Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review of "Guyal the Curator" (2009) by John C. Wright


"Guyal the Curator" is a short novella (about 12 thousand words) which John C. Wright set in Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" storyverse, and available in the Songs of the Dying Earth anthology.

The `verse is probably familiar to a lot of my readers, but basically the "Dying Earth" stories are science fantasy, set in Earth's far future (1) -- many millennia, or even millions to billions of years from our time -- when the Sun is guttering out, whether from natural senesence or from having its energy drained by generation after generation of human engineers.  The humanity of Earth, which at one time attained a very high level of technology including interstellar and transdimensional travel, lives among the ruins of of its past scientific and psionic achievements, many of which they no longer understand and treat as magical.  A few humans, called "magicians," have made a study of these lost arts and have learned to channel transdimensional energies through their own minds, through memorized spells (2), or by studying and collecting artifacts of the lost technologies, using them without fully grasping the sciences behind their operation (3).


The city of Old Romarth dates back to that earlier age of lost science, and is literally built on a tell atop its own ruins, some of which were solidly enough built to be essentially intact.  The city has fallen far, and is reduced to selling relics of its own past in order to survive in the present.  Since everyone expects the Sun to go out sometime within or not too far after their lives, nobody really sees any flaw in this mode of existence (4).

Manxolio Quinc is a minor magician and nobleman of that city, whose reputation rests largely on his possession of "the Implacable Dark Iron Wand," a relic weapon from an earlier age, of whose function and command he has very little concept, but which looks very impressive.  One day, Manxolio encounters a stranger, who tells him more in a short conversation about the Wand and the ancient history of Old Romarth than Manxolio has managed to learn in his entire life.  However, the stranger has forgotten his own name and nature (5).  Manxolio offers to help the man, and thus the quest begins ...


I don't want to spoil the story for anyone.  I will say flat out that this is one of the best "Dying Earth" stories I have ever read, and this is against stiff competition, including Jack Vance himself, Robert Silverberg and Neil Gaiman. 

Wright makes us care about the two main characters -- including the less likeable Manxolio Quinc, who serves as viewpoint character in limited third-person (6). The incidents are fantastic, the secrets deep, and the ultimate revelations truly awesome, having an immense impact on our concept of the past and future of the Dying Earth, and all this without rendering the story inconsistent with Vance's own work or other authorized fiction set in that 'verse.  Most importantly, it all makes sense -- there is never a moment where something deeply stupid happens that slices the threads of your willing suspension of disbelief -- and is profoundly moving.


With this story, coupled with his work in the universes of A. E. Van Vogt's World of Null-A and William Hope Hodgson's The Night Land, John C. Wright is establishing himself as not merely a great writer and creator of his own fictional worlds, but also as a supremely-talented worker in other people's worlds.  This is harder than one might realize on first consideration:  the writer who wishes to tell effective stories in other people's universes must manage to convey his own message in a manner consistent with the existing setting and themes.  In particular, he must not flat-out contradict anything already established as true in that setting, and he must handle any established characters and other elements of the setting in such wise as not to jar with the mood of that setting, even if his ultimate message is DIFFERENT from that of the original creator.  Not only is this difficult to do, it is extremely difficult to do well, to do in a manner which results in a story which is both true to the old and memorable for the new (7).

John C. Wright had an especially tough row to hoe here because he was using a character from a previous Jack Vance story in the setting, to tell a story whose theme close to contradicts one of the main assumptions of the setting, and he managed to show with reference to other Vance works in and out of setting, exactly why this all made sense in terms of the setting.  He even made an implicit analogy between one of the protagonists and the hero of another very famous Jack Vance series, which was not originally part of the Dying Earth 'verse, by syncretizing the two 'verses.  And it was done subtly -- I didn't explicitly realize the thematic connection between "Guyal the Curator" and the famous Jack Vance series until I sat down to write this review.

Read this story.  Mortgage your home and unimportant family members to get hold of a copy of the anthology in which it appears (8).  Then read John C. Wright's other works.

It's well worth your time.


=== NOTES ===

(1) - An obvious inspiration for Jack Vance was Clark Ashton Smith, whose Zothique series, set on "Zothique, Earth's Last Continent" (a future supercontinent somewhat similar to Pangaea Ultima), is essentially sword and sorcery in a decadent future world dominated by often-evil magicians -- though averaging a lower level of general technology than Vance's "Dying Earth."  Both are classed as being in the "Dying Earth subgenre" of speculative fiction.

(2) - Using the system even more familiar to many from Dungeons and Dragons, in which a magic-user can memorize and cast only a certain number of spells of certain levels per day.  However, Vance did not here copy D&D -- the first "Dying Earth" stories were written in the 1940's and 1950's.  It was actually Gygax and Arneson who copied Vance, and in some cases lifted spells wholesale from his stories.

(3) - This interpretation of the fantasy elements in the `verse developed over time and is the one Wright used in the story under discussion.  It also is one which makes a lot of sense.

(4) - And humans do the same thing in ancient cities and countries of the modern Earth, or otherwise sell off literally-irreplacable resources with no plan for supporting their economies after the deposits have run dry.  The antiquities and oil trades of the modern Mideast are the obvious example:  but there are less obvious ones, such as the mammoth tusk ivory trade.

(5) - Self-discovery seems to be one of John C. Wright's favorite story subjects:  consider the children from his "Chronicles of Chaos" series, or the multiple deceptions that have been practiced on Phaethon in his "The Golden Age" trilogy.  All I can say about this is that it's one of the strongest possible literary themes, and Wright always handles it well, with self-discovery leading to even larger discoveries which turn out to be vital to the whole story setting,

(6) - Which works interestingly and effectively, because Manxolio is the one whose scope of knowledge is most similar to that of his contemporaries, allowing the other character numerous and well-handled opportunities for exposition to the reader as he explains things to Manxolio; but the other character is the one with a moral outlook more similar to men of our age).

(7) - In the good sense of the word.

(8) - Or you could just visit your public library, like I did.  But where's the fun in that? ;-)


John C. Wright maintains a blog at

which is more than a bit interesting.  I recommend it to one and all.


  1. I don't really care about the Wright or Simmons stories, but I'd love to read the Silverberg, Williams, Williams, Williams, Volsky, Cook, Lee, Vandermeer, and Gaiman.

    Cook is probably the least Vancian writer out there. That should be interesting.

  2. Cook has the essential amorality and cruelty of Dying Earth magicians down pat, but he can't write in a Vancian style. Lee, Silverberg and Wright in particular can.