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Monday, June 04, 2012

Songs of the Dying Earth - Stories in Honor of Jack Vance

Jack Vance is still alive. However, he is said to be blind, or nearly so, and has not had any of his fantastic fiction published since 2004. But his career was long. His first publication was in 1950. That story was set in what Vance called the dying earth -- an imaginary planet, many years into the future, inhabited by people. But what people? Wizards, charlatans, rascals, villains. And some almost human creatures, such as Twk-men, so small that they ride dragonflies. The sun is visibly fading, and those who know how can travel to other dimensions and other planets. One of Vance's inventions is the idea that wizards can't remember more than about three spells at a time. And the names of those spells? Here is quintessential Vance - The Spell of Forlorn Encystment, The Excellent Prismatic Spray - which, respectively, encase the person affected in a small sphere under the earth, far under the earth, and zap the person affected with deadly rods. These are just two of the spells. There are many more.

Vance wrote other fiction, in fact most of his work was not set in the dying earth.

Some of that other fiction uses imaginative spells, too -- such as the Spell of Total Enlightenment.

Vance's imagination has captivated many readers, and authors. His voice is unique. The book which has the same title as this blog post is a collection of stories in Vance's honor. Authors include Elizabeth Moon, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Dan Simmons, and over a dozen other luminaries. All pay homage to Vance, and describe his influence on their own work. They also attempt, in some way, to use some aspect of the dying earth, such as Vance's characters, his geography, his non-human creatures, his spells, and, to some extent, even his language, or a combination of these. They mostly succeed, but they aren't Vance.

Here is a quotation from Tales of the Dying Earth, by Vance:

Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet. Such was Mazirian's garden -- three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetables. Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal -- copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium. Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upward from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds. (Page 17).

And these few sentences, interesting as they are, don't by any means exhaust, or even illustrate, all aspects of Vance's unique style. What sardonic conversations! What vocabulary! And, of course, what descriptions.

The book is worth reading, but Vance is more so. (There are dangers, I am sure, in reading Vance. Some have called him anti-Christian. He is probably not exactly that, just a neopagan who seems to hold all sorts of religion, including many such that he made up, in contempt.)

Thanks for reading.

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