Mon
Jul 15 2013 2:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Jack Vance

The Dying Earth Jack VanceIn “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.

32 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Also worth mentioning is the Songs of the Dying Earth collection of homage stories, which was really, really good.
shawn keeling
2. longerwaves
@ Tim Callahan
Correction: It is 'Mazirian the Magician', not 'Maziran' as you have spelled throughout the article.
Also, I was hoping you would get to Vance as he is one of my favorite authors, especially the whole 'Dying Earth' series of stories.
I also 2nd the 'Songs of the Dying Earth' collection put together by Gardner Dozois and George R. R. Martin. It is a fine collection of short stories and a novella or two, and if you happen to really like Jack Vance distinct flavor of writing then even better!
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
2. longerwaves

I haven't read Shadow of the New Sun, the similar collection about Gene Wolfe, but I am really looking forward to it. I expect I'll have more to say about it here on Tor.com soon...
Paul Weimer
4. PrinceJvstin
One of my favorite authors, and much more than just the Dying Earth, too.
Mordicai Knode
5. mordicai
4. PrinceJvstin

I've got The Demon Princes on my shelf but haven't dug in yet.
Colin Bell
6. SchuylerH
@5: I've gone back to the start for my Vance read-through and have just reached Big Planet, another story where our characters wander through an evocative planet and encounter strange societies.
Hedgehog Dan
7. Hedgehog Dan
Huh, thank You very much, I've been waiting for this article since the start of this series! \o/

I frequently re-read the Dying Earth books (The Dying Earth collection, The Eye of the Overworld, Cugel Saga, Rhialto the Marvelous), and I love them all the same.

Somehow the characters - primarily, Cugel - reminds me that of the characters of the Mozart - Da Ponte co-productions, where many of them were amoral and full of ego, and they were presented in a satirical way.

Actually, these works are both larger-than-life and really, really subtle at the very same time, which shows how good a writer Vance is.

From the first book, my favourites are: Mazirian, the Magician, Ulan Dhor and the Guyal of Sfere. I love, how effortlessly can Vance create a whole world with billions(!) of years of history only with few words or sentences, like when in the very end of the Guyal of Sfere, the two main characters mention the previous civilizations in a few sentences.

Also, the Winged Beings still give me the creeps. Not just because they are eerie, haunting creatures, but the superstition of the folks inhabiting the nearby hills makes those folks vulnerable and complacent for the attack of those creatures (viewing them as some kind of angels). The melody which are the sign of their approach. The fact that our (anti)-hero is stranded in time. Their appearance, which is an angel-like cross of the Nazghul and the Mothman... huh! They are even more haunting then the Others which is a feat!

Anyway, Vance is a real treasure, and I can only recommend to others. :)
Hedgehog Dan
8. TimCallahan
@longerwaves
I can't believe I misspelled that guy's name. I liked that guy! My mind must have been blown by the prose.

We wrote this installment a while back, and I'm STILL looking forward to the time when I will free up my schedule and go back into some more Vance. That's one good writer of imaginative fiction, kids!
Hedgehog Dan
9. JohnnyMac
When it comes to Vance's Dying Earth stories, personally I prefer the ones in the original collection. They have a simplicity, almost a fairy tale quality to them that I love. The Cugel the Clever and Rhialto the Marvelous stories are good (they are by Jack Vance after all) but, in comparison to the original stories, I find them overly elaborate, too baroque. This is just a matter of individual taste of course.

By the way, Jack Vance's complete works are available in ebook format thru his website: jackvance.com. The prices are reasonable. "The Dying Earth" collection is listed under the title Vance prefered: "Mazirian the Magician".
Tim Eagon
10. Tim_Eagon
I've only read one Vance book and that's the original The Dying Earth collection. I loved it; my favorite story is "Ulan Dhor," which is the most SF story in it.
Walker White
11. Walker
I called him post-Lovecraft but really he’s more post-Clark Ashton Smith.

