By Anders Monsen
Jack Vance, science fiction grandmaster, died on Sunday, May 26, 2013. Born on August 28 1916, John Holbrook Vance wrote over 50 novels and many more short stories, most published under the name Jack Vance. His works ranged from science fiction and fantasy to mystery and regional fiction. Vance’s first published story was “The World Thinker” in 1945 for Thrilling Wonder Stories, and his first published book The Dying Earth, by Hillman Press in 1950. His last novel, Lurulu, appeared in 2004, and an autobiography in 2009.
Though he was approaching 100, and I always expected to read something about his death, I felt a deep shock when I finally received the news. I have read all his books, many of them multiple times. They are like old friends. I have nominated and voted for many of his works for the Prometheus Hall of Fame. Now he is dead. Will it matter if he ever wins? Would he have cared to have won while still alive? I do not know. Reflecting on his books is like reflecting on the lives of long-time friends.
While there are many reasons I like his fiction, I believe many of his books contain individualist themes, and I believe that libertarians who care about well-written fiction with an individualist bent will find many of his books worth reading.
In 1985 I picked up my first Jack Vance book, a collection of stories called The Narrow Land. The title story tells the tale of a very alien protagonist, born in a swamp, struggling to survive among creatures similar to himself, yet also imbued with a desire to explore the environs of his world. Of the seven stories in The Narrow Land, along with the title story, tales like “Chateau D’If,” “The World-Thinker,” and “Green Magic” displayed an unmatched imagination and an intricate display of stylistic prose. Beginning with that collection I sought as many Vance books as possible, each one a discovery of joy. Like panning for gold or unearthing gems, reading a Jack Vance book amid the sea of mundane SF meant reading the apex of imaginative writing.
The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld, set in the same far future, stood apart from more traditional fantasy books. Other fantasy stories I had read were either epics on the scale of The Lord of the Rings, or vapid tales of kingdoms and coming of age stories. Vance’s Dying Earth tales imagined a far-future earth, the sun threatening to extinguish at any moment. This was an age of magic, although a magic diluted and faded from previous aeons. Wizards conspired against each other, and rogues like Cugel the Clever tried to make their ways in this dangerous world. Cugel, a rare anti-hero in fantasy akin to characters by Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber, struggled through one adventure after another, his plans always going slightly awry. I imagined Vance must have a had a great deal of fun writing those stories.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s I trawled through used books stores (back when they still existed) and amassed every single paperback by Jack Vance that I could find. Today, discovering any Vance paperback in a used book store is a rare event indeed. Back then I found all the DAW editions, including the five Demon Prince novels. These tales of revenge read like Rafael Sabatini novels in space. The protagonist, with the memorable name of Kirth Gersen, hunts the five criminals who laid waste to his world. Raised by his grandfather to be a resourceful detective and killer, Gersen shares many traits with another favorite character of mine, F. Paul Wilson’s Repairman Jack. The Demon Prince books (The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face and The Book of Dreams) are books that I probably have read more than half a dozen times each. Five books for five Demon Princes, each more extravagant than the one before.
Although he wrote many stand-alone novels, his other series were equally memorable. The first, a four-book tale of an earthman stranded on an alien planet called Tschai, was marketed as the Planet of Adventure (composed of City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir and The Pnume). Here Adam Reith drew upon his resources to discover a means by which he could build or steal a spaceship and return to Earth, and in the process he upset the societal rules of four alien species and their human-like mirror societies. This was my first encounter with Vance’s trenchant social criticism. He rips into people who submit to rulers, and tears apart traditions for the sake of tradition.
Another series, set in the future history that Vance called the Gaean Reach, was the Alastor trilogy. Each title bore the name of the planet upon which it was set, along with the planetary number. I remember them simply as Wyst, Trullion, and Marune. The first drew again on social criticism, depicting a society founded upon the ideals of socialism, and it did not skimp on its negative portrayal. Any redistributionist who reads this novel probably winces uncomfortably at the idea of “bonter” and Wyst’s egalitarian society. Wyst would be among the first books to read on the Vance libertarian bookshelf.
The Durdane trilogy, while to me not as memorable as some of the other series, nonetheless continued the social criticism along with strong characters and plot. Here we find society and various strata within society governed by rigid rules. Yet someone steps forward to fight against these rules.
Vance, by the late 1980s legally blind and using specially crafted software to read aloud the text that he wrote, still created masterpieces. The first of the Cadwal books, Araminta Station, remains one of my all-time favorite novels. Published in 1987, it centers around a near-pristine planet, Cadwal, protected by a naturalist society. The society has established a small enclave at Araminta Station, composed of the families of the original settlers. Another race, known as Yips, inhabit a small island but seek to expand and care not for ecological niceties. The Yips often act as servants or workers in Araminta Station, along with some off-worlders who are not part of the original families. We meet Glawen Clattuc, the protagonist, on his sixteenth birthday, when he attains status and must choose a profession. Skullduggery is afoot, and Glawen and his father must thwart a plot to have Glawen bumped down the status ladder and out of Cadwal society, which sets the tone for the rest of the book and its two sequels, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy. Vance packs more into the first novel than many other SF series, and the opening of Ecce and Old Earth, rife with tension and danger, with Glawen’s journey through the fetid and lethal jungles of Cadwal’s other continent to rescue his father, written as if for a Spielberg movie.
While all these series fell into science fiction, one of his greatest bodies of work remains the fantasy trilogy Lyonesse (Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl, Madouc). The Lyonesse trilogy takes place in the mythical land of Lyonesse, one of the Elder Isles. Now submerged and vanished in the mists of time, this isