I had never heard of Jack Vance until Subterranean Press announced it would be publishing a tribute anthology containing stories from some of my favourite authors. Apparently Vance is a master fantasist, on par with Tolkien, and his Dying Earth series inspired all of those authors, and many more, in the latter half of the twentieth century. So I ordered the massive volume from Subterranean Press, and then I set about finding a copy of the original book that started it all. Since then, Vance has led to nothing but surprises.
The first surprise was the length of The Dying Earth. This is a thin book. I was expecting something epic, not quite doorstopper (for I'm aware that they did not publish doorstopper fantasy in those days, Tolkien excepted), but something with more presence. That was my mistake, for I am young and unfamiliar with the pulpiness of paperbacks from that era, even British reprints from the 1980s.
The second surprise was the serialized nature of the novel. Either I missed that part when reading about it, or no one deigned to mention that The Dying Earth is actually a collection of episodic shorts rather than a continuous narrative. Not that there is anything wrong with this, but I think that jarred me when I began reading.
And then I began reading.
There is so much to praise about The Dying Earth. Vance has a deft touch when it comes to names, places, and descriptions. His characters have odd-sounding monikers and come from odd-sounding places; the times they inhabit are odder still. Above all, his stories are whimsical in a way that transcends any merely-adequate work of fantasy. His magicians and sorcerers dabble with demons and spirits; his thieves stumble across artifacts of power and cross paths with princes and scholars. Vance has created a world where not only anything can happen but you, while reading it, believe that anything can happen—and eventually, it probably will.
Vance's mastery lies in his ability to create the sense of difference essential to works of speculative fiction. And I see why he is considered one of the greats of this field and why his books are held up as paradigm examples. We are lucky enough to be experiencing a glut of fantasy, and a lot of it is derivative. I can forgive those poor uninitiated who, having cracked open a fantasy novel at the bookstore, conclude that the entire genre is nothing more than "medieval Europe with magic". The Dying Earth is most certainly not that. Instead of presenting a poor analog of our world and adding magic, Vance takes us far into the future, where magic has superseded technology (or assimilated it, if you will) in the waning days of this planet. He gives us vat-grown clones, instantaneous transportation across the face of the Earth and between planets, fantastic flying machines, and of course a broad gallery of interesting new animals and creatures to populate his Dying Earth. Deodands, plegranes, and grues—oh my!
And yet, I cannot give this book three stars. From an academic perspective, I can appreciate Vance's skill. But I just did not enjoy the book as a reader. The Dying Earth is an intricately constructed palace, one which I would love to view from afar. But, like Camelot, it is only a model.
We've all had this feeling before. We read something that people we trust, whether they are bestselling authors or just our best friends, recommend with a fervour and zealousness that is, at times, a little scary. And we don't like it. So we wonder: is there something wrong with us, that everyone else can enjoy this book while we remain unmoved? I am never satisfied by simply saying that my mileage varies, that everything is subjective. I am curious; I want to analyze my discontent and understand what makes me different from those who swear by Jack Vance and his Dying Earth.
Most obviously there is a generational gap between me and the various authors who were inspired by Vance. I have grown up in a literary world very different than the one that educated those authors, thanks in part to their own contributions before I was born and then during my childhood. George R.R. Martin had no George R.R. Martin to hook him on the political intrigue of A Song of Ice and Fire. So I have been exposed to a different set of formative fantasy texts, and for that reason, Vance's effect on me is different.
I won't go so far as to claim that the generation gap is the entire reason. I am sure there are many people my age who have fallen in love with Vance's stories. I have several friends who play Dungeons & Dragons, and they might find his stories more entertaining than I did. In addition to the differences in literature between when I grew up and these Vance fans did, there are also just differences in mood and mentality.
For instance, I have terrible trouble visualizing events. When I read, I seldom picture the story in my head. If I do, characters are mere human-shaped blobs; I don't see faces. Visualizing, for me, ends up more like a radio play than television. So I tend to prefer dialogue to description, action to imagery. I can recognize Vance's penchant for the latter, but a lot of it is lost on me. And I cannot keep his aeons and his places straight for the life of me (I love that maps have become commonplace at the front of newer fantasy). In this respect, The Dying Earth required more effort from me than, shall we say, more straightforward of fantasy.
So I will reserve myself from making a recommendation for or against Jack Vance. I think his vast oeuvre and acclaim speaks for itself, and you would probably be very unwise to ignore him once, like me, you discover his existence. Maybe you will pick up an old paperback copy of one of his earlier books and fall in love and devour everything else he has written. Or maybe, like me, you will read The Dying Earth, recognize a master at work, but sadly be deprived of joining the club. Because you can choose what you appreciate and what you celebrate, but you cannot choose what you love.