One advantage of being an award-winning author is that you can acquire a brand-new set of readers when they learn about you from your obituary. Of course, presumably you would care less about the breadth of your audience while transitioning from person to potting soil, although all that time-consuming fan mail would also become much less of a concern. But I digress. Up until a month or so ago, I had managed to make it to my mid-thirties without ever having heard of Jack Vance, a SFWA Grand Master who passed away back in May. Upon learning of his demise, I decided to fill the large, Vance-shaped hole in the my genre knowledge by reading The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld, the first two novels in his The Dying Earth Series.
A million civilizations have risen to grandeur and fallen to dust on the ancient planet known as Earth, and the sun that warms it has swollen huge and red. Who knows when it will cease to shine and the cold, endless night will fall? The moment could come at any time, but until then Earth's few thousand remaining inhabitants scratch out an existence amongst the ruins of forgotten ages. Earth has become a strange place where magic and technology mingle, where magicians memorize arcane formulae to bend reality itself to their will and old loremasters sculpt new life in their vats. It is a place where demon hybrids roam the wilds and living cities slumber as beggars slink through their shadowed streets and unknown, malevolent creatures slip between dimensions. It's an exciting place -- but not a place you'd ever call safe.
Much like Ray Bradbury's contemporaneous The Martian Chronicles, Vance's The Dying Earth Series began as a collection of loosely linked short stories. In truth, the word "loosely" best describes the organization of The Dying Earth. It reads much like an extended worldbuilding experiment, piecing together a planet that barely resembles our own through the observations of sages and grifters, pilgrims and prisoners, inscrutable wizards and their cloned children. It opens with "Turjan of Miir," the story's titular character crossing empty gulfs of space through an ineffable incantation to gain insight into his failed vat experiments from a mysterious sorcerer. Turjan appears again in "Mazirian the Magician," this time as a captive who can only be freed by one of his successful experiments. Other tales deal with a youth too curious about the nature of things for his own good ("Guyal of Sfere") and a clever brigand who desperately tries to outwit an unavoidable adversary ("Liane the Wayfarer").
That theme of the brainy ne'er-do-well trying to pull one over on just about everyone takes center stage in The Eyes of the Overworld. The story is simple enough: A cheeky thief named Cugel tries to rob a wizard of his wizardly artifacts, gets magically cast into distant lands with an alien parasite buried in his gut, and is tasked with retrieving a rare artifact -- or else. With lots of little episodes strung along an overarching narrative, the plot recalls the structure of C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The most interesting part, though, isn't the action; it's Cugel himself. He's droll, inventive, resourceful and an absolute scoundrel. He steals, lies, manipulates, murders, breaks oaths and sneers at others' sufferings. Let's not go into detail about how he treats women. (Even though it's only communicated in a single oblique sentence, a scene where Cugel forces himself onto a vulnerable girl who has just lost everyone she loves is particularly difficult to read.) He's not anyone you'd want for a roommate, and Vance knew it. He allows Cugel to scrape through every rough encounter largely unscathed and even achieve a mostly immoral victory by the end. Then Vance snatches it all away in the final two pages in such a satisfying way that it nearly made me leap out of my chair with glee.
If The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld bring any other work to mind, it's M. John Harrison's Viriconium, a compendium that also blended SF and fantasy. Like Harrison, Vance drops oblique allusions that he never fully explains and packs his books with obscure yet evocative details. But Vance never buried readers in bizarre vocabulary or upended plots, characters, and themes in an attempt to deconstruct his preferred genre. From what I can tell, he seemed happy writing books that likely delighted both average readers and the academic set. And I, for one, plan on reading more of them.
(Picture: CC 2009 by Richard Cohen)