Jack Vance, an appreciation
R.I.P Jack Vance, 1916-2013
This epistle on Vance was originally written about 1996. I haven't updated much (if anything at all) in years. Just a heads up.
Jack Vance has been crafting fiction since 1945, when his first published short story, The World Thinker made an appearance in Thrilling Wonder Stories, a now defunct American "pulp" magazine. He has published numerous amounts of both short and long fiction, in the genré's of fantasy, science-fiction and mystery, often blurring the distinctions of all three. He currently lives in Oakland, a bayside town near San Francisco, USA, and he was born in 1916.
I was personally introduced to Jack's work in 1984 when I chanced upon a copy of his Cugel's Saga belonging to an acquaintance of mine. I immediately fell in love with it and sought out more work, I can still say I have not read all of his material. Novels like Take My Face and Vandals of the Void still elude me and there are several short stories of his I have missed out on.
Nonetheless, I consider myself to be "well read" when it comes to his work, and on this basis, I have felt it opportune to delineate the various matters which make him a most satisfying read. I am by no means well read in the concomitant field of science-fiction/fantasy. My personal library numbers about 500 in this regard and so, I will draw no comparisons between Vance and other authors of this ilk. There are other, possibly superior writers out there, but, as a personal liking is by itself subjective, any such comparison obviously is slated as an opinion. This essay will basically be concerned with the legion elements which make up the Vancian style, and not a few criticisms are ignored either. With this arguably didactic prelude complete, let us move on.
Much has been said and written on the style of Jack Vance. He imbues every scene, every character, every sunset or brook flowing in a long-forgotten forest with a poesy that is captivating as well as mildly off-putting for the newcomer. In the Lyonesse trilogy, he gives every character, protagonist or scene-player, mannerisms and diction so archaically romantic that it becomes a joy simply devouring one page after the other. His use of Latin derivatives such as "nuncupatory" or "turpitude" abound. Naturally, the folks of Fowler's Good English Guide or pedants at a writing college would object, but their objections are obstreperous, to use another Vancian favourite. Style is not only a question of "big words", is it more fun to write opprobrium than hate? Or appropriate over apt? With Vance they are tools of expression, much like a sculptor adds a twirl here or there to his latest Adonis. A hallmark, as it were.
Harking back to the Lyonesse trilogy; these books are masterpieces of fantasy. Although the Matter of Britain is a subject as hackneyed as the Watergate scandal, Vance adds his own measure of dash and colour. Among the devilish political goings-on of the island's rulers, we find the deepest and fey magic and machinations existing. Alternative realms, musty Celtic folklore dusted off and a touch of tantalising wonder resonate throughout.
The style comes to the fore in these books, more so than anything else he has done prior or hence. Even the peasants speak like didacts at a Royal Society function. In all, it adds to the spice and wonder which Lyonesse provides. Stories concerning the lost nation off the Scilly Isles are common or garden and Avalon and Lyonesse are omnipresent in British folklore, yet Vance has excelled himself insofar as style goes; I thoroughly recommend them.
Lyonesse are works of fantasy. His science-fiction shows a similar sort of stylistic bent, but it is muted as Vance attempts to present another impeccable skill he has: world building. The style of his work is always characteristic, even in his mystery novels Fox Valley Murders and The Deadly Isles his method is still there, even if allowances are made due to the contemporaneous settings of them. They were aimed at the mystery set who possibly would rather content over style.
He has an Edgar Award for The Man in the Cage so his versatility can go unchallenged. Elsewhere he shows erudition in his text. In the Planet of Adventure quartet, he calls the noise of an explosion a "thunderous reverberation". These books, individually City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir and The Pnume make for superb reading.
All four are written stylistically similar. Each of them introduces events, people and drama with nuances of grammatical facility. His other series of books, the Durdane trilogy or the five-set Demon Princes or even the Magnus Ridolph collection of short stories there is the ever-present style of one who, not only knows his English lexicons well, but utilises it to a very high degree. Other authors can be written off as pretentious, euphuistic, prosodic or the like yet Vance has endured any adversity he may have faced in reference to his writing style.
Durdane, Tschai, Dar Sai, Cadwal, Alphanor, Sibol, Tanjecterly, Embelyon. And what people dwell there! The Brown Bersaglers, the Thangs, the Ka, the Darsh and the Methlen, T'sais, the Fojo's, Rogol Domendonfors, Alice Wroke and the Connatic.
The rear cover of the Grafton omnibus edition of Planet of Adventure gives us Robert Silverberg's paean of this quartet. To quote:
“Who could not return from a visit to Jack Vance's world, without feeling that he had been somewhere unique, that he had experienced things unavailable in our mundane world?”
