Nutshell: assorted losers use the always already imminent destruction of the Earth as an excuse for grave breaches of sense & decency; sadly, the destruction of this Earth is not presented herein.
Though the volume designates a metonym by which the setting stands for a particular subgenre, the setting here is incidental rather than intrinsic to the narratives; the setting predominates conceptually for readers, but is really mere window-dressing for the actual stories. By contrast, the dying of the sun in Wolfe's [b:The Book of the New Sun|40992|Shadow and Claw (The Book of the New Sun, #1-2)|Gene Wolfe|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1317791854s/40992.jpg|40575] et seq.
is central to the narrative (though the opening batteries may initially appear to be upjumped vancianisms). By further contrast, the brief hints of a dead far future in Wells' [b:The Time Machine|2493|The Time Machine|H.G. Wells|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327942880s/2493.jpg|3234863] contain more setting-substantial narrative content, and more menace, than what we have here. I'd expect, when the sun starts to burn out, to see radiological problems, agricultural disruptions, and so on. The economics of a dying earth should be stark and alien.
Rather than arising out of the setting, the stories presented are variations of cynical wayfarers seeking to obtain their maintenance or increase their advantages.
Some have described sections of the book as picaresque, especially the Cugel sections. My Harmon & Holman
tells me that the picaresque novel has seven elements: chronicle of a rogue's life; rogue is "low," "loose," and "menial"; chronicle is episodic; no character development; realistic mode of narration; interaction with all social classes; and rogue lacks actual criminality.
Cursory reflection will demonstrate that, whereas parts of the writings here evidence several of these items, at no point do all cohere. Cugel is certainly a low, loose, & menial rogue, engaged in Eyes of the Overworld
in loosely connected episodes (the second Cugel volume is less loose, though still somewhat episodic). He is however a horrible criminal: many frauds & impersonations, burglary, theft, armed robbery, human trafficking, battery, murder, coerced sex, kidnapping, piracy, antiquities trafficking, dereliction of duty leading to the destruction of an entire town, maiestas
, dishonest trade practices, pandering, and so on.
The narration is not realistic, of course. And there is what might be considered character development for Cugel, such as when he uncharacteristically gives in to "quixotic folly" in order to aid a companion (260). It's not obvious if there is interaction with all social classes, though it is a varied cast. (Part of the problem with this collection is that setting really is not developed, so it's hard to tell if the land is owned by feudal lords, or sorcerers, or communists, or whatever.)
It is accordingly safe to conclude that Cugel, at least, is no picaroon. The titular characters in the first part are also wanderers generally--but they don't meet the definition either. Neither does Rhialto, the protagonist, of sorts, of the fourth component.
What these more resemble is the representation of knight errantry in Malory's [b:Morte d'Arthur|219269|Le Morte d'Arthur, Vol 2|Thomas Malory|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1347344985s/219269.jpg|18895778] or even Spenser's [b:Faerie Queene|765427|The Faerie Queene |Edmund Spenser|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328308492s/765427.jpg|19904]. We have a random assortment of wanderers seeking out their maintenance in an ill-defined fairy landscape. Were the setting more developed, into a true tolkienian secondary creation, it may not seem this way; but the piling up of proper nouns and unexplained references to persons and places far away or long ago, never to appear again, contributes more to a static fey otherland than a rigorous and dynamic secondary world. That's all great--but it therefore resembles the setting of Arthur more than anything else. Yeah, we have no actual knights here; it's a mix of high tech and seeming sorcery; oddities, creatures, monsters; space travel, time travel, interdimensional travel; nerdly losers seizing women; sinister women seizing nerdly losers in return; anthropophagic rat-things; giant worm livestock; eye-stealing thugs; &c. Encounters are basically random: I expected Sir Breunis Sans Pite to charge from underbrush, smite upon the left hand and on the right, until blood brast from his ears and from his eyes, until he retreated into a malodorous fen.
Last volume should likely be read first, as it has an introductory essay that describes the setting a bit. (It also appears to be first by setting chronology.) The first couple stories in volume I involve the attempts of second-rate sorcerers to "create humanity in my vats" (7), which should be read in pari materia
with Mary Shelley. Of course, that our magician first "formed a girl of exotic design" (13) should not come as a surprise. A rival magician tries to take the product many times (17). The rival can make "a perfect body," but is unable to make "the brain ordered and pliant" (19). It's the ultimate dream of antisocial nerds: perfectly-bodied women with perfectly pliant minds.
Narrative presents a number of missed chances. For instance, Cugel acquires a solitary "eye of the overworld," which allows him to see "a wonder of exaltation," though "concurrently his left eye showed the reality" of the shithole in which the chapter was located (149). Dude removes the differential eye and the narrative proceeds--but it could've been a kickass sustained commentary, reality v. the view of reality from the overworld.
Ugly default in the fourth volume, wherein the protagonist and allies unite to prevent "the final triumph of the female race" (595), though it seems the political system, "a hitherto unclassified dream," features "all possessions are in common, and greed is unknown," "toil is kept at a minimum and shared equally among all" (593). Obviously something that needs stomped out, this gynocommunism.
Despite all of the nastiness, there are lots of nifty details, cool turns of phrase, and clever dialogue--all very strong. Characteristic is the catalogue of teratoids (248) and the curator's Index Major (128). Hard to overemphasize these strengths--when it's good, it's very good. Probably should therefore be considered an important contribution to speculative fiction, despite its weaknesses.
Recommended for those who are polyandrous by habit, persons who stimulate the vitality of the sun, and readers who traverse the refuse heap of the universe.