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The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
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The Dying Earth (1950)

by Jack Vance

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Dying Earth (1)

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ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

The Dying Earth is the first of Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth and contains six somewhat overlapping stories all set in the future when the sun is red and dim, much technology has been lost, and most of humanity has died out. Our planet is so unrecognizable that it might as well be another world, and evil has been "distilled" so that it's concentrated in Earth's remaining inhabitants.

But it's easy to forget that a failing planet is the setting for the Dying Earth stories, for they are neither depressing nor bleak, and they're not really about the doom of the Earth. These stories are whimsical and weird and they focus more on the strange people who remain and the strange things they do. Magicians, wizards, witches, beautiful maidens, damsels in distress, seekers of knowledge, and vain princes strive to outwit each other for their own advantage.

What appeals to me most is that The Tales of the Dying Earth are about how things could possibly be in an alternate reality. All speculative fiction does that, of course, but Jack Vance just happens to hit on the particular things that I find most fascinating to speculate about: neuroscience, psychology, sensation, and perception. These are subjects I study and teach every day, so I think about them a lot. One thing I love to consider, which happens to be a common theme in Vance’s work, is how we might experience life differently if our sensory systems were altered just a bit. I find myself occasionally asking my students questions like "what would it be like if we had retinal receptors that could visualize electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum?" (So bizarre to consider, and yet so possible!) They look at me like I'm nuts, but I'm certain that Jack Vance would love to talk about that possibility. And even though The Dying Earth was first published in 1950, it doesn’t feel dated at all — it can still charm a neuroscientist 60 years later. This is because his setting feels medieval; technology has been forgotten. Thus, it doesn’t matter that there were no cell phones or Internet when Vance wrote The Dying Earth.

I also love the constant juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the sublimely intelligent. Like Monty Python, Willy Wonka, and Alice in Wonderland. [Aside: This makes me wonder how Johnny Depp would do at portraying a Jack Vance character…] Some of the scenes that involve eyeballs and brains and pickled homunculi make me think of SpongeBob Squarepants — the most obnoxious show on television, yet somehow brilliant. (Jack Vance probably wouldn't appreciate that I've compared his literature to SpongeBob Squarepants. Or maybe he would!)

Lastly, I love Jack Vance’s “high language” (that’s what he called it), which is consistent and never feels forced. This style contributes greatly to the humor that pervades his work — understatement, irony, illogic, and non sequiturs are used to make fun of human behavior, and I find this outrageously funny. As just one example, in one story, Guyal has been tricked into breaking a silly and arbitrary sacred law in the land he’s traveling through:

“The entire episode is mockery!” raged Guyal. “Are you savages, then, thus to mistreat a lone wayfarer?”

“By no means,” replied the Castellan. “We are a highly civilized people, with customs bequeathed us by the past. Since the past was more glorious than the present, what presumption we would show by questioning these laws!”

Guyal fell quiet. “And what are the usual penalties for my act?”…

“You are indeed fortunate,” said the Saponid, “in that, as a witness, I was able to suggest your delinquencies to be more the result of negligence than malice. The last penalties exacted for the crime were stringent; the felon was ordered to perform the following three acts: first, to cut off his toes and sew the severed members into the skin at his neck; second, to revile his forbears for three hours, commencing with a Common Bill of Anathema, including feigned madness and hereditary disease, and at last defiling the hearth of his clan with ordure; and third, walking a mile under the lake with leaded shoes in search of the Lost Book of Kells.” And the Castellan regarded Guyal with complacency.

“What deeds must I perform?” inquired Guyal drily.


If you want to find out what three deeds Guyal had to perform, you’ll have to get the book!

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of The Dying Earth and the reader, Arthur Morey, was perfect. He really highlighted the humorous element of Vance’s work. It was a terrific production and I’m now enjoying the second Dying Earth audiobook (which is even better than this first one!). By the way, I want to say that I’m extremely pleased with Brilliance Audio for publishing these stories!

