Guyal of Sfere

July 27, 2011

The tale of “Guyal of Sfere” (beginning on page 89 here) is my favorite installment from Jack Vance’s original Dying Earth stories.  It’s not the most highly regarded of the stories in general, (that honor has to go to “Liane the Wayfarer”), but it has an earnestness to it that some of the other tales don’t quite manage.

The stories in the original collection gradually got longer and longer, until Guyal’s tale—the final one—had reached novella size.  The episodic adventures of Vance’s next Dying Earth protagonist, Cugel the Clever, took up two whole books; and by the time Cugel got to be even vaguely sympathetic, I’d been rooting for him to die for hundreds of pages.  Guyal, on the other hand, is a good fellow through and through.  He’s not especially a man of action, but he’s wise beyond his years.  He sees the decadence and evil of the dying planet around him, and he responds with a thirst for knowledge.  I think he’s a character that most fantasy and science fiction readers (especially young-ish ones) can readily identify with.

Guyal grows up asking questions, until his father sends him away to visit the Museum of Man and its legendary all-knowing curator.  He’s protected by magic, but he stumbles into several dangerous situations, until he reaches the town at the threshold of the ruined Museum.  There, he and a girl he chooses are sent as human sacrifices, to sate the evil demon lord who is waiting to plunder the Museum, as soon as the mad, immortal curator dies.  Guyal and his companion Shierl manage to cure the curator’s insanity, and together the three apply the scientific method to the problem of how to slay a minor god.

The early Dying Earth stories lack some of the later features that made Vance’s writing so distinctive.  The number of totally oddball cultures is extremely limited, and when they do exist, they are central to the plot.  In many of Vance’s works, he spends too much time embellishing these weird peoples, who really are tangential to the plot; this is especially annoying when we don’t have any idea why these bizarre cultures came to exist.  That’s not to say that this style of cultural science fiction doesn’t have it’s outstanding moments.  While Vance spends literally 150 pages in Night Lamp having people advising the hero which club he should join, that novel also features one of the most amazing mid-narrative transitions I’ve ever read—shocking and terrifying when you first read it, but also a clearly natural outgrowth of one of the culture’s he’s concocted.

Guyal’s encounters some odd cultures early on, but he does not tarry long amidst them.  In fact, the first dangers he faces—the fur-clad tribe of cannibals and the strange ghosts of Carchesel—are not given much elaboration.  In particular, the nature of the dancing, flute-playing denizens of the ruined city is not explained at all.  They’re just an otherworldly happening, something strange that neither Guyal nor the reader are ever going to understand.  If this is supposed to be symbolic—with the hero’s early encounters being dark, mysterious, and ultimately unexplained; while his later triumph at the Museum of Man comes from gaining a complete understanding of the situation—I don’t think it really works.  This interpretation only occurred to me in retrospect, after several close readings, and if it was part of the intended message, I found Vance’s execution lacking.

The climax of this story is the slaying of a demon lord, which they accomplish by studying one of the monster’s semi-independent extrusions under a microscope.  (Cugel later encounters another demon ruler with similar autonomous appendages.)  It was pretty unexpected when they zoomed in and found a woven mesh—not at all what I would think a demon would be made of.  Of course, that makes unraveling the enemy an entirely natural (but bizarre) way of killing him.  As I’ve mentioned before, the image of gigantic spools wound with demon, resting in the Museum hall, is an amazing image.

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5 Responses to “Guyal of Sfere”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    Guyal and Ulan’s stories always end up mixed in my head. I began rereading Guyal and was convinced I had never read it before until about ten pages in. Doesn’t bode too well.

    Its a good story, I’ll admit. I don’t think I could say that any of these stories are a clear favorite, much like I cannot determine a favorite among the Four Branches of the Mabinogion. I’ve been a fan of Vance’s cultural sci-fi ever since I encountered it with the first of these stories. The parts in the middle were conceptually interesting, but failed to draw me in as much as they could, simply because they had little effect on the rest of Guyal’s journey. In fact, I wish that Vance had used some of his boundless creativity a bit more freely when devising the Saponids. Guyal spends quite a bit of time with them, but throughout, I never thought of them as more than just “tribespeople”

    In rereading, I was particularly annoyed by Shierl’s binary qualities. She’s not a bad character to start with, though she is certainly flat. When Vance tries to add some dimension to her, he unfortunately chooses to do so only in the most cliched ways.

    I always preferred the Mobinogi-like quality of the first four tales, but they do not provide much of a resolution to the collection, and while Guyal is largely removed from that cycle, the ending is just about all I would expect from a collection of material such as this.

    • Buzz Says:

      I agree that Guyal provides a nice cap to the original cycle of stories, although the later ones in the series lose the episodic continuity of the earlier ones. Ulan’s connection to the early characters is extremely tenuous, and Guyal’s is basically nonexistent. I probably would have preferred that these characters be drawn in some way from the set that was introduced in the earlier tales.

      A little arithmetic reveals that I have read no less than seventeen books by Jack Vance. That said, I emphatically do not consider myself a fan of his weird cultures. The weirdness so often seems completely unjustified, merely bizarre descriptions for their own sake. When there’s a reason for there to be such strange cultures, it doesn’t so much bother me. That is the case throughout most of the Planet of Adventure novels, where the odd societies are primarily composed of aliens, along with humans who imitate those aliens. In other situations, the weird cultures are less of a primary focus or clearly portrayed as unnatural; for example, the first three Demon Princes novels (written long before the last two), much of the strangeness of the Demon Princes’ homeworlds are due to the utter depravity of the villains themselves. But in other books, such as The Languages of Pao, the plot seems like just an excuse to portray people with very unusual traditions.

      There are certainly moments when the bizarrest societies he dreams up are interesting and dramatic. For example, the midpoint of Night Lamp is a sudden and horrendous explosion of violence, but it’s eerily foreshadowed by the culture of its instigator. Another forty percent of the novel, however, is spent on how the hero doesn’t like joining the ubiquitous clubs of his adopted home planet, unless it might help him get laid. If there weren’t a few key plot points mixed into this stuff, I would recommend most readers skip it.

      What that means in this story is that I don’t miss the lack of a detailed discussion of Saponid culture. The artificial weirdness of their rituals surrounding the ghosts is sufficient for the story, and too much more would, I think, detract from an otherwise fairly well constructed tale.


  2. Why the hell does everyone like ‘Liane the Wayfarer’ so much? I mean, I read it. It’s a good story, but…it certainly didn’t strike me as anything special. Thoughts?

    • Buzz Says:

      I don’t know what the special appeal of “Liane the Wayfarer” is. It’s one of the better Dying Earth stories, in my opinion, but that’s all I can say about it.

      Perhaps people appreciate the fact that, because Liane is such a vile character, the reader winds up rooting for Chun the Unavoidable—who verges on being in the elder abomination category. On the other hand, it’s not really that challenging to write a completely unsympathetic villain protagonist; usually, the challenge with that character type is to make them sympathetic.


  3. “…the reader winds up rooting for Chun the Unavoidable—who verges on being in the elder abomination category.”

    What IS an elder abomination?


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