Vance and Norton and writing diversely

Over the weekend I dropped a piece at Castalia House comparing one aspect of Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey to a short story by Andre Norton. The long and short of it is that Norton’s use of “mind powers” was a lot more interesting and imaginative and magical than Lanier’s. Though I do give points for the Dragon Ball-esque powering up system of Hiero’s Journey, whereby psions (or at least the protagonist) must actually battle and make strenuous use of their powers in order to seriously “level up.”

Since Saturday, I had a chance to read another of Norton’s shorts, and I was surprised. My readings of Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore’s short fiction have thus far been fairly uniform. By that I mean that Brackett’s writing has generally been very action-oriented and full of dynamic characters and exotic locales. Moore’s got that poetic Howardian flair and a real talent for the blending of fantasy and horror elements (no, I haven’t gotten to her scifi yet, though I know she’s famous for Northwest Smith). So not to write them off as one-trick (both Brackett and Moore are amazing so this is probably not the case), but at least so far I’ve been savoring a steadily-maintained flavor for each.

With Norton, on the other hand, High Sorcery starts off with a very evenly-paced and increasingly exciting tale of a wizard brought somehow to a new land with mages of its own. In “Wizard’s World,” magic seems to be systematic but varied and flexible. It is a product of the mind and primarily illusory, but also quite capable of inflicting physical harm. There are orbs of fire and conjured serpents, and giant magical walls of thorn.

Her second tale, “Through the Needle’s Eye,” is much more subdued and mysterious. The protagonist is not an action-minded hero nor a wily witch, but a girl with a bum leg. One days she wanders into the garden of her neighbor – a tragic, somewhat creepy older woman who like the protagonist is lame (in the ambulatory sense). The old woman winds up being a master seamstress of sorts, and winds up taking the girl under her wing and teaching her to stitch and sew and weave. The story culminates in a startling and magical reveal about the old woman the nature of her gift, which she offers to pass on to her young protege.

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I was quite surprised by the difference in the two stories. They read like the works of two very different but both talented writers.

I’ve also gone back to Jack Vance’s Demon Prince series. I didn’t return as quickly as I’d intended, but that’s only due to an overabundance of treasure. It was only recently that I learned this, but Vance was also an author of mystery/thriller books. Armed with this new knowledge, it seems obvious. When you look at the Demon Prince books and also Rhialto the Marvellous, you’ve got SFF with generous infusions of mystery/thriller elements.

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Throughout his quest for revenge, protagonist Kirth Gersen more often plays the gumshoe than the fighting man (though he’s adept at both roles). In tracking down his quarries, he must follow leads and unwind various plots and mysteries. In the last of the Dying Earth installments, the titular magician Rhialto is occasionally thrust into a sleuth-like position, forced to fend off unjust accusations or actions taken unfairly against him. Even works like the Gray Prince demonstrate Vance’s skill and proclivity for the expanding mystery and “the big reveal.” Still, when contrasted with his earlier and perhaps most critically-acclaimed Dying Earth stories, we see a different set of mechanisms and story elements on display.

All this is to say – Vance and Norton, to my judgement, were both very skilled at writing good but disparate types of stories.

-Bushi

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An interview with Jack Vance

The other day I found an old radio interview of SFF grandmaster Jack Vance from 1976 and did a little bit of tweeting as I gave it a listen.

In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Jack Vance was listed in D&D’s Appendix N and played a singular role in inspiring the game’s magic system. Though he’s probably best known for his Dying Earth stories, which are quite impressive, Vance was a prolific writer who churned out a large amount of both SFF and mystery/thrillers. Since plunging into the world of obscurified greats, he’s become one of my favorite authors.

Learning more about him has raised my estimation of the man. Like so many other writers and creatives, he comes across as kind of an odd bird. He was certainly an interesting character, at any rate.

I’m not quite sure why Vance decided to do this interview. He was of the mind that authors shouldn’t overexpose themselves; that they should let their works stand on their own and not bring their own personalities (or perhaps politics) into potential conflict or overshadowing of their stories.

Here are some notes from this interview, in case you don’t care to listen but would like a little bit of a glimpse into Vance’s life and mind. Keep in mind this is all from the 1976 interview, so it’s possible that some of his thoughts and opinions may have changed over the years.

On writing and the industry:

– When asked what he thinks about the scifi field, Vance says he doesn’t know what to think because he doesn’t read scifi!

– When asked why he doesn’t read scifi, Vance pauses for a moment and then replies with a “no comment.”

– He later expands upon this, saying that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care where the SFF industry is going because he’s too occupied with his own work to concern himself with other people.

– Vance talks a lot about money. To me, this suggests that he may have been doing a bit of publicity work because of financial concerns.

– He seems to resent that some writers have gotten breaks (with Hollywood deals, for example) without earning their stripes.

