Sunday, January 12, 2014

Did you ever read Jack Vance?

Jack Vance was a name I exclusively connected to D&D, not from something I've read and deduced by myself, but by reading about it (and also only second hand information, at that - I didn't own the AD&D DMG until recently ...). I'm talking Appendix N here, of course. Always wanted to read the adventures of Cugel and the Dying Earth setting. Never got around to actually order the books and do the deed, though. As those things sometimes do, an opportunity arose by coincidence just a few days ago. Over the holidays I had to kill some time at my parents house and did something I have done for years on a regular basis when I was younger and still living at their place: I searched the book shelves for loot.

We're talking several book shelf with hundreds of books here. But I must have had every one of them in my hand at one time or another. There shouldn't have been any surprises. Now look what I discovered in one of them:

Can you guess the title only by looking at the Cover?*
Yeah, I know. Right?

So I grabbed it, of course.

Now, what was Gary talking about?

 I was really curious and it didn't take long for me to give it a peek. Now I'm nearly finished and I wanted to share a few thoughts about it. First of all, yes, I can see it. This is D&D. Cugel, the main character, is talked into stealing artifacts from a wizard. He gets caught and is left with either a horrific fate or taking a dangerous mission from the wizard. He chooses the mission. As a little safety precaution he gets a small but thorny parasite attached to his liver that uses his thorns every time Cugel isn't into the mission or gets second thoughts about it. He's also equipped with an artifact that is able to turn everything organic into food (although it will taste dull) and detects poison. After that he is put in a cage and the wizard summons a demon to fly Cugel to the area where the strange items he's to collect (the eponymous Eyes of the Overworld) are rumoured to be found.

On his travels he encounters, to name but a few, ghosts, marauding humanoids, crazy villagers, pilgrims, tricky rat people, some curses and lots and lots of stories about his surroundings. As a reader you get the feeling that if he had travelled but 50 kilometers parallel to his route, it would have been a totally different adventure.

And by the way, Cugel the Clever (as he likes to call himself**) is not a hero. I'd go as far as saying he doesn't even deserve to be described as an antihero just because the "hero"-part is still too dominant in it. This guy is as amoral and cynic as they get. Such a mean, lying, cheating, back stabbing and murderous SOB, he really challenged my view on the topic.

In other words, he's your typical rpg adventurer.

A D&D blue print is what it is ...

It's really all there:  strange wizards, magic items and the attitude to kill the monsters and loot the booty, plus many, many random encounters to keep it interesting. I think it's most fascinating that the Dying Earth setting was labeled as science fiction, but D&D chose to be fantasy. Sure, there are the Tolkien parts that deliver all the necessary fantasy trappings, but one has to admire the choice to go there. Other than in science fiction, it grounds D&D in a somewhat more defined space and still leaves enough room for the weird. On the other hand, although I see how this book was in 1966 considered to be more science fiction than fantasy, reading it nowadays makes it very much sound like fantasy.

I think that this change of perception deserves some more thought ...

Anyway. More about the setting. It had to seem perfect to Gygax and friends. The world is dying and humanity lives in the shattered remains of its past. History is lost in legends and people only know about their immediate surroundings. The rest is rumours, stories and ruins. I've read on several occasions that D&D is supposed to be playing in a post-apocalyptic setting. Now I can see why. It's a weird place of endless opportunity and adventure. And very, very dangerous. Does it really need those new nice and shiny settings AD&D and later editions are so famous for? I believe not. What it needs is more weirdness.

Not high literature, but ...

Highly entertaining is what it is. If you've played D&D for some time, you will see what inspiration Vance was to those who developed the game. I think Vance would have made a mean player and D&D is so much richer because of his ideas and characters.

So if you're a bit like me and always thought it's a good idea to read one of those books from Appendix N, but you never did it, I highly recommend giving The Eyes of the Overworld a chance. It's the good stuff.

 *It's an old (1976) German translation of The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance (a potted version, unfortunately).
**It also was the author's choice for the books title. The publisher thought otherwise, obviously.


  1. You should read the Elder Isles Series as well, set in Lyonesse

  2. If you'd like more of Cugel's and his return to Iucounu then Cugel's Saga will be a fantastic read. I will warn you though, the last book in the anthology. Rhialto the Marvelous, completely broke the setting and retroactively took some of the fun out of the series for me. I wrote about it here and it contains spoilers for Rhialto's story.

    1. Thanks for the warning. I guess I will read it nonetheless, but it's good to get some perspective beforehand. And now I'm really curious about this whole affair ...


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