The omission of Smith from Appendix N is a glaring oversight, particularly the Zothique stories. This is also a dying earth millieu, but much darker and sinister. Indeed, the module Castle Amber reads like an extended apology for dropping Smith from Appendix N.
Tim Eagon
12. Tim_Eagon
11. Walker

Hey, at least he made the Moldvay Suggested Reading list!
Mordicai Knode
13. mordicai
11. Walker

I wrote a post on Derleth & wondered how he made it in but CAS didn't; it does seem odd.
Tim Callahan
14. TimCallahan
From what I've heard, Gygax had never read CAS until after D&D was already developed (Rob Kuntz introduced him to Ashton Smith's works), and Gygax just didn't find the writing much to his liking. So that's why it wasn't in Appendix N -- Gygax hadn't read the guy prior to D&D and he didn't like the prose. But the content of the CAS stuff does feel pretty heavily D&Dish!
Tim Callahan
15. TimCallahan
Also, Gygax protege and all-around smart guy Jeff Talanian created the "Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea" game built atop the D&D rules system and that's heavily based on Ashton Smith's tone and setting details and it was just nominated for a bunch of awards.

(And, if you're interested, and on Google +, I'm running an online game of it that still has some openings -- a one-shot scheduled for 8:00 PM EDT on Sunday night -- let me know if you want to join in!)
shawn keeling
16. longerwaves
I should have included in my original post that I have a thing for the "Dying Earth" setting, or, more to the point the very very far future earth settings. Some authors I know of and have read from include Gene Wolfe, Clark Ashton Smith, Cordwainer Smith, M. Johm Harrison, Walter M. Miller Jr. and Brian Aldiss (Hothouse). There are some recent works that I have read that make use of this setting to varying degrees. Mark Lawrence and his 'Prince of Thorns' which I think is fairly good, Richard K. Morgan's 'The Steel Remains' and Michael Swanwick's 'Darger & Surplus' short stories and one novel (so far!) all use the very far future in interesting and different ways. For whatever reason this hits my sweet spot and if anyone out there could recomend any other books or short stories of the same ilk, I would be indebted to you. Thank you.
shawn keeling
17. longerwaves
Forgot to mention Moorcock. I don't know how, but I did. I am now fixing this by posting this. Michael Moorcock and his Count Brass stories.
Mordicai Knode
18. mordicai
16. longerwaves

Me too! My game is, well, weird, but that is one of the main strands of DNA in it.

17. longerwaves

The Hawkmoon, that is my jam!
Hedgehog Dan
19. JohnnyMac
http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots0345.html

After much rummaging through the archives, I finally found the line I wanted to quote here from Rich Burlew's web comic "The Order of the Stick":

"Truly, more wizards have been laid low the writings of Jack Vance than by any single villain."

That is from #345 for those who want to read that line in context (web address above).

By the way, anyone who enjoys D & D and related games and who is not reading tOotS is missing a real treat. Burlew combines a sharp comic sensibility with a rare gift for story telling.
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
19. JohnnyMac

In this last page, where the lich was like "NO REDCLOAK YOU DON'T GET TO DERAIL THE STORY TO START ANOTHER GOBLIN UTOPIA" made me be like "eff yeah, Redcloak." That is exactly my jam as a player.
Hedgehog Dan
21. JohnnyMac
20. mordicai

One of the things I love about that comic is the way it has grown over time. It started out simply as a cartoon making jokes about D & D type games and those who play them. It has developed into a compelling story with a great set of characters. Burlew throws in plot twists that have me going: "OMG, I never saw that coming!! What happens next?!" And he does this while still regularly bringing the funny.

