Jack Vance’s Dying Earth

I just read The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, in advance of writing the rough draft of my story “The Three Quests of the Wizard Sarnod,” destined (I hope) for the Vance DE antho being edited by Dozois and Martin. I have to admit that I didn’t know what to expect, because I’d only ever read Vance’s Dying Earth stories piecemeal back when I was a teenager. I remembered enjoying them very much back then, but would my reading tastes have changed so drastically that the stories didn’t hold up?

Thankfully, as with my return to writers like Cordwainer Smith and Fritz Leiber, this wasn’t the case. If anything, I think I appreciate the Dying Earth stories more now, and am somewhat gobsmacked to find more resonance between Ambergris and the Dying Earth than I thought. (For example, the Greens, Greys, and Reds in the insanely masterful “Ulan Dhor.”)

What do I mean when I say I appreciate the stories more now? I don’t think I saw the real complexity and cleverness of the stories back then, or the skill Vance has with dialogue. A story like “Guyal of Sfere,” for example, is a wonderful SF-Fantasy quest but it also has an underlying seriousness, and a level of invention throughout, that is matched by the seamless execution stylistically. Vance is a great stylist, who is able to find just the right details to make his stories seem real rather than merely decorative. The dry humor, the counterpoint of an underlying sadness or wistfulness in some of the stories–both moods work to create layers and a great deal of satisfaction for readers.

Re-reading Vance has re-energized me in unexpected ways, and writing “The Three Quests of the Wizard Sarnod” has been an absolute blast. I’m most definitely not writing pastiche, but instead my own riff on the material, taking as my foundation the dual seriousness and humor I find so compelling in his work. The style is my own, but this is not at all jarring, I think, given that he was someone I read while in my formative years as a writer.

As I told Dozois and Martin in an email, I’m happy to be part of the anthology not just because I get to write a Dying Earth story, but because it’s made me rediscover this great writer.


25 comments on “Jack Vance’s Dying Earth

  1. Jess Nevins says:

    I’m relieved–I don’t know how I’d have reacted if you didn’t like Vance now. To me, that would be…unimaginable.

  2. I like The Dying Earth, but my favorite work by Vance dealing with the setting is the more picaresque and cynical “The Eyes of the Overworld”.

    Did you notice much influence of Clark Ashton Smith in The Dying Earth?

  3. I really can’t wait for the Dying Earth anthology. I read Vance’s collection for the first time about three or four years ago, and it was really what brought me back into SF after many years bumming around elsewhere.

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’m not a huge Smith fan, so I’d have to say–no, not really. One’s like reading through sludge and the other has clarity.

    I’m reading The Eyes of the Overworld now and cynical is definitely the word for it. Cugel is a jerk.


  5. Lane says:

    I just so happened to be currently reading the Dying Earth novels, but I forgot all about the anthology. Guess I’ll be ready for it.

    I was thinking of Clark Ashton Smith a lot too. He was the first name that popped in my head when co-workers would ask me about what I was reading. Of course, that didn’t help them much.

  6. Lane says:

    The Smith comparisons are pretty superficial, but Smith did have a Hyperboria story with a character going to another world to talk to a wizard, or something along those lines (it might have been some Cthulhu mythos god), and his Zothique stories deal with a crumbling society eons in the future.

  7. I love that book, have it in a great Lancer paperback edition from 1950.

  8. Paul says:

    Vance was one of the first SF authors I cut my teeth on…and I’ve read a bunch of stuff by him this year. He still holds up for me.

  9. Blue Tyson says:

    The first one is pretty decent, and with a setting like that, no reason to not be ok now. That series deteriorates though, unfortunately.

  10. HK says:

    The first one is a promising student work. The next, Cugel the Clever (aka The Eyes of the Overworld), is excellent mid-Vance, and the rest is Vance at his broad varied peak, on the top of the world. I haven’t read anyone who writes so well, at least in terms of wry wit. For a more rounded picture of Vance’s genius, I would recommend the Lyonesse trilogy, copies of which can be found at editionandreasirle.com … that is the corrected edition. Copies of corrupt ones are available elsewhere, but I can’t recommend them… This trilogy is the only “epic fantasy” that Vance wrote, though it’s of course totally different from what people look for in epic fantasy, and so it never became popular.

    There’s a good introduction to Vance at greatsfandf.com …

  11. “This trilogy is the only “epic fantasy” that Vance wrote, though it’s of course totally different from what people look for in epic fantasy, and so it never became popular.”

    Don’t you think the first book has a somewhat slow and boring beginning? The first few chapters of “The Green Pearl” (legal link) are a real delight, however.

  12. jeff vandermeer says:

    I’m having a hard time figuring out which is “the first book”? Dying Earth? The first Cugel book? What? And can you, if you have time, just delineate here the list of Dying Earth books. I’m not quite sure which one I should be picking up next. (Definitely getting into uncharted territory here, for me, since I’m pretty sure I only ever read Dying Earth and lots of individual Vance stories as a teenager.)


  13. Oops… I should have been clearer. I was replying to HK, and the book I mentioned as having a slow beginning is the first volume of the Lyonesse trilogy: “Suldrun’s Garden”.

    As for the Dying Earth books, apart from “The Dying Earth” itself and “The Eyes of the Overworld”, there is “Cugel’s Saga” (sort of “The Eyes of the Overwold” redux, perhaps not as good) and “Rhialto the Marvellous”, where superpowerful mages pettily scheme against each other while engaging in wodehousian repartee.

    Another good novel by Vance is “Emphyrio”, although the ending feels rushed. It has one of my favorite uses of the “play-within-a-story” motif.

    I’m on the fence about his last two books, “Ports of Call” and “Lurulu” (which should be read as a single novel). The plot feels aimless and many episodes lack punch, but Vance’s language still shines through. In fact, those two books contain some of my favorite Vance passages.

    Finally “Green Magic” is a nice little fantasy story.

  14. HK says:

    No, I don’t think that Vance does anything unnecessary in Suldrun’s Garden (which is the first part of the Lyonesse trilogy). Not every book was meant to start in the middle of an exciting action sequence. In my opinion, Suldrun’s Garden is perfect as it is, and we shouldn’t spoil it for prospective readers by getting into more detail about it. Green Pearl is the second part of the trilogy. In an appropriate contrast to the previous part, it’s a showcase and masterpiece of wry wit, easy to love if you love Vance in general. But the first few chapters of it never seemed to me to be particularly good.

    By the way, here is an interesting stub of a thread about “Ports of Call” & “Lurulu”:


    As a general rule that can be applied to late Vance especially, I would simply trust that Vance knows what he’s doing. (While this doesn’t mean that one has to like it, one might at least try to respect it.)

  15. jeff vandermeer says:

    Thanks for all of this information. Which is to say, I now have a lot more material to read–thanks!

    What I loved about Dying Earth and Overworld is that every five pages or so I kept having great ideas or riffs based on what Vance had written. But also, I love the perspective. Just imagine if someone had written these stories in a realistic mode, a gritty mode. You’d basically have stories about people trying to survive in a very difficult, almost post-apocalyptic setting ruled by capricious wizards and despots–all very grim. But by stepping back a bit, and using that dry, witty style, Vance gets us to find humorous situations that aren’t at all humorous. He also allows us to, if we’re willing, see what’s *beneath* all of the wit–you can really see the Dying Earth as this desperate place; you get that realistic view, underneath all of the rest of it. Which is a great achievement. It’s a bit like the two eye-things Cugel is supposed to steal and bring back to the wizard: just like a person only wearing one of them, you see this world in two entirely different ways.


  16. Jesse says:

    Eyes of the Overworld is easily my favorite of the four Dying Earth books, and while there are shining sequences to be found, overall Cugel’s Saga does have the feel of an author retreading familar ground–not unlike Walter Miller’s sort-of sequal to A Canticle for Leibowitz (only better executed). I found that Vance’s portrayel of Cugel is pitch perfect for an anti-hero: he is indeed a jerk, but if he were a more redeeming sort of person his trials would not be nearly so funny. Furthermore, the majority of the other denizens of the Dying Earth come across as equally ruthless and petty, allowing the reader to root for Cugel by default. As an aside, despite the spelling I always mentally pronounce Cugel as Cudgel, as thats seems to fit better than a noodle dish for his moniker.

    I certainly would argue Clark Ashton Smith had an infleuce on Vance’s Dying Earth, although their styles are/were obviously at odds. Vance, as noted above, writes far more directly to the reader than Smith’s rambling, poetic narratives, and Smith tended to focus on plot more than character, and setting more than either. A compendium of disparities betwen their work could continue on ad nauseam, but an important similarity to my mind exceeds the archetypal fantasy-world-in-collapse settings which both use–the purpose of the main character in the stories. Both authors favor using greedy, low-minded (and in some cases under-developed) protagonists in their tales to an end which is nigh identical.

    Obviously countless authors have the tendancy to portray nasty central characters getting their due, but few can match Vance or Smith in terms of their handling of said characters. I’m not just talking about the perhaps sadistic pleasure one gets from seeing Cugel get himself into a horrible situation and hoping he escapes simply to see what other sort of misery the author can heap upon him, although that certainly plays into it. Specifically, I don’t recall Smith or Vance ever taking a moral highground when detailing the repellant nature of their fictional wards–a crucial aspect to establishing not only the hero or anti-hero’s personality, but to giving the reader a full image and idea of the setting: settings where such individuals strive and on occassion even prosper through their nefarious deeds. Of course there’s always Rhialto and numerous Smith character who don’t fit so neatly into this mold, but both authors do tend to favor self-centered (if not expressly nasty) individuals in a manner which works, while other authors attemepting the same have failed.

    I think the names of locales, creatures, etc. both authors come up with further add to comparisons, but enough on that. I can’t think of any authors who handle wizards and wizardry better than Vance, and even years after reading ther Dying Earth books names, habits and spells of various mages surface unbidden in my memory to give me a chuckle.

    The styler and tone of the Dying Earth is indeed fundamental, the other Vance stuff I waded into wasn’t nearly so wry, and perhaps as a result, failed to capture me the way these stories did. This post has given me some fresh titles to investigate, though, so thanks to all involved.

  17. Hey, Jesse. Good points. I especially like the one about Vance not passing judgment on Cugel. I find this essential to most good fiction–it is usually clear to me when the author is trying to make me feel a certain way about a character because the author also feels that way, and that turns me off.


  18. Mike M says:

    It might be of interest to you to check out Michael Shea’s sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld called A Quest for Simbilis, as until the new collection is out, it’s either the only or one of the only books written in the Dying Earth series not by Vance. While I like later Shea quite a bit, including the very Vance-inspired Nifft the Lean, Simbilis is a good example of a Dying Earth novel without Vance’s singular talent guiding it and would follow up on your post about the way Vance approaches a serious milieu the way he does.

  19. Speaking of nasty Vance characters, let’s remember that he wrote the novel “Bad Ronald”, on which the tv-movie of the same name is based. The original novel is *very* hard to find and looks like an interesting read, I would love to get a copy.

    (warning: spoilers about “The Eyes of the Overworld” in the rest of this comment)

    When reading “Eyes of the Overworld”, I was conflicted I was enjoying it so much. I mean, Cugel is a wretched person, and certainly much worse than many and perhaps even most of the characters he encounters. Derwe Coreme didn’t really deserve her fate. Not to mention that the killing of the sell-creature is the most petty, banal, and pointlessly evil act ever. I got furious at Cugel when I read it!

    For me, one strangely poignant moment of the novel is the mysterious floating city that appears on the coast, instilling melancholy and longing on those who see it. The tone of that episode is somewhat at odds with the rest of the novel, and perhaps it gains force from the contrast.

  20. Jesse says:


    It’s been a few years but is Derwe Coreme the lady in the walking bathtub who Cugel gives to the woodsman in exchange for guidance on the path out of the forest (which turns out to be unneeded)? If not, my take on this example may serve just as well, as I find it indicative both of Cugel’s character and Vance’s handling of the novel in general. If this is indeed the egotistical tub princess, Coreme suffered from the same myopic worldview as most of the other characters, a trait which made them petty if not downright despicable like Cugel. While we never find out exactly what happened to her after Cugel left we naturally assume the worst, and are probably correct–but Vance keeps the focus on Cugel, the one who really has it coming to him.

    Without characters like Coreme (and that poor oyster thing!) the reader would have no one to pity, as we certainly aren’t going to squirt a few on Cugel’s behalf. So I would argue that given the nature of men and monsters (and the thin line seperaring the two) in the Dying Earth, characters like Coreme could have saved themselves by having the sense not to trust anyone–certainly not some shady crook calling himself “the Clever.” Which is not to say I advocate blaming the victim, but simply that without Cugel visciously murdering a charming little creature for getting him wet and laughing at him and so on the reader might, through no fault of their own, feel a bit bad for Cugel when things go sour for him. As it is, and by keeping the focus unswervingly on a nasty but decidedly interesting character, Vance slyly draws the reader in and keeps them hooked in a manner which, as Jeff pointed out, may have been far less succesful had he taken a straight-forward, serious approach to the material.

    Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like a Cugel Apologist, we don’t really know the other characters are any better than Cugel becasue by and large we haven’t seen their behavior in comparable situations. When Cugel is trapped with the other unfortuantes by the rat-things in the woods (one of my favorite scenes), the father of a young girl displays a Cugelian level of selfishness and cruelty–perhaps indicative of the views many on the Dying Earth would share? But yeah, overall, verbal dancing removed–Cugel’s pretty much the worst of the lot.

    Oh, and there’s a copy of “Bad Ronald” on ebay right now, although I imagine the price will climb over the next few days.

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  23. steve andrews says:

    I was going through an incredibly positive phase in my life as a father for the first time in 1981 when I read “The Eyes of the Overworld”. I was gobsmacked, and immediately felt inspired to write some fantasy in the same vein. Big mistake. I worked in a tedious environment for the Post Office in Brighton, UK and though nobody wished to borrow the book from me I had great fun introducing my colleagues to the concept of the Deodand using the medium of mime, gesture and demented voice phrasing. When asked why I was not taking my work more seriously by a supervisor I replied, “I AM A DEODAND! I AM A GRUE, AN ERB OF THE NIGHT!” Six years later they finally gave me the sack.

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