrick. A praiseworthy intermezzo toward a further Saga that will involve Iucounu the Laughing Magician. This school tale concludes with provocatively brilliant potential. True to his Afterword that words in Vancian writing are so important, he proffers wonderful names (The Mombac Ambit), neologisms ("dymphny and telanxis"), and unusual words (smaragdine, pruritus). He liberally alludes to Vance's lexical creations (deobado, poincture, pervulsion, pandalects, fermine [fermin], audarium [audiarium]).
Story 21 by George R. R. Martin. The darkness of this ingenious tale, where nothing is what it seems to be, is quite in keeping with DE. The story's multiple viewpoints evoke Vance's Lyonesse fantasy. The intriguing colorful characters are credibly Vance-like, and given wonderful DE names & sobriquets (Molloqos the Melancholy, Lirianne, Rocallo the Redoubtable). The Cloak of Fearful Mien is amusingly novel, as is the useful Cazoul's Indenture. Makes interesting advancement about Twk-men. The last sentence of this story is a sharp ironic riot.
Some highlights about the GOOD stories: Story 7 by Paula Volsky has an entertaining storyline that advances comical insights about pelgranes. Story 10 by Phyllis Eisenstein takes the novel approach of the domestication of Turjan and T'sain (now with daughter Rianna), with a flowing plotline and wonderful contributions about Twk-men. Story 12 by Lucius Shepard adds fun footnotes conveying a Vancesque feel, though the violence is slightly more graphic than one finds with Vance, and Cugel appears a shade more evil. Advances an imaginative contribution about DE's fearsome gids. Story 13 by Tad Williams is the best-titled, and also provides best contribution about deodands. The cleverly wrought dilemma the protagonists lands into could truly have been devised by Vance, and the ending is amusingly just. "Rhinocratic Oath" is a jocular homage to Vance's Spell of the Macroid Toe. Story 18 by Tanith Lee is nicely reminiscent of a child's fable, albeit replete now with DE allusions. Its ending is packed with surprises. Some names sound gauche (Slannt, Cleensz, Plodge, Glak) whereas others are superb (the demon Cardamoq, the Palace of Phurn). Likewise, "ultra-mage" and "Unputdownable Tome" sound horrid, but creative "Locative Sulfulsion" is elegantly evocative of DE.
Story 4 by Liz Williams is a mix of good and weak aspects. One might argue her use (and overuse) of the word "pervulsion" -- a word coined by Vance-- is in an incorrect context. "Falling Water" in homage to Vance's famously intriguing Land of the Falling Wall (cited in praise by Lyn Carter) is laughably lame, sounding more like an old Indian name for a water-fall. But she contrives interesting witch creatures believably of the DE, and ends the story on a worthy plot twist.
Story 8 by Jeff Vandermeer is another mix of good and weak. This surreal story is more an homage to H. P. Lovecraft, particularly his dreamland fantasy The Dream-Quest for Unknown Kadath. The plot is plodding. The story wins the "Lame Spell Name" Award for "Flying Travel", "Forgetting the Past for a Time", "Fascination of Detail", his clumsy rendition "Revolving Until Force Destroys" in place of DE's Phandaal's Gyrator, and (at one final point) the co-opting of Excellent Prismatic Spray into "Prismatic Spring" (yet through it's description, the same spell). Placename "Place of Mushrooms and Silence" helps nothing, and subworld "Underhind" seems too close to Vance's demon Underherd.
Story 19 by Dan Simmons is also a mix of good and weak. It is one thing to pay homage by alluding to Vance's creations, but it is another to grab everything Vance ever created in DE, one crammed upon the other. It is showoffy. Nor is it credible (or faithful) that deodands and pelgranes ever spontaneously work in concert with Man. The narrative is his own style of mundane prose, but dialogue attempts unevenly a Vancian sound, and when tried is stilted, or when not is either bland or crassly vernacular. Better that he invent his own character than morph Derwe Coreme into an Amazon ("Myrmazon") war maven. Yet his character Mauz Meriwolt (snout whiskered, tailed, 3-fingered hands) is almost ludicrously Disneyesque, (its squeaky-voice sister is named Mindriwolt, no less). (Perhaps at story's end there is a farcical allusion to Fantasia? Thus most inappropriate.) All secondary characters are rendered flat. Names can be daft (Tinkler, a past great-mage) or annoyingly exotic (KirdriK, with the artificial crutch of two capital "K"). Plot development occurs with all too much convenience, and clunky conversations explain things unjustified to know. His use of ideas from DE seems especially utilitarian. (Incidentally, the rainbow has six colors; Sir Newton's "perceived" indigo is in modern science non-existent.) The ending, given the novella length of this longest tale, is disappointing. Yet he writes the second best Afterword, especially in addressing Vance's style.
Story 20 by Howard Waldrop. The Abyss Award. It is objectionable not to stay faithful to the DE conception of magic, but instead impose that old saw of antipodes: "science and [technology]" versus "magics and superstitions". The brilliance of DE is to supersede that dichotomy. Vance, in his DE, conceives the inconceivable. The vastly hyper-uber-super-ultra-science (enough prefixes?) of the remote future is exactly this magic of those far distant aeons. DE's genius of magic is to subsume science, (even Vance's later evolved sandestin-based concept). Indeed, the story's tale-tell reference to "Irishman of old", a ridiculous allusion that would be so far in the past that even all the land-masses would have shifted not once but many times, reveals Waldrop has not fully conceived how remote in the far future the DE is meant to be. The described paltry contents in the Museum of Man are unimaginative and mere stock SciFi. Naming a character "Rogol Domedonfors Jr."(!) seems lazily derivative. Mention of commonplace "corn" is uninspired. His simile "The darkened Sun rose lumpy as a cracked egg" sounds hacky, (contrast with the opening paragraph of Dan Simmons, story 19). The tone of the story has an aspect of an elitist, and a cynic. To put it in Waldrop's words, "an idiot screamed and belly-flopped" and "another moron dashed himself into the mud-pit." On the positive side, the story is short.