Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Truly timeless fantasy: Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth

There is a reason why some fiction stands the test of time and others do not. So far, I have found the Fantasy Masterworks series a reliable guide to what is worth reading and what is not. My most recent acquisition was of the Dying Earth series written by Jack Vance, compiled in one volume.

Set in a future so far removed that earth is within decades of being consumed by a degenerating sun. Humanity has risen and fallen many times and artifacts of such alien power created in ages past still linger about, creating a world more familiar to a fantasy audience than to one of science fiction. And clearly Vance is a fantasy writer (despite occasional nods to technophiles looking for hints of recognizable technology). His creations are landscapes populated and imagined for the purpose of exploring logic puzzles and what-if games. The novels (four in all) are mostly collections of short stories loosely connected by the world itself and sometimes by related background characters. Otherwise, there seems to be no unifying plot other than the sheer joy of seeing what in the world will happen next to these strange characters in even stranger situations.

One story revolves around a golem-like creature made by powerful magicians, who, though wise and skilled, still make mistakes. The golem creature, a beautiful woman named Tsais, was perfect save for one flaw--she cannot perceive beauty or goodness in any form. To her, the vast sum of existence is an affront, a vile and putrid mass of unfortunate events, horrid creatures, and deplorable spaces. She is confronted with her twin, Tsain, which cannot perceive evil in any form, and a number of conceits and story plots revolve around their interactions.

There are a number of other interesting bits as well. One longer story involves a relentlessly curious character who is sent out of his village on account of his persisting in the bad habits of a 2-year-old: always asking "why?" He pursues more and more interesting mysteries, finally ending up at the vast sum of all knowledge, a great technological library, the last and greatest of the artifacts of Dying Earth. Great story. And there is Cugel's Saga, the cunning but selfish fool who ends up constantly digging himself into deeper and deeper trouble by following his base nature without the benefit of foresight.

I wholeheartedly recommend the Tales of the Dying Earth to any lover of fantasy. This book is at the headwaters of a long tradition of great stories--and interestingly enough, was also one of the most significant influences on the early development of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. People familiar with the game will catch dozens of amusing references. If you are looking for enjoyable, action-packed, beautifully written--and most impressively--truly timeless fantasy, pick up a copy of Vance's Dying Earth. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

Alan said...

Dad of Tim is an old Vance fan. Alas my collection had to go away in one of my many recent moves. I may just have to go to the book store again.