Songs of the Dying Earth

Songs of the Dying Earth is a collection of short stories commissioned and collected by George R R Martin (currently best known, perhaps, for The Game of Thrones - now a TV series) and Gardner Dozois, another well known name to the cognoscenti.

All the stories are by different variously well known SF and Fantasy writers, and each is preceded by a short description of the author (and usually listing their best known or most honoured works, including a number of Hugos) with an afterword by the author of each story describing how they first came across the original Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance.

And that is what the anthology is for: it is a homage to Jack Vance, the creator of the Dying Earth setting, and the stories of the collection use that setting with his permission.

For anyone familiar with the setting, this collection is a must-read. For anyone not familiar with the setting Jack Vance's original collection is a must-read.

But this review is not targeted primarily for readers – I am writing it (initially, at least) for the Brighton Plot Bunnies web-site, and so this review is targeted at writers.

And for writers, too, the original Dying Earth stories are a must-read. And perhaps more so for writers than for readers, because even if the setting does not appeal, Vance's writing style is eye-opening. He clearly loves language, and the sound of language. If there isn't a right word for a concept, or the right word doesn't sound right, he makes one up which does sound right!

You are allowed to do this in both fantasy and in serious high-brow literature. Nowadays neologisms are not created with the same carefree abandon as in former centuries, in our century by American scientists, or in any century by philosophers, but tend to occur because the originator doesn't know there is already a word for what they mean.

On the other hand, I once read that the word “mutual” was made up by Samuel Johnson. It's such a useful word that it seems incredible that it did not exist before his time, and no mention of that is made in a couple of dictionaries I checked. Indeed, here is a quote from the New Oxford Review about Johnson and neologisms:

Boswell relates the following regarding the great Samuel Johnson: "Johnson assured me, that he had not taken upon him to add more than four or five words to the English language, of his own formation; and he was very much offended at the general license, by no means 'modestly taken' in his time not only to coin new words, but to use many words in senses quite different from their established meaning, and those frequently very fantastical."

But I digress.

Although Vance has written many novels, both fantasy and SF, the Dying Earth setting is unique. It is set around the 21st or 22nd aeon, when the Earth is old, and the sun has become a bloated, flickering red orb, on the verge of going out and leaving the remnants of humanity to freeze in perpetual darkness. That time may come tomorrow, or may be years or even centuries away. But everyone is aware of it, and action pauses and everyone looks up if the sun dims excessively at any moment.

Science and technology reached and peaked at undreamed of heights aeons before, and many civilisations and empires have risen and fallen since the peak, or perhaps several peaks. The distinction between science and magic has been forgotten, and the small population of surviving wizards, who may be centuries old, hoard what little knowledge they remember, and what few magical (or science based?) artefacts that survive.

Vance's characters are often, but not always picaresque rogues. One such is Cugel the Clever, the protagonist of three novels set in the Dying Earth. In any other setting he would be the villain, but the reader tends to be sympathetic towards him because his enemies are worse. On the other hand, Guyal of Sfere, one of the protagonists (and the title character) of one of the short stories in Vance's original collection, is a more Quixotic character.

But it is the writing which is most wonderful. All the characters communicate in the most baroque and flowery language, with subtle barbs and insults (where appropriate) and the style is, I think, inimitable.

So this is the setting of the stories in Songs of the Dying Earth. And almost all the stories attempt to mimic the style Vance used, with varying degrees of success. Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, various degrees of failure.

My impression is that, on the whole, the stories at the beginning of the collection come closer to imitating Vance's style. All the stories make use of the (mostly hinted at) geography, with references to places named in Vance's stories, such as the Land of the Falling Wall. The names themselves are evocative of the style.

But, as a writer, some of the things that struck me about this collection, are the details the writers have added, without (I think) realising the details are their own invention, and the details they have missed. And the characters they remember from Vance's work.

For example, one kind of creature Vance mentioned was a man-eating monster called a deodand. What is a deodand? They can speak, since on one occasion, in Vance's original stories, Rhialto the Marvellous captures and questions one (and then kills it).

As far as I can recall, Vance never described them, except to note that their colouring was completely black. (Not a human black.) Several of the modern writers, in Songs describe them in detail. I think Vance got it right, and it is a mistake to attempt to describe them more fully: leave it to readers' imagination. In one story (in which a character spends time with a deodand) they are described as having a charnel smell (because they eat human flesh). Possibly – but Vance never said so (or I missed it if he did), and it doesn't obviously follow from their diet.

There are various other Vance monsters mentioned, such as leucomorphs. One writer mentions that many of these various monsters are descended from human stock. Eh? Vance never said so.

And religion: one (of the many) mechanism for performing magic is through the control of entities called sandestins. (This is very clear in another of Vance's settings, a trilogy set in the isle of Avalon, which contains the kingdom of Lyonesse – although the settings are different, sandestins appear to me to be the same in both settings.) One of the authors describe sandestins as a type of minor demon (in a very Christian meaning of demon). Someone of a different faith would interpret sandestins very differently.

This is not meant as an attack on the writer: I'm sure he or she (I forget which author) really did apprehend sandestins as a type of minor demon. So, as writers, we need to remember how much baggage readers are bringing to their reading.

Another interesting detail was how many of the Songs stories mention Corwe Derwent, a minor female character who occurs in the Cugel the Clever trilogy. What was it about her that makes her so memorable (the female characters are not noticeably outnumbered by male characters)?

On the other hand, I think most of the memorable characters get mentioned in one story or another of Songs: characters such as Iocunu the Laughing Magician, Chun the Unavoidable and so on.

Which brings me onto another point I noticed: the majority of new characters invented by the writers of this anthology had names in a contemporary form: forename, surname. Most of Vance's characters have names of the form “name the epithet”. How could the writers fail to notice that?

In my own writing, I often feel (and critiquers often say) I lack description. But I think that's not true: it's just that I notice different details, and so include different details in what I write. I agree I must change: it's necessary to include, say, visual details for readers who like to visualise scenes, but do you, fellow writer, always remember to pay attention to the sort of details that I notice? For one thing, I would like more about sounds: like a character's voice, whether a character speaks loudly or softly and so on.

To end, here is a quote from one of the writer's afterwords (perhaps one of the writers more well known to people who do not generally read fantasy, although most of the writers are well known to SF and fantasy readers, and many of them have books in today's libraries):

Neil Gaiman:

“Every now and again, I've noticed myself crafting a Vance sentence, and it always makes me happy when I do – but he's not a writer I'd ever dare to imitate. I don't think he's imitable.”