The Dying Earth – Jack Vance

3 out of 5

After being turned on to Jack Vance by a comic book adaptation, confirmation bias suddenly had the name showing up everywhere, reference by / in other people or things I liked, and so it was time to take the plunge and see what was what. The Dying Earth series seemed like an ideal place to start, and it’d been handily collected several times, so easy enough to get a nice, big picture all at once.

The first, same-titled tale in this cycle is actually several short stories combined under one roof, with only a shared setting – our crumbling planet – and some light character intermingling tying them together, but I didn’t know this going in. Rather, since it’s part one of a set, and it has numbered chapters, I’m preparing myself for the starting stages of some kind of epic, only to find that it’s somewhat more fantasy than sci-fi – not one of my favorite genres – and that those numbered chapters are very self-contained, and, initially, pretty underwhelming. Would I Be Finishing This Book? I started asking myself, and was wondering what the heck the big deal was. I hadn’t really had any expectations going in, beyond assuming that 700+ pages under one banner equaled an ongoing story, but I was so caught off guard by what I was reading that it was having a negative reaction: there were fantasy elements of made up magicks and creatures, but it didn’t squarely fit into that scene either, with a certain cynicism guiding the stories, and more of a focus on internally-driven narratives than luxuriating in fantastical details. Even the ‘dying Earth’ setting seemed to be very much on the backburner, only mentioned in passing – like everyone’s used to it. No backstory setting up a dystopia; no evil ruler from whom some quest item can be achieved and fix things.

Over the six collected tales, I did start to get it, though. And past the halfway point – I started to love it. It’s very possible that love will be diluted by the next book in the series, but my head canon for The Dying Earth somewhat fits with my confuzzlement mentioned above: this thing started to evolve as Jack was writing each story. It starts vaguely, drawing a scratchy line between sci-fi elements – people constructed in vats – and fantasy, with sorcerers and spells and Earth being an alternate plane of sorts that people visit, and also presents somewhat clearer lines of good and evil, but as we go along, all of that starts to get mixed together. The aforementioned casual intermingling of characters, while at first just frustrating attempts at sequencing the stories, becomes a brilliant addition to this mixture: someone who’s only a mention here becomes a focus there; or when they’re squarely presented as an adversary, suddenly they’re more or less heroic. The latter half of the stories do each start to take on quest structures, but the quests are fascinatingly painted with moral greys, and little snips at societies ignorances, which informs the way we back into the Earthly setting: it is just the accepted state of things; putting focus on the Why and How would be to simplify the idea that all things are growing towards decay.

And then there’s the humor, or what I’m reading as humor: Jack’s abuse of his impressive mastery of the language to employ a dictionary of language that’s unclearly made up of 10-dollar-words no one’s used in 50 years or words he’s just making up, peaking in a character in the final story who’s just straight up speaking nonsense… but doing it damned convincingly. All of this stuff is a wild subversion of what I would expect of either of the highlighted genres, but it’s wrapped around actual stories and actual characters. Bizarre.

I’d started rereading the book with this later, learned appreciation in tow, but it seemed unfair to rate The Dying Earth based on that, and so instead, I’m factoring in my initial impression. And the notion that, as mentioned, I do think Jack was evolving his tone and approach along the way, so some pieces can’t be claimed as purposeful gears and machinations that function the whole.