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Tales of the Dying Earth
Jack Vance
Orion Millennium Books, 743 pages


Geoff Taylor
Tales of the Dying Earth
Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in 1916. Over a career spanning many decades, he has garnered many honours. They include the Edgar Award in 1960, the Hugo Award in 1963 and 1967, the Nebula Award in 1966, the Jupiter Award in 1975, the Achievement Award in 1984, the GilgamXs Award in 1988, the World Fantasy Award in 1990, and the Grand Master Award in 1997. He has used many pseudonyms including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John Holbrook and John van See. Jack Vance's original manuscripts for several of his books are kept at Boston University's main library in the manuscripts department.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Big Planet
SF Site Review: Emphyrio
SF Site Review: Ports of Call
Jack Vance Tribute Site
Jack Vance Tribute Site
Jack Vance Retrospective

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Peter D. Tillman

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"A dim place,ancient beyond knowledge. Ages of rain and wind have rounded the granite, and the sun is feeble and red. A million cities have fallen to dust... Earth is dying..."
Here's a handsome new omnibus edition of four classic Vance fantasies: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous. This series spans much of Vance's career, from his first published book (The Dying Earth, 1950, a collection of six stories from the 40s) through the 1984 collection Rhialto the Marvellous 1.
"Here grew trees like feather-parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal -- copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium."
-- from Mazirian (The Dying Earth), late 40s -- but could have been written anytime within the last half-century. Vance's distinctive style -- mannered, leisurely, colourful, rich, ironic -- is instantly recognizable and remarkably consistent, from the late 40s to the present.

If you are new to Vance's Dying Earth, I recommend starting your exploration with Rhialto the Marvellous, three linked novellas ("The Murthe," "Fader's Weft" & "Morreion") that are Vance at the very height of his powers, la crème de la crème.

Next, assuming you're hooked, I'd read Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga, humorous picaresque adventures of Cugel the Clever 2, who falls afoul of Iucounu the Laughing Magician during an attempted burglary of the latter's manse: "... for your own comfort, do not strain, as Thief-taker is woven of wasp-legs..." Cugel, offered the alternative of the spell of Forlorn Encystment, "which constricts the subject in a pore some 45 miles below the surface of the earth," readily agrees to undertake a quest for the eponymous Eyes -- which turn out, under the fantasy trappings, to be marvellous virtual-reality goggles. I must confess that, on this re-reading, I liked Cugel rather less than before, but this is still wonderful, top-notch stuff.

I'd leave The Dying Earth short stories for last, as reactions to them vary -- Vance's language and descriptive passages are very fine, but his plotting is almost non-existent. Early Vance is not for everyone -- even I, a serious Vanceaholic, had trouble getting into them on this reread. But a remarkable first book, one that is still going strong 50 years on.

So... Vance true fans will welcome this chance to replace their crumbling paperbacks. Those new to Vance's fantasy could start here, but might be better advised to start with the Lyonesse trilogy, Vance's high-fantasy masterwork, and perhaps the crowning glory of his 50+ year writing career. If you've not yet read any Vance, I'd start with his great Hugo-winning classic, The Dragon Masters. These books are out of print at the moment, but can be readily found at libraries or used bookstore. Be aware that Vance is a minority taste, but be warned that, if he's to your taste, he's seriously addictive. In my opinion he's one of the great literary stylists of the 20th century. And still writing, at age 85 -- Lurulu, the sequel to Ports of Call, is due out soon...


1 Authors and books that influenced the Tales of the Dying Earth include Clark Ashton Smith, William Hope Hodgson (The Night Land, recommended), and Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung stories (highly recommended).

2 -- who's too clever by half, which is part of the fun. The biter bit, over & over....

Copyright © 2000 by Peter D. Tillman

Pete Tillman has been reading SF for better than 40 years now. He reviews SF -- and other books -- for Usenet, "Under the Covers", Infinity-Plus, Dark Planet, and SF Site. He's a mineral exploration geologist based in Arizona. More of his reviews are posted at www.silcom.com/~manatee/reviewer.html#tillman .


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