– Asked about a deal Lin Carter had made with Hollywood to produce a Throngor movie, Vance comments that “Carter’s a hard worker” and “has paid his dues.” Despite approving, Vance can’t comment on Carter’s books because he hasn’t read them. Incidentally, the Throngor movie was later cancelled.

– A caller asks him if the Demon Princes series will continue, and Vance tells the caller that it’s all plotted out, but that financial/logistical concerns are tying his hands for the moment. This sheds a little light on the complications of working out deals with publishers.princes

– Vance muses that science fiction is not mainstream literature, just as jazz is not classical music. He later laments that both “science fiction” and “jazz” are bad names for two beautiful genres.

– On writing, he says that he wishes he was more disciplined. He starts writing in the morning and always decides that he’s going to buckle down and start doing a set number of words per day, but never does.

– On story plotting, he says sometimes he will plot out before writing. But sometimes he discovers new ideas as he is writing and the stories change.

– Vance mentions that often about 2/3 through a book he will experience writer’s block. Once he was hung up working on a 6-8k word story for about two months.

– Talking with a caller, he comments that he usually doesn’t write about societies with super advanced technology because it then becomes difficult to craft conflicts of man vs nature, because then mankind is too powerful for nature to contend with.

– On writers conveying worldviews or biases in their stories, Vance says to an extent it can’t be helped. Personally he values traditions and customs and doesn’t want to see the old ways of things disappear.

– Vance also wrote mystery books under the name “John Holbrook.” He tells the interviewer that he probably won’t be doing any more murder-mystery stories because he’s got too many scifi projects he’s working on. He also says he makes more money with scifi than mystery.

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– He comments that he’s not very pleased with his earlier works but chalks it up to learning.

On culture

– On his personal valuing of traditions, he says they add a positive complexity to the world, giving baseball vs soccer as an example. He enjoys baseball because the rules are arbitrary and that makes it interesting. Soccer, on the other hand, is very structured and straightforward and boring.

– Vance seems dismissive of Star Trek.

– On hippies and nonconformists, he comments that “nonconformists flourish when they’re economically able to.” Says “If you’re broke or if you’re a peasant, you can’t afford to be a nonconformist.” He points out that countries like China probably have very few nonconformists.

On Cugel the Clever

– It’s pronounced with a hard “c” and a hard “g” – like “Koogle”!!

– Regarding Michael Shea’s Quest for Simbilis story, he says Shea wrote to him and asked if he could do a Cugel sequel. He wanted to send Vance his story to see if he approved. Vance says he had no idea who Shea was and didn’t want to read his story, but he told him “Sure, go ahead. If it’s good enough to publish, good on you.” He told Shea to do anything he wanted except for killing off Cugel.

On Vance himself

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– Asked about his fears, Vance says that he is claustrophobic.

– On travel, he says “I’m tormented by wanderlust when I’m home and I’m homesick when I’m away. So I can’t win.”

– Vance mentions at one point that he has many projects going on, not just writing.

On John Campbell, Martin Gardener, Isaac Asimov

– Vance is asked about John Campbell, who was an influential scifi editor often credited with shaping the “Golden Age” of science fiction. Vance says that he didn’t know Campbell very well though they only lived a few blocks apart!

– He says Campbell used to host poker games, but Vance was never a big fan of playing poker.

– Asked about other writers, he says “Some of my best friends are writers. I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one, but.”

– Vance says he isn’t interested in writers’ circles or conventions. He finds them artificial and boring.

– He says when he was young he thought he might want to be a mathematician. Asked about mathematician and writer Martin Gardener – “I don’t like him personally.” And “I think he’s smug.”

– He says that Gardener is closed-minded. “Campbell was an open-minded man. Gardener has a closed mind.” […] “Although Gardener is a much more valuable, clever man than Campbell.” […] “But Campbell was a much deeper man than Gardener could ever pretend to be.”

– Vance on Gardener: “It irritates me to read him.” He throws Asimov in with Gardener here. He continues to say that he can understand Gardener being the way he is, being white collar and working at a “fannish” New York magazine.

– But “Asimov oughta know better!” he says. Perhaps Asimov adopted Campbell’s dogmatism, he muses.

-Bushi

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The end of the Dying Earth

Life has, so to speak, come at me fast. Hence my recent absence. Thankfully Gita has been around to pick up some of the slack.

Still, I have been able to keep reading a few pages most nights before bed, and thusly have finished with Vance’s Dying Earth stories. Although I’ve complained about Cugel in the past, I think my feelings have developed somewhat (I am loathe to say “evolved”) into a dim fondness. Cugel himself may or may not mellow and become more sympathetic as his journey progresses, but I’ve come to see that he’s not really the main draw of his own stories. Although there are some coolish characters scattered throughout the four Dying Earth books, it’s the world itself that’s on display – the magic, the artifacts, the strange lands and creatures and peoples.

