Jack Vance, the Dying Earth

dying-earth2These words refer to Jack Vance’s original, 1964 anthology, consisting of six stories, and currently out of print. What remains in print is a larger anthology of the four Dying Earth books Vance wrote over the course of his lifetime. Unless there is some compelling reason, I like to deal with things as they originally came out.

I’d long known Vance’s name because of his influence on the magic system in Dungeons and Dragons, and, then, by the consistently high regard in which his work is held by readers who by all appearances care about quality. I will say that with this collection–to be clear, I’m talking about first Dying Earth book, six stories–I entirely agree.

While on the one had the characterization in the collection is strong across the board, the setting itself here is of central interest. Briefly, the “Dying Earth” stories are so-called because the setting is on the planet Earth, but of the far future, when the Sun is in the process of dying out. Climate and weather change in fantastic ways, and, more interesting, the characters are aware that they are living, if not at, then near the end.

It’s not a deep observation to say that good speculative fiction, be it sci-fi or fantasy, or whatever, uses the speculative aspects of the genre to examine ways in which actually-living people live in the world. Not a deep observation, but a critical one. There is an escapist appeal to speculative fiction, but if it is going to stick, it needs to be about us. The best case in point I know of is Octavia Butler. Vance’s setting, fantastic, with magic, points to the underlying awareness in all people that life is transitory. Nicely done, Vance.

Nearly immediately, it’s clear why the people who created D & D turned to Vance as a source for their system of magic. It’s not simply that Vance’s portrayal of magic fits the demands of a game. It certainly does: in Vance people who use magic must memorize spells verbatim, which, upon their use, they completely forget, requiring more study before more use of magic. Great for a game.

Reading Vance, though–and this leads right to characterization–what’s most interesting is that part of the reason people need to memorize spells is because, late, late in the Earth’s game, magic is magic because people have, by and large, forgotten how to create it through experimentation. What remains are the records of other magicians’ work, which one memorizes, uses, and forgets.

In “Turjan of Miir,” we meet the titular character who is trying to create humanoid live in vats using magic. He is not up to the task, and seeks another, greater magician, Pandelume, who by reputation knows how to pull the spell off. This of course is the same basic trope, with all its attendant patriarchal problems, as Pygmalion.

Pandelume has previously created a physically beautiful and mentally flawed woman named T’sais. T’sais sees everything negatively, and as a result is both miserable and violent. Her story in the collection, taking her name as its title, is one of the most affecting works of fantasy I’ve read, and by any measure a beautiful story. Maybe it spoke to me on some personal level, and as a result produced the emotional response it did. I know what it is like to see everything as ugly. The crucial moment, one of the most beautiful transitions I’ve read, is when T’sais becomes conscious that it’s not that the world is ugly, but that she perceives it to be so. She then resolves to learn how to see beauty, and her attempts, with some beneficial results, are entirely believable and therefore very affecting.

I can’t overstate how thoroughly a small transition in a character, like that in T’sais, is the mark of a real writer. I’m in the fifth of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, and feeling very frustrated with the writing. The action seems to be in taking more or less static characters and creating situations in which the plot develops, but the characters do not. Or–this in hindsight–we have a character who develops, if very early on, like Daenerys’ change from timid girl to Dragon queen. The more I read in the books, though, the more confused I am about how that change actually happened, and the more convinced I am that Martin did not in fact give us a character development but merely replaced the first Daenerys with a second. Vance, totally contrary and vastly superior, not only shows us a turning moment in T’sais but causes us to feel it. That’s the real thing.

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