J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Dying Earth

The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
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bookshelves: fantasy, novel, reviewed, dying-earth
Read from June 12 to 16, 2012

Strange to think that this was the series that inspired Martin and Wolfe in their fantasy endeavors. Going from their gritty, mirthless rehashes of standard fantasy badassery to Vance's wild, ironic, flowery style was jarring--going directly from Anderson's grim, tragic Broken Sword to this was tonal whiplash.

At first I didn't know what to make of it: the lurid, purple prose, the silly characters, the story which jumped from idea to idea with abandon. I mistook it at once for the unbridled pulp style of early century genre authors like A. Merrit or Van Vogt, but soon it became clear that there was something more complex at work.

Vance is rushing from one idea to the next, heedless of contradiction or pace, but it is not merely an unbridled mind on a romp. It is a style recognizable to any scholar of Fairy Tales, or of the Thousand and One Nights, where absurd characters and situations are paraded before the reader as wry commentaries--subversions of social mores and preconceptions. Vance's characters are not psychological studies, not realistic, but archetypal and foolish, traipsing from one peril to the next and then back out again, in the vein of Lewis Carroll.

Yet Vance is not as wild as Carroll or Peake, not as unpredictable or insightful. He has some shining moments, but I did not find that they entirely excused the broken pacing and shallow characters. The tongue-in-cheek reversals were simply not constant enough to make the world suitably subversive.

Yet there still remains an original voice and vision here which has been very influential--though not always fruitfully. As someone who grew up in basements playing old Dungeons & Dragons modules (and even designed a parody of them), it became immediately clear to me where Gygax had taken his inspiration. From the endless series of strange wizards vying for power to the nonsensical dungeons where one might face a giant demon head, a talking crayfish, an Aztec vampire, and an evil chest one after the next, I was immediately stricken with an uncomfortable nostalgia.

Yet Gygax--like Wolfe and Martin--was unable to reproduce any of the wit or joy of Vance's creation, though whether they didn't recognize it or were merely incapable of recreating it I cannot say. In any case, I find it disappointing that so few authors have tried to mimick the sheer, ironic pleasure with which Vance comported himself. I know Pratchett tried to do something similar in his work, but sadly, I've never found his writing funny.

Then again, many fantasy authors are desperate to prove themselves 'mature authors in a mature genre', but as C.S. Lewis knew, the rejection of childlike mirth is the sign of adolescence, not adulthood.

Somewhat problematic in Vance's work, though not as bad as many later genre authors, is the secondary roles he gives to women. It seemed particularly glaring at first, since it opens with male wizards creating and chasing around beautiful, naive women, and the only strong woman is an aberrant creation who is easily talked down and made to change her mind. Yet the men are also often fools and simply swayed, as is the nature of a Fairy Tale, so there is some more equality there.

Beyond that, the descriptions of men versus women are often treated differently, with women being described physically and in terms of their beauty and while a man is rarely described as a physical presence at all. This is only Class I gender inequality, and nearly ubiquitous in genre writers, but a part of me hoped that Vance might let his unfettered exploration of concepts spill over and subvert the characterization of women, but it was not to be.

In many ways, Vance can be seen to represent a middle ground between the unhinged visions of Carroll and Peake and the more straightforward authors of the genre, but as it went on, I began to wish that Vance would distinguish his work more--either by making it more wild and hallucinogenic, or by making it more structured and purposeful. As it was, I felt he too often inhabited a middle ground which was easily muddied by imprecision.

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Comments (showing 1-29 of 29) (29 new)

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message 1: by Momentai (new)

Momentai i hear this is where people kind of took what he did with magic and incorporated into their own works.


J.G. Keely Yeah, it's definitely had an influence on the genre.


Jean-marcel I'm glad you reviewed this. Are you planning to tackle the Cugel books, which belong in the same universe, as well? I promise that they're a good deal funnier, though I'm not certain you'll be any more impressed with the characterisation.


J.G. Keely I might, though I think I'll check out Lyonesse first.


Jean-marcel Keely wrote: "I might, though I think I'll check out Lyonesse first."


Not a bad idea, but I must warn you that the third Lyonesse/Elder Isle book, though written with style and spirit, is rather disappointing.


J.G. Keely Thanks for the heads-up.


message 7: by agata (new) - added it

agata I really enjoy your very thoghtful reviews and despite the criticism you express here I feel strangely drawn to the book after reading your review. Especially to the 'wild, ironic, flowery' parts and your emphasis on joy and pleasure in the book.
The whole thing sounds kind of Sword&Sworcery to me. If so, how would you compare it to Howard's Conan?


J.G. Keely It's much less serious. There is a lot of humor and irony in Howard's Conan stories, but Vance takes his whole world lightly. Vance also doesn't have any of the psychological portraits Conan has, or the politics. The stories are driven by what is fanciful and mystical, not by the desires and disappointments of the characters. that isn't to say his characters don't have motivations, but they don't arise from their personalities.


