Songs of the Dying Earth by George R.R. Martin

(2010-12-20)

Songs of the Dying Earth by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (eds.)

670 pages

Tor Hardcover

Jack Vance's stories about the last days of Earth, when the ancient Sun hangs red in the sky, the great cities of civilization have fallen into ruin, and science has been replaced by magic, are classics of science fiction and fantasy. Written between 1950 and 1984, the tales of Dying Earth have inspired generations of readers. In this collection edited by George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire) and Gardner Dozois (The Year's Best Science Fiction), a star-studded cast of writers pays tribute to Vance with tales set in the world he created.

Let's start with the names: Robert Silverberg, Matthew Hughes, Terry Dowling, Liz Williams, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams, Paula Volsky, Jeff VanderMeer, Kage Baker, Phyllis Eisenstein, Elizabeth Moon, Lucius Shepard, Tad Williams, John C. Wright, Glen Cook, Elizabeth Hand, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Howard Waldrop, George R.R. Martin, and Neil Gaiman. Plus an introduction from Dean Koontz and a preface from Jack Vance himself. Little else need be said about this group.

As for the stories, this collection is a dream come true for anyone who wanted to know more about the Dying Earth that we only get glimpses of in Vance's original tales. Not only is the world's geography more fully explored, but we even get to enjoy more tales featuring Cugel the Clever, Rhialto the Marvelous, Chun the Unavoidable, Turjan, Guyal, and Lith, not to mention twk-men, leucomorphs, pelgranes, deodands and sundry demons. I'd say about half of the stories feature one or more of Vance's characters, while the other half of the stories have completely original characters but are still unmistakably in Vance's world. Of the latter, one story may not feature Rhialto or Ildefonse, but will have bickering wizards with their heads full of spells. Another may not star that rogue Cugel, but will feature characters with bloated egos and dubious reputations. Pervading all of these tales is the entropic beauty of a world nearing its end and the fatalism of its inhabitants who wonder whether the Sun will rise tomorrow. And though many of these authors admit that Jack Vance's writing style is inimitable, they make a praiseworthy effort at mixing Vance's epic tone with the humorous situations characteristic of the later Dying Earth stories.

I preferred the stories with original characters to the ones featuring Vance's characters, and found that the more Vance wrote about a particular character, the less I enjoyed the stories in this collection about this character. In other words, the Cugel and Rhialto stories in this collection were among my least favorites, either failing to add much to the rich characters Vance had created or portraying them in offputting ways. Lucius Shepard's "Sylgarmo's Proclamation," for example, is an entertaining adventure, but whoa, is his depiction of Cugel dark! On the other hand, Mike Resnick's story of Chun the Unavoidable and Lith, "Inescapable," takes two characters from one of Vance's greatest short stories, "Liane the Wayfarer," and tells a tale that builds upon their story while giving it an interesting twist. Two other less prominent Vancian characters, Shrue the Diabolist and Derwe Coreme, star in Dan Simmons's novella "The Guiding Nose of Ulfänt Banderōz," a rollicking adventure featuring dueling wizards, powerful demons, flying ships (much like the one Cugel created in Cugel's Saga, and come to think of it, very similar to the Templar ships in Simmons's Hyperion books!) and yes, a nose that points the way.

As I said earlier, though, most of my favorite stories were the ones with original characters. Walter Jon Williams's "Abrizonde" is a story about an architecture student who finds himself in the middle of a castle siege and must resort to his unique array of spells (and his trusty madling) to hold off the enemies at the gate. I felt this story quite effectively captured both the culture of Dying Earth (especially in the conceit of its warriors and mages) and Jack Vance's famous magic system. Tad Williams contributes "The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or The Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee," a hilarious story about a charlatan and a deodand that serves as a cautionary tale for those foolish enough to dare blackmail a wizard. Elizabeth Hand's "The Return of the Fire Witch" eschews the typical Vancian wizards in favor of a pair of witches, one of whom shanghais the other into a devious revenge plot involving a piece of long lost musical magic that should have remained lost. George R.R. Martin's knack with characterization and peripatetic viewpoints in "A Night at the Tarn House" breathes new life into the old fantasy staple of random strangers – including a world-weary wizard, a wizard hunter, and a scurrilous rogue – meeting at an inn you don't want to visit.

Accompanying each contributor's tale is a biographical sketch and a brief memoir about his or her first exposure to Vance. As I read about these popular authors as kids, their worlds forever changed when they discovered Vance's writing in back issues of F&SF or coverless second-hand paperbacks, I couldn't help but think of the books that I read as a kid that have stayed with me through the years. Another nice touch was the inclusion of interior illustrations on the first page of each story.

Songs of the Dying Earth is a wonderful collection of stories that does justice to the world Vance created, an expertly edited and packaged book, and a fitting tribute to a writer who truly deserves it. One need not even have read Jack Vance's original Dying Earth stories to enjoy Songs of the Dying Earth, but I recommend reading Vance's stories first. After all, there is a very good reason why so many acclaimed writers were inspired by them. For those of you who have not yet visited the Dying Earth, I envy you and wish you a pleasant journey. For those of you who are making your return, I assure you that you will not be disappointed. But do not tarry, for who knows if the Sun will rise tomorrow?

© 2010 Arthur Bangs

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