The Dying Earth (Book Review)
Sci-Fi With A Touch Of Technical Problems
I just finished reading “The Dying Earth” by Jack Vance and I have to say that it’s probably one of the best fantasy or sci-fi fantasy stories I have ever read. What makes it special for me is the creativity with the magic and the universe. Vancian Magic and all of its relics are very interesting stuff to catalogue, the beautifully crafted world (and the beings who live in it) which could have only come from a great imaginator, and let’s not forget the characters - from the curious Turjan, the soul searching Tsais, malevolent Mazirian, to that asshole Liam and the ultra-scary Chun the Unavoidable. There’s no objectivism in Jack Vance’s characters; all of them have their uniqueness, and are given their appropriate rewards/punishments for showing such personalities.
A series of related but distinct tales from an unusual, unpredictable future world. Vance has some rich descriptive language that meshes well with the story structures of the dark ages and the unique combination of seemingly textbook fantasy and post-apocalyptic science-fiction. Feels a lot more like reading myths and legends than reading typical fantasy or science-fiction.
There seems to be some progression within the stories, and I wonder if they were written in order. As the collection continues, it seems to find its feet a little, or perhaps lose them -- Chapters 1,2 and 3 cohere together as if Vance was considering a novel, but 4 breaks continuity (Liane dies twice) and departs from familiar characters. Chapter 5 was the real sit-up moment for me, a parable on expecting people to change with a lot of potential for reinterpretation. The final story is great, but does seem to leave the reader on a cliff -- thankfully I have the other volumes already.
The first set of six stories is loosely tied together by recurring characters and a common geographical location.
1. Turjan of Mir - is a mix of science and magic, crossing over effortlessly between the tropes of SF and fantasy, a trend that will continue in later stories. Turjan is a magician, hoarding the last known spells preserved from the vast knowledge of his forebears. He also dabbles in genetics, using a cloning vat to try to grow up human beings. In a move that predates the rules of Dungeons & Dragons role playing games, he can only store up to four spells at a time in his mind, learned from books and forgotten after use. In a move that prefaces the psychedelic mind blowing trips of the 1960's, he sets out on a quest to find the greatest magician of his time, Pandelune, who lives in a hidden many-coloured realm of vermillion skies and turquoise forests. There he meets T'sais - a fiery amazon whose mind cannot differentiate between good and evil, beauty and ugliness. Pandelune sends him on another quest for a priceless magical artefact and Turjan has to use both his sword and his sorcerous spells. All of this in just the first short story, delivered in flawless prose.
2. Mazirian the Magician - is an even more powerful sorcerer than Turjan, capable of holding six spells in his mind instead of four, questing after the same secret genetic recipes. His garden is another place of wonder, on the edge of a dark and foreboding forest, home to monsters and dangerous places and to one secretive amazon who taunts Mazirian daily by coming close and then evading his spells and escaping back into the trees. An epic chase between the two will satisfy the most ardent action movie junkie.
3. T'sais - is the twisted amazon from the first story, who leaves the safe haven of Pandelune's realm and comes to Earth to learn about love and self-control. She comes across another tormented soul, a man cursed by his own wife to wear the face of a demon. The highlight of the story is a Walpurgis night the two are witnessing, a macabre festival of witches, demons and lubricity.
4. Liane the Wayfarer - is an evil trickster, the prototype of the thief from the above mentioned Dungeons & Dragons lore, a sharp dresser in primary colours, a smooth talker always with a knife behind his back. He is not immune to love though, and when he meets the witch Lith he sets out on yet another quest in order to gain her attention. Among the wonders we see is the white city of Kaiin, where sorcerers gather at an inn to decry the sorrowful state of their art and daze each other with minor feats of magic. Later Liane explores a ruined temple and meets Chum the Unavoidable, the avatar of Death.
5. Ulan Dhor - is a young sorcerer apprentice (notice the presence of magic in every story) who is sent to recover the greatest magic spell from a distant island. The spell is written on two stone tablets, each controlled by a fanatical religious sect. A lucid and bleak analysis of intransigence and brain washing is coupled with a high octane chase across the skyscrapers dotting the island and with a possible romance for Ulan. This fifth story has the most overt scientific references (anti-gravity, airplanes, nanotechnology) in a post-apocalyptic setting. It reminded me a lot of the Robert E Howard pulps.
6. Guyal of Sfere - closes the collection and is my favorite in a difficult to decide contest, where each story tries for the top spot. It is also the most archetypal, mythical, timeless concept : a young man's journey in search of wisdom. He caparisoned the horse, honed the dagger, cast a last glance around the old manse at Sfere, and set forth to the north, with the void in his mind athrob for the soothing pressure of knowledge. Guyal is a defective human being in the eyes of most of his contemporaries. Instead of accepting the inevitable doom with resignation and epicurean lassitude, he is constantly asking questions : Why this? Why that? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What is there to find beyond the horizon?
While it was an amazing story, the technical aspects of the book is... subpar. I have both the Timescape paperback, epub and mobi, and across every versions, some of the typos, grammar problems, and errors have been consistent. There are missing periods and quotation marks, some weird wordings, and some obvious typos (“Strangely, be did not take the flute from his mouth”). I have showed this to my literary friends and they said that those errors were probably because, back then, writers had to write hastily to reach deadlines and quotas, especially for pulp magazines of which Jack Vance wrote his stories in.
Hence why, while I love The Dying Earth as a great novel, some people who aren’t fond of consistent errors might not like the book. One thing is for certain though is that the Dying Earth is a clear example that a book can be good without the need to be overly tidy. We have to admit that some games have their glitches and yet give us the fun that we wanted. But how far can a book get away with technical problems? What is the percentage that we can follow? Hell, I would even say that I have read some indie books that were better edited than it. How about you guys? Have you ever loved a book because of its great story even with its problems in terms of writing and technical errors?
Overall, I give it a 4 out of 5.
About the Creator
Self-acclaimed connoisseur of the literary arts. Famed warlord in the wars against typos. Lover of the sweet books and magnificent prints. TL;DR I'm a book nerd and editor :D
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