Jean-marcel If you're looking for more psychological Vance that takes itself with a lot more gravity, yet still employs the same dry, ironic wit, The Demon Princes or Derdaine books are a good bet...

I think the Dying Earth was basically Vance's excuse to go all wild and dreamy and, as you said, fanciful. He pulled out all the stops basically and just let the story fly. The Cugel books deal with a single protagonist and are sometimes uproariously funny, but are told in the same devil-may-care way as the first Dying Earth book.


J.G. Keely Cool, thanks for the suggestions.


message 11: by Rob (last edited Jun 20, 2012 02:34PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rob What impresses me about Vance is his protean imagination. In a page, or even a paragraph, he'll toss out a ruined city, a nomadic culture, or a fairy pagaent that has more startling inventiveness and colour than the entire novel or series of novels by a conventional fantasy author. This is fantasy, fabulous and intoxicating, not warmed-over Tolkien or Arthurian melodrama.

And I don't find his writing goofy at all; shadows coil under the glittering surface. His worlds have a haunted feel, like an overgrown courtyard behind a fin de siecle Vienna cafe. The future evoked in the Dying Earth is so exhausted and decadent that it has the sinister beauty of a fairy-tale. In Vance's stories trolls eat children, warlocks fornicate with witches, and kings sacrifice daughters to preserve their thrones. Vance recognizes that extreme savagery is perfectly compatible with extreme sophistication.

To be sure, his characterizations are neither deep nor profound. One speaks much like the other. Motives are rarely more nuanced than self-preservation or revenge. And with regards to female characters, he's a product of his time and the pulp genre (his earliest works were written in the 40s).

Ultimately, your reaction to Vance will depend on whether you enjoy his wry, arch, absurdly eloquent voice (particularly the dialog). For some, it's an unrivalled pleasure. I often laugh out loud reading Vance. But it's a matter of personal taste, like dark, bitter chocolate, or tawny port.


J.G. Keely "This is fantasy, fabulous and intoxicating, not warmed-over Tolkien or Arthurian melodrama."

Agreed, and I enjoyed the many small moments of depth that made up his world, but as I said, I've seen the same sort of moments from other genre authors: Van Vogt, Merritt, Leiber, Howard, Peake, Dunsany, &c. Vance's imagination shone more brightly than some, and less than others.

Certainly, it's better than some cliche melodrama, but that's not very high praise.

"Vance recognizes that extreme savagery is perfectly compatible with extreme sophistication . . . his characterizations are neither deep nor profound."

I chalk up both of these to the Fairy Tale style of the stories, which were often gritty and used characters of archetypal simplicity. I only wish that he had gone further on this tack, from coy to uproarious. Wry humor is fine in a complex, psychological piece, but a broader piece is well served by wilder gambles.

"I don't find his writing goofy at all . . . it has the sinister beauty of a fairy-tale."

I guess it was hard for me to see that darkness, coming right off of the Broken Sword, which is one of the most haunting, tragic, and brutal fairy tales I've ever read. I might also compare it to Dunsany, who takes his otherworldly magic to a similarly unsettling place.

After the arch machinations of Dunsany and the grinding dirge of Anderson, Vance's colorful, verbose style felt more like purple pulp than fey malice. Not that bright, bubbling language cannot be menacing--as Carroll demonstrated--but I did not see the same linguistic precision of tone in Vance.

"it's a matter of personal taste"

Oh, don't bring out that old chestnut--matters of personal taste are the only things worth discussing. If it were an objective certainty, there'd be nothing further to say.


Jean-marcel Dying Earth was my first adventure with Vance, and I love it unreservedly. But there are Vance fans who don't care for it as much, preferring his more mystery-oriented tales and so on. So, while he maintains a similar level of eloquence throughout his ouevre, I suppose I would say that you certainly shouldn't judge him by this book alone.


J.G. Keely Ah, certainly not. And doubtless, reading through his other works will help me to better understand this one.


message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Did the magic in The Dying Earth leave any impression on you?


J.G. Keely Yeah, it's certainly unusual, but I guess so much of it has filtered into Dungeons & Dragons (and by extension, all modern fantasy videogames), so it is one of those instances where it can be hard to separate the original influence from the innumerable followers.


message 17: by [deleted user] (last edited Mar 25, 2013 12:19PM) (new)

That's a shame. But I always thought Dungeons & Dragons invented a different concept of expendable magic like mana where the source would dwindle over a period of time, whereas The Dying Earth relied on spells, which would expunge from memory after use. I guess both are sort of similar in the sense that they are limited.


