Tales of the Dying Earth


I should have known that things would go wrong at some point. It was to be expected. . . Losing a wager had never been this enjoyable, though I had to live with the fact that the Giants not only beat the Cowboys, but they added insult to injury by winning the Super Bowl. Early on, I was aware that I couldn't possibly like every book George R. R. Martin got to choose for me to review for losing that NFL bet. But I enjoyed both S. L. Farrell and Melinda Snodgrass' works, and I figured I couldn't go wrong with Jack Vance. After all, the Dying Earth novels are genre classics. The whole point of GRRM selecting books for me to read was to give exposure to older works which no longer get an opportunity to be in the limelight.

Unfortunately, the four volumes that comprise the omnibus Tales of the Dying Earth failed to do it for me on basically every level. A bet's a bet, and I always pay my debts. Otherwise, I would have quit midway through the second book, The Eyes of the Overworld. By the time I reached Cugel's Saga, I had lost all hope. It took everything I had in me just to finish the omnibus, and at some point I considered asking Martin to choose something else for me to read. Still, I'm a trooper and I pulled through. The last time I encountered a work so hard to finish was when I read David Bilsborough's The Wanderer's Tale. . .

Adam Whitehead recently did a spotlight on Jack Vance on his blog. I'll quote his outlines of the four Dying Earth volumes, for they are much better than anything I could ever hope to come up with:

The Dying Earth itself is a collection of six short stories, but these are connected by an interesting writing device. Each story focuses on a central character who meets the central figure of the subsequent story in his own adventure, so the narrative is passed almost like a baton to the next character. So the book opens with Turjan, a wizard of some power, encountering the artificial construct T'sais. In the next story he is imprisoned by the wizard Mazirian, who is defeated in turn by T'sain, T'sais' brother. Then the narrative switches to T'sais' adventures. And so on. It's an interesting device for a short story collection and the stories are bound closely together because of it. However, The Dying Earth's success is in its atmospheric depiction of a far-future, dying world under a shrunken red sun. The stories themselves are interesting, but not as compelling as the later books.

The Eyes of the Overworld introduces Cugel the Clever, a rogue and scoundrel always on the look-out for a profit. He is manipulated by a dubious rival, Fianosther, into attempting to rob the manse of Iucounu the Laughing Magician, who discovers this attempt and is not impressed. He offers Cugel a choice between being entombed 45 miles below the Earth's surface, or journeying to remote lands to seek a mystical 'eye of the overworld'. Cugel is thus exiled to the far ends of the world to seek the artifact and has to return home, having numerous adventures along the way. It's Cugel's constant misfortune, at times reaching ridiculous and farcical levels, that makes this part of the story both hilarious and breathlessly enjoyable. By this volume Vance's skills as a writer have grown tremendously and his command of the English language is a joy to behold, with its flowery, polite terminology used to disguise feelings of hatred and jealousy like a particularly demented take on medieval court language. At length, Cugel apparently succeeds in his mission and gains the upper hand...until misfortune once again befalls him and he is left on a cliffhanger.

Nineteen years later (a break in a series that would be unthinkable today), Vance resumed the story in Cugel's Saga. Once again banished to the ends of the Earth, Cugel once again sets out for home, but this time travels by a different route. Essentially a second picaresque travelogue, the story is similar in structure to the preceding volume but is possibly even better, with more polished writing and Cugel's ambiguous appeal remaining intact. If anything, this book is even more hilarious than the second, although some may feel the relatively happy ending is not entirely in keeping with Cugel's typical fortunes.

The final book, Rhialto the Marvellous, is also sadly the weakest. It is much more overtly fantastical than the first three, incorporating voyages through space, but the focus on less interesting protagonists than Cugel means it feels like an afterthought. That's not to say the stories here are unenjoyable, merely that they are of a different nature than Cugel's and less distinctive because of it.

Although the omnibus failed to captivate me, there is no doubt that Jack Vance is a master. Adam's claims that the author has a formidable grasp of language and a keen wit are right on the money. The rich and evocative language used both in the narrative and the dialogues is second to none. Moreover, Jack Vance's fertile imagination imbues each tale of humor and whimsy contained within the pages of the Dying Earth volumes. I thoroughly enjoyed these aspects of Vance's writing, though it wasn't enough for me.

My main problem was the fact that there is very little plot to speak of. Most storylines go nowhere and are just meant to be yet another funny misadventure that the characters must experience. It's my fault, no question, but I was expecting something a lot deeper, along the lines of works by other renowned SFF authors such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. Hence, the humorous and often ridiculous tales of Cugel and Rhialto were a far cry from what I thought I was getting into.

