Saturday, March 22, 2014
BOOK REVIEW: Songs of the Dying Earth
This was a tribute anthology by a group of professional sci-fi and fantasy authors, all of them fans of Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth. They each wrote an original short story that took place during Vance's fictional distant future. It was okay. Of the 22 tales in the anthology, 4 were awesome, 6 were good, 2 were mediocre, and the remaining 10 ranged from simply boring to really bad. Over-all it was worth the read.
In Jack Vance’s truly great Tales of the Dying Earth, the world is ancient beyond memory, with the cycle of human civilizations having risen and fell into ruin, risen and fell into ruin, risen and fell into ruin tens of millions of times throughout the Aeons. In many of those more advanced civilizations science evolved to a very high level, to a state of magic, creature-based technology that literally dipped into other universes in order to function. Even when the civilization inevitably collapsed in the usual ritual, some of that lore remained to be absorbed into other civilizations, sometimes to build upon, more often to use side by side with other tech. And all of this happened many, many times throughout human history. The science-magic demonstrated by the beings of the Dying Earth tales are an eclectic mixture of lore saved from throughout at least the previous few Aeons, with some occasionally inspired innovations from those practitioners whose tales we've followed and come to love. Even though book descriptions, and even some reviewers, have been fond of saying that “science has given way to magic,” this is actually not true. The magic demonstrated in Vance’s stories IS science, but it’s hi-tech far beyond what we’ve currently attained, as well as the solving of puzzles from different angles that our current scientists refuse even to speculate on.
Some of the authors here in the Songs of the Dying Earth anthology were guilty of failing to recognize this in Vance’s work (or didn’t care), and had the magic in their stories function the same as it does in other, more conventional fantasy tales. That was a pet peeve of mine here, and they lost a point off their score for it. Another pet peeve was the referring to the world as “The Dying Earth” in the story and even by the characters. Am I to assume that all of the characters read Jack Vance’s books first before they started their adventures? Ridiculous. Another point removed.
Another tricky element was the Songs authors’ usage of one or more of the characters of Vance’s tales in their stories. I decided not to be too strict on that in my grading since some of the authors actually pulled that off very well, particularly in the case of Cugel the Clever. But considering how much material Vance created of Cugel for the assembled celebrated professional authors to study, frankly they better had written him well. Unfortunately, more often than not, attempts to utilize the other more obscure Dying Earth characters failed miserably. In those cases I took a point away, while others ranked among my favorites in the book. For the same reason I decided to be more lenient regarding the attempts to imitate Vance’s style, an odd thing for the authors to attempt in the first place considering these ARE all professional and famous writers in the field. Neil Gaiman, for example, attempted no such a thing. His story both reflected his charming style that the fans know and love, as well as demonstrated a complete understanding of what Vance’s Dying Earth universe was all about, creating one of the very best tales in the book. Too bad they all didn’t do that. Instead, when the attempt to imitate Vance’s decadent style failed, the story became cheap fan fiction that actually made me angry to read. On the very rare occasion when the author did pull it off, it was a bittersweet blessing, making me giddy for the unexpected pleasure, but sad with the stark reminder that there would never be anything new from the pen of the original.
I took a point away if there was nothing about the story that said “Dying Earth,” giving the impression that the author suffered a severe writer’s block/stage fright attack with this assignment, pulled an old story they never published out of a drawer, changed all the characters and places to “T’sain” and “Land of the Falling Wall” and mailed it in.
I also took a point if the author was lazy, and simply duplicated plot devices used by Vance, using the original story like a template they superimposed their characters upon. This lot was supposed to be better than that, with that being a trick I would expect from an anthology compiled from fan fiction amateurs. There was no excuse for it here.
The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale by Robert Silverberg (1/5) – An odd one to begin the anthology with. This story was truly boring. An arrogant drunkard gets robbed. That’s it? This was a Dying Earth tale to you, Silverberg? Where was the majesty, the excitement, the weird? At the end of it I found myself staring angrily at the final page as if I was the one who had been robbed.
Grolion of Almery by Matthew Hughes (5/5) – Fortunately I kept reading after Silverberg’s clunker or I would’ve missed this truly delightful gem. Even though the name of the titular character is unfamiliar, we know this person very well, and with the really great mimicry skills displayed by Hughes, we know who he is from the moment we meet him. Matthew Hughes is the type of fan who wasn’t content to merely enjoy the work of his idol, he wanted to BE him. Following in the shoes of mimicry clones before him like those who copied the styles of Marlon Brando, Jack Kirby, and Muhammad Ali, Hughes was gutsy enough to actually intend this tale to be a prequel to one of Vance’s books, an extremely big risk that he managed to pull off in one of my Top Two favorite stories in the book.
The Copsy Door by Terry Dowling (4/5) – This was a fun story, with one element in it giving me pause: the adding of stage magic legerdemain to the Dying Earth magicians’ shtick. At first it angered me, but because the story took place shortly after the time of Grand Motholam, which was considered the golden age of the greatest magicians of all time, I let it go. It’s possible that the entertainment element is one of things that gave Grand Motholam its reputation. I wouldn’t have done it that way, and I think the story would’ve been better without it truly, but without a definitive ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ from Vance to confirm, this addition to the Dying Earth lore could be legit.
Caulk the Witch-Chaser by Liz Williams (4/5) – This was a solid, good story, involving some concepts we’ve never heard of in the Tales of the Dying Earth. Powerful, magic using were-creatures. It was weird and eerie, and could take part in a far off part of the Dying Earth we’ve never seen before.
