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.
# 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)