Advanced Readings in Dungeons & Dragons

Advanced Readings in D&D: Jack Vance

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In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the sixth post in the series, featuring a look at Jack Vance’s collection of stories known as The Dying Earth.

Tim Callahan: All I knew about Jack Vance, before reading The Dying Earth, was that he’s the reason the “magic-user” in Dungeons and Dragons could only memorize a spell or two, and would forget them immediately after casting. Everyone in the tabletop gaming community talks about Vancian magic all the time—to have or not to have—but in reading this book I finally got to see why. These wizards (or magicians, or whatever they’re called) have some potent spells with fancy names like “the Excellent Prismatic Spray” and “Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth” and they only get one shot to cast them before they have to dig back into their ancient tomes.

It is the “dying” Earth after all, so everything here has a tragic bent. Though, I must admit, I found the book—not really a novel, but a collection of stories with the same expansive setting—much more hopeful than I expected with the name that it has. The final story, in particular, “Guyal of Sfere,” is a confident burst of celebration from the author. A rousing conclusion to the cycle of stories.

Mordicai Knode: Also worth noting that everybody’s favorite evil wizard turned lich turned demigod turned major deity, Vecna, is named after a “Vance” anagram. & while we are pointing out bits and pieces—like the prismatic spray, which is such an amazing piece of writing, such a great turn of phrase, that it inspired a whole range of spells—I want to mention the ioun stones. In Dungeons & Dragons they are these little gemstones that float around your head—I always imagined the Bit from Tron—but in The Dying Earth story that inspired them, the IOUN stones are much more sinister and are gleaned from the center of a dwarf star that has been cut in half by the shrinking edges of the universe. Just let that sink in; that is really an incredible idea.

And those sorts of ideas are scattered all over the book, like some pirate with holes in his pocket idly scattered gold doubloons all over it. The whole “baroque civilization beyond civilization, at the end of all things” shtick really works for me. It has informed a lot of authors that I hold in the pinnacle of esteem—Gene Wolfe, I am talking about you—and more over directly influenced me & my roleplaying setting. I mean, it is hard not to read this and think “well, I’ll borrow that, thank you very much.”

TC: I certainly liked some of these stories more than others—and was disoriented at first because I didn’t realize they were distinct stories and thought I had missed some plot connections between the first few chapters until I figured out that this was actually a collection of short, self-contained pieces—but there’s no doubt that The Dying Earth is full of brilliant, inspirational, exciting ideas.

And Vance is just such a great writer, purely on the level of his prose, particularly compared to some of the other authors we’ve been digging into for this Gygaxian project. He’s a prose stylist, in control of his sentences and imagery, in the way that other “great” sci-fi/fantasy writers tend not to be. Sure, there are exceptions, but Vance is a big one. If The Dying Earth is an accurate representation of how he writes, I’m surprised he hasn’t been claimed by a larger segment of the literary establishment. He’s got the goods.

MK: Well I think that the exile of anything with a spaceship or a wizard into the genre ghetto is a bigger problem than Jack Vance, but you are right, he’s a prime example of someone who deserves much more critical attention. He’s got a poetry in his writing that is a sort of madness; it can consume entire passages, it can get out of hand, but it is also a bit of a brilliant glow in the dark gloom of the Overworld. In a lot of ways I think Jack Vance reminds of a very post-Lovecraft writer. He has the same sort of addiction to purple prose, but where H.P. Lovecraft can tend towards overuse of terminology and has a fondness for stacked archaic adjectives, Jack Vance can reign in his lyrical flourishes with a bit of the gonzo surrealism, and then dilute that with a dose of a scoundrel’s internal monologue.

Jack’s biggest contribution—beside the actual text of his writing—is the crystalization of a genre. I called him post-Lovecraft but really he’s more post-Clark Ashton Smith. He took that sort of high brow weird—the inheritors of Poe and Dunsany—and smashed it together with the pulp action of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells. Vance might not have created the Dying Earth notion, but he sure stitched it together & slapped a name on it.

TC: Let’s talk about some of the individual stories a bit. On the first read-through, I’d say my favorite were “Maziran the Magician,” “Guyal of Sfere,” and “T’Sias.” The latter two have the most interesting plot sequences and world exploration and the former is the most compressed and evocative.

You’re right about his ability to harness the poetry of his purple prose, and he does it well with “Maziran,” bombarding the readers with imaginative terminology that’s strange and wonderful and implies a vast reality, yet to be fully explained.

That’s one of the things I enjoyed about Vance—he doesn’t explain everything. You’ll get a sense of who the characters are and what they want, and the plot will make sense, but he’ll toss off these references to people and places and spells and customs without elaborating on them in any great detail. They are ultimately just flavor, but because he uses language so precisely, the references are packed with implicit meaning that you don’t need to fully understand to appreciate.

It’s kind of like, for me anyway, when I was a kid, and I’d read the AD&D Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide and just read through some of the spell names or magic item titles (without reading the descriptions below) and imagine what weird and wonderful things these powers and items could do.

Vance reminded me of that world of possibilities, almost on every page.

So much for talking about individual stories. Here I go digressing on his style again!

MK: That sort of background logic—you mention Vance not explaining everything—really adds a frenetic energy to a lot of his stories. It shows that things are moving, even when the action isn’t focused on them. Notably there are the deodands—what, mutants? Aliens? Cannibal wizards?—who he sketches into shape largely through their absence, through hearsay and rumor. But you wanted to talk about the stories, and I’m drifting off kilter, too! Actually, I know a way we can do both: let’s talk about the stories in chunks, separated by character.

I know Cugel the Clever is really the exemplar of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, but I vastly prefer Rhialto the Marvellous. I know some people would find that to be heresy, but the trickster archetype can start to grate on my nerves after a bit…which is, I think, part of the point, and Vance is always careful to give a mix of comeuppance and victory at the end of his stories. That said, I think the college of wizards who gather together at the end of the 21st Aeon are charming as heck. Rhialto as the dandy, as a wizard with demigod-like power who spends his time picking up chicks? Cracks me up. I’d say the Rhialto collection is my favorite bit, followed by the scattered short stories, with Cugel’s stuff coming in last place.

TC: I haven’t yet read any of the Rhialto or Cugel stuff, just Vance’s first collection, and neither of those characters have shown up yet. But alt-comics superstar Ben Marra tells me that Cugel is probably his favorite character in any medium, and I should definitely continue on past this initial foray into Jack Vance read the books that feature that guy. You say Rhialto’s better though? Explain a bit more about that, because I probably won’t have time to read all the Vance books anytime soon, so why should I skip the two Cugel books and go right to the fourth book to get a dose of Rhialto?

MK: Rhialto is a pompous dandy…with the power of a planetcracking superbeing. He’s part of a coven of wizards who think he’s probably a slacker, but even if they are right it still makes him one of the most powerful beings of…well, post-history. The stories Vance tells about him are the ones where he really goes off the rails; in a lot of his stories there is a tinge of the vast supernatural, lurking in the margins, but in the Rhialto saga, they are the incredible intrusions of the epic scope. Riding around on spaceships eating magnificent feasts, slinging spells at aliens & getting wrapped up in the soap opera of other nigh omnipotent beings…I just think the tales them self are smashing. Psychadelia meets Joseph Campbell, at the edge of a decaying universe. Gorgeous stuff, but then, isn’t all of the Dying Earth?

TC: From what I’ve read, yes. But it looks like I haven’t even gotten to all the great stuff that comes in the later books. Unlike some of these Appendix N books, which I’m just checking off from a mental list and moving on, Vance’s work is definitely something I look forward to coming back to and reading a whole bunch more.


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

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