The cover of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth (or, more accurately, the cover of the Orb omnibus Tales of the Dying Earth, which contains that novel and its sequels) features a generic ugly spaceship that could be a twin to the one on the cover of A Fire Upon the Deep. From this, one would deduce that The Dying Earth is a hard SF novel. One would be wrong.
While the book is set in a far-far-far-future Earth when the sun is red and nearly spent, it’s actually more of a fantasy: there are sorcerers and magicians, exotic lands and decadent palaces, fair maidens and wild monsters. The influence that Vance had on Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is readily apparent (as, to a lesser degree, is the influence on Gary Gygax’s D&D spell vocabulary).
But Vance isn’t Wolfe, and what he does with a fantasy-tinged antique planet is entirely different in feel. The structure of Vance’s novel is diffuse: each chapter tells a self-contained story focusing on character who had been a peripheral player in an earlier chapter. There’s nothing on the copyright page to indicate that The Dying Earth was originally published as short stories before its 1950 publication as a novel, but it reads like it could have been.
More than that, though, the thing one notices about the novel is the prose, which is stylized and a bit florid. It’s very reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad, actually. (And how odd that such a sui generis work has inspired me to make more comparisons to other works than just about anything else I’ve read. I suspect that it’s because I can’t just say “it’s elfpunk” or “it’s near-future hard SF,” so I need to resort to “It’s sort of like The Book of the New Sun written in the style of The Cyberiad, but different.”)
I have a soft spot for writing that has a distinctive narrative voice, but those who prefer a more transparent, naturalistic style might find Vance overblown or irritating. A sample (of Prince Kandive the Golden reading from an ancient manuscript, but the style is representative):
“‘I have known the Ampridatvir of old; I have seen the towers glowing with marvellous light, thrusting beams through the night to challenge the sun itself. Then Ampridatvir was beautiful—ah my heart pains when I think of the olden city. Semir vines cascaded from a thousand hanging gardens, water ran blue as vaulstone in the three canals. Metal cars rolled the streets, metal hulls swarmed the air as thick as bees around a hive—for marvel of marvels, we had devised wefts of spitting fire to spurn the weighty powers of Earth … But even in my life I saw the leaching of spirit. A surfeit of honey cloys the tongue; a surfeit of wine addles the brain; so a surfeit of ease guts a man of strength. Light, warmth, food, water, were free to all men, and gained by a minimum of effort. So the people of Ampridatvir, released from toil, gave increasing attention to faddishness, perversity, and the occult.
“‘To the furthest reach of my memory, Rogol Domedonfors ruled the city. He knew lore of all ages, secrets of fire and light, gravity and counter-gravity, the knowledge of superphysic numeration, metathasm, corolopsis. In spite of his profundity, he was impractical in his rule, and blind to the softening of Ampridatvirian spirit. Such weakness and lethargy as he saw he ascribed to a lack of education, and in his last years he evolved a tremendous machine to release men from all labor, and thus permit full leisure for meditation and ascetic discipline.’”
Jack Vance is widely considered to be one of the great writers of the Golden Age, and I’d daresay that any serious SF reader should at least give him a whirl. If you haven’t read any Vance, this would be a fine place to start. And if you don’t like it, hey, it’s short. As for me, I love it.