If you ever wanted and example of what made The Golden Age of Science Fiction a Golden Age, you need look no further than the stories written by Jack Vance, one of the greatest lights to grace the genre, over a period of four decades about a worn-out, decadent, Earth.

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(explanation)

Update, March 2012: This used to be * * * * * before a second read-through.

This landmark in science fiction almost didn't make it. In the later 1940's and early 1950, Jack Vance wrote six interconnected stories:

and submitted them to Thrilling Wonder Stories. He was rejected!

Then a miracle happened. In 1950, Hillman Periodicals, Inc, publishers of quality comic books like Detecta and Airboy, decided to go move into science fiction. They hired Damon Knight to edit a new magazine, and Vance's stories in a story collection, titled The Dying Earth.

Set on the Earth billions of years in the future, the stories depict a world which has worn itself out over the eons, humanity along with it. Various alien races have come to Earth (or evolved in place) and worn themselves out, as well. The swollen, brick-red Sun is likely to go out at any time, and everyone lives in dread of The Chill that will set in when it finaly happens.

An excerpt was printed in the premeire issue of Hillman's new science fiction pulp magazine, Worlds Beyond1. Well, as miracles go, this didn't seem like one. Hillman's bungled marketing, as well as the book's microscopic press run, resulted in few copies actually sold.

Those copies of The Dying Earth that did circulate, however, circulated in New York City, the hub of the genre. As time passed, they became immensely influential. Looking back, we can see they weren't really science fiction, but something we would label Fantasy today. Technology had proceeded to the point where it is indistinguishable from magic: There are no gadgets, only magical artifacts. There are no scientists, only wizards.

At any rate, in the mid-1960's, Joseph W. Ferman,somehow convinced Vance to write a new Dying Earth story for the magazine he edited, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The novelette "The Overworld" appeared in F&SF's December 1965 issue. "The Overworld" introduced the world to Cugel the Clever, a resourceful, resilient2, endearing3 young man who gets himself into a difficult situation after crossing the wrong wizard. Several more stories depicting Cugel's adventures4 followed "The Overworld" in the next few issues of F&SF:

Dare you imagine waiting at the newsstand, or in front of the mailbox, for the next issue of F&SF while these stories were coming out?

Vance took his Cugel stories, added a few more chapters, and produced a novel, The Eyes of the Overworld, published by Ace Books in 1966.

Over the next decade, Vance produced three novellas about a fractious wizards' association

These were published together as Rhialto the Marvellous in 1984.

By the early 1980's, Vance's stories had become classics, reprinted over and over. The stories had such an influence on a young Gary Gygax that many of its themes cropped up in the fantasy role-playing game he and his friends played, and eventually marketed as Dungeons and Dragons.

The market was obviously able to bear more, and so, in 1983, Vance turned out another adventure centered on Cugel the Clever, Cugel's Saga. In terms of plot flow and characterization, it is much the same as The Eyes of the Overworld, except the reader will be to wrapped up in Vance's depiction of strange lands, peoples, and cultures to notice.

An omnibus edition, The Compleat Dying Earth, was published by the Science Fiction Book Club in 1998. Another omnibus, Tales of the Dying Earth, was published by Tom Doherty and Associates in November 2000. This last is your most likely source for experiencing The Dying Earth, unless you're willing to pay $1200 for the complete VIE set of Vance's works. However you can, find The Dying Earth. When you find it,

read until the pages fall out.


1Sadly, this magazone folded after only three issues. Hillman went out of business in 1953; Vance picked up his stories' copyright when it expired in 1978.
2Read: an amoral, shameless, self-indulgent scoundrel, with no regard to who it hurts, or even personal consequences, even after they have happened.
3Well, actually, yes, endearing, despite his faults. Of course the reader will find him/herself amused rather than saddened when bad things happen to Cugel.
4Misadventures, and atrocities

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