Thursday, August 11, 2016

On Vance and Hernstrom, A Comparative Defense

In a recent post, I stated that Schuyler Hernstrom's "Images of the Goddess" is better than Jack Vance's "Dying Earth".  That might be controversial.  It wasn't stated lightly, nor simply as click-bait.  Let me expound on it a bit.

Jack Vance is a great author.  He does an outstanding job suffusing the Dying Earth novels with the oppressive atmosphere of a world grinding to a slow and evitable doom.  That heavy gloom serves as a powerful counterpoint to the dry humor and wit of the tales themselves, but as a permanent undercurrent, it leaves the reader feeling that, despite all the sound and movement of the tale, it’s all pretty pointless given the impending cataclysm that is literally just over the horizon…until the angry red sun rises in the morning and once again reminds everyone that the end is near.

That sort of bleak outlook might be a useful corrective in the early days of a nation’s greatness.  In the middle decades of the twentieth century, when America strode forth out of decades of relative neutrality and blundered about the earth healthy, wealthy, and full of its own hubris, one needed such reminder that all such things are fleeting. 

We don’t live in that world.
We live a world where warnings of potential collapse generate clicks and drive voters to the polls.  Your own personal politics don’t matter in this regard.  The leaders of your faction may believe in fuses burning on debt bombs. They may issue pronouncements of global environmental collapse.  They may warn of the dire consequences of an American retreat from the world stage, or a resurgence of American warmongering, or even both at the same time.  We are all, regardless of our tribe, bombarded with this message over and over and over again from points both high (hello, Hollywood and D.C.) and low (hello, family and co-workers), and it all serves to press an atmosphere of gloom upon us as stark as that of the red sun of Vance’s Dying Earth.

If you feel that pressure, and escape fiction is your relief of choice, then you won’t find any in Vance’s Dying Earth.  All you’ll find is another world wallowing in the same gloom as your own.
In times such as ours and those of the Dying Earth, trust erodes and people become stingy with everything from their time to their wealth to their charity.  The autumn leaves tell us all to gather what we can and prepare for the coming winter.  Granted, the greedy and grasping misers are always a part of every culture, but their numbers grow and everyone begins to follow their lead as they clutch at any resource available.  It’s not an obvious or conscious shift, but rather a subtle and incremental shift in the culture.  And it’s a shift that helps lead even more weight to the daily struggle.

Into the dying earth steps Cugel the Clever, a man who possesses no qualms about lying, cheating, or stealing his way into any valuable object that crosses his path.  We all know men like him, and in oppressive times the number of Cugel’s swell.  They are just one more battle to fight in our daily lives, and even as we laugh at or admire Cugel’s cleverness, he serves as a reminder of the real world Cugels we face every day.  Like the world of the Dying Earth, Cugel gives us no respite from our own daily grind.
This is not to say that Vance is a terrible writer.  His sprawling adventures feature some of the most colorful characters, creatures, and wizardry ever put to paper.  Aside from the oppressive tone of the setting, Vance’s prose stand tall in the field, and his tales are enormously enjoyable.  This is only to say that Vance’s writing in the Dying Earth stories utilizes a dark tone works better as a counterpoint to brighter days.  The counterpoint for those who live in the twilight times, who feel in the wind a darkness gathering, is lighter tales of adventure that use doom as a spice rather than a main ingredient.

Schuyler Hernstrom is one such writer.  Schuyler’s tales sprawl across continents and environments, feature distinct and colorful characters thrown together by fate, and even include the wry, dry humor that gives Vance’s writing such power.  The difference is that Schuyler’s settings, particularly those in his two stories featured in Cirsova, include an element of hope and optimism in a brighter future.  They are infused with the fun spirit of adventure that reminds the reader that anything is possible, in stark contrast to Vance’s reminder that everything is transitory.

A case could be made that Schuyler’s work is derivative, more than one review of “Images of the Goddess” has pointed to an obvious Vancian influence, but if it is, then Schuyler is standing on the shoulders of the Vancian giant and taking Vance’s Dying Earth to a place it’s never been – a happy place.  That subtle shift of mood may strike the nihilists among us as a step backwards, but at a time when civilization itself seems to be sliding backwards, it strikes this reviewer as a shift towards hope and optimism at a time when such a shift is sorely needed.

Holding Schuyler up as the next step in evolution among short fantasy fiction writers, as taking Jack Vance’s style and moving it forward, may be a controversial statement.  You may disagree, and more power to you.
But at the end of the day, at least be open to the idea that someday, somebody will surpass Vance.  Don’t fall into the nostalgic trap of believing that the classics are the best there are or ever will be.  That alternative leads to the notion that of Vance as the end of history from a fantasy short fiction perspective, and what future could be bleaker than a future in which fantasy fiction has already peaked and its best days lie in the past? 


  1. I'm glad you wrote this (and it was a thoughtful post), as I was a little surprised when I first read your comment elevating Hernstrom above Vance ("taken aback" is a bit too strong, I think). Now there's more context!

    I would venture to disagree, or perhaps take a different tack and say that everyone has his own tastes. On one hand, I certainly get what you're saying about happier, more uplifting and hopeful storytelling. I don't necessarily agree; being politically informed and active on Twitter tends to blind you to this stuff, but many people are living in bubbles. I sometimes have to remind myself that most people in the US probably don't know who the current Speaker of the House is (geez). But there are a lot of apolitical or liberal SFF fans out there who could stand to read a few stories illustrating the bleakness of big government or the SJW agenda.

    I haven't read much Hernstrom or Vance, actually, so it's hard for me to speak in more than generalities, and maybe I should just keep my mouth shut until I do more exploring of their stuff, *however*, I didn't find Gift of the Ob-Men to be particularly hopeful, personally. I saw an outcast and traitor Conan look-alike become the pawn of cruel mushroom men. Actually it was my favorite story from Cirsova #1 and I enjoyed it. I just don't really see it being less dark than what little Vance I've read or for that matter much other SFF.

    I will say that Ob-Men made me want to read more of Hernstrom's stuff, and I wouldn't be surprised if he went on to great success in the future. I just wasn't so dazzled as to compare him to Vance at this point.

    Anyway, I think this comment turned out more contrary than I'd intended, but just wanted to share my two cents. Maybe I'm all set to become a Vance fanboy. =P

  2. Not at all, your points are well taken. Gift of the Ob-Men is definitely darker than Images of the Goddess. By the same token Vance's work isn't all as dark as the Dying Earth series.

    If it's wrong to be a Vance fanboy, I don't want to be right. Love the man's work. My point isn't that Hernstrom is a better writer than Vance, but that I prefer one work of Hernstrom to one series of Vance's. It's no criticism to say that at this point Hernstrom's career, he's got a lot of work ahead of him producing a lot of high quality and creative writing to do to catch Vance. Here's hoping he does, because we need more of it. It's much more accurate to say that Images of the Goddess is like Dying Earth, but that I think it's better, and this post explains why.

  3. Hey Jon, could you shoot me an email? hernstroms at gee male. By the way, I sincerely appreciate the nice things you have said about my work. I didn't weigh in earlier because I wasn't sure if it was appropriate or not, but I would like to talk with you offline, if you are amendable. Thanks!