Last year I gave high marks to a collection of early Jack Vance “gadget” stories (starting here), a more positive rating than what I later saw from others in Vance fan sites and, purportedly, from Vance himself. Much of Vance’s following comes from an admiration of his unique writing style, but I seem to respond more to his ideas and characters.
So when I read Dark is the Sun, Philip José Farmer’s 1979 version of a “dying Earth” epic, it wasn’t a complete surprise that I liked it more than what would be expected from the mixed-bag reception it has received from Farmer fans in the past. DitS inherits the premise and some ideas of Jack Vance’s classic Dying Earth fantasy stories, but not their style or genre; this book is solidly SF and completely Farmer. Rather than magicians and spellbooks, DitS features the end-products of tens of thousands of years’ worth of natural selection and technologies left over from past civilizations. It could have been chopped up into a series of adventure novels, but it bucked the trend and told its story entirely within a single volume, earning the criticism of being “too long.”
The world is finally ending in DitS, as humans have been reduced by history to primitive tribes and are no longer capable of moving their planet away from its dying star. Their environment is rife with deadly predators and plagued by violent earthquakes, and they have turned back to shamans and idols for answers. Mating pairs are determined by matching “soul-eggs” plucked from rare trees and carried around the neck. To slow the corruptive effects of inbreeding, some tribesmen must venture out and capture a mate from a rival tribe.
Deyv is one such bachelor or the Turtle tribe, sent out into the hazardous no-mans land of the jungle. Like all sentient beings of this world, his has the adaption of being able to control his own cellular activity, so that non-deadly injuries can be healed quickly. While bites and scratches may not bother him much, he most fears the spear-points of other tribesmen who go trophy-hunting. Fortunately, he has a semi-intelligent dog and a semi-intelligent cat to aid him, both animals being loyal companions as well as vicious fighters. Not so luckily, his soul-egg gets stolen from him one night by a fox-man; without this critical heirloom, Deyv is rendered mateless and a pariah.
Soon he meets Vana, a woman from another, unfamiliar tribe, who is also missing her soul-egg. They learn each other’s language (a favorite task described in Farmer’s adventure fiction) and agree to travel together. Vana might be my favorite character, very capable and selfless, but rarely in tune with Deyv, due to the taboos and traditions held by their respective tribes – even though neither may return home without their soul-eggs. Deyv is physically attracted to her, of course, but struggles with these mental barriers:
He took her hand and pulled her up. At the same time, despite his surge of feeling for her a moment ago, he thought, She’s an eater of human corpses.
He could never marry her or even lie with her. But that didn’t mean that he couldn’t like her — to some extent, anyway. If she were a male cannibal, she could be his friend. So why should her being a woman make a difference?
For some undefinable reason, it did.
Farmer has a lot of fun with the irrational beliefs of Deyv and Vana. They meet up with a large plant-man named Sloosh, who communicates by clicking noises. His kind are peaceful and long-lived, and he possesses a rational and inquisitive mind. It’s through Sloosh that Farmer offers speculations on when and how the the world will end, and what the characters can do about it. Of course, Sloosh tells the humans its thoughts on many other things:
According to Sloosh, the world had started out as an unimaginably large ball of fire and an equally unimaginable amount of empty space. Really empty, with nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a speck of dust, in it. Or perhaps, Sloosh said, there was only a ball of fire, containing all of the matter there was. Which meant there was only a tiny bit of empty space around it — if any. Then, when the ball exploded, its matter created space as it expanded outward. Or perhaps it expanded inward. Where there was no space, there was no “direction” out or in.
They eventually catch up with the thief, a sentient fox-man (a Yawtl in this book), but spare his life because they still need to recover their soul-eggs. It turns out that the fox-man was acting out of servitude to a witch named Feersh the Blind. As usual, Sloosh is there with encyclopedic details of Farmer’s imagined world:
Between eating and sleeping, the Yawtl talked.
“Feersh the Blind is a wicked old witch.”
Sloosh, interrupting, said, “By ‘witch’ he doesn’t mean one who practices magic. Such a thing only exists in the minds of the ignorant and superstitious. He means one who has found artifacts of the ancients and has discovered how to use them.”
DitS proceeds as the characters, in their quest for their missing “souls,” encounter many deadly adversaries — but after coming to an understanding with some of them, they join the traveling party. Besides the Yawtl, this includes Feersh the Blind, another powerful witch-creature who resembles a giant centipede, and creature best described as a sentient meteorite. Their overall goal evolves as this happens (and as their world crumbles), and serves to keep the conversations fresh. It is usually Sloosh’s guiding rationality and his ability to convince Deyv and Vana to do things his way that facilitates this pattern.
Although relatively unsophisticated, the two humans are impressively resourceful and eager learners. Besides absorbing different languages and Sloosh’s frequent lectures, they regularly think their way through the small puzzles they encounter. This allows Farmer to show his enthusiasm for describing clever machines, such as this winch system:
While Sloosh was letting himself down, much more quickly than he’d ascended, Deyv studied the windlass at close range. Though he’d never seen such a machine before, he figured out within a minute how to unlock it. Having done this, he began to unwind it slowly. The weight of the rope-ladder, over six hundred feet long, was immense. The windlass had a brake, however, which was operated by foot. And it must have been oiled recently, since it didn’t squeak.
All sorts of strange creatures inhabit this dying Earth, which Sloosh believes could be the intentional products of a force that guides evolution (actually Evolution, in this perspective). The virus-like creatures than form living airships – the tharakorm – are examples of this.
“And then there is the tharakorm, the end product of the half-alive, half-dead kingdom. It is without self-consciousness or a brain, as we know brains. Nevertheless, it may survive where all the other kingdoms perish. I should modify that. The mineral kingdom will not perish, but it will lose its present forms, all melted into one cosmic ball of fire at the end.
“However, the tharakorm, which is now confined to sailing the air, may become a sailor of space itself. It is evolving toward that state now. For all I know, there may be some tharakorm which have already succeeded in leaving this atmosphere. They could be voyaging through space, outward bound, their sails spread to catch the light of the dying universe and be pushed by it toward that space where there is no matter whatsoever. That is, of course, if there can be thing such as space without matter.”
The epic adventure goes on like this, with many episodes, strange creatures, and puzzles. More and more aspects of this world get introduced, demonstrating the very impressive range of Farmer’s imagination. Deyv kind of plateaus as a character, but the others provide enough foils for Sloosh to keep things interesting. There are some intense and well-described battle scenes, especially when they encounter hostile clans of humans. Farmer always writes for clarity rather than for artistry, so readers of this long tale will be able to keep up with his plethora of inventions. 7/10.