In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys Jack Vance’s inventive quartet of picaresque fantasy novels
I’ll admit that Tales of Dying Earth, the fat bumper edition of Jack Vance’s novels set on an Earth whose sun is about to go out forever, sat on my bookshelf for around fifteen years before I actually got round to reading it. It shouldn’t have taken a self-confessed fantasy fan like me that long: the creators of Dungeons and Dragons cited Vance’s Tales of Dying Earth as an influence on their development of the role-playing fantasy game, and I devoured Weis and Hickman’s early D&D tie-ins, the Dragonlance novels, as a teenager. Pleasingly, there’s even a reference to a ‘crystal maze’ (also the title of that most fantastical of game shows) in The Eyes of the Overworld, the second volume of this endlessly inventive tetralogy, which captures the playfulness but also the deliciously vivid setting of this highly imaginative quartet of novels, comprising four earlier novels: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.
Tales of Dying Earth is more about world-building than story. What ‘story’ there is tends to be loosely picaresque and episodic, as if to give Vance the greatest freedom to show off the remarkably vivid and eccentric world he has created. But like the best world-builders, he provides details of his dying world in small drips rather than large chunks, so that we get odd details – ‘city of fallen pylons’, ‘city of spires and low glass domes’, ‘the Valley of Graven Tombs’, white temples, towers becoming black monoliths in the dying light, trees with leaves of blue tantalum and green iridium – dropped into the narrative as we go. How delicious is that? And who can fail to love the sound of a market where they sell ‘molluscs from the slime banks’? The Eyes of the Overworld, the second volume in the quartet, begins with a description of the manse built by Iucounu the Laughing Magician, containing ‘three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.’ Vance uses colour beautifully everywhere: there is green and purple light aplenty, all summoning vivid images which immediately bring the world of Dying Earth magically to life. It is unlike any other world in fantasy fiction.
I enjoyed the third volume in the tetralogy the best – Cugel’s Saga, published in 1983, over thirty years after The Dying Earth was published – because by this point, Vance’s imaginative facility with world-building could be balanced by a loose but nevertheless controlled attention to the needs of plot, so that the use of the ocean-going motif (Cugel travelling from one port to another and taking on various jobs) is used not in order for the hero to fulfil an important quest (as some Chosen One elected or destined to save the whole world), but as an excuse for Vance to introduce us to one exotic or otherworldly location after another. It was as I was enjoying Cugel’s Saga that I finally put my finger on which writer Vance was most reminding me of: not one of his contemporaries (whether Poul Anderson or J. R. R. Tolkien from the 1950s, or the slew of fantasy writers who came on the scene in the 1980s when the last two books in Vance’s quartet appeared), but rather Lewis Carroll, that master of Victorian illogic and nonsense and creator of the worlds down the rabbit-hole and through the looking-glass. In a sense, Vance’s Dying Earth is another such looking-glass world: we are invited to revel in the ebullient silliness of it all as we try to figure out what the beers with their unfamiliar ingredients taste like, or what scrape Cugel is going to find himself in by the next chapter. It’s a curious coincidence that Cugel’s Saga appeared in 1983, the same year that Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, the debut novel in his Discworld saga, was published. In many ways, the cowardly Rincewind’s episodic adventures with Twoflower and the Luggage in those first two Discworld outings are oddly reminiscent of Cugel’s pointless escapades. And it’s highly probable that Pratchett had read the second Dying Earth book, The Eyes of the Overworld, which had appeared back in 1966. (The first volume, The Dying Earth, had been published back in 1950, four years before The Lord of the Rings began to appear.)
In addition to the Dying Earth quartet, Vance wrote a great number of science-fiction and fantasy novels (his 1969 novel Servants of the Wankh was quietly altered to Servants of the Wannekh in Britain to avoid association with a certain rude word), but Tales of Dying Earth remains his masterpiece and his best-known work. As a fantasy tetralogy it’s up there with Gene Wolfe’s later The Book of the New Sun, which it inspired; but it’s closer to sword and sorcery than the epic sweep of The Lord of the Rings, and Vance’s world is considerably more original and vivid than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. George R. R. Martin said of Wolfe’s quartet that it was full of images the reader can get drunk on. I’d say this could be applied to Tales of Dying Earth, too. The sheer inventiveness is matched perhaps only by Robert E. Howard in the range of arresting images, locales, landmarks, and symbols which come tumbling out from the pages like shining gems. Read it and bask in their glow.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.