The mark of a great story teller is the ability to hold his audience's attention. Rich Burlew has that in spades.
Mordicai Knode
22. mordicai
21. JohnnyMac

But for real though, specifically, derailing campaigns to set up goblin utopias is my actual MO as a PC.
Tim Eagon
23. Tim_Eagon
Man, I wish Jack Vance was easier to find on the secondary market. Usually, I can find any book by any author if I look at all the used stores where I live, but Jack Vance is the one exception. I've even found that your choices are relatively limited if you search the Internet (I try to keep my S&H fees reasonable, which is even more limiting).

I've never seen a Vance book in a store like B&N, which is a damn shame.
Colin Bell
24. SchuylerH
@23: You can buy ebook versions from the official Jack Vance website.
Tim Eagon
25. Tim_Eagon
@24 SchulyerH

Yeah, I know I can get ebook versions, but between my wife and my daughter, I hardly get to even look at our tablet. In any case, I prefer physical books...they make my bookshelf look cool.
Colin Bell
26. SchuylerH
@25: I know, I went with the Gollancz hardcover for the Lyonesse trilogy. When placed next to the collected Lovecraft and Howard's original Conan, it adds an enjoyable air of menace to any shelf. Have you tried searching on AbeBooks or (my favorite) BookFinder?
Mordicai Knode
27. mordicai
23. Tim_Eagon

I've seen the Dying Earth omnibus at a couple of B&Ns here in NYC. As for the other stuff, I feel you; I have had to use a couple of online vendors along the way with this re-read. More than a few.

26. SchuylerH

Yeah! That sounds like a pretty shelf. I used to have my Vance next to my Wolfe, but then...well...the Wolfe took over a whole shelf...& then a little bit of another. Now it is back next to it, but on the next level.
Hedgehog Dan
28. JohnnyMac
25. Tim_Eagon, 26. SchuylerH

I love my Kindle. I still treasure my old paperbacks and I dearly love a well made hardback book. But the Kindle (and other ereaders) provide an amazing convinence for a reader. The ebook format means that works that would be, at best, expensive and hard to find are available in a matter of minutes at reasonable prices.

My Kindle gives me the ability to carry a bookcase full of books in my pocket. Last month I had to travel back East for a week. Without my Kindle I would have lugged a stack of paperbacks with me, adding to my load and worrying about losing them. With my Kindle, I spent a pleasant hour online buying books for my trip and then tucked it in a pocket when I left the house. With it, hours in airport lounges or cramped economy seats or sterile hotel rooms passed pleasantly because in despite of mundane reality I was off on Watership Down or Cold Comfort Farm or Tschai.

I do wish more authors or their estates would do as Jack Vance did and make all of their works available as ebooks.

Again, I do not think the ebook is going to replace the printed book but it does add an option I am very glad to have.
Colin Bell
29. SchuylerH
@27: It is. The six Big Black Books, the Barnes and Noble Jules Verne Omnibus, Jo Fletcher's complete M. R. James and Gollancz's four-volume Best of H. G. Wells. I haven't seen much Vance in the wild; only the Lyonesse books and the original SF Masterworks Emphyrio spring to mind.
Hedgehog Dan
30. Kenny Shelswell
Having read Michael Moorcock (half your luck) "Dancers at the End of Time" series decades ago and always held those books as favourites, reading Jack Vance "Dying Earth" books gave me one of those moments when you realise a treasured song is actually a cover of an original song!
Colin Bell
31. SchuylerH
@30: A lot of Moorcock consists of cover versions... It could be argued that Vance himself was working in a subgenre started by William Hope Hodgson and developed further by Clark Ashton Smith in the "Zothique" stories.
Ryan Dick
32. Wilbur
Jack Vance creates probably the most beautifully baroque prose in either scifi or fantasy genres, and his range is tremendous, writing everything from noir mysteries to creation myths to cultural encounters.

If you like the peripatetic nature of the Cugel stories, you might also try his novel Ports of Call, wherein a young spacefarer sees a variety of worlds in the company of a set of rather more experienced and quirky crewmen who like nothing better than drinking exotic liquors and interfering in local customs to humorous effect.

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