After the last few S&S works of the early 1940s, such as “Dragon Moon” by Henry Kuttner and the short-lived Unknown, Sword & Sorcery lost steam. With Robert E. Howard dead for five or more years, Heroic Fantasy became a thing of the past with only the occasional Edmond Hamilton Weird Tales fantasy or anomalies like Arnold Kummer Jr.’s “Intrigue in Lemuria” (Fantastic Adventures, July 1939) to remind readers of what had been left behind. Gnome Press and L. Sprague de Camp tried to relight Conan’s flame with hard cover reprints (More on that later.) Fritz Leiber wrote the odd Fafhrd & Grey Mouser tale and Poul Anderson published The Broken Sword (1950) to almost no response. Fantasy was being shoved aside for Science Fiction, a genre that had a post War boom fueled by nuclear bombs and the Space Race.
So what’s a Fantasy writer to do? Well, if you’re Jack Vance you write it anyway and fool them all into thinking it’s Science Fiction. The book was The Dying Earth, an odd tome published by Hillman, a company better known for its comic books. Inspired by the Zothique end-of-the-world fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith that appeared in Weird Tales in the 1930’s and the novels of James Branch Cabell, the Dying Earth stories feature wizards as their main protagonists. These last magic-using intellects live in their private manses along weirdly beautiful rivers and forests filled with deadly creatures like the asm or the deodand. And like Smith, Vance goes for the weirdly poetic in Heroic Fantasy rather than the pulse-pounding thrill of battle. The Dying Earth is intriguing, dangerous but just a little to sardonic to ever pass for Robert E. Howard, but it did show Heroic Fantasy fans that Sword & Sorcery was not dead, only hiding.
The book contains six longish stories. “Turjan of Miir”, “Mazirian the Magician” (Vance’s preferred title for the book) , “T’sais”, “Liane the Wayfarer” (first published in Worlds Beyond, December 1950), “Ulan Dhor” and “Guyal of Sfere”. The titles all refer to characters, the odd wizards and their companions. The original collection was followed by several others. The Eyes of the Overworld appeared in 1966, collecting the trials of Cugel the Clever. Cugel’s Saga in 1983 was a novel featuring the same. Rhialto the Marvellous (1984) was a final collection of related stories. Another novel had appeared in 1974, Quest For Simbilis by Michael Shea, a work approved by the author.
The creators of Dungeons and Dragons based the original magic system on the Dying Earth, in that a wizard could know only so many spells at one time, and these often had colorful names like “The Excellent Prismatic Spray” or “Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth”. To further honor Jack they named one of the gods of magic Vecna, an anagram of the word “Vance”. AD&D was not the only one to applaud Vance though. The Dying Earth was Number 16 in the 1987 Locus Poll Award for All-Time Best Fantasy Novel and in 2001 it was nominated for a Retro Hugo Award, an award to honor books that have shown their quality over time and may not have been nominated in the year they were published. The greatest compliment came with Songs of the Dying Earth (edited by George R. R. Martin in 2009) featuring new stories by a line-up of fantasy superstars, all wanting to cheer from the rooftops the magic that is Jack Vance. These included Robert Silverberg, Matt Hughes, Terry Dowling, Liz Williams, Mike Resnick, Walter Jon Williams, Paula Volsky, Jeff VanderMeer, Kage Baker. Phyllis Eisenstein, Elizabeth Moon, Lucius Shepard, Tad Williams, John C. Wright, Glen Cook, Elizabeth Hand, Byron Tetrick, Tanith Lee, Dan Simmons, Howard Waldrop and Neil Gaiman, with an intro by Dean R. Koontz. And the applause is all well-earned. Jack Vance, along with Poul Anderson and Fritz Leiber, were the men who kept S&S alive through the cruelest years.