Jack Vance is my favorite fantasy author. His work probably won’t appeal to the Twilighters, but for those who enjoy Pythonesque surreal humor written in high style, or for fans of Lewis Carroll, Fritz Leiber, and L. Frank Baum, I suggest giving Jack Vance a try. If you listen to audiobooks, definitely try Brilliance Audio’s version! ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

The Dying Earth is the first of Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth and contains six somewhat overlapping stories all set in the future when the sun is red and dim, much technology has been lost, and most of humanity has died out. Our planet is so unrecognizable that it might as well be another world, and evil has been "distilled" so that it's concentrated in Earth's remaining inhabitants.

But it's easy to forget that a failing planet is the setting for the Dying Earth stories, for they are neither depressing nor bleak, and they're not really about the doom of the Earth. These stories are whimsical and weird and they focus more on the strange people who remain and the strange things they do. Magicians, wizards, witches, beautiful maidens, damsels in distress, seekers of knowledge, and vain princes strive to outwit each other for their own advantage.

What appeals to me most is that The Tales of the Dying Earth are about how things could possibly be in an alternate reality. All speculative fiction does that, of course, but Jack Vance just happens to hit on the particular things that I find most fascinating to speculate about: neuroscience, psychology, sensation, and perception. These are subjects I study and teach every day, so I think about them a lot. One thing I love to consider, which happens to be a common theme in Vance’s work, is how we might experience life differently if our sensory systems were altered just a bit. I find myself occasionally asking my students questions like "what would it be like if we had retinal receptors that could visualize electromagnetic waves outside of the visible spectrum?" (So bizarre to consider, and yet so possible!) They look at me like I'm nuts, but I'm certain that Jack Vance would love to talk about that possibility. And even though The Dying Earth was first published in 1950, it doesn’t feel dated at all — it can still charm a neuroscientist 60 years later. This is because his setting feels medieval; technology has been forgotten. Thus, it doesn’t matter that there were no cell phones or Internet when Vance wrote The Dying Earth.

I also love the constant juxtaposition of the ludicrous and the sublimely intelligent. Like Monty Python, Willy Wonka, and Alice in Wonderland. [Aside: This makes me wonder how Johnny Depp would do at portraying a Jack Vance character…] Some of the scenes that involve eyeballs and brains and pickled homunculi make me think of SpongeBob Squarepants — the most obnoxious show on television, yet somehow brilliant. (Jack Vance probably wouldn't appreciate that I've compared his literature to SpongeBob Squarepants. Or maybe he would!)

Lastly, I love Jack Vance’s “high language” (that’s what he called it), which is consistent and never feels forced. This style contributes greatly to the humor that pervades his work — understatement, irony, illogic, and non sequiturs are used to make fun of human behavior, and I find this outrageously funny. As just one example, in one story, Guyal has been tricked into breaking a silly and arbitrary sacred law in the land he’s traveling through:

“The entire episode is mockery!” raged Guyal. “Are you savages, then, thus to mistreat a lone wayfarer?”

“By no means,” replied the Castellan. “We are a highly civilized people, with customs bequeathed us by the past. Since the past was more glorious than the present, what presumption we would show by questioning these laws!”

Guyal fell quiet. “And what are the usual penalties for my act?”…

“You are indeed fortunate,” said the Saponid, “in that, as a witness, I was able to suggest your delinquencies to be more the result of negligence than malice. The last penalties exacted for the crime were stringent; the felon was ordered to perform the following three acts: first, to cut off his toes and sew the severed members into the skin at his neck; second, to revile his forbears for three hours, commencing with a Common Bill of Anathema, including feigned madness and hereditary disease, and at last defiling the hearth of his clan with ordure; and third, walking a mile under the lake with leaded shoes in search of the Lost Book of Kells.” And the Castellan regarded Guyal with complacency.

“What deeds must I perform?” inquired Guyal drily.


If you want to find out what three deeds Guyal had to perform, you’ll have to get the book!

