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