The Dying Earth
by Jack Vance
(Baen, 1950)

The still-kicking Jack Vance is an incredibly vivid storyteller who will be largely forgotten a century from now because his chosen modes are fantasy and sci-fi. Recently, some of his old classics have enjoyed glossy reprints (the Hugo Award-winning Dragon Masters and the genre-defining "planetary romance" Big Planet among them), though they're best enjoyed in their original pulp-paperback forms, where the crazy, colorful cover art mirrors the contents within.

The cover of Vance's story collection The Dying Earth shows a lush garden in which a man in a cape hands a flower to a beautiful woman. The man is a remorseless magician named Mazirian who will stop at nothing to get what he desires. The garden is his masterwork, a shimmering merge of vegetation and living flesh. "Here grew trees like feather parasols," writes Vance in the tale's splendid opening paragraph, "trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins..."

"Mazirian" moves from the tranquil scene depicted through a rapid stream of hallucinatory events as the woman, T'sain, flees from Mazirian and leads him on a grueling chase through the dying earth's menacing landscape. In Vance's fantastical world the sun is red and feeble, the populace of humans and other strangely evolved organisms living out the planet's final years in an orgy of paganistic excess. The stories are bleak, the protagonists flawed and even unlikable. Vance's imaginative powers are intimidating, his truly bizarre twists and turns conveyed in a hyper-articulate prose somehow both rigid and lucid.

In "Ulan Dhor" a brave apprentice ventures to an ancient city of mystical towers to find a powerful artifact for his master. What he finds there defies easy description, but includes a many-tentacled overlord who manipulates the town's civilians in cruel and fascinating ways. In "Guyal of Sfere" a man descends into the "Museum of Man" to learn all there is to know—but not before being forced to judge a beauty contest in a nearby town. Such surreal details pile up with dreamlike sharpness, creating an endlessly riveting masterwork of self-contained magical realism. Vance is a drug of choice—no fantasy writer has ever been trippier.