The Eyes of The Overworld (Dying Earth #2) – Jack Vance (1966)
Sixteen years on from his first ‘Dying Earth’ novel, Vance returns to the Dying Earth to a tale of a quest in search of what are almost literally ‘rose-tinted lenses’ or at least violet-tinted, which have the power to transform all one’s perceptions so that one perceives the Overworld in which the gross realities of life are transformed into visions and sensations of beauty.
The hero, or rather antihero, Cugel, is caught attempting to steal from the wizard Iucounu. As a penance, Iucounu sends him off across the world – locked into a cage and carried by a demon – to the far land of Cutz where his mission is to recover one of the Eyes of the Overworld to make up a pair with the one that Iucounu already possesses.
To ensure that Cugel returns the wizard has implanted an alien creature, Firx, within his body which inflicts pain on Cugel’s internal organs if he delays or deviates from the route back to his master.
Cugel calls himself Cugel the Clever, and although he is resourceful and cunning he is also amoral and occasionally brutally ruthless.
He has no scruples about his double-crossing his colleagues or leaving them to die, but then, most of the inhabitants of the Dying Earth with its great red sun, its magenta skies, and its decadent societies, seem to share the same callous attitude to their fellow humans and the other odd beings with whom they share the Earth.
There is a strong satirical element as is common to most of Vance’s work and once more he launches attacks on organised religion, in particular those adherents whose unquestioning deviation to dogma blinds them to everything else.
At one point Cugel is sent back in time and is met by a community of human variants who believe that the winged creatures who feed upon them are summoned by divine forces when their death is near. They accuse Cugel of blasphemy and sentence him to death when he tries to persuade them otherwise.
In another section there is a wonderful discussion between pilgrims of various faiths who all attempt to explain to each other why their religion is the true one. This culminates in Cugel bribing a priest to speak through a local sacred statue and command the pilgrims to cross the Silver Desert, merely in order for him to join their convoy and return home.
Stylistically, it is less poetic and evocative than ‘The Dying Earth’ – which was structured differently in that it followed several loosely connected characters – but is full of inventive cultures, creatures and situations. The pessimism and bleakness of his view of future humanity is balanced with a wry wit.