I did laugh, mind you. It's impossible not to. Some of the plotlines are hilarious, to be sure. But I wanted more than humor and flowery language. I guess that's where I erred. With that mindset, I realize that it was well nigh impossible for me to get into Tale of the Dying Earth. But try as I might, I couldn't adapt.

Characterization, which is another important element when I review a novel, left a lot to be desired. There is no character growth to speak of, no elaboration regarding the characters' motivations, no depth. The beauty of the Dying Earth books, I'm told, is to simply let yourself be taken for a ride and follow the misadventures of Cugel and the others. Me, well I was always looking for something more. Something that obviously never came. Trouble was, I also quite despised Cugel. Almost, in fact, as much as I can't stand Kim Bauer in 24. That character pretty much killed it for me, and by then there was no turning back.

In the end, I fully understand what made these books the beloved classics they have become, and how they inspired an entire generation of SFF authors who came after. Having said that, I'm not sure the Dying Earth novels have aged all that well. Compared to the current crop of bestselling science fiction writers, it might be too disparate in style and form. Had I known that most of what I'm looking for when reading a novel was more or less absent in each of the Dying Earth installment, I probably would have passed on them. Indeed, in retrospect there was no way I could ever fully enjoy them. . .

The final verdict: 5/10

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29 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

How dare you not like a classic like Vance's the Dying Earth!?! Infidel!!!:P

But given what you are looking for in books, I daresay you were bound to be disappointed.

Your comment about the books not having aged well has me thinking. I read about 20 years ago and I'm wondering if I would enjoy them as much were I to reread them today...

Thanks for your honesty.

Jean

polishgenius said...

I tried reading this recently and just didn't get into it. I'll probably try again sometime, but the thing about no plot to draw one in is right.

keele864 said...

I'm not surprised you didn't like Dying Earth... Some Vance books have stronger plots - the first book of Lyonesse has a plot (haven't read the latter two yet), but it's hardly the main point of the book. The Demon Princes books, which GRRM has cited before, also have stronger plots, as each book revolves around the protagonist's attempt to take revenge on a particular villain. Both series have more "heroic" protagonists than Cugel - there are actually (mostly) good people to root for.

I think GRRM has a real love for bastard antihero protagonists. He's a great fan of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels, historical fiction about a cowardly and cruel Victorian soldier who I at least can't help but cheer on.

I'd be curious what you think of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, a Dying Earth-influenced work, but a very different book. It's been accused of being plotless, but there is in fact quite a lot of plot going on behind the scenes (Wolfe loves hinting at things - If you like trying to predict GRRM's plots and hunt for obscure foreshadowing, you just might like Wolfe).

Good review.

-Matt

Adam Whitehead said...

The Dying Earth relies a lot on the reader's own reaction. The first and last books are somewhat weak, but, provided you react well to the character of Cugel (i.e., hate him but find him interesting) you'll find the second and books among the very best fantasy books ever written. If you don't like Cugel...not so much.

I'd suggest giving the Lyonesse Trilogy a go at some point, as I found it a much more cohesive and entertaining series from start to finish.

Patrick said...

Guys, at this juncture I don't see myself reading any Vance for a long, long time.

Though I seem to be well on my way to losing that second wager with GRRM, so he might force some more Vance on me!;-)

Go Cowboys, damn it!!!

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend Vance's "Demon Princes" series--essentially an extended revenge quest set in a soft SF universe--which are superior to the "Dying Earth" books (though I liked them, too).

Anonymous said...

I was mostly pondering wheter Umberto Eco had read it before he wrote Baudolino :-P

But I enjoyed the books myself, was a bit hard at times, but the dusk atmosphere of the dying earth really fitted well with a cold norwegian winter so I had a good ride.

But I have to note that I really, really disliked Cugel, but not in a Thomas Covenant kind of way :-P Though maybe it's time to reread them.

And thanks for the tip on George McDonald, definitly gonna check that out.

~Gothmog

Jonathan said...

I think that reading the original "Dying Earth" volume is a very different experience to reading all 4 in this omnibus. The first book, written years before the others, is subtle, and fun, and profound. The other three are just rubbish in comparison, and reading them in this omnibus ruins the experience because you might rush through the first stories. In the same way that the Matrix sequels ruined the original for me, the Cugel stuff ruins what came before.

Michael said...

To be honest I haven't read Vance, but certainly will, since he has inspired one of the greatest authors alive : Wolfe for the Book of the New Sun...which is in my opinion a masterpiece and admittedly takes a lot from Vance...

Roland said...

I agree about Wolfe and The Book of the New Sun - it IS in fact one of the greatest works of SF ever written and I'm curios what Pat would think of it. And it DOES have a plot. An oceanfull of it actually. It's just hiding, the slippery bastard!

ssgorik said...

