As with most things, I find myself being exposed to the classics late in life, rather than during my formative years where most people seem to encounter them. As such, I've never read Jack Vance until now, “The Dying Earth” being my first. I was immediately enthralled by this collection of loosely-related short stories set in the distant future when our civilization is but a forgotten memory, machinery has been replaced by sorcery, and the sun is on the verge of being extinguished.
The stories in “The Dying Earth” are based on fantasy concepts that have become familiar to most of us over the decades, and yet here, they remain fresh. Plot devices that have become somewhat trite over the years are implemented in such a way that it feels like the first time I'm encountering them. This makes for a very thoughtful and enjoyable read that never fails to spark imagination. This is all well and good, but it takes more than just imagination for me to finish a book. “The Dying Earth” is unique because of the nature of the ambition of Vance's characters, made evident in three ways:
1. Unabashed self-interest
2. Ongoing pursuit for perfection
3. Determination to find independence from the collective
1. Unabashed Self-Interest
Vance carefully crafts his stories so that the decisions that the characters make represent the best of what the human race has to offer the universe...evolutionarily speaking. Specifically, his characters are selfish, and therefore in reference to my own ideals, “The Dying Earth” is highly romantic (“romantic” in that it portrays life as it ought to be) both thematically as well as ideologically. It is romantic in the common sense as well (i.e. - romantic love). I'll discuss that later. Regarding selfishness...
Although not directly spelled out in the stories, it's apparent that Vance was aware of man's need to act primarily for his own self interest. By not professing the supposed virtue of altruism (as do most contemporary fantasy authors), Vance differentiates himself from his peers. At no point in any of the stories does the protagonist put their life in jeopardy for the survival of someone else.
Furthermore, none of the characters perform favors for one another. Instead, all transactions are maintained by equal exchange. For example, a magician may teach a skill in exchange for the completion of a quest. A Twk-Man will exchange information for salt. A witch may exchange sexual favors for mystic artifacts. The simple everyday actions of the characters are conducted in the absence of altruistic intent.
The following is a list of each protagonist's fundamental drive.
Turjan of Miir – To create intelligent life from non-life which will serve as a female companion who balances both physical and moral beauty
Mazirian the Magician – To capture the perfect woman (as created by Turjan of Miir) and bring her into captivity for his own pleasures
T'Sais – To understand the meaning of beauty on Earth as well as to seek a remedy for the missing component of her intellect, the absence of which compels her to destroy everything she sees
Liane the Wayfarer – Sexual conquest (It is debatable if he is truly the protagonist of his story)
Ulan Dhor – To uncover two magic tablets from an ancient civilization, thus granting his family power as well as to satisfy his thirst for high adventure
Guyal of Sfere – To acquire the knowledge of all life on earth and beyond
None of these characters pursue the banal matters that are all too popular in fantasy storytelling today. There are no maidens to be rescued, no powerful amulets to destroy, and no self-destruct missions seeking redemption by their own demise. Instead, our protagonists are relentless in their personal self-centered quests, bringing them to the brink of disaster and causing malice to others in the process.
2. Ongoing Pursuit of Perfection
The selfishness of the protagonists lead each of them on a path towards refinement. Most of the characters have spent years of their life perfecting a skill, memorizing a spell, or gaining knowledge. Obviously in most stories, it is common for the characters to do something well, however “The Dying Earth” makes a point to show how great one can be if they choose to adhere to the path they cut before them. In each story, time is spent describing what the character hopes to achieve, how they've failed thus far, and what they need to do to become successful. Whether it be building the ultimate woman, navigating uncharted seas, or becoming all-knowing...The characters are great because they choose greatness. They don't fall into it by chance. There is no room for accidental heroism here.
3. Determination to Find Independence from the Collective
This is particularly apparent in the stories of Ulan Dhor and Guyal of Sfere. These two characters break free from the collective apathy of their homelands, venturing out into the unknown to acquire understanding and power. In each story, they are confronted by groups of men who have refused to evolve, thus stagnating their cultures into a frustrating (and life-threatening) level of torpidity. They struggle to break free from the masses and achieve their own volitional autonomy.
When Ulan Dhor is presented with the opportunity to repopulate the land in his own image, granting him a position of authority over a newly spawned community (i.e. - being Adam in the “Garden of Eden”), he vehemently rejects the offer. His heroism is found in his reluctance to lead others, be part of an over-arching authority, and beckon to the being that makes the rules. His story is particularly poetic in that the civilians of the land have fooled their senses for so long that they have become blind (literally) to anyone who doesn't wear the same color clothing as their retarded tribe.
In addition to the three outstanding virtues of the characters, there are three aspects of the story telling itself that must be mentioned.
Tradition (as opposed to futurism) is the bane of civilization
Earth's past civilizations (and history in general) are portrayed critically, exposing the failures and shortcomings of the people who came before and what they sought to create. At some point when it was determined that the sun was dying, the most intellectually advanced humans escaped to another planet. Those who remained either turned their minds to the practice of magic or allowed their culture to slip into the false comfort of tradition, both of which are chastised: Magic for the mindless rote repetition necessary to master it; Tradition for the stifling grip it commands, preventing intellectual and spiritual growth.
All of the gods, devils, spells, and metaphysical marvels of the land are created by man
This is not to infer that Vance was an atheist or that the Earth of his stories was not created by some godlike force at the dawn of time, but there is no reference to any such deity. The ghouls, demons, and ghosts that often serve as antagonists in the stories are described as the manifestation of man's failures and fears over the thousands of years that have passed after our own civilization has crumbled. The magic runes, amulets, and artifacts were not bestowed unto man by an omnipotent force. Instead they are actually metaphysical technologies that mankind either created or figured out over the millennia. In absence of the supernatural (in that, if enough time were devoted, the creation of these fantastic creatures could be explained) the concept of fate is unable to thrive. Destiny is replaced with volition, making the stories very relatable to real life on our current Earth. Despite the title, “The Dying Earth” is not a fatalist collection.
In Vance's patriarchal world full of bloodshed, conquest, deceit, treachery, and even sadism...it lightens my heart that these stories often end happily, with a man and woman righteously in love. The couple is often depicted as two loners who find each other due to unexpected circumstances. T'sais' story is particularly touching because as she and Etarr fall in love, they also are vindicated of the unjust ailment that life has thrust upon them. The account of T'sais ends with the two of them becoming whole again, and as a result, one with each other.
In conclusion, “The Dying Earth” is a wonderful collection. It is wonderful to read for both the literary agility that Vance demonstrates with tact and poise as well as for the underlying view of life that he expresses through the actions of his righteous characters.