There is something unusual about Jack Vance which reminds me of two of my other favorite writers, Philip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem. That is the conceit of hiding subtle, and nuanced social commentary beneath a veneer of light escapism. Lem, writing from behind the iron curtain, wrote brilliantly clever Robot fairy tales with sly underlying critiques of power and human folly. Those who know Philip K Dick's work also know how much biting wit he hid behind what seem superficially goofy sci fi tales.
I'm starting to realise Vance was doing much the same thing. The first time I read the Dying Earth (the original anthology of short stories) was when I found it on a bookshelf as a young teenager. I found the stories entertaining at the time, with hints of genius, but ultimately they seemed like nothing more or less than escapism, of the kind of fantasy found in the dungeons and dragons games I was into back then (no coincidence, Vance was a key inspiration for that game, for better or worse), albiet perhaps the best possible example of the genre I had encountered.
As I ran into the other Dying Earth novels over the years, and read them again and again, I think I originally had the same reaction many other people did. I was a little put off at first by the grandiose words and odd use of language (I had to read the books with a dictoinary by my side) the flowery dialogue, the 'thin' unlikely plot. But early on I recognized something about it that was unique.
Over the years, as I vorcaciously absorbed basically everything written in the Fantasy and Sci Fi Genres, it was Vance and one or two others that stuck with me. Returning again and again to the Dying Earth books in particular, it was the small things about them which increasingly struck me as more than merely clever and amusing... the ironic prose, the delightful come-uppances, the ruthless turn-abouts, the put downs and verbal contests. As so much else fell by the wayside, the words of Jack Vance stayed with me.
As I grew older and began to experience people from all walks of life, some of these characters and situations resonated still more. It struck me, that what had seemed like haphazard or almost random human situations in those stories were actually archetypes of many dilemmas in the human condition, some of which I had never seen expressed as clearly anywhere else. The self serving morality, the technical obfuscation, the distorted spirituality... the facility of man to delude himself. These traits shine through from the characters in the books, and I recognized them more and more often in real life. How many times have I encountered the rationaization of the "laws of Equivalency" in real life, or felt the pang of self doubt that cugel does just as he realises he's been duped yet again...
Of couse, while amusing, cugel is a fairly awful person, (though he seems to evolve ethically somewhat by the end of the second novel, finally learning something about the futility of revenge) . I think in general thinking of cugel as any kind of literal moral guide is silly. Similarly, those reviewers who thought the Murthe novella was 'mysogynisitc' miss the point. It is a swiftian parody of mans failure to understand, or even be willing to try to understand women. There is one hilarious passage where the learned Wizards discuss a profound tome purported to explain everything understood about the nature of woman at the very end of history, wherin the female genius is compared to a river which occasionally overflows it's banks. The only reccomended solution is to ride it out with 'stout boat of high freeboard'. My girlfriend found this hilarious.
Yes, cugel is a lout and a bufoon. In a sense, he reminds me of an anti-heroic variation of Don Quixote. While Don Quixote's grandiose schemes of glory and noble chivalry fall through, Cugel's equally grandiose schemes of revenge and domination over his enemies also invariably fail, in both cases causing great chaos for those around them. Cugel of course lives in an even more cynical time at the very end of the world. A time where there ARE wizards and dragons and giants, but they are as petty and manipulative as the peasants and bandits faced by Quixote. As cugel travels from one scene to another, we are treated to a lurid landscape of all the myriad forms that human self delusion and inspired stupidity can take. Even as Cervantes uses the backdrop of Don Quixote's travels to lampoon 16th century Spain, Vance uses cugel's travels across the Dying Earth to do the same thing to all of humanity, from the very beginning of time to the day the sun winks out of existence.
Ultimately, not just the protagonist cugel, but all of the characters in the Dying earth novels have one thing in common: they are all fools. Even at the very end of history, we have learned nothing except perhaps, a better vocabulary. I think this is something Vance is telling us about ourselves.
One thing I can promise you about the Dying Earth, the laughs do come harder and longer with every read, even if you feel to some degree as if you are laughing at yourself.