Vance's Prismatic Charm of Beautiful, Untiring Adventure
Review Summary: The Dying Earth, is beautiful, pulpy adventure. It is a series of six connected short tales (chapters), each being a mix of (Sword & Sorcery) and (Sword and Planet)...so consider it (Sword & Sorcery & Planet). And, it is an important classic, first published in 1950; Jack Vance's codification of magic items & spells proved influential in RPG-game design.
Dying Earth Series: Tales of the Dying Earth: The Dying Earth/The Eyes of the Overworld/Cugel's Saga/Rhialto the Marvellous is an omnibus edition of the four novels written by Jack Vance (1916-2013) between 1950 and 1986; the first is simply The Dying Earth, which is itself a collection of six short stories. With the recent passing of Jack Vance (1916-2013), the Sword and Sorcery Group is reflecting on his work this Summer (July-August): The Dying Earth (1950) is the first in the series (the next three in sequence are: (2) The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), (3) Cugel's Saga (1983), (4) Rhialto The Marvellous (1984)).
Pace & Style: The title evokes gloomy adventure. The stories follow suit. The poetic, weird narratives will remind readers of predecessor Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961)'s Lost Worlds; the swashbuckling adventure and planetary exploration evoke Vance's contemporary Roger Zelazny (1936-1995)'s The First Chronicles of Amber. Each tale moves at breakneck speed. Often times, within just one page, teleportation will propel the protagonist across multiple planetary systems and vast continents. Actually, the pace is too fast and the stories appear rushed (keeping this from receiving a 5-star rating). Most encounters involve some haggling/negotiating, and some of these lead to sudden brutality:
"Then you may die." And Mazirian caused the creature to revolve at ever greater speeds, faster and faster, until there was only a blur. A strangled wailing came and presently the Deodand's frame parted. The head shot like a bullet far down the glade; arms, legs, viscera flew in a direction." -- Ch2- Mazirian the MagicianThe brisk pace belies the serious, philosophical undertones that persist throughout. The milieu does involve the decline of earth, after all, but Vance does not dwell on it. The action is at the forefront, but darkness is continuously dosed. One moment he'll be describing some present urgency, and then he will sneak in a bit of epic, chronic darkness:
"At one famous slaughtering, Golickan Kodek the Conqueror had herded here the populations of two great cities, G'Vasan and Bautiku, constricted them in a circle three miles across, gradually pushed them tighter and tighter, panicked them toward the center within his flapping-armed sub-human cavalry, until at last he had achieved a gigantic, squirming mound, half a thousand feet high, a pyramid of screaming flesh."-- Ch2- Mazirian the MagicianBeauty Theme: The tales share many of the same characters, but each has a different protagonist. The protagonist from the six tale (Guyal) seems to speaks on behalf of the author's muses; he invites readers to consider:
"Where does beauty vanish when it goes?"Vance's work seems genuinely motivated by an appreciation of art and the mourning of lost beauty. He seemed to be following in succession from like-authors. Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft all delved into evoking emotions through their art; they were serious writers who philosophized and wrote essays regarding "Weird Beauty" in literature. The undercurrents of dark muses in literary horror fascinate some (link). Below are excerpts and comments of Beauty's themes in The Dying Earth (per story):
Guyal's Father Answers: "Beauty is a luster which love bestows to guile the eye. Therefore it may be said that only when the brain is without love will the eye look and see no beauty." - Story 6- Guyal of Sfere
1) Turjan of Mirr: The books opens with a sorcerer trying to create living things. His craft, his art, is "life." He mirrors the plight of Victor Frankenstein:
"[Turjan] considered its many precursors: the thing all eyes, the boneless creature with the pulsing surface of its brain exposed, the beautiful female body whose intestines trailed out into the nutrient solution like seeking fibrils, the inverted inside-out creatures...Turjan sighed bleakly. His methods were at fault; a fundamental element was lacking from his synthesis, a matrix ordering the components of the pattern."Turjan needed more knowledge to complete his goal. This compels him toward making a woman who appreciates beauty (to compete with another woman who cannot detect beauty).
"For some time I have been striving to create humanity in my vats. Yet always I fail, from ignorance of the agent that binds and orders patterns."
"This is no science, this is an art, where equations fall to the elements like resolving chords, and where always prevails a symmetry either explicit or multiplex, but always of a crystalline serenity."
2) Mazirian the Magician: This chapter has significant overtones of Clark Ashton Smith's Maze of Maal Dweeb, Xiccarph tales (1935, 1930)...in which an alien sorcerer had the "caprice to eternalize the frail beauty of women," maintaining them in a garden. Here, the beautiful T'sain dies to save her maker, Turjan, in a magic-filled chase through an alien sorcerer's garden. This excerpt demonstrates how Vance never ceases to pour out the colors!
"Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. 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. Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upward from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds…"3) T'sais: The titular character, once an antagonist piece-of-art, searches out the ability to see beauty on Earth. As she describes:
"Pandelume created me," continues T'sais, "but there was a flaw in the pattern." And T'sais stared into the fire. "I see the world as a dismal place: all sounds to me are harsh, all living creatures vile, in varying degrees--things of sluggish movement and inward filth. During the first of my life I thought only to trample, crush, destroy. I knew nothing but hate. Then I met my sister T'sain, who is as I without the flaw. She told me of love and beauty and happiness--and I came to Earth seeking those."Etarr, an ugly companion of T'sais who had his hansom face switched with a demon's, goes with her to witness a Black Sabbath. As they watch the demons congragate, Vance philosophizes:
"Even here is beauty," he whispered. "Weird and grotesque, but a sight to enchant the mind."4) Laine the Wayfarer : Laine the arrogant magician is challenged to repair a piece of art: Lith's tapestry. Therein is depicted the Magic Valley of Ariventa, but it has been cut in half. Can he restore it?
5) Ulan Dhor: This is a fun piece, with more sci-fi than the others given the reactivation of ruined technology. The artistic elements are less covert here. There are two embattled groups that literally cannot see another. They signify themselves not with classic blazonry...but by simply by color: Green vs. Grays (vs. Reds)!
6)Guyal of Sfere: Guyal's insatiable search for knowing everything leads him on a quest to speak to the Curator of humankind's knowledge. En route, he partakes as a judge in a beauty pageant; here he meets with the maiden Shierl. They go on to explore sacred ruins, battle a demon who consumes beauty, and look upon the treasure trove of beauty, a sanctuary:
"This is the Museum," said Guyal in a rapt tone. "Here there is no danger...He who dwells in beauty of this sort may never be other than beneficent…"All in all, a recommended read to any sci-fi and fantasy buff, and to any reader who also likes RPGs. Feel welcome to join the discussion (at any time...even if the official group-read time expires):Group-Read Link.
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