I've read the first two books in the omnibus and enjoyed them both very much. I like that each chapter is it's own story by itself. I've got enough to read at the moment so I'm not sure when I'll read the rest, but so far at least I'm loving Cugel!

Andris said...

Cugel is a richly flawed but wonderful character...I actually loved the two books about him...If you want a more plotdriven and serious story than you should really try Tschai or the demonprinces...Wonderful books...Don't give up on Vance yet, Pat, sometimes it pays to give second chances...

Gary said...

I've had Vance on my list for quite a while. I've found that several of the "classics" of genre fiction don't hold up well to more contemporary writers, such as GRRM himself. Thanks for saving me the trouble of slogging through this one. Sounds like it would have been another "Great Book of Amber" for me.

Roland said...

Amber? What did Amber have to do with this?

Btw, I found the Tschai books dreadful to say the least...

Anonymous said...

"The Book of the New Sun - it IS in fact one of the greatest works of SF ever written and I'm curios what Pat would think of it."

LOL! I can guarantee you that Pat will not enjoy Wolfe's masterpiece.

Joshua said...

Pat is a steak lover. That's a totally valid position and one I respect. But some people's tastes run across a wider board, and this comment is directed at those folks. Sometimes you want steak. Other times you want popcorn. Right?

I enjoy "The Dying Earth" stories for the same reason I enjoy David Eddings' works. They're mentally-lightweight stories that amble between humorous adventures at a casual pace. After reading someting by Martin, for instance, I'm ready for something that won't run circles around my head (or simply make it explode). So while the review is 100% accurate for steak lovers, those who like a little more variety in their literary diet may find more enjoyment in TDE than others.

PS: Although Wolfe is similar, I wouldn't automatically count him out. The New Sun books are much more complicated even if the plot occasionally goes MIA.

Stephanie said...

I agree with you 100% on this Pat. I felt exactly the same way about the Tales of the Dying Earth. I didn't finish the omnibus though. Three cheers to you for the effort and an eloquent review of something you found so very different from your expectations.

Dream Girlzzz said...

Just a question...

If there's no plot, why should anyone read it??? For the mechanical aspects alone?

I understand the books are a lot of fun to read, but for me the narrative has to go somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I almost picked up some Jack Vance a while back. GRRM talked about his works so much I felt I needed to give the Dying Earth stories a shot.

Thankfully I read some reviews first. I've yet to read a review that(beside Mr. Martin's) that truly praises anything that Vance wrote. I'm sure there are some and I don't need any links thank you very much. I've seen enough negative ones and read enough about the stories to understand why the books are lacking.

Roland said...

@ Dream Girlzzz: half of modern literature is without plot. there are other things than narrative to make a book worth the time put in reading it. There is world building, character development, philosophy, psychology, etc...

Adam Whitehead said...

The Dying Earth books do have a plot, although it's fairly low-key in the final book and a bit of a ramble in the first volume. But Books 2 and 3 do have very-focused plots.

And Jack Vance is one of the most accomplished and eloquent prose-writers in the genre, which is as far as you can possibly get from David Eddings.

Aaron said...

What I don't understand is why most people who have never really read much Vance assume that The Dying Earth is his best or defining work? Any serious Vance fan knows otherwise. You have to remember, the first Dying Earth stories were written in the late forties before Vance had even been published. Try something else by the man. The Tschai series is absolute gold. The Durdane trilogy, the Demon Princes, the Alastor books, I could go on and on. You cannot and should not judge Vance's entire catalog just because you didn't care for TDE. That would be like judging the Malazan books solely on the quality of GotM, and a good reviewer should already know this.

And to the last anon post, if you base what you read solely on the opinions of others, I suppose you don't deserve to read something as good as anything written by Vance.

Anonymous said...

aaron, I wish someone would have written a review of your post so I wouldn't have had to read it.

Roland said...

Shouldn't there be some kind of filter for anonymous posters?

Anyway, I haven't read TDE yet, although I intend to. I sincerely hope it's better than the Tschai series though :/ It didn't work for me. Not one bit.

Gary said...

Roland said...
"Amber? What did Amber have to do with this?"
Nothing, except that, like Vance, I had heard for years that the Zelazney's Amber series was a "Must Read." When I finally read it, I was really disappointed. After reading Pat's review of TDE, I think I would probably have the same reaction to TDE.

Roland said...

That's weird. I didn't know there exist people who don't like Amber @_@ Not that it's Zelazny's best work, but it *is* rather... well... amazing...

Aaron said...

The folks who don't like Amber also dislike The Dying Earth. No point in wasting my time on it anymore...

Woofdog said...

Opinion is just that and I greatly respect it. If this book isn't of interest, then it is possible much of his published non-detective work will not be either. It may be a general contra-indication to wodehouse-esque work. I state this from the position that Cugel is one of my favorite fantasy characters.

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