Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois
Well, our two grizzled veterans have been at it again. In Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have produced another classy anthology for which I can offer the headline that there are no weak links. Every story is significantly better than good.
We need to clear the decks for action as I ready myself to take on another of these heavy-weight books — an almost seven-hundred page behemoth. As an ex-Vance completist, I used to have all the Underwood Miller editions including their first which was, by coincidence, The Dying Earth. What looked rather beautiful in an oversized hardback edition is replicated in this standard trade edition with the pages framed and line illustrations as headers to each story. Frankly, at this scale, it wastes space to no useful purpose. The book would have been slightly lighter and easier to handle had this affectation been eliminated.
Secondly, I’m not sure how to review this anthology. The stories are in homage to Jack Vance who was, by any standards, one of the best of the writers at work from the late 1940s onwards. Jack has magnanimously agreed to allow a new crew to sail in his Dying Earth universe. This is a good thing. If we are denied work from the Old Master, we can see what others can produce in the same setting. So does that mean I’m to produce two scores on the doors? The first as an evaluation of each story on its own merits and then judging how well the story works as a Vance pastiche.
Take the first by the venerable Robert Silverberg to show the problem. ”The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale” is very respectful and worthy. We see how the poet Puillayne reacts when his daily routine of alcoholically-inspired versifying is interrupted by the arrival of Porlocking fans. In spirit, it very positively fits into the Vancean style and, much as we assume Coleridge would have wanted to react, demonstrates what may happen when guests overstep the bounds of social propriety. Except the result is slightly po-faced. In the disposition of the inconsiderate interlopers, I miss Vance’s sly sense of humour. So it’s a very good story in its own right, albeit perhaps slightly too long. But it lacks a key Vancean element. This lack of wit is remedied in “Grolion of Almery” by Matthew Hughes who has been writing in the style of Vance for years and has grown particularly good at it. This story recreates a Cugel-type confrontation in the manse of a Magician proving there’s no problem that cannot be solved with deftness of hand and acuity of mind. The results of the solution are, of course, usually neutral with survival for anyone in Grolion’s position and all spoils of manipulative extravagances lost.
“The Copsy Door” by Terry Dowling captures the magic literally as irony stalks the land like a one-eyed chicken with a limp and takes the prematurely triumphant for a ride. As the sun sets in the Clever Window, it’s always good to look in a mirror and see single become double-crossers before the light fades away. “Caulk the Witch-chaser” by Liz Williams demonstrates the old rule that, if you allow a hard-bitten supernatural writer loose in a fantasy land, you get unexpectedly tough results. This has a harder edge that would usually be associated with Vance, but it’s sufficiently good we can enjoy it anyway as a piece of real estate becomes vacant at an opportune time with a wedding in the air. “Inescapable” by Mike Resnick obeys another of Vance’s laws — that everyone who insists on having his own way, gets his just deserts. It’s not so much that selfishness is punished, but that a refusal to listen to wise advice usually presages disaster. The converse of this is found in “Abrizonde” by Walter Jon Williams. Here an unfortunate architectural student finds himself in a jam but, with the help of his madling Hegadil, he contrives not only to survive, but also to prosper. It was ever the way in Vance where the cautious prevail.
Even at my advanced age, it’s always a pleasure to encounter someone new. In “The Traditions of Karzh”, Paula Volsky produces a delightful story which reminds us all that, if a person is realistic and maximises his endeavours within the physical and intellectual limitations with which he was born, he’s set for life. If change does become possible, it’s simply in the means with which he can pursue his own interests. Jeff VanderMeer’s approach is not so much as to wander off the Vance reservation as to redefine it in ways rather more phantasmagorical. In the wildly entertaining “The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod”, two servants must survive the Underhind to rescue two prisoners. Except they find themselves endangered as fishes out of water in this strange world.
“The Green Bird” by Kage Baker offers another adventure for Cugel who was never one to be slow in coming forward when the prospect of riches is in the offing. He finds there’s more than meets the eye in the titular bird and unlike the bird that draws blood with his beak, Cugel bites off more than he can chew. “The Last Golden Thread” by Phllis Eisenstein has a young man learn that, sometimes, you have to give up the past birds to recognise the bird in the hand. While Elizabeth Moon takes us racing in “An Incident in Uskvesk” where we find good things can come in small packages if you have the right motivation and a good depilatory cream. Lucius Shephard‘s “Sylgarmo’s Proclamation” reunites us with Cugel at a towering moment with the death of the sun imminent.
Tad Williams warns us in “The Lamentably Comical Tragedy” that even magicians serving suspension can be dangerous when provoked, while the Captain’s advice offered by Sir Henry Newbolt remains just as true today as when it was first written, “Play up! Play up! and play the game!” In “Guyal the Curator”, John C. Wright reminds us that disinterested intelligence underpins great investigative work. Honour satisfied may mean a form of contract or bargain between two people, but the availability and application of knowledge have the greatest value when the poor benefit, i.e. wisdom should be tempered by compassion. But, in “The Good Magician”, Glen Cook suggests that wisdom can be abused by those with selfish motives. Sometimes only the innocent should be allowed access to higher powers.
Which, of course, begs the question of what constitutes innocence. Can anyone with magical abilities ever be considered truly innocent? Morality is always flexible if one person may exert covert influence over another. So, “In the Return of the Fire Witch”, Elizabeth Hand would have us consider whether, even under duress, one witch should help another exterminate a malevolent ruling clan. “The Collegeum of Mauge” Byron Tetrick produces one of those causal loops in which time ill-spent by Cugel becomes the means of his rescue from the Spell of Forlorn Encystment. In Tanith Lee‘s “Evillo the Uncunning”, our hero finds his empty head apparently full of useful skills when he agrees to assist a snail. However, it may not be so convenient if this should become a more permanent arrangement, particularly if his name is known. And then when it comes to knowledge, what better place to find it than in a library, except to find the texts in readable form you need, “The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz” by Dan Simmons. This is wonderful peregrination halfway around the world without worrying how to get back. Such are the plans of mice and men. Included within these plans is the need for a librarian or, if the establishment is more a museum, then a curator. Recruiting such men at the end of the world is a challenge as Howard Waldrop explains in “Frogskin Hat”.
“A Night At the Tarn House” by George R R Martin shows an establishment that has given up its pursuit of a Michelin star, except when it comes to serving out deserts. Finally, “An Invocation of Incuriosity” by Neil Gaiman demonstrates the need to ensure you have everything you need when you evacuate from the end of the world.
All in all, Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance is a double-plus-good book, crammed to the rafters with excellence from writers all fantastical.
For an anthology edited by Gardner Dozois on his own, see: The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection
The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection.
For the autobiography of Jack Vance, see This is me, Jack Vance!
- Almost Human. Season 1, episode 1 (2013)
- Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Curtain. Poirot’s Last Case (2013)
- Everything You Need by Michael Marshall Smith
- Fair and Tender Ladies by Chris Nickson
- Fiddlehead by Cherie Priest
- Elementary: Season 2, Episode 10. Tremors (2013)
- I Can Transform You by Maurice Broaddus
- The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow
- Agatha Christie’s Poirot: The Labours of Hercules (2013)
- The Prisoner of the Riviera by Janice Law
- December 2013
- November 2013
- October 2013
- September 2013
- August 2013
- July 2013
- June 2013
- May 2013
- April 2013
- March 2013
- February 2013
- January 2013
- December 2012
- November 2012
- October 2012
- September 2012
- August 2012
- July 2012
- June 2012
- May 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- January 2010
- September 2009
- August 2009
- July 2009
- June 2009