The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons
In a macabre kind of way, it’s actually convenient to come back to this story at this time. Jack Vance has just died. This is saddening. I’ve been reading his work for as long as I’ve been alive. He was ninety-six when he died so had a few years start on me. I discovered him in the early 1960s and never looked back. He was a wonderful writer. A few years ago, in celebration of his contribution to fantasy, we had an outstanding anthology called Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois. This was a book of highlights with some truly outstanding stories. One of them was The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2013). To give you an idea of just how good the story is, this limited hardcover edition was sold out almost as soon as the edition was announced. The combination of Dan Simmons and a Jack Vance theme was irresistible.
At this point, I need to rein in my own enthusiasm for a moment and assume you’ve never heard of Jack Vance and therefore could not care a fig that a modern author has revisited one of his worlds. It may even be possible you’ve never heard of Dan Simmons although that’s less likely if you have had any interest in science fiction, fantasy, horror and PI novels over the last twenty-four years. So let’s start with a clean slate and see where it takes us. The sequence we call the Dying Earth began with a short story in 1950. Like Topsy, this just grow’d into a sprawling sequence of novels describing the final days of Earth. As a planet, it has had an eventful history, first seeing the advance of technology and then the emergence of real magic. As the sun slowly loses its power, the population begins to fade away with no new children coming along. People fall back into simpler patterns of life, abandoning the supposed benefits of technology and embracing the natural flow of the world, now including magic. Indeed, it’s often hard to say when science stops and the supernatural begins. What might once have been strongly defined lines blur. Everything is an example of wonder in a fading landscape.
At the start of this story, we seem to be entering the final days as the sun grows weaker and struggles to rise over the horizon. Needing someone to blame for this latest catastrophe, the residual citizenry turns to attacking the few magicians they know. Needless to say, the magicians with real power simply relocate and ignore this riotous behavior, but news of the death of Ulfant Banderoz brings many out of hiding. This was the oldest of their number and the man who had established himself as the librarian of his age. Thinking they can now claim this accumulated knowledge for their own, the weak first-callers are destroyed by the residual spells protecting his library. This brings Shrue the Diabolist into play. He’s was the second oldest magician and now feels he should take control of the library for the good of the world. This sends him out into the world where he soon recognizes he has a real rival for access to the library. Thus begins an extended chase and sometimes violent dispute. As to where Shue goes. . . he just follows the nose which somehow seems to know where he should go.
All this represents a delightful allegory. Some seek knowledge for itself, having no purpose other than the satisfaction of curiosity. Others have more selfish motives, believing they are inherently entitled to knowledge so they can demonstrate their primary status. Needless to say, those whose motives are less than pure do not fare so well, while those of a more altruistic outlook prosper. Such is always the way in fairy stories written for adults. Taken overall, The Guiding Nose of Ulfant Banderoz is simply wonderful both in its own right and, should you have read any Jack Vance, as a recreation of Vancean style and attitude. You should read it. But this may prove difficult because the Subterranean Press limited edition was sold out almost as soon as it was announced. No doubt other editions will follow. However, the source anthology is equally wonderful with many outstanding stories. If you want the maximum value from multiple authors of rare talent, get access to Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois and incidentally enjoy the contribution from Dan Simmons.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.