George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds.,
Songs of the Dying Earth -- Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
(Subterranean Press, 2009)

Anyone who doubts the pervasive and ongoing influence of Jack Vance need only look at the table of contents to this tribute volume. Many of the contributors are legends themselves (Glen Cook, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, Robert Silverberg). Others are some of the clearest and strongest voices of newer generations (Kage Baker, Jeff Vandermeer). The influence seems to span the English-speaking world, from Britain (Matthew Hughes, Liz Williams) to Australia (Terry Dowling). And that's not even half of them.

One normally, in a review, discusses the text and its components, what it purports to aim for and whether it achieves that aim, but it strikes me that in a volume such as this one, that would be beside the point. These are all good stories. Given the caliber of the contributors and the editors, that's the least we can expect. True, there are some that are not my favorites, but that's sort of built-in and has more to do with my taste than the quality of the story. What is striking about this collection is the way in which the work of Jack Vance, in all its richness and inventive complexity, is refracted through the work of other writers, all of whom know his work and all of whom admire him.

I have to hand Robert Silverberg pride of place for having captured the tone of The Dying Earth to perfection. His story, "The True Vintage of Erzuine Thale," which opens the collection, is like reading Vance -- the diction; the light, distanced irony; the richness; the brittle and colorful characters are all there. And as one reads through this volume, one sees it again and again from a group of writers each of whom has his or her own distinctive voice. The playful irony of Kage Baker's story building ("The Green Bird") reflects back to Vance's own playfulness. The sardonic quality of Glen Cook's portrayal of humanity and its foibles ("The Good Magician") mirrors Vance's focus on some of our less-than-delightful traits. The "underground baroque" sensibility of Jeff Vandermeer ("The Final Quest of the Wizard Sarnod") echoes the baroque qualities of Vance's invention. Neil Gaiman's dreamlike story telling ("An Invocation of Incuriosity") and the crystalline surreality of Tanith Lee ("Evillo the Uncunning") both offer another insight into Vance's vision.

And the stories weave together, with each other and with Vance's original cycle. Baker gives us a story of Cugel the Clever (still not so clever as all that), while Turjan of Miir inhabits the story by Phyllis Eisenstein ("The Last Golden Thread"), which is not the only one to mention the witch Lith and her damaged tapestry. Rhialto the Marvellous makes an appearance in "The Good Magician." I could go on. The point is that, with this volume, we are adding another layer to Vance's stories of the Earth's final days.

All of these writers readily admit to being influenced, in one way or another, by Vance's writing. Most of them first encountered him as teenagers (as did I), haunting used bookstores or waiting eagerly for the next issue of Galaxy or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to arrive. (I'm pleased that Neil Gaiman cites "The Moon Moth," probably my own favorite Vance story, as the most nearly perfect science fiction story ever written. He's probably right. I'm not going to tell you how many years ago I read it -- on first publication -- but I still remember it vividly.) The most moving tribute is the introduction by Dean R. Koontz, "Thank You, Mr. Vance," which offers real-life evidence of the contribution a writer can make to the lives of others.

It's a sizable volume, coming in at somewhat more than 650 pages, but time just slips by while you're reading -- I told you the stories were all good -- as Jack Vance's Dying Earth once more takes shape in your mind in a new and larger form. I credit the talent of the authors and the sincerity of their appreciation for the fact that it really does seem like a continuation of the series.

 

[Robert M. Tilendis]

Subterranean Press, which brings us so many good things, is here.