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In all honesty I found the Rhialto tales a little anticlimactic as an end to the Dying Earth. The first story, “The Murthe,” was interesting if only for the concept of a magical battle of the sexes and the comical tactic of changing men into women (not to mention “ensqualm” is a fun word). I wanted to like “Fader’s Waft” more than I did. Vance’s approach – a sort of magical whodunnit – was different and entertaining, but the length and pace put me off a bit. The ending didn’t really feel like a satisfying payoff. The last story, “Morreion,” wasn’t bad. Many D&D players will no doubt be familiar with IOUN stones. Well, if you were ever wondering about the origin of such things, look no further!

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Rhialto himself struck me as a much tamer and perhaps wiser Cugel. Again, though, I felt like the characters were secondary to the environment. Still, even though I felt these to be flawed stories, I found them pleasant and enjoyable to read. Vance just seems to do it for me.

-Bushi

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3 Clever Cugel Campaign Ideas

Not too long ago I expressed my ambivalence regarding Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever stories. The guy is a heel, and as such he’s not always fun to follow for me. Still, the tales are demonstrative of Vance’s cleverness, if not always that of their titular protagonist.

I already suggested this, but it’s worth expanding upon: for those DMs and GMs and writers out there, much can be gleaned!

There are indeed ransomware-inspiring ratmen to be found in Vance’s Dying Earth, as well as an enchanted, slumbering giant ever-ready to destroy the town at its feet should the villagers slacken their vigilance. Those are but two examples. Here are three more you might want to filch for your game or else draw inspiration from in some form or other:

1. Gems are boring

Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, zzzzzzzzzzz. It’s fun to loot precious stones from baddies, that’s true. But when your players are just picking’em up and basically auto-selling them in the first city they come to, eventually the jewels cease to sparkle.

Why not spice things up, then? At one point, Cugel briefly joins the employ of a small company that sends divers into a slime pit to retrieve the scales of a godly denizen of the Overworld. These scales, depending on the body region they originated from and their condition, are worth hefty sums to a wizard who is buying them up as artifacts. You may not need the weird slime-diving or vague origin story of said scales. They don’t even need to be scales (though they can be fun as they may be shiny and colorful and can vary greatly in value) – you may use ivory or monster bones, rare crafting materials like ironwood or mithril (which is overdone but people recognize what it is), or some other artifacts or uncommon goods.

 

2. Do the Worm

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Another job Cugel takes up at one point is that of “worminger” for a vessel upon which he wishes to procure passage. What is a worminger? Well, this ship is carried forth by great sea worms. They must be carefully tended to and managed by wormingers, who clean them, feed them, bait them, and steer them among other things. Maybe the winds have died in your campaign world, or maybe you just want a cool boat that’s towed by worms or some other giant aquatic creatures.

 

3. Geas some palms

One popular way to coerce players or NPCs into undertaking quests or tasks they normally wouldn’t is by means of a geas. This is basically a high level charm spell that forces the target to do or not do something.

But how about spicing that up a little bit and building a little character or adding some roleplaying options (besides a boring wisdom saving throw) into the equation?

In Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel is burdened with an alien parasite named Firx. Basically, Firx’s job is to make sure Cugel does the job he was sent out to do. There are times when the creature suspects Cugel is shirking his assignment or dawdling. When this happens, the little beast flexes its barbs, which are wrapped around Cugel’s guts. At these times, the protagonist either has to give in to Firx’s wishes in order to stop the pain, or else convince it that he’s pursuing the best (or only) course of action available.

And so I’ve come to find this – that even if you don’t like Cugel and don’t particularly find his stories fun, there’s still a lot to draw from them and a lot of good ideas and quality storytelling to appreciate.

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-Bushi

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The Overworld and the Undertale

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As I make my way through the Dying Earth stories, Jack Vance remains one of my newly discovered favorite authors. And yet, I didn’t enjoy Eyes of the Overworld overmuch, and I find Cugel’s Saga thus far to be the same. Still, there are multiple layers to this.

First off, why am I not a big fan of Vance’s Cugel stories? Jesse (in a separate conversation) puts it nicely:

Cugel is a dick. And not one of those guys who’s a dick but then actually has a heart of gold, a ‘la Han Solo. For example, in one incident, Cugel is interacting with some clam-men (yes, they’re dudes who live in clams). They play a trick on Cugel by “gifting” a shirt made of water, which holds together initially, and then…falls apart and drenches him. He retaliates by killing one of the clam guys, who places a curse upon Cugel with his dying breath.

Cugel also abandons smoking hot babes to servitude and death, and murders (or arranges accidents) for various wayfarers he encounters when he can profit by doing so. And he is remorseless for all of these misdeeds.

