Examining an author’s work over the course of four decades often takes time and some degree of commitment, but the 2000 omnibus of Jack Vance’s stories set in his most popular and influential fictional world, Tales of the Dying Earth (2000), provides us with an array of textures from a long and varied career.
And array, it is. For each one of the four Dying Earth books does something different, and the differences in quality are vast. Among these four installments of fix-ups and restarts, we encounter three versions of Vance.
Vance #1: Vance?
The Dying Earth (1950)
A wunderkammer of sorts, and perhaps the most explicit exploration of Vance’s far future, preapocalyptic world. The sun’s power is waning, with its dying rays permeating the atmosphere with a reddish glare, while twisted, gnarled trees and succulents dominate the lush setting. We meet the amateur sorcerer Turjan, his failed gene-mod experiments, a set of opposite twin women (who kind of have agency!), and some monsters. You get the sense that the stories only exist for the sake of world-building, but it’s worth it when the world is so intriguing. It’s enjoyable, even when every other mystery is “this woman may or may not be a witch,” which provokes a few good-humored eye rolls.
Gene Wolfe has credited Vance with inspiring the setting of The Book of the New Sun, and this particular set of stories most brings to mind the lush decay and disconnect of Severian’s world, though this is clearly just a surface read and nothing like Wolfe’s narrative puzzles. (Though, I really thought Vance was going somewhere with those twin women, but, alas, no.) (I really wanted more of T’sain and T’sais.)
Vance #2: Vance!
The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), (and damn the editor who thought that was a better a title over Vance’s preferred Cugel the Clever, which is a more fitting name.)
Speaking of Severian, here we meet the listless vagabond, Cugel the Clever, which he isn’t. But Vance is. Vance isn’t the most talented or technical author, but he manages a clever trick by invoking reader responsiveness to his amoral fuckup protagonist. Cugel is a criminal, a liar, a lazy twit. More like Cugel the Crooked and Possibly Deluded.
Finally a fantasy story that doesn’t take itself too seriously! When Cugel abandons damsels to distress, when his trickery backfires, when he turns tail and flees the story at the climax, we see Vance’s true colors shine through. Those trite, annoying traits of fantasy fiction are lampooned here: the chivalry, the bravery, the moral superiority, those delineated lines of good and evil… it’s all exaggerated and flimsy to the point of ridicule. And better yet, despite all of Cugel’s shortcomings, you’ll cheer when he finally gets laid (if only for a little bit, because that will backfire, too).
This is comedy gold. And even better, it’s deadpanned the whole time. No authorial elbow nudges here.
If you only read one Vance selection, make sure it’s this one.
Vance #2.5: More Vance!
Cugel’s Saga (1983)
More of our dim antihero’s hapless adventures. Some parts published previously, but less of a fix-up than the previous two books, however, you get the sense that Vance is merely grasping to reclaim the past. More successful than not, but it doesn’t quite have the magic of the previous book.
And it rings a bit disingenuous. Cugel’s wit is a bit quicker. His ideas… just might work (even if he does kidnap a family of women and rape them). And that happy ending? Sorry, I prefer to see Cugel fall flat on his face.
Still good for those who miss fantasy’s favorite dimwit.
Vance #3: Vance.
Rhialto the Marvellous (1984)
Speaking of grasping. When the fans clamor for more, you must give in, right?
With Cugel’s story over, we meet Rhialto, a suave and intelligent foil to his idiot band of wizards. Lots of old dudes drinking and arguing in this one, which reminds me a bit of Leiber’s Ffhard and Gray Mouser tales. Ugh.
Along with his characters, Vance may have imbibed a bit too much while writing this one. Go home, Vance, you’re drunk.
One thing that remains consistent throughout all four story collections is the humorous use of stilted, archaic dialogue. Much anti-contractionism:
“Have no fear,” declared Cugel. “My word is my bond.”
“Excellent!” cried Iucounu. “This knowledge represents a basic security which I do not in the least take lightly. The act now to be performed is doubtless supererogatory. (p. 140)
Cugel frowned and tapped his chin. “Your question is more profound than it might seem, and verges into the ancient analyses of the Ideal versus the Real.”
Faucelme sighed. “Tonight I have no zest for philosophy. You may answer my question in terms which proximate the Real.”
“In all candour, I have forgotten the question,” said Cugel. (p. 435).
As you can see, that stiltedness heightens the humor. This kind of talk had me in fits of giggles. Even better, as was pointed out to me on Goodreads, the character names grow in absurdity over time: Ioucounu, Pharesm, Weamish, Hache-Moncour, Dulce-Lolo (Dulce-Losers Only Live Once, as I prefer to call him), as if to drive home the point that this is not to be taken seriously.
Also, after finally looking up the definition of the mysterious “IOUN stones,” I discovered that this inspired a lot of Dungeons & Dragons terminology. So that seems important, although I still don’t know what “IOUN stones” are.
Recommended for fantasy lovers. Recommended for fantasy haters. Particularly those middle Cugel stories. (Which is how I was advised by very reliable blog buddies, but since when have I ever taken advice?)
Next week: Sure, cuckoos are evil homewreckers, but enough with the inexact metaphor battery.