Monday, October 11, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Rhialto the Marvellous

1984's Rhialto the Marvellous is the fourth -- and final -- book of Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" series. Though called a novel, it's really a collection of three different stories of varying length, each of which focuses on the titular character, a magician of the 21st Aeon who belongs to "a group of magicians who have formed an association the better to protect their interests." The book is of particular interest to players of Dungeons & Dragons for two reasons, the first of which is its foreword, which describes spells thusly:
A spell in essence corresponds to a code, or set of instructions, inserted into the sensorium of an entity which is able and not unwilling to alter the environment in accordance with the message conveyed by the spell.
Vance likewise states that "Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed on utility, rather than basic understanding." Taken together, these comments provide additional fuel for the fire of discussion regarding the meaning of "Vancian" spellcasting and its relationship (or not) to D&D's magic rules.

The second reason gamers might be interested in this book is the third story in this collection -- and the best, in my opinion -- is the origin of Ioun Stones. The story in question, "Morreion," was originally published in 1973, in a collection called Flashing Swords! 1, edited by Lin Carter and enjoyed by Gary Gygax. By his own admission, he was so taken with both the story and the magical stones it described (which Vance always spells in all capital letters as "IOUN stones") that he imported them into Dungeons & Dragons, an importation to which Vance in fact gave his kind permission.

The first story of Rhialto the Marvellous is entitled "The Murthe" and concerns a powerful female magic-user from the past, after whose title the story is named. In the past, there was a "War of Wizards and Witches," in which the witches were victorious. However, a few surviving wizards created a cabal to strike back against their feminine foes. In this endeavor they succeeded and the Murthe was exiled "to a far star." Alas for the wizards, the Murthe proved wilier than expected and, rather than go in peace, she discovered a means to travel into the future, which is to say, Rhialto's present to exact her revenge by transforming her enemies into women under her own control. Only Rhialto and his friend Ildefonse escape the Murthe's magic and, together, they must find a means to stop her and reverse her spells.

The second story, "Fader's Waft," is lengthy and could easily stand on its own as a novella. Its plot centers on Rhialto's censure by his fellow wizards, the penalty for which is being stripped of most of his magical possessions, including his collection of IOUN stones. Rhialto becomes convinced that the events that led to his reprimand are the result of a nefarious plot against him by agents unknown and, with the aid of an unruly sandestin (are there any other kind?), he travels back in time to unravel the mystery of just what has transpired and why. Of course, things aren't as simple as that and, through the course of the story, Rhialto must contend with several temporally-based plots and counter-plots in order to get to the bottom of it all.

The final story, the aforementioned "Morreion," is a terrific story that involves the journey of Rhialto and his fellows to the literal edge of the universe in search of a former colleague who disappeared some time ago while seeking out the source of the much-coveted IOUN stones. Though a good story in itself, what makes it stand out is Vance's fanciful conception of magical space travel, in which the wizards use their powers to transport an entire palace into the outer dark. Part whimsy, part brilliance, the third story of Rhialto the Marvellous presents a vision of extraterrestrial exploration that I find very compelling and one that I can't help but wish D&D had adopted more fully. You can see glimmers of it in Gygax's conception of the Astral Plane, I think, and there's even a touch of it in -- believe it or not -- Spelljammer but neither really quite does justice to what Vance has concocted in "Morreion."

Overall, I have mixed feelings about Rhialto the Marvellous. There's no doubt that it contains some of Vance's best and most humorous prose. The interactions between the immensely powerful and self-absorbed wizards is priceless and almost worth the price of admission alone. With the exception of "Morreion," though, I can't say that the stories themselves particularly engaged me, with "Fader's Waft" being notably tedious at times. But perhaps the stories themselves aren't the point so much as Vance's luxurious prose and skill in producing dialog at once beautiful and vapid. If nothing else, the book is great inspiration for a campaign involving powerful magic-users in a decadent and dying world.


  1. I just finished the Orb books all-in-one collection of the Dying Earth stories, and I'm going to put forward an assertion that may qualify as heresy:

    If written today, they would be classified as science fiction, not fantasy.

