Friday, April 18, 2008

One Hundred Words of Genius
2: Opening to The Eyes of the Overworld (1966)

Our first visit to the the art of Jack Vance looked at the opening of The Dying Earth, his first book (1950). By the 1960s Vance, while still capable of spectacular prose, had added a new restraint and control to his work. The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), a fix-up of a series of stories from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The book revisits the Dying Earth milieu, but introduces the darkly comic anti-hero, Cugel 'the Clever', a rogue who is cunning enough to stay alive in a hostile environment, but not clever enough to profit for any length of time. Here's how the book starts:

On the heights above the river Xzan, at the site of certain ancient ruins, Iucounu the Laughing Magician had built a manse to his private taste: an eccentric structure of steep gables, balconies, sky-walks, cupolas, together with three spiral green glass towers through which the red sunlight shone in twisted glints and peculiar colors.

Behind the manse and across the valley, low hills rolled away like dunes to the limit of vision. The sun projected shifting crescents of black shadow; otherwise the hills were unmarked, empty, solitary. The Xzan, rising in the Old Forest to the east of Almery, passed below, then three leagues to the west made junction with the Scaum. Here was Azenomei, a town old beyond memory, notable now only for its fair, which attracted folk from all the region. At Azenomei Fair Cugel had established a booth for the sale of talismans.

Compared to the opening of The Dying Earth, this is sober and restrained. But it's still highly effective, and reflects many of Vance's stylistic preoccupations. The tone is straight from the Vance manual: cool, composed with some slightly unusual word choices. The seasoned Vance reader will notice three almost stereotypical features in the first sentence: manse, gables, cupolas. Although the description is far less detailed than Mazirian's garden in The Dying Earth, the reader gains a clear impression of Iucounu's residence: Vance has mastered the trick of getting the reader's imagination to do the hard work using a few deft prompts.

The second paragraph leads us into the sombre surroundings of an Earth where the sun is slowly going out. There is an unimaginable antiquity, a tiredness beyond age, in the landscape. There are only hills, because mountains have been abraded over the aeons, the town of Azenomei (how pitch-perfect are Vance's proper nouns) is 'old beyond memory'. And then, in the final sentence, the protagonist Cugel is introduced: not in a void, but at one with his environment.

As an opening, it's a masterpiece at once understated and rococo: a fusion of two of the finest elements of Vance's voice.

No comments: