Special guest Gavin Norman (author of The Complete Vivimancer and Theorems & Thaumaturgy) joins us to discuss Jack Vance‘s The Dying Earth!
Jack Vance originally wrote the loosely connected stories that comprise The Dying Earth while serving in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II. Vance’s fiction had started appearing in pulp magazines as early as 1945, and The Dying Earth marked his first book publication when it was released in digest-sized paperback in 1950 by Hillman Periodicals, best known as a comic book and magazine publisher.
The Dying Earth appears not to have been particularly successful at first, as it was not reprinted even as Vance’s career went on an upswing in the late 1950s & early 1960s. Hillman ceased publishing in 1961 and Lancer Books snapped up The Dying Earth, reprinting it in paperback in 1962 with a cover by the ever-versatile Ed Emshwiller depicting the denouement of the story “Ulan Dhor”:
The Dying Earth did well enough that Lancer kept it in print until they went bankrupt in 1973, by which time its reputation was such that it has remained in print to this day through a series of different publishers. No doubt the continued success of The Dying Earth led Jack Vance to revisit the setting starting in the mid 1960s. These new stories that would eventually be published as The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), followed by the post-Appendix N books Cugel’s Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984).
Gary Gygax wrote in issue 2 of The Excellent Prismatic Spray (2001) that he first became a fan of Jack Vance after reading The Big Planet (1957) in the pulps in the early 1950s and then was “absolutely enthralled…as no work of fantasy had done for a long time” with the publication of The Eyes of the Overworld in 1966. The Dying Earth further cemented Gygax’s love of the setting.
When it came time to devise a magic system for Dungeons & Dragons, Gygax felt that a “Vancian” system of memorized spells that are expended when cast and that then must be re-learned before casting again was the best way to provide flavor and balance the magic-user against other classes. The Enchanter series by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt would provide the situational pre-conditions for spellcasting in D&D, but these spell components were often glossed-over, as Gygax laments as early as 1976 in issue 6 of The Strategic Review, the predecessor to Dragon magazine.
Oddly, D&D’s publisher TSR appears never to have tried to license the Dying Earth setting even though Gary Gygax remained a huge fan of Jack Vance and actually had significant contact with him after Dungeons & Dragons took the world by storm. The first time gamers would get to officially adventure in the Dying Earth was with the publication of Pelgrane Press’ The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game in 2001. Goodman Games has since licensed the Dying Earth setting for its Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, with a target release date of late 2017.
Tales of the Dying Earth collects all four books in the Dying Earth series and is available here:
Tales of the Dying Earth (trade paperback)
Tales of the Dying Earth (Kindle ebook)
Gavin Norman’s The Complete Vivimancer reads as if David Cronenberg had decided to create a D&D magic-user class, please check it out if you’re looking to add some mad scientist/body horror flavor to your games. (RPGNow affiliate link)
Theorems & Thaumaturgy is a broader treatment of alternative magic-user classes, including the Elementalist, the Necromancer, and a pared-down version of the Vivimancer. A free, no-art version is available here. (RPGNow affiliate links)
Gavin Norman’s The City of Iron gaming blog is very much worth your time as well.
Greg Gorgonmilk’s excellent Vancian Magic Supplement compiles many of Gary Gygax’s writings on the origins of the Dungeons & Dragons magic system from Dragon magazine and other sources. Definitely check it out as well as the rest of his terrific OSR blog.
Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games is one of the first “retro-clone” D&D emulations published under the Open Game License (OGL). It closely models the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic and Expert (“B/X”) rules sets by Tom Moldvay and Dave Cook. A free no-art version is available here. (RPGNow affiliate links)
If you are in Brooklyn and want to join the IRL book club, then come over here.
The list of books we will discuss are outlined within this link.
And finally, the in-print omnibus, anthology, and online resources are living over here.
4 thoughts on “Episode 4 – Jack Vance’s “The Dying Earth” with special guest Gavin Norman”
First off, the vivimancer stuff is great. Love the interesting invisibility spell.
As for Vance, I tried reading him in college, and I think it was too much of a departure from my Tolkien-steeped brain. Then, I listened to The Dying Earth years later and had a lot of trouble following it, especially the last story.
But, this time around, I read it and I think I was ready for it. The podcast helps frame the book and prepares you for the Vancian weirdness.
I also am amazed at the one-to-one correlation between the magic system in Vance and Dungeons and Dragons’ magic system. Shea, Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser, and Vance? Three of the first four podcast episodes deal with what so clearly went into the creation of Dungeons and Dragons. (And Conan is as iconic as Tolkien, but is less of a clear fit, I think.)
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Greg Gorgonmilk’s supplement on Vancian Magic seems to have vanished from the web along with his blog – is it available anywhere? Does someone have a copy? I’d love to see what he did with the idea.
There’s also a Dying Earth roleplaying game, published by Pelgrane Press. I had some involvement in this and have a copy of the game signed by Jack Vance (RIP sadly). You can see all the covers for the books you mention on the Internet Science Fiction Database. I first read Vance in French and have this crazy cover by Caza: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/pl.cgi?368918
Also, Gary Gygax (aslo sadly RIP) wrote a piece for the Dying Earth RPG magazine, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, which you can find here: http://www.dyingearth.com/files/GARY%20GYGAX%20JACK%20VANCE.pdf.