Now admittedly there is some good fun in some of this. It’s satisfying to see Cugel outsmart even bigger heels than himself. But it does get tiresome to follow the adventures of a d-bag. He often gets some form of comeuppance, but I’d be happy to see him finally bite the dust. Vance’s first Dying Earth book contained several interesting and heroic (or at least sympathetic) characters. I’d have preferred to read more about them. Cugel is all well and good for a few tales, but two novels all about him just feels excessive.

Why do I keep trudging through, then? Well, why did I make myself read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series? Maybe I’m an idiot.

Actually, there’s still a lot to appreciate in the Cugel books, even without really liking the protagonist. Vance’s writing style and technique remain masterful throughout, and I love reading through his descriptions and dialogues. I haven’t learned so many new words in ages! Furthermore, the Dying Earth itself remains a fascinating setting, full of wondrous and memorable characters, artifacts, and situations.

For any DMs out there, these books are just overflowing with ideas ripe for the plucking. How about Magnatz, for example? A small town sits beside a mountain range and a lake. Long ago, a wizard cast an enchantment to protect the town from the terrible giant Magnatz : so long as a Watchman is posted to look out for the return of monster, the town will be safe. The townspeople don’t realize, but Magnatz is actually asleep at the bottom of the lake. You can probably guess what happens after Cugel (thinking he is being Clever) accepts the role of Watchman.

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This is just one interesting situation of many. And so I’ll keep reading. But I’m looking forward to being done with Cugel.

In other news, I was able to breeze through Undertale pretty quickly the past ~week. In case you aren’t familiar with this one:

The creator is a big Earthbound fan, and it shows. The music, graphics, and tone of the game are largely reminiscent of the SNES SMAAAASH-hit. It may not look it, but Undertale is able to adeptly hit alternatingly silly, serious, and creepy notes and that really makes nailing it down a challenge. On the surface I suppose I’d call it an RPG, but many of the traditional RPG elements are stripped away or turned on their heads. I don’t want to give away too much here, as I think the discovery involved in this one is a big part of the fun, but I got through it without gaining any EXP or LVLs. Also there are a lot of dogs, if you’re into that.

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The bottom line is that Steam and the opening up of the indie game market has been a tremendous boon for gamers. If you’ve got any interest, I highly recommend Undertale.

-Bushi

bushi

 

Into the Dying Earth

It’s been a long time coming – I’ve finally gotten underway on Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth.

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Having sampled the first entry of his Demon Princes series and the standalone the Gray Prince, and noting that he’s perhaps best known for Dying Earth…well, I’ve wanted to read it for quite a while, and it’s been perched near atop of my queue for some time now. But I kept veering off to read something less widely-reviewed or topical of conversations being had within the online SFF community. No further delay can be abided!

Tales of the Dying Earth is a collection of Vance’s four Dying Earth books – The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rialto the Magnificent. The contained stories take place on an ancient, decaying Earth far in the future. Although related to and maybe overlapping with the “post-apocalyptic” tag, these tales properly fall into a subgenre named after Vance’s creation – “dying earth.”

Vance’s Dying Earth draws heavy inspiration from Clark Ashton Smith’s contribution to the genre in the Zothique cycle. I haven’t read any of his stuff yet, but soon enough.

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What I have read of CAH’s work suggests that he’s another one of the greats that’s fallen into unjust obscurity. Together with Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith was a contributor to the Cthulu Mythos and one of the “big three” of Weird Tales magazine. If cosmic horror is your jam, he’s required reading.

I believe Kaiju is going though some of Smith’s material now. For my part, I’m hoping soon to dig into Zothique – the tales of an earth on its last legs. Technology has been lost, the sun has dimmed and reddened, and horrors roam the world. Sounds fun.

So far this is also the flavor of Vance’s Dying Earth. Ghosts and demons abound, and men scrape for wealth and power. Technology is lost and magic, while common, is on the decline. As for horrors, well.

Chun the Unavoidable is a scary guy.

The Dying Earth and Zothique make me think of Final Fantasy VI. Though the SNES classic initially presents more of a post-apocalyptic world than a dying one, there are many similarities.

FFVI’s protagonists encounter all manner of terrible and demonic creatures; abominations; cultists; crazed sorcerers and evil horrors. So too is the world littered with bits of forgotten and ruined technology and proofs of lost magic and powerful artifacts. Espers take the place of gods and demons, though ultimately in a sadder, more servile role.

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After the collapse of the floating continent and Kefka’s rise to small “g” godhood, the world is changed. The seas become blighted and the land wastes and new terrors are unleashed upon the earth. Strange cults arise. A horrible demon even roams the skies.

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The reach of the dying earth subgenre extends far and is observable in all manner of succeeding media.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that Jack Vance and the Dying Earth are cool. Clark Ashton Smith is cool. Final Fantasy VI is cool. And you, friends – you are cool.

-Bushi

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