I listened to Brilliance Audio’s production of The Dying Earth and the reader, Arthur Morey, was perfect. He really highlighted the humorous element of Vance’s work. It was a terrific production and I’m now enjoying the second Dying Earth audiobook (which is even better than this first one!). By the way, I want to say that I’m extremely pleased with Brilliance Audio for publishing these stories!

Jack Vance is my favorite fantasy author. His work probably won’t appeal to the Twilighters, but for those who enjoy Pythonesque surreal humor written in high style, or for fans of Lewis Carroll, Fritz Leiber, and L. Frank Baum, I suggest giving Jack Vance a try. If you listen to audiobooks, definitely try Brilliance Audio’s version! ( )
  Kat_Hooper | Apr 6, 2014 |
What a ' role playing games ' should always have looked like

Merged review:

In the future - everyone is a complete paranoid asshole nutcase ( )
  BakuDreamer | Sep 7, 2013 |
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), many are reflecting on his work this Summer: 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)).
The Dying Earth The Eyes of the Overworld Cugel's Saga Rhialto The Marvellous

Codifying Magic - Role Playing Game (RPG)s: Tolkien maybe credited for inspiring "fellowships" of Dwarves, Elves, and Humans to go adventuring (a key trope for RPGs), but his magic-system was never codified well. Some ontology, or approach to classifying, was also needed ...and already provided, actually. Before "Lord of The Rings", Vance delivered The Dying Earth, and seems responsible for providing RPG-franchises with the needed approach: captivating brand names. Vance's Items and Spell titles simply exhibit self-evident credibility : Magic Items such as Expansible Egg, Scintillant Dagger, and Live Boots...and Spells such as Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, Call to the Violent Cloud, Charm of Untiring Nourishment. Three decades after The Dying Earth was published, the broader fantasy culture apparently caught on to the branding of spells and magic items (i.e. 1980's Dungeons & Dragons… or even magic-based card games like Pokemon, etc.).

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 Magician

The 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 Magician

Beauty 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?"

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

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):

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."

"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."

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).

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. ( )
1 vote SELindberg | Jul 12, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jack Vanceprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Barr, GeorgeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Emshwiller, EdCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Foss, ChrisCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hildebrandt, GregCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hildebrandt, TimCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Poyser, VictoriaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, GeoffCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0583120911, Paperback)

The setting is in an age millions of years into the future of Earth, decades before the Sun goes Red Dwarf to wipe us all out. Humanity is almost extinct, and in an age where science and sorcery are interchangeable, powerful wizards try to recreate people using alchemy and chemical cloning vats. Most of their experiments create short-lived monsters. After one experiment fails spectacularly, a leading mage summons aid from another, for which he has to perform various near impossible magical tasks. This other magus has already failed to create a perfect woman, leaving his creation free to wander the World, though she is incapable of seeing or understanding what is beautiful. She tries to destroy every living thing, flowers and wizards alike. Together, the magicians, one of who is never seen by the other, create a twin of the hate-filled woman, and she is perfectly formed. She is even able to subdue her sister-clone's passion for destruction. T'sais, the woman filled with hate, embarks on a quest to find love and beauty in he dying World, finding both love and hate on her quest. In another thread, a wayfarer, who rashly tries to use it to gain a woman's love, finds a powerful amulet carelessly discarded by one of the magicians. He finds himself pursed relentlessly by the unstoppable and terrifying, if aptly named Chun The Unavoidable. Two other characters embark on a quest to find a library that holds the sum of all human knowledge, a place guarded and threatened by demonic ghosts. They find themselves assigned to protect it until the end of the World, which they know to be soon, but they value the work well enough to standby their duty.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:16 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Travel into the future: to an Earth with a dwindling red sun that meekly fills a dark blue sky; an Earth that is on the brink of dying out; an Earth where science and magic mean the same thing; an Earth populated with vibrant, interesting people and creatures that are unaware of the fate their planet has in store for them.… (more)

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