Frankly, this is accurate to the nth degree. Although Silverberg was citing Planet of Adventure here, this could equally apply to all of his published work. What a strange place Wyst would be to live! Or could you imagine yourself wandering the Dying Earth with Liane the Wayfarer? Or even viewing the dramatic lightning of Athmore Violet on the planet Boniface? It is exactly these sentiments which make Vance unparalleled in world-building.
He has been criticised for his use of explanatory footnotes in much of his work, especially the Alastor series or The Gray Prince, I feel they embellish and further his creation. If you create, why not explain your creation? More often than not, Vance does an admirable job merely by writing the stories themselves. Neither the footnotes nor the characteristics of the world drown the story. At this juncture, I should also point out that his style doesn't impede the reading either. They are all parts of a wondrous whole.
His worlds vary from bizarre Big Planet to coldly beautiful The Dying Earth. The folk who dwell within generally possess like traits or express their own vivacity to spite their locales. Societies such as the odd welfare states of Emphyrio, Wyst: Alastor 1716 and To Live Forever present us with glimpses of alternative fundamental existence. You know they wouldn't work, as such, but they are grand, full of pomp, dash, coruscation and lustre. The strangest of his worlds is The Blue World.
Set on an endless ocean inhabited by gargantuan lily pads, we see survivors and descendants of a spaceship wreck adapt, work with and against the environment and eventually, we have a rebellion. A rebellion against the authority, as manifested by humans, and by the sea-living monster which forms a part of their religious stricture. The denouément is imaginatively strange, electrocuting the monster with a Voltaic cell made from seawater and reconstituted copper taken from blood. It is all absurd, as such, yet I take my hat off to Vance for even thinking of such a setting.
The Durdane trilogy, a society led by a faceless man; the Anome, a man who lives in complete secrecy to his subjects, yet has the power of life and death over all, the protagonist eventually becomes the Faceless Man. Elsewhere there is oddity, fey, strangeness and paradoxical vivacity. Vance is sometimes anachronistic, having swords in a far future setting, or people dancing stately pavanes, when such things died out several hundred years ago. It's all done with convincing logic, and where logic is inapt, done with polish and not a small degree of concerted effort.
Praised universally for his efforts regarding world-building, I can only hope I have added one small facet to the enormous diamond.
A Small Critique
While I admire Vance wholeheartedly, I'm not above carping or being fractious regarding his work. Much of his work could be described as formulaic. How so? Formulaic with regards to certain niggling "Vancisms" I have encountered. His characters always seem niggardly and ready to haggle. There is hardly a generous or charitable soul in his work.
The Cadwal Chronicles especially Ecce and Olde Earth seemed full of people wishing to bend over triple to win some pointless advantage or to extort an extra cent from whoever. I'm not really sure as to any real life examples Vance may have based this on, but in every book I've read so far, he descends to the bazaar quite readily in order to haggle or be parsimonious with his character's personae.
Another, perhaps more serious "flaw" is the depth and colour of his characterisation toward his protagonists. With a couple of remarkable exceptions, Jean Parlier from the novellas Abercrombie Station and Cholwell's Chicken's and the rambunctious Cugel, his main characters are oddly uni-dimensional. To me, there is no real, discernible difference in the characters of Kirth Gersen or Adam Reith. Even Glawen Clattuc or Jantiff Ravensroke seem to behave in a fashion you can predict. Although I swore not to make authorial comparisons, I will break this rule, if only transiently. Compare the protagonists of Philip. K. Dick to those of Vance, Dick's characters go through all grades of Hell and tribulation.
Vance's seem to carry infinite aplomb. Sure, Kirth Gersen and Adam Reith suffer grief, horror and joy, but it isn't something which affects the story to any great degree. We witness a page or two of hair-pulling or musing, but in comparison to the vicissitudes they face, you'd expect the story to dramatically alter accordingly. It's as if Vance made his mind up that the story is the story, and the character's pratfalls, troubles, etc, are momentary. In short, they lack the essential humanity of learning from experience, things happen and, qué sera sera.
Lastly, and this is a touch pedantic, why do most of Vance's women glance demurely over their shoulder?
In summary and on to other things,
I originally wrote a 20000 word treatise on Vance called Four Directions then One, after the instruction given to Turjan of Miir to get to Embelyon in The Dying Earth. I've lost that, and so I have written this in its place. There are numerous other resources on Jack Vance on the Internet.
Individual reviews of his books follow.