Tales of the Dying Earth

Last week I read the first novel in Jack Vance’s collection Tales of the Dying Earth. The concept of what Earth will look like when our Sun is close to dying is a really interesting concept, and I think that Vance has created a deeply intricate, dynamic interpretation. The combination of magic and science in his novel is a bit confusing at first, but as I read through the novel I was gradually able to figure out some of the “magic” that was actually advanced technology, such as ancient runes generating energy shields and magic tubes that were really blasters.

Despite that, I’m not sure if I’ll go back and read the other three novels within that universe. There are two main reasons for this:

The stories are very formulaic: In each of the short stories contained in this first novel, and the beginning of the second, Vance uses the same basic formula: a protagonist faces some sort of difficulty, and must go on a quest. In too many cases, the protagonist meets another character who forces the question upon them, for some reason. The protagonist then faces a number of trials until they complete their quest or, in a couple cases, fail.

The female characters are … well, a disgrace: I have no idea why, but every female character that Vance creates in his first novel are weak, ineffectual and totally dependent on a male protagonist that they end up falling in love with. I realize Vance’s first novel was published in the 1950s, but I’ve read other work from earlier where the female characters have more agency. Even T’sais, who begins Tales running around trying to kill anything that moves with her sword, ends up meeting a male wizard and transforms into an uncertain weakling dependent on her new love’s direction to act.

These two flaws are pretty glaring, so odds are I won’t return to Vance’s writing. I will, however, be reading Songs of the Dying Earth, a collection of stories set in Vance’s world and edited by George R.R. Martin. My hope is that more contemporary writers will improve on the original Tales. Either way, expect me to post about it.

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