Inescapable by Mike Resnik (1/5) – I hated this one. Like Matthew Hughes’ tale, this one also had the audacity to attempt to attach a prequel to one of Vance’s stories, but failing miserably. Can you make a successful prequel while having the characters you have borrowed being nothing the way they were in the original? That would be a ”No.”
Abrizonde by Walter Jon Williams (4/5) – This was a very fun tale, and a convincing addition to the Dying Earth mythos. A young traveler, with a suspicious command of certain magical items, has an adventure helping hold down a fortress.
The Traditions of Karzh by Paula Volsky (3/5) – I liked this story of a young, very Vancian-like character on a quest to capture items needed to secure his hereditary estate, and wished I could’ve liked it more. But it suffered from the sin of reusing a Vancian plot device, as well as a loss of steam near the end to where it suddenly got boring.
The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod by Jeff Vandermeer (1/5) – Ugh. I hated this one, too. It also dipped into the above mentioned Vancian plot devoice sin (using a clone of the exact same character!) and didn’t even try to make actual spell names. Was this supposed to be the Dying Earth?
The Green Bird by Kage Baker (5/5) – This one was the absolute best story in the book, and gets a standing ovation from me. Cugel the Clever functions in his classic role as writ by a writer that clearly knows him, and his Dying Earth environment, very well indeed. Loved it.
The Last Golden Thread by Phyllis Eisenstein (1/5) – This one came across as bad fan fiction by someone who seemed over-eager to demonstrate their own mastery of the mercantile arts. Her attempt to show us how certain characters we know are doing after the events we last saw them in were boring, and felt like I was being forced to participate in a pink tea party.
An Incident at Uskvosk by Elizabeth Moon (1/5) – This was one of those “Oh, I am so overwhelmed by this assignment! What am I going to do?! I know! I will simply submit a story I wrote 12 years ago and pretend it was written for this anthology! No one will know!” stories. And it was boring and over long to boot.
Sylgarmo's Proclamation by Lucius Shepard (1/5) - Derwe Coreme returns as a badass kung fu chick in this dry and dull tale full of modern clichéd tropes which features Cugel as an evil wizard.
The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or The Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee by Tad Williams (2/5) – This story had a few fun moments, but it functions as if a situational comedy, or one of those “it’s funny because they’re opposites!” buddy cop movies used a Dying Earth setting. I didn’t care for it.
Guyal the Curator by John C. Wright (3/5) – This was okay. It started kind of interesting, with an initial usage of the titular character making me cringe. It could’ve easily received a 2/5 from me. But then something miraculous happened. Wright made Guyal the Curator so convincing in his fully-realized, post Vance tale form it took my breath away. The way Guyal talked, thought, the way his powers worked was exactly the way it seemed that he should be if Jack Vance would’ve showed us himself what Guyal was doing after last we saw him. It was great! Too bad everything before that moment was so bleh.
The Good Magician by Glen Cook (3/5) – The gang of 21st Aeon super-magicians from Vance’s final Dying Earth title accompanies a young wannabe on an adventure. This was an okay story.
The Return of the Fire Witch by Elizabeth Hand (5/5) – This story was magnificent. Featuring a couple of powerful Cobalt Mountain witches, it had a very female oriented flavor to it, while also managing to capture the feel and atmosphere of Vance’s first Dying Earth book. These two characters functioned as remnants of a time long ago, mentioned by Vance in the chapter ‘The Murthe’ from Rhialto the Marvelous. Remember that during the Eleventh Epoch of the 17th Aeon, when the magicians and the sorceresses each strove to outdo the other, causing the War of the Wizards and Witches. These two Cobalt Mountain witches were every bit the way I imagined the average witches were like in that time, looking to The Murthe for guidance. Very clever, and very fun.
The Collegeum of Mauge by Byron Tetrick (3/5) – This story featured some youth training to become wizards. I think Tetrick made the task a little too easy for them, and fudging in places how Vance’s spells were supposed to work. But all in all it wasn’t a bad story. The appearance of a couple celebrities from the original books didn’t suck.
Evillo the Uncunning by Tanith Lee (1/5) – I don’t know Tanith Lee, and never read any of her work before. But this story gave me the impression that she wasn’t interested in writing a Dying Earth tale of her own and just wanted to play silly with the material. Tell me, is all of her work like this?
The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons (0/5) – Derwe Coreme returns as a badass kung fu chick, helping one of the 21st Aeon magicians save the world. This was the absolute worst story in the book, and it had the nerve to also be the longest. It was as if Michael Bey wrote a Dying Earth script and predictably filled it with every single modern action film cliché he could recycle.
Frogskin Cap by Howard Waldrop (1/5) – This was a very abstract and quirky story that didn’t seem like it belonged at all. Imagine if the mad poet Navarth was tripping on LSD, and wrote down what he saw in a nine page tale. That’s how odd this one was.
A Night at the Tarn House by George R.R. Martin (4/5) – Similar to the Liz Williams’ story, this one also was a good solid tale. Featuring a powerful necromancer in a story that seems like it could’ve been writ by Stephen King, it’s dark weirdness could’ve taken place in some far off land in the Dying Earth we’ve never heard of.
An Invocation of Curiosity by Neil Gaiman (5/5) – I already mentioned Gaiman. He’s the one that ends the book, and he goes ahead and quite literally shuts out the lights before he leaves. We get to see how a magician of decent force deals with the ultimate event based on his contingency plan. It was very fun, but I expected no less from this particular contributor.
A Tribute to Jack Vance
Favorite Character #5: CHUN the UNAVOIDABLE