AD VANCE

I’ve been reading a compendium of the Jack Vance stories: Tales Of The Dying Earth#, set in an unimaginably distant future where the sun, the very source of life, is expiring, it’s hydrogen stocks exhausted as it feebly illuminates a future primitive world with claret luminescence.

I still have my original paperback, excavated from a dusty secondhand bookshop in the seventies.  The yellowed, desiccated pages are only tenuously attached to the spinal cord, and this state of deterioration moved me to purchase a twenty-first century edition.

As I read the first part—simply called The Dying Earth—vague memories surfaced of the unconnected stories, but of the later instalments, nothing. Did I even read The Eyes of the Overworld?

It is an amazing collection of four books, dotted across the author’s timeline. A generous lifetime—ninety-six years—but not so much compared to the history of a world.

Vance was born in California in 1916, the middle of the first world war. Poor eyesight precluded military service during WWII, but such was his desire to contribute that he memorised the standard eye chart and thus gained admission to the merchant marine, indicative of a life-long love of boats and the sea.

The Dying Earth was Vance’s first published novel, in 1950 when he was thirty-four. It’s not really a novel, more a collection of stories in the same imagined setting, this wheezing Earth populated by self-obsessed magicians, freakish hybrids, and malevolent monsters (many of which inhabit human physiology). Yes, Vance’s distant future is powered by magic. And the fictional invention and prismatic flashes of language leap out of the pages almost seventy years later.

A sequel of sorts, The Eyes of the Overworld, came out in 1966. It follows the misadventures of an immoral chancer named Cugel (who is, indeed, a blunt instrument) as he attempts to reap what he can from the dying earth. The same unlikable anti-hero re-appeared in 1983, his name celebrated in the book title: Cugel’s Saga. A year later came the final volume of tales, Rhialto the Marvellous, focussing on the small but highly influential group of magicians who inhabit the end of time.

The pall of extinction hangs over these stories, giving a paradoxical sense of both denial and despair. In scattered societies covering the spectrum from puritan to decadent, mundane to supernatural, the folk at the shadowy perimeter of endless darkness are mostly focussed on day-to-day survival within the carefully constructed (yet rotting) fabric of exhausted humanity. Vance doesn’t seem to be much of a fan of the human race.

Yet here they are, in all their mutated and petty-minded glory, countless eons out from the birth of civilisation. A hundred thousand years of continuous procreation may have produced a menagerie of exotic sub-types, yet the parameters of everyday life—food, power, sex, survival—remain consistent as motivators, if unfamiliar in their modes of expression.

There are a handful of chapters still to read before Tales of the Dying Earth is returned to the shelves, leaving the light and warmth of the coffee table for the dusty museum of the bookshelves. In a (perhaps) unconscious attempt to delay the inevitable ending, I’ve been reading some Bill Bryson. I find I oscillate between fiction and non-fiction these days, like a tennis match between university faculties; Arts vs Sciences.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson’s commitment to rational understanding and his almost raucous enthusiasm for language collide in a breakneck drive through the history of, well, life the universe and everything. What it says on the cover, really.

In the chapter I read the other day, Bryson reminds us, almost apologetically, that history is packed with species extinctions. Many, many more types of creatures have disappeared forever than are alive today, and there is absolutely no reason to expect the human race will achieve anything special in terms of long-term survival. If Jack Vance had read Bryson, he might not have bothered with his fantasy novels at all. It’s bacteria who rule, Bill observes. It’s their planet and they let us occupy it.

But for how long?

Here’s an analogy that really demonstrates our chronological heft in the 4.5 billion year history of earth.*

Stretch your arms to their fullest extent and imagine that width as the entire history of the earth. On this scale, according to John McPhee in Basin & Range, the distance from the fingertips of one hand to the wrist of the other, is pre-Cambrian. All of complex life is in one hand, and—in a single stroke with a medium grained nail-file—you could eradicate human history.

Fortunately that moment hasn’t happened but the chances are good that it will. I don’t wish to interject a moment of gloom just at this point, but the fact is that there is one other extremely pertinent quality about life on earth: it goes extinct, quite regularly. Species crumple and die remarkably routinely, and the more complex they get the more quickly they go extinct.

Sobering, isn’t it?

So tonight I’ll eat home-made pizza made by the lovely Ms Keyboard, gaze at the evolving boy with a mixture of wonder and love that is almost breathtaking, mediate the exquisite pain of existence with a good bottle of red, and try to be in the moment.

