The Eyes of the Overworld – Jack Vance

4 out of 5

I’m familiar with sci-fi taking a social commentary route, but Jack Vance’s Dying Earth caught me off guard by making that even more up my alley, blending the writer’s fantastical worlds with some pretty sharp – and funny! – psychological tete-a-tetes, butting its various characters up against their expectations. The humor, to me, was in seeing the inherent similarities between any given average joe’s self-serving behaviors and that of the sword- and magic-wielding denizens of this future, decaying planet. It’s the same all over, Vance tells us. The Eyes of the Overworld is even more effective in this regard, as we’re now focused on one character – Cugel – and thus have many more pages to get used to his rogueish nature. And to be continually surprised by the way Vance cleverly pushes and pulls at Cugel’s fortunes, a rich man one moment and then a pauper literally the next, back and forth at a consistently entertaining cadence. And though I may be pushing the mirthful aspect of things – also found in the way Jack juxtaposes the most decadent wielding of ten-letter words against those same aforementioned undesirably “human” traits – the writer veers far from making things sound like satire. The humor’s between the lines, or at a scenario level; line by line, we get legitimately immersive adventures with Cugel, as he’s spurred off to a distant land as punishment from a magician he’s wronged, tasked with retrieving a particular orb and suffering through chapter-by-chapter events along the way. There’s also incredible tact with Cugel’s representation, and the level of omniscience we’re allowed, as the dude really isn’t all that likeable – he thinks much of himself, and is often quite abusive to those around him – we Vance avoids settling on whether he’s dumb or smart; honorable or completely lacking in morals. This, again, echoes the very recognizable qualities of the cast, even if / when they’re described as being variously alien and mutated. In fact, at every opportunity, oddities are set forth but then made relatively odd – that is, not odd at all – and because of Jack’s grasp of language, and the constantly shifting settings with different rulesets, it’s never repetitive. Dying Earth kind of slipped back and forth between more “grounded” examples of this and more extreme ones, but everything in The Eyes of the Overworld feels like it’s of the same world… which makes it all the more surprising that it was again written as separate stories initially, then later “fixed up” into one narrative.

The only place this really shows is in the chapter ‘The Pilgrims,’ in which Cugel convinces a religious sect to accompany him across a dangerous desert: Cugel almost disappears as a character for a little while, and several of the details Vance had made certain to thread throughout are no longer mentioned. There could be a case made for Cugel going through some type of temporary religious conversion, and becoming part of the “whole” of the pilgrims, but I’m not sure I really buy that. This is still a great chapter, but is better when viewed as a side story; factored into Cugel’s travels, it works for getting him from A to Z, but it would’ve been nice to have seen the character’s alternatively clever and confounding personality traits persisted in this section.

That aside, all of the positives I discovered in the first Tales of the Dying Earth book were bettered in this second one, with the relative learning curve presented by the stories in that one – as Vance, I’d guessed, got a better grasp on his style and world as the years went on – completely absent: The Eyes of the Overworld is strong from start to finish, wicked smart and wholly inventive, tossing out new ideas at the turn of every page but winding them together into a cohesive experience.