    The setting is Earth, far in the future. The "magic" is the last remnants of technology at the Clarke's Law levels -- something like John Ringo's "There Will Be Dragons" universe. The "demons" et. al. are either aliens or constructs or both. The fantastic creatures are genetic experiments gone wrong (or right, depending) or mechanisms of long-forgotten purpose. Spells, as described in that excerpt, are programs or access codes that tap into that ancient technology.

    In one of the early stories, one of the characters flat-out states that he's been attempting to rediscover mathematics, so as to better understand magic. This, to me, reinforces the idea that magic is the remnants of technology.

    Now, this is not to say that the Dying Earth stories need to be moved from slot "A" to slot "B". More of a statement of how pigeon-holed we've let our genres become.

    (And I think this reinforces the idea that "Glory Road" was Heinlein's journey down the same path.)

  2. I was wondering when you'd get around to this one. Agree that it's a bit of a mixed bag in comparison to the rest of the Dying Earth stories by Vance.

    But what a great storehouse of proper names to mine for a campaign. Herark the Harbinger, Byzant the Necrope, Khulip's Nasal Enhancement,etc.

  3. It's been quite a while since I read these (and, in fact, the cover in the picture is the very book I have), but I think I enjoyed them a wee bit more than the Cugel stories. Regardless, in both sets of tales, Vance's ability to make one laugh as his characters rationalize the most beastly behavior is wonderful. Time to re-read, I think.

  4. I have the Orb collected edition as well, though I've only read 'The Dying Earth' and the first third of 'Eyes of the Overworld'. Great stuff.

    When it comes to genres, I'll have to echo the observation/complaint mentioned by Rob (and, I think, our blog host) about the 'stratification' of genres. I just use the phrase 'speculative fiction' as an all-encompassing term for horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. It's not pretty or evocative, but it's a nice workman's term, that gets the job done. It'd be nice, really nice, if the term 'generic fantasy' was an oxymoron, but sadly, that's not the kind of world we live in.

  5. > "The interactions between the immensely powerful and self-absorbed wizards is priceless and almost worth the price of admission alone."

    I agree with this statement, except I would change "almost" to "ABSOLUTELY!"

    This is actually the first Jack Vance book I ever read BitD, and I'd still rank it in my personal top 5 Jack Vance books. I find it literally laugh-out-loud hilarious no matter how many times I've read it, definitely one of the funniest books of his (equalled or surpassed only by the Cugel stories).

  6. I'd agree with kipper that this is one of Vance's funniest books, but it's a slow, subtle humor; if you read inattentively, you won't realize how funny what you've just read is.

  7. Btw, AD&D 2nd Edition version (there may be earlier ones) of the robe of stars says: "The garment also enables the wearer to survive comfortably in the void of outer space."

    I think that's a titillating ability and I really like the science fantasy flavor of it. It was lost in the later editions and e.g. Spelljammer just didn't capture the right kind of weirdness. (Points to 4E for its cosmology that combines space and the astral plane)

  8. A rib-tickler all right, and I love the idea of the ultimate coven of all powerful arch magi snivelling and bickering like a badly behaved primary school class.

    BTW has anyone played the Dying Earth RPG? Not in the least old school in its mechanics, but does have the excellent idea of rewarding players XP through 'taglines', bits of Vancian dialogue that have to be delivered during play, with extra marks for making them funny.

  9. Vance's Dying Earth books are nothing if not consistent sources of mixed feelings. I love them for the prose and the cleverness, but at the end of the day I can't fully sympathize (in those rare cases where I can sympathize at all) with the characters.

    Which is why I prefer his later "Lyonesse" books. Same excellent prose, same cleverness, and at some points the same set pieces, but they also include characters one can root for.

    The magic system is different, though, where it is explained at all. In that, I greatly prefer the system of Dying Earth which has neither muss nor fuss.

  10. Kinda like the opposite of Flight of Dragons in which technology is the bane of magic. The super lame ending shows science countering Omedon's spells.

  11. Holy cow... I have copies of Flashing Swords 1 & 2 floating around here somewhere... Was so taken with them in my youth that I sought out Lin Carter for an autograph... Time to go digging.

  12. Love the dying earth, it has a dry wit that works well. I think that Gene Wolfe's shadow of the torturer owes a big debt to Vances.

    If you've not seen the RP version of the dying earth you should at least plop down the bucks for the first book. It's quick, assertive, and very much in keeping with the feeling and themes of the stories.