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# Jack Vance (2002) Fantasy Masterworks (4) – Tales of The Dying Earth. Gollancz, London, UK.

*  Bill Bryson (2003) A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway Books, NY, USA.

Feature image: “The Dying Earth” by George Barr (1976)

 

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GOODBYE PIPER

It was obvious that a new, possibly final phase had been entered when Mother got lost walking home from the shops, a journey undertaken every second day for many years. Closer examination—forensic, domestic—suggested her weight loss was not illness but forgetting to eat.

A few weeks of regular meals in the new accommodation and she was looking fuller and healthier. Happy pottering around the paths of the facility and stopping for a cigarette on her favourite bench. Then she started wandering further. Down the street, across a main road. Traffic sense intact yet, with so little language now available, not exactly safe.

She always liked walking. As long as she was walking she was happy.

Happy? An assumption, but one borne out by seeing the negative contact prints. The police got a bit grumpy about picking her up and depositing her back at the facility. The facility got grumpy about having to interact with the police (who were invariably kind to Mother, it was the business they were exasperated with). What can be done with this old lady who walks? Ah, they said, we’ll have to put her in the lock down ward. With all the shuffling dead, yelling and pissing themselves and raving and shitting their pants and my mother, speechless and horrified, locked in with the demented zombies because she followed the paths. You see, the Aged Care home had no fences.

An aged care facility without fences or gates. Couldn’t believe it. Still can’t. A building full of old folk beyond the end of their tether and there is no perimeter boundary. Rage sits in my gut like a flaming cannon ball. And I did not even see her in bedlam, that interstate hell hole ward. My sister told me of her edging to the walls, eyes glazed with terror, saying ‘Shit, shit, shit…’ under her breath. One of few words she had left. We have to act, said sister. We did, decisively.

A new home in a different state. Not just my city, but around the corner in the same suburb.  Different surroundings. Shit shit shit, she muttered. You’re feeling a bit scared, it’s new, but it’s OK. You’re safe here. The muttering subsides. Soon there’s a regular seat in the tiny walled garden where she can have a ciggie. Does so, until she forgets that she smokes.

Could have seen her every other day, easily, little bother. But didn’t. The shame curls my lip and brims my eye. I so wanted to be the kind of man who could leave behind the solitary confinement of each inmate in our family of origin prison; share the autumn garden. Or at least peer over the fence and say, how ya going? And I did, but not often. Not often enough to take satisfaction from the entries on the Family Compassion Ledger just inside the number-coded front door. Frequently enough to feel a chill portent; what if my child will not sit with me either? But no way I could think about losing language myself. A nightmare too far. Her, not me.

This year, as Mother slowly lost the ability to move even within the confines of her room, as the compacting process of an organic life-form shutting down for good claimed one capacity after another, I wondered to myself to my partner to my therapist to myself, what I could do. Time is getting short, the wizened carcass with eyes now glazed, now dreaming, now anguished, said. Time, intoned this collapsed suitcase, emptied of communication, has almost run.

Read to her.

Take a book, and read to her just as she read to you.

Forget the sadness, the transferred trauma, the inability to understand who you are. These did matter, but no longer.

The choice was simple, instant. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

Given to this grandchild by Nana, inscribed by her daughter. I looked at the pictures by Ernest Shepard and Mother read the words.

Unsure if she can move at all, sat positioned so her face was pointed towards me. Started at the beginning, a very good place to start. Do Re Me with Mole and the beginning of his journey to a bigger self in a larger world. Over a couple of weeks we got through a few chapters, through the Wild Wood, meeting Badger, a role model for the son in grumpiness if not valour.

Not eating, not really drinking. Not long to go.

This day I jumped forward to Chapter VII, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Unarguably my favourite part of the book and perhaps my favourite chapter in all children’s literature. Mystical, deeply spiritual, touching and mythic. Rat and Mole search for the missing baby otter, Portly, through the summer night and luminous dawn of the River Bank.

And then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.

I cannot say the reader remained dry-eyed to the end of the chapter. Your greatest gift to me was a love of reading, I said. Words have enriched my life. Thank you.

Maybe it was the position of my chair, but she seemed to be staring at my face with piercing, ravenous intensity. I held that energetic link as long as I could manage, then kissed her forehead and said goodbye.

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Illustration: Ernest H Shepard