This week’s recommendation is a tribute to Jack Vance, who died last month at the age of 96. `The Dying Earth’ , which came out in 1950, was his first book. Vance is a writer who makes the distinction between Fantasy and Science Fiction meaningless. This book is set very far in the future when the earth’s sun is nearly dead. `A million cities have fallen to dust’, strange creatures and cultures have arisen, and magic has largely replaced science. You can get `The Dying Earth’ on Kindle, as an audiobook, or in old paperback copies, but I’d suggest going for a paperback omnibus volume called `Tales of the Dying Earth’ which includes Vance’s three other `Dying Earth’ novels – `The Eyes of the Overworld (1966)’, `Cugel’s Saga’ (1983), and `Rhialto the Marvellous’ (1984).

`The Dying Earth’ is a short book comprising six interlinked stories. The first story tells how the sorcerer Turjan travels to Embelyon `the Land None Knows Where’ to discover how to make a perfect human being. He encounters T’sais, who has been created with a terrible flaw which makes her hate all that is good and beautiful. After carrying out a dangerous task, Turjan is able to create T’sain, a gentle sister for T’sais. In the second story, T’sain distracts an evil magician who is holding Turjan captive, and in the third T’sais explores earth, determined to find beauty or die. The fourth story describes how Liane the Wayfarer, a character who behaved very badly in the previous story, meets a nasty fate. In the fifth story a novice magician is sent to recover the legendary magic of an ancient ruler of the mysterious city of Ampridatvir, while in the sixth an insatiably curious young man seeks out the Curator of the Museum of Man.

Last June, I recommended Lord Dunsany’s Fantasy short stories set `beyond the fields we know’. Vance freely acknowledged that Dunsany was a substantial  influence on his early work.  The first series of `Dying Earth’ stories has the same mix of  eerie beauty, dark humour and delicate horror as the best of Dunsany’s `tales of wonder’. Both men invented their dream worlds while they were serving in terrible conflicts – World War I in Dunsany’s case and World War II in Vance’s. Perhaps this is why their stories are  more intense and poignant than any plot summary makes them sound.

Right from the start, Vance had the language skills to match his wonderful visual imagination. The Dying Earth is one of the most colourful and tuneful worlds I’ve encountered in fiction. For example, in Mazirian the Magician’s garden `Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow…Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upward from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds.’  Wherever Vance’s characters wander, from Embelyon with its blurred air and rippled sky to Ampridatvir with its ruined skyscrapers, or from the dark Lake of Dreams to the misty Land of the Falling Wall, place and atmosphere are perfectly evoked.

Short as these stories are, they are packed with delicious detail that leaves you longing to know more. Can you resist spells with titles like the Excellent Prismatic Spray, the Call to the Violent Cloud or the Charm of Untiring Nourishment? Or creatures such as the dragon-fly riding Twk-men, the prowling erbs, pelgrane with wings `that creak like rusty hinges’, or Chun the Unavoidable? Sometimes you feel that there is a whole story behind a throw-away line. Why do people stand `looking into a sunken pool where a pair of captured Deodands, their skins like oiled jet, paddled and glared’ and what is the history of the dreamy-eyed witch who `dwelt on the Cape of Sad Remembrance and waited at night on the beach for that which came in from the sea’? Any answers are left for the reader to imagine. Vance’s formal but zesty dialogue is also a constant delight. To take a favourite example,  a professional auger tells a potential customer, `I respond to three questions…For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language ; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.”

The people in `The Dying Earth’ belong to an era in which there is no future and the past seems much more glorious than the present – `humanity festers rich as rotten fruit’. Society has broken down, moral codes have failed, selfishness reigns and extreme cults flourish. In the fifth story, the Grays and the Greens, followers of rival cults, share a decaying city but refuse to recognize each other’s existence. All this has resonance for our own time, as does the profound sense of alienation endured by some of the characters. Vance wasn’t noted for writing strong heroines but fiery innocent, T’sais who feels `as if the entire universe had been expressly designed with an eye to jarring her, provoking her to fury’  is a memorable figure. She can’t appreciate the wonderful crystalline structures of Mathematics perceived by her creator but she is eventually helped to find beauty even amongst evil and suffering by a man cursed with extreme ugliness. As a character in the final story says, `only when the brain is without love will the eye look and see no beauty’.

Vance himself said that the three later `Dying Earth’ novels `are quite different from the original tales in mood and atmosphere’. They are ingeniously plotted black comedies following the fortunes and misfortunes of duplicitous anti-heroes. These books are highly entertaining in their sour way, but for me, nothing compares with those six original tales. However, as this is my 50th post on Fantasy Reads, here’s a bonus recommendation. If you think you might enjoy `The Dying Earth’, or already know that you do, there is also a recent anthology called `Songs of the Dying Earth’ edited by George.R.R.Martin and Gardner Dozois. After a preface by Vance himself, this book contains 22 stories, inspired by the `Dying Earth’ series, from authors such as Robert Silverberg,  Tad Williams, Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman. It will take you to the end of the world and back again. Until next week….