    Lazarus Lupin
    The Antimatter of taste

  13. The Dying Earth RPG is indeed brilliant, and has Cugel-level, Turjan-level, and Rhialto-level style adventures. Sadly OOP now, but the mechanics live on in Robin Laws' Skulduggery, I think...

  14. >I'm going to put forward an assertion that may qualify as heresy:

    >If written today, they would be classified as science fiction, not fantasy.

    Far from heresy, these were science fiction when they first appeared. I'm not one to quibble about genre definition, but if one is going to use the terms to meaningfully distinguish examples of literature, The Dying Earth falls under science fiction. Furthermore, The Dying Earth has served to inspire an impressive array of later sf work, foremost of which is Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, set in a similar dying future Earth which borrows liberally from the conventions of technology and culture established by Vance, as does Wolfe's rich use of language replete with archaic vocabulary. There is a recent book of tribute fiction called Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.

  15. @Michael

    I've got book where this was quoted in storage, but Robert Silverberg wrote about he had ordered a copy of the book fully expecting a science fiction book based on how it had been advertised in a fanzine. He said it took him a long time to learn to like the book for what it was instead of what he had hoped it was going to be.

  16. Was it ever explained anywhere if IOUN actually stood for anything? It looks like an abbreviation (or initialisation), but I don't think I've ever seen it mentioned anywhere, or even what they really do, except store the owner's memories somehow.

    Vance is one of my favourite authors, I'd always read anything he cared to write.

    I'd certainly say that the Dying Earth RPG is well worth picking up if you can (I was a playtester). We've had some games that just left us laughing so hard that we couldn't play for a while.


  17. Vance is another writer who I find to be all style and no substance. Reading him is like eating a meal consisting of nothing but marzipan and cake frosting. It's just not something I can get into.

  18. I loved this book :)

    and as for the genre it's "fantastic" at his highest, and I think that to keep it fantastic you must not know everything

    it's magic? it's tech? it's both? it's neither? who cares as long as it works!

    lately some fantasy material (also and mostly in rpg) is a little tamed because tell TOO much, the gods are this, the planes are that, magic works so and so, miracles works in this other way :( this is not good IMO at least

  19. If you hurry over to eBay, there's a copy of the Dying Earth RPG for sale (the auction ends in like an hour and a half).

    As long as you don't mind bidding on an item for sale from someone with zero feedback.

    I'd bid on it myself, but of course, it's for US bidders only...

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  21. (Sorry realised I'd edited badly - this is a bit better)

    Cheer up GrumpyCelt! All style and no substance? That's the main point of Rhialto the Marvellous at least, a bunch of smartalecs who have seen and done it all several times over and posess the power of gods, but, being human, indulge in peevish squabbles and petty one up manship to give life meaning.

    There's a great line from Roger Sheckley's 'The Alchemical Marriage of Alastair Crompton' where the hero asks an immortal megabeing why his species spends so much time getting smashed out of their faces on dangerous drugs - 'Well we all acheived perfect enlightenment aeons ago. What are we supposed to do? Sit around for all eternity grinning at each other?'

    And Vances other books are not lacking in substance IMO. All his books say something about the human condition, but since Vance is a bit of a misanthrope, not everybody finds the underlying message appealing or funny.

    Have you read the first book in this sequence, the eponymous 'The Dying Earth'? A bit darker and grimmer and wears its 'meaningfulness' more shallowly. Of if you want real philosphy dressed up as really daft fantasy try James Branch Cabell instead.

  22. Dude. Cabell says that every woman is the same woman. That isn't real philosophy.

    I like Vance, but it took me a long time to get into his work and I still haven't really gotten into The Dying Earth or Lyonesse. I found The Grey Prince to be both accessible and thought-provoking, so you might enjoy that.

  23. I'm not insulting Cabell's writing, mind you. I've got a ton of Cabell under my belt, and he's great if you're in the right mood for his wit.

  24. IOUN could be latin like SPQR, or INRI.

    Lazarous Lupin
    art and review

  25. I always thought The Dying Earth was the best of all these stories. Vance can be kind of inconsistent.

    Only sort of related, but I noticed that the guy who's doing that deep analysis of the D&D magic rules and trying to make some sort of point-based overlay for it is back at it again: