A reader is not supposed to be aware that someone’s written the story. He’s supposed to be completely immersed, submerged in the environment.
In 1955, The Lord of the Rings was published, and promptly changed fantasy forever. In its juggernaut status, the particular breed of epic it spawned often pushed aside, in the popular mind, any type of fantasy that came before.
Just what was that? Its rough-hewn predecessors took the form of hybrid stories rooted in fairy-tale, lurid history and the raw juices of pulp adventure. Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery romps are a perfect example — as are H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares, for that matter. While the characters here may be connected to grand events, this was a fantasy of short stories, not novels. Instead of a painstakingly described mythos, this thrived on brain-watering mysteries and jolt endings.
Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth hit the stands in 1950. A collection of six perfect, interlaced stories set in a time when Earth’s sun is sputtering out and no line remains between sorcery and science, it didn’t exactly produce the literary paradigm shift that Tolkien did, but it has had its pull. Gene Wolfe, Tanith Lee and numerous other authors were influenced by Vance. Gary Gygax also drew heavily from it when crafting the magic of the original Dungeons and Dragons.
I’d read about it often before finally tracking down a tattered paperback copy (it seems to come in no other form). The feeling I got when I finally immersed myself in its pages was that, growing up, these were the fairy tales I’d always wanted.
Hope faded from T’sais’ eyes. “I wish to go to Earth,” she said presently. “The sky of Earth is a steady blue, and a red sun moves over the horizons. I tire of Embelyon where there is no voice but yours.”
“Earth,” mused Pandelume. “A dim place, ancient beyond knowledge. Once it was a tall world of cloudy mountains and bright rivers, and the sun was a white blazing ball. Ages of rain and wind have beaten and rounded the granite, and the sun is feeble and red. The continents have sunk and risen. A million cities have lifted towers, have fallen to dust. In place of the old peoples a few thousand strange souls live. There is evil on Earth, evil distilled by time…. Earth is dying and in its twilight…” he paused.
T’sais said doubtfully: “Yet I have heard Earth is a place of beauty, and I would know beauty, even though I die.”
“How will you know beauty when you see it?”
“All human beings know beauty… Am I not human?”
Vance originally wrote the Dying Earth stories while serving in the Merchant Marine during World War II. Getting his first publication in the science fiction magazines of the day, Vance then managed to get all six stories published in one book just as a new decade was rolling around. He’s a rare figure for sci-fi, straddling in theme and time the twilight of the old pulps, the rise of the Deviant Age of the 60s and 70s and after (his most recent novel was published in 2004).
When some of the Deviant Age’s wordsmiths began drawing from fantasy sources besides the traditional epic, his works sprung out of obscurity (as did Howard and Lovecraft’s, but those are stories for other days). The Dying Earth got its first hardback printing in 1976, long after its debut. Vance would later write more stories and novels set on the world of the Dying Earth — they’re good, no doubt — but this volume stands perfectly by itself.
All six stories show a mastery of plot and concision. The characters, while quickly growing on the reader, are broadest archetypes, with just enough depth added to take them past the usual fairy-tale type. While creating an utterly immersive world, Vance never feels the need to let us in on every detail. There is no need to know why the immensely powerful mathematician Pandelume cannot be seen, or why exactly Valdaran the Just is so hell-bent on hunting down all black magic. Vance has the wisdom to know a good mystery is often more delicious than the answer.
He also has the sense to set the scene without fanfare. The stories begin simply (“Turjan sat in his workroom” “Through the dim forest came Liane the Wayfarer”) and plunge directly into the action, relying on its strength to pull the reader along through the last days of Earth. To be sure, not all the pulp influences sit well (“Quiet, vixen!” said Turjan, “lest I lose patience and stun you!”) but “Once upon a time” could easily be inserted before any of them, they’re that grandly basic.
Liane felt a presence. He leapt back, rapier half-bared. A stooped old man stood watching him. He spoke in a feeble, quavering voice: “And what will you have in the Old Town?”
Liane replaced his rapier. “I seek the Palace of Whispers. Perhaps you will direct me.”
The old man made a croaking sound at the back of his throat. “Another? Another? When will it cease?…” He motioned to the corpse. “This one came yesterday seeking the Palace of Whispers. He would still from Chun the Unavoidable. See him now.” He turned away. “Come with me.” He disappeared over a tumble of rock.
Liane followed. The old man stood by another corpse with eye-sockets bereft and bloody. “This one came four days ago, and he met Chun the Unavoidable … And over there behind the arch is still a great warrior in cloison armor. And there— and there—” he pointed, pointed. “And there— and there— like crushed flies.”
He turned his watery blue gaze back to Liane.
“Return, young man, return— lest your body lie here in its green cloak to rot on the flagstones.”
-from Liane the Wayfarer
And what action it is. The unforgettable chase scene that forms the crux of Mazirian the Magician fires the blood and the Green and Gray zealots of Ulan Dohr have the metaphorical punch of a good Twilight Zone episode. In what might be my favorite of the whole lot, Liane the Wayfarer has one of the most masterfully woven surprise endings around (and yes, Chun will always terrify me).
In a genius move, Vance writes with no difference between his characters’ grandiose spells (Excellent Prismatic Spray!), flying cars and growing people in vats. All of the above just represent different varieties of forgotten lore capable of shaping the slowly-ending world to their own aims. In the end, there is little difference between the dire wizard and the mad scientist.
Yet for its title and the overall theme of decayed glory, The Dying Earth is part of its time, optimistic for all its fears, especially in its final story, Guyal of Sfere, a tribute to that insatiable, geekish curiosity mocked by the mainstream no matter the generation. Yeah, Earth may be dying, but there is still vitality, love and well, fun. Vance was far, far ahead of his time here: the overall sense is one of limitless possibility, the feeling that lies at the heart of all great science fiction and fantasy. Anything can happen.
Question: In their tone and theme, much of The Dying Earth reads as fairy tales from another time. What are today’s fairy tales and how do they speak to you?