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.