vancian magic

‘The sun sank in accordance with the old ritual…’: The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

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Vintage Sci-fi Month is still going on, and here’s my official post for it. For more vintage goodness, including some good essays on what the hell vintage sci-fi is, head to Little Red Reviewer’s blog.

The Dying Earth is such an integral part of the genre that it feels as if you’ve read it even if you haven’t. It’s like getting all the Star Trek references in conversation even if you haven’t seen a single episode. You absorb it by osmosis, though in this case the message got a bit garbled, methinks. Let’s look at the Wikipedia page for The Dying Earth, shall we? Turns out, it was voted one of the best novels in the 1987 poll conducted by Locus magazine. Novels? Wait a second. Sure, all the parts of it are set in the same world, and there are the same people who keep popping up, but really, if you go into it expecting a novel, you will be very confused. What is even more confusing is that the omnibus edition I own says ‘All four Dying Earth novels in one volume’. I suppose that’s because short stories and novellas don’t really sell. Plus there is this new cover. It’s beautiful, but somehow does not match the contents.

dyingearthAll of the above shouldn’t really matter, except that expectations do affect your reading experience, and I can just picture people starting The Dying Earth and throwing up their hands, going ‘WTF is this? And why do I feel like I’m reading some ancient sagas?’ Well, it’s because you are. Reading sagas, that is. The Dying Earth is not a novel. It’s not really even a collection of short stories. It’s a collection of myths. People obey strange unwritten rules and speak in riddles. Archetypes abound. People go on quests. There are wizards. It’s like Silmarillion, but for a different universe and mythology. Once you know that, you can relax and immerse yourself in the Dying Earth universe. And it’s a fantastic place. Vance is a master when it comes to the creation of setting and atmosphere. In The Dying Earth, his writing has a lyrical, wistful quality to it. It’s the style perfectly suited to the content, to the idea itself of the sun being slowly extinguished. It has a certain finality to it, and a sense of loneliness. Anything is possible and yet the time is running out. People are ‘feverishly merry’.

The stories all have a common theme (besides the Earth dying), and that is acquisition and preservation of knowledge and how to use it in the time remaining. The first story starts by Turjan of Miir going on a quest because he is promised knowledge at the end of it. The other stories continue with the idea of traveling to gain wisdom, to find something new, to boldly go, as it were.

As fun as these stories are, I don’t think the omnibus is for reading from cover to cover. I myself found it easier and more enjoyable to read Vance in small doses. So that’s my caveat to the reader: Vance is for tasting, not for binging.

Oh, and if ‘you can only hold four spells in your head’ idea takes you back to your D&D days, here’s a great little piece on The Dying Earth as it relates to gaming. My friend said he was reading The Dying Earth books in order to know his ‘geek heritage’.

Finally: is it actually sci-fi? Or is it fantasy? You see, the lines were much more blurry in 1950. It’s both, or it’s neither. See my note about it being a collection of myths.

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