Why Can’t They Write Stories Like This Anymore?
I haven’t been shy about singing the praises of Schuyler Hernstrom’s work in Cirsova issue 1 and issue 2. Then am I going to agree with Seagull Rising that “Hernstrom’s Images of the Goddess [from Cirsova issue 2] is better than Jack Vance’s Dying Earth”? Let’s not get crazy. But that criticism of Vance relative to Hernstrom is rooted in “the oppressive tone of [Vance’s] setting” versus “an element of hope and optimism in a brighter future” in Hernstrom’s work. His characterization of the two is fair, but I don’t share his conclusion. More on that in a bit.
(Scheduling Note: I just finished Heinlein’s Double Star but didn’t have time to write a review for today. That review should come soon. I pulled this review out and revised it because I’m starting Vance’s The Narrow Land collection while I’m in the Dakotas scouting out my future gulag for work. I hope to finally read Skelos issue 1 soon.)
The Dying Earth (now misnamed Mazirian the Magician, apparently) is a series of interconnected short stories set in, as it says right on the tin, a dying earth. That is, literally our earth (albeit presumably thousands and thousands of years into the future) and literally dying (well, with a literally dying sun, which will do for the earth when the time comes). Mazirian the Magician is indeed featured in the first story in the collection but isn’t seen again. The real main character of the stories is the setting. The characters and stories of each short are interesting, to be sure, and the stories are cunningly interconnected (usually with one character shared from one story the next), but the setting is the star. As is Vance’s gorgeous, redolent prose.
The Dying Earth stories were famously one of the primary inspirations for Dungeons & Dragons. It shows not only in the magic system, which was lifted wholesale and works much better here than in D&D, but also the original vision for the atmosphere of a D&D adventure. Gygax envisioned adventurers crawling through the ruins of long-forgotten civilizations in a dark age, not saving the world in an epic fantasy setting as it gradually morphed into, hence the inclusion of books like Hiero’s Journey (another great book) in the legendary Appendix N rather than more standard fantasy fare.
The magic system that Gygax borrowed works so much better in The Dying Earth because it adds to the sense of a world dying. Not just that it will end in the future, but of so much from the past that was lost. Mazirian and his ilk are pale shadows of the great wizards who strode that earth before them. It’s a world not only without hope for the future, but without hope for the present.
This is where I depart from Seagull Rising. The bleak outlook of Dying Earth, first published in 1950, wasn’t a “useful corrective in the early days of a nation’s greatness.” It was published in the wake of victory over great evil, it’s true, but a victory that had come at grievous cost and with news of the victory came full revelations of that evil. And it was a victory only achieved allied with another great evil. And it was the dawn of the atomic age. We were, as it turned out, a great enough nation to win the Cold War, but we didn’t know that then. It was a pretty dark and scary world then too. But as long as we live in a fallen world, there is room for dark fantasy, if only to remind us of our sinful nature and capacity for evil. And a reminder our sinful nature is a reminder of God’s grace.
5 of 5 Stars.
Jack Vance, and The Dying Earth, are explicitly mentioned in Appendix N.
James Maliszewski on The Dying Earth at Grognardia.
Jeffro on The Dying Earth at Castalia House.
Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode on The Dying Earth at Tor.com.