It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


Songs of the Dying Earth

sdelgSongs of the Dying Earth, edited by George RR Martin and Gardner Dozois
(Harper Voyager, 660pp, £8.99 pbk)

Few of us would disagree that Jack Vance is a man whose career deserves respect; and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then an anthology of stories which ape one of his creations must seem like a fine and commercial tribute. And yet… The Dying Earth first appeared in 1950. It is over sixty years old. The average age of the contributors to Songs of the Dying Earth is no younger. This anthology, then, is an exercise in nostalgia. Though its cover proclaims it contains “stories in honour of Jack Vance”, it is not a homage: its contents are not inspired by Vance’s creation, they pastiche it. Each of the twenty-two stories uses places and characters invented by Vance. Further, while some directly reference stories written by Vance; one, by Liz Williams, bases its plot directly on one by Vance.

The original The Dying Earth was a short story collection of 176 pages. Songs of the Dying Earth is nearly four times larger. This means those factors which lent the original its charm soon overstay their welcome: the ornate, archaic language; the amusing names of people, places and spells; the science-fictional tone in service to fantastical magic; the constant references to the dying sun. Over 660 pages, these conceits lend every story a similar affect, making each of the stories blend and merge into the one following. Songs of the Dying Earth reads like a novel without a plot and an interchangeable cast. It is, then, a book to be dipped into, not to be read from cover to cover.

While the anthology may provide a varied read only in small doses, the quality – and flavour – of the contents is equally variable. A handful stand out. Kage Baker, who appears to be the only contributor who remembered that many of Vance’s Dying Earth stories were very funny. Lucius Shepard, who shows more invention than most (with footnotes), though a thorny moral discussion in the middle jars somewhat. Elizabeth Hand, whose story is the only one to feature female protagonists (she should also be rewarded for the invention of “Punctilious Trousers”). And Jeff Vandermeer, who brings a foreign, but welcome, note of the surreal; his is perhaps the least accurate imitation, but it is better for it.

However, John C Wright’s and Elizabeth Moon’s stories are completely tone-deaf; unlike Terry Dowling and Walter Jon Williams, who both manage to catch the flavour of Vance’s originals. Neil Gaiman’s story bizarrely opens in present-day Florida. Matthew Hughes, given his career to date, provides an oddly disappointing tale. Robert Silverberg’s opening story is dull, as is Mike Resnick’s. Liz William’s is memorable chiefly for being so miserable. Dan Simmons provides a novella, the longest story in Songs of the Dying Earth. The remainder – Paula Volsky, Phyllis Eisenstein, Tad Williams, Glen Cook, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Howard Waldrop and co-editor George RR Martin – are somewhere in between.

Each story features an afterword in which the writer explains how they first discovered Vance’s The Dying Earth, and what it now means to them. In almost all cases, they discovered the book at an impressionable age during the 1960s or early 1970s. These afterwords suggest that Songs of the Dying Earth is indeed a celebration of Vance’s creation. Certainly, it seems poorly-designed to introduce a new generation of readers to Vance’s oeuvre – most of which is out of print, anyway. And purely as an anthology, the sameness of its contents works against it.

Overall, it’s hard to not suspect the writers had more fun writing the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth than readers will have reading them.

This review originally appeared in Interzone, #238, January-February 2012.


Reading Challenge #3 – Star King, Jack Vance

Ringworld and Rendezvous With Rama could certainly be considered classics of science fiction. And Jack Vance is certainly a classic sf author, and has written a couple of classic sf novels. But Star King is not one of them. However, Vance has always been a singular voice in sf, and I’ve always liked his books. So sticking one of his titles on the list for my 2009 Reading Challenge was a no-brainer. And I decided to choose one I’d not read for many years – for a couple of decades, even.

Star King is the first book of the Demon Princes quintet. The series’ story follows Kirth Gersen as he wreaks his revenge on five interstellar criminals who were responsible for enslaving his town when he was a child. Each novel details his revenge on one of the criminals. The first criminal is Attel Malagate the Woe, a member of an alien race known as Star Kings.

Star Kings are actually humanoid amphibians, but appear entirely human. They are also intensely competitive and driven to excel. The fact that Malagate is a member of this race does help Gersen eventually identify him…

Gersen has been brought to be an instrument of revenge by his grandfather. He has all the necessary skills, and is especially effective at unarmed combat. His grandfather dies and leaves him with a single name, a pirate captain he recognised who was present when the town was enslaved. In a flashback, Gersen visits the pirate, tortures him until he gives up the names of the five criminals – the demon princes of the series’ title – and then kills him.

While meditating on this information at Smade’s Tavern on Smade’s World, Gersen meets Lugo Teehalt, a locator who has discovered an Edenic world ripe for settlement. However, Teehalt has learnt that his sponsor is Malagate, and he doesn’t want to hand over the location of the world to the criminal. Teehalt is then murdered by three other guests of the tavern – who admit they work for Malagate. They take Gersen’s ship, assuming it is Teehalt’s.

Gersen finds Teehalt’s ship, and there are enough clues in it to indicate that Malagate is one of three administrators at Sea Province University on the world of Alphanor… But which one?

I read Star King in a day. There’s not much in it. My edition, the 1988 Grafton paperback, has only 208 pages. And even then, there’s not that much plot. Gersen fortuitously meets Teehalt. Gersen stumbles on a clue to Malagate’s real identity. Gersen puts into effect plan to identify Malagate. Plan works – albeit with one or two minor hurdles to overcome.

Vance has fleshed this out by having Gersen questioning everything he learns and everything he does. It makes the story somewhat… conditional. It’s bad enough that the plot starts with a coincidence, but the continual second-guessing only makes it seem as if Gersen is being driven by the plot rather than vice versa. Even the resolution relies on events Gersen could not have foreseen or planned for. He has his plan, yes; but the final clues which reveal which of the three administrators is Malagate are not part of it.

Still, this is a novel by Jack Vance. And you read his books as much for his voice as for the story. In that respect, Star King does not disappoint. It might be a thin work, but it could never be mistaken for another writer’s novel. Perhaps it’s more lightweight than I’d remembered, but it’s still a fun read. There are worse ways to kill a couple of hours, and certainly worse books available in any book shop.

I’m tempted to read the other four books of the Demon Princes series, but… the to-be-read pile is big enough already. Another day perhaps.