J.G. Keely Actually, D&D uses an expendable, spells per day system, not a mana system. Mana didn't develop until years later, with JRPGs, the World of Darkness games, and Magic Cards. Indeed, even today, the modern version of D&D uses powers which are usable a certain number of times per day (or in 4th Edition, per encounter)--a system still known as 'Vancian Magic'.


Kuro_no I think the stories' pacing is neither wild or all over the place, they are just that single stories that comprise a book. As for the tone, I disagree, I think it is as much dark as it is mystical and not so silly as you describe (ok the characters and situations are silly but the ideas behind them and the stories themselves are more "serious").

Vance was the kind of author who would talk about themes such as cloning in a fantasy/sci-fi book in the 50's and I don't imagine many would have the courage/motivation to do that. That said the stories are flawed and they are indeed not character driven but bear in mind that was written in the tone of the times(regarding what you've sent about female characters) and not so different than other fantasy/sci-fi authors, like Moorckock, Herbert and others.

I am a big fan of the post-apocalyptic genre so I like Vance's stories. I am not sure about the Dunsany influences but he's certany influenced by Clark Asthon Smith, my favourite author of dark and post-apocalyptic fantasy, which I recomend for you to read. He has a nice sense of dark/satyrical humor in his works. And given what I've read from you about Peake, I believe you will enjoy Smith as well.


ThreefoldBurly Great review. Very much in tone with my own thoughts on The Dying Earth but much more eloquently stated. The point I'd care to disagree would be the portrayal of women. For me for a change finding it lacking any feminist undertones was deeply refreshing.


J.G. Keely Threefold Burly said: "The point I'd care to disagree would be the portrayal of women. For me for a change finding it lacking any feminist undertones was deeply refreshing."

So then, you're not actually disagreeing with my assertion that the female characters are flat and secondary, you're just saying that you prefer them that way. I'd say flat characters are always a shortcoming, in any story--and when an author has written an entire class of people as flat, that's even worse. After all, the main skill of being an author is understanding and representing different sorts of people in your stories.


ThreefoldBurly you're not actually disagreeing with my assertion that the female characters are flat and secondary, you're just saying that you prefer them that way

Prefer them that way? Which sane man prefers them that way? I'd choose a well-rounded woman over a flat one pretty much anytime.


J.G. Keely ThreefoldBurly said: "I'd choose a well-rounded woman over a flat one pretty much anytime."

My mistake then, and glad to hear it.


Denny Dying Earth was written in the 1940's.Lyonesse 1983. Hopefully any authors craft would improve in that span, as did Vance's.


message 25: by Simon (new)

Simon J.G. Keely wrote: "ThreefoldBurly said: "I'd choose a well-rounded woman over a flat one pretty much anytime."

My mistake then, and glad to hear it."


Uh... I think you just missed a joke...


J.G. Keely Simon said: "Uh... I think you just missed a joke... "

I know, but it wasn't a very interesting one, so I decided to ignore it and pretend I was having a better conversation.

Denny said: "Hopefully any authors craft would improve in that span, as did Vance's."

And yet, many don't--I've seen a lot of authors who lose their verve, or who get stuck in a particular, repetitive mode as their careers progress. I think of both Fritz Leiber and R.E. Howard as examples of authors whose earlier stories, while rougher in form, contained much more power, character, and charm than their later works.


message 27: by Simon (new)

Simon J.G. Keely wrote: "Simon said: "Uh... I think you just missed a joke... "

I know, but it wasn't a very interesting one, so I decided to ignore it and pretend I was having a better conversation."


Well, that's certainly one way to keep a debate on track :D.


Kuro_no Well, I would disagree about the comments that the female characters are flat. In the first story in particular the female protagonist is a clone and the way her personality develops (or doesn't develop depending on your view) would be pretty acceptable. Bear in mind that these are stories written in the 50s -60s and no author (let alone a writter of fantasy or SF) would tackle on such a theme such as cloning.

As for the prose I would guess it's just a by product of the time that's written. Therefore it it would also make sense for some of the characters to talk the way the do and act the way they act. Personally I find quiet refreshing for T'sais, for example, to be convinced and change her mind as she is a newly created clone and I find the way she is convinced a sort of optimistic message--even when the world is dying you can have a choice and could do the ethical choice--and more relevant now half a century later.


J.G. Keely "these are stories written in the 50s -60s and no author (let alone a writter of fantasy or SF) would tackle on such a theme such as cloning."

Eh, Van Vogt was writing stories about the technological replication of humans in the late 40's, and authors like Anderson and Pratt were doing it in the 50's. Likewise, the idea of the doppelganger or changeling, as it occurs in fantasy, has been around for centuries.

"it's just a by product of the time ... for some of the characters to talk the way the do and act the way they act"

Eh, I find that to be a cheap excuse--if Shakespeare and Greek dramatists were writing interesting, layered female characters centuries ago, you can't really say that 50's writers didn't know any better.


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