The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

June 23, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Unlike The Dying Earth which takes place in the same world, The Eyes of the Overworld is a novel and not a short story collection, but it is easy to forgive the reader for suspecting otherwise. Like many writers in science fiction’s short story era, Vance has here written a novel whose structure can be described as profoundly episodic. There is, from what I can tell, a little more going on under the hood here than in Dying Earth…the setting remains impressive, the writing remains strong, and now there are some real ideas worth considering, starting with the objects named in the title. Unfortunately, whatever gains this helped the book make in my mind were erased by my distaste for the character. There’s nothing wrong with antiheroes on the face of it, I suppose, but making the reader like a book but hate the protagonist is a difficult task for any author. It is also a device unsuited for an episodic story, in my opinion.

Of course, a cursory search of the Internet will reveal many people who are huge fans of this book and its main character. It’s not worth going into spoilers to discuss it in detail, but suffice to say I was not won over. Ultimately, this is the sort of book which justifies the existence of the word “picaresque”. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means (“depicting in realistic, often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social degree living by his or her wits in a corrupt society”)…picaresque stories are so out of style that the word has for the most part fallen into disuse. I suppose I am nothing if not a product of my culture, since I feel like they are out of style for a reason. Recommended only for those who have especially liked Vance’s other work.

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Dying Earth by Jack Vance

June 22, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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Jack Vance is considered in some quarters to be one of science fiction’s great literary authors. It is easy to see why: he is a writer possessing creativity and evocative power to a degree that is much rarer in science fiction authors than it should be, given the nature of the genre. Vance’s stories in the Dying Earth setting are among his most widely known and influential. I absolutely love Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun which owes much of its setting to Vance. So why does this just get three stars from me?

The first problem is Vance, like many writers of his era (the stories in Dying Earth date back to around 1950) is very much a short story author. Unlike some of his other work, this book is really just a short story collection where the stories share a common setting and, occassionally, common characters. The stories are pretty good, thanks to Vance’s qualities I mention above. But if there was any depth there, I could not detect it (and indeed the only reason I have any doubt is the notoriously subtle Gene Wolfe’s liking for Vance). Both the novelette The Dragon Masters and the novella Last Castle that I reviewed a week or two ago had a great deal more going on than these stories do. I’m sure the setting and writing were amazing…in 1950. While the stories have a certain historical interest due to their influence, I really don’t think it is worth the effort to seek them out.

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

June 4, 2005 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment
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This is the first book I had read by Jack Vance, but I was familiar with his reputation as the favorite author of some people whose opinion I really respect (Gene Wolfe, Michael Dirda). I didn’t really know what to expect given the generic fantasy title and cover art. I certainly didn’t expect what I got, which was a very subtle and clever science fiction story that made use of bio-engineering in a way I would consider impressive in a current work. And it’s from 1962. The portrayal of alien thought process was also absolutely top-notch.

Basically, the story is everything people claim the Asimov/Clarke Golden Age was, but wasn’t actually. Sure, those stories were inventive, but the invention often didn’t age well. The wooden dialogue and clunky prose seems hopelessly awkward now. On the evidence of this story, Vance was five times the writer that Asimov and Clarke were in terms of mechanics and at least their equal when it came to invention. I recommend it highly. My copy includes a novella called “The Last Castle” which is almost up to the same standard.

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