Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Read: Songs of the Dying Earth

When I was at primary school, in one of the earlier aeons of this earth, I always felt myself intractably drawn to the school library, berth of knowledge and wisdom in an academy which was generally unencumbered with these dual virtues, situated as it was in the more uncivilised quarter of Adelaide's suburban sprawl. Being a young gentleman of not inconsiderable intellect, and not being at all recalcitrant in broadcasting the fact, I was ever attracted to the most massive tomes and took great pleasure in loudly announcing these intellectual tendencies to all and sundry.

As you, dear reader - steeped in wisdom and possessed of a certain presence of mind as you undoubtedly are - can probably see, due to these and other egotisital tendencies unrecognised by my juvenile self at the time, I was a somewhat unpopular and lonely child. Thus I took an unsurpassed comfort in the fantastic world summoned to mind by the most weighty of the tomes of that establishment, J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring and its sequels*. From this beginning was born my enduring love of fantasy, a love far in excess of my love of the mundane world for many years, much to the dismay of my parents and anyone who had the misfortune to attempt to engage me in conversation.

Even after I came once again, under the dual influence of the regular companionship of like-minded individuals and my 'getting religion', to appreciate the delights of this present Earth - around about the time I began my secondary education -, my love of fiction's fantastic worlds continued unabated. I discovered the works of G.R.R. Martin in a book of short stories entitled Legends, which I checked out of my local library to read the Terry Pratchett story contained within, and within a few months I'd collected - through various back-room deals and association with a number of shady characters possessed of a dubious aroma - the first three volumes of his A Song of Ice and Fire, undoubtedly the most engrossing fantasy epic I've had the privilege to partake of since Tolkien.

So I began to frequent the mainstream bookstores, waiting impatiently for more Martin to become available, and consumed it whole as soon as in became avaiable here in Australia, sadly still Terra Incognita where fiction is concerned. I became the proud owner of the next in the series in 2005 and his Rretrospective in 2006, and since then I have haunted my local bookstores, searching unceasingly and impatiently for the next book, a book I know does not yet exist. So I wear holes in the carpets of the fantasy/science fiction sections of my local Angus & Robertson, prowling the Martin shelves in vain hope.

We come, finally, to the entrance into our tale of Songs of the Dying Earth, which sent my heart soaring when I noticed it on the shelf, then plummeting when I realised it wasn't pure Martin, but a dreaded anthology. Visit after visit I was stopped by its dark, forbidding countenance, but I passed it over in favour of other volumes. Finally, though, on the visit that inspired my current new book drought, I succumbed to its unfailing desire and purchased it, fooled by warm memories of Legends into persuading myself for a moment that anthologies have done more good for me than harm.

I had purchased a volume of short stories in homage to and set in the world of Jack Vance's The Dying Earth series. A ridiculous thing to do, having not read The Dying Earth, but the promise of G.R.R. Martin - with an the added Neil Gaiman carrot in this case, too - drives one to ridiculous extremes on a seemingly daily basis. I own and have read Vance's Lyonesse series, which I enjoyed, but not enough to look into finding more of his work. Thus it was with great trepidation that I opened the massive tome, began to peruse...

...and fell in love. With an unceasing parade of paramours, each lovlier and more beautful than the last, none of them what they seem. With countless magicians, warlocks, mages, enchanters and wizards, distant, proud, jealous, cruel and unservingly petty, shaping the earth and its inhabitants to their every whim. With cunning heroes and terrifying beasts, all doomed to die, either by the hand of another or by the inevitable death of the world when the red sun ceases its burning. I fell in love with the imitation of Jack Vance, the homages of 22 authors who fell just as sorely for him many years before my birth.

I fell in love with the uncompromisingly lavicious style of prose, ever expansive and generous, suddenly brutal and always leaving as much to the the reader's imagination as anything I've read yet -I hope you noticed my unsubtle and inferior attempt to replicate it here-, soaring, intimately detailed, but somehow leaving so much unsaid. I fell in love with this Dying Earth, its sweet sorrow and cruel justice, without even reading the original. The 22 selected authors built around Vance's core, further colouring and impressing their own personalities on the Dying Earth, yet very few times did anything feel forced or out of place. Somehow this broad, emcompassing world, an Earth in its inevitable decline from enlightenment even as its solar system collapses around it, seems to have room for all these authors, al these dreams, and so much more. Quite the acheivement for four books written almost 50 years ago, when fantasy was a much younger genre than it is today.

In conclusion, I've put the omnibus edition of Tales of the Dying Earth, which includes all four Dying Earth books, onto my list of books to acquire by foul means or fair for my library, and I have a number of science fiction and fantasy authors with whom I have previously been unaquainted whose original work I will have to investigate if I ever manage to fight my way through this ridiculous backlog.

Oh, and G.R.R. Martin and Neil Gaiman's contributions were my least favourite of the lot.

Favourite Quote:
I didn't have any one section really jump out at me, as the whole was so overpowering, but this gives an idea of the tone, methinks:
Once a mighty city rose beside the head of a deep gulf in the Sea of Sighs, its ships plied their trade, and the magnificence of its buildings proved its wealth...but in these latter days, only a dusty town remained, buldings shabby, patched with stones from its earlier grandeur. A minor port, a stop on the caravan route across the land, Uskvosk had shrunk and faded in the bleak millenia of the sun's decay.
Page 456 (123 is an introduction):
"The Crimson Messuage is gravely suspicious of me, as you well know, but that's never stopped them from wanting me to join their retinue as Court Incendiary. In addition, I have a toruous history with this particular Paeolina. He made disagreeable suggestions to me many years ago, and, when rebuffed, gre surly and resentful. I am certain that his invitation will lead me into a trap."
Reading Project Status

Read: 2/74
Australian Ratio: 1.045:0.955 (1 out of 22 counts, alright?)
Next Up: Limits and Renewals, Rudyard Kipling.

*actually in these particular volumes, The Two Towers was slightly more massive, but what are such schemantics amongst friends and in the face of poetic license?

1 comment:

Michael5000 said...

That sounds.... good. If my reading list wasn't already so massive...