The Dying Earth Series Critical Essays

Jack Vance


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Vance’s stories of the dying Earth are most notable for the individuality of their characters, realism of their setting, and elegance of their literary style. Major characters such as Cugel the Clever, Rhialto the Marvellous, and Iucounu the Laughing Magician are presented in extended descriptions that reveal their individual personalities. Vance sketches even his relatively minor characters with deft, individualizing strokes that render them vividly and memorably. Often, he concentrates on the essential quality that sums up the basic character of the individual, often a typically human defect, such as pride, lust, or, most often, greed. Even in the fantastic land of the dying Earth, millennia in the future, human nature remains basically the same.

Remaining unchanged, human nature also remains essentially flawed. There are no larger-than-life heroes in the world of the dying Earth; even the best of them, such as Ildefonse the Preceptor, leader of the magicians in Rhialto the Marvellous, has a generous supply of faults and weaknesses, most notably his lack of firmness. That failing allows the plot against Rhialto (and, therefore, the plot of the novel) to develop. Both Rhialto and Cugel are picaresque characters, closer to rogues than to heroes.

The landscape in which these figures find themselves is presented with a deceptively careful accuracy. Vance takes considerable pains to give the geography of the dying Earth a precise set of place names, so that the reader gains an impression of a real, if not entirely real-istic, world. Names such as Shanglestone Strand, the Tustvold Mud-Flats, and the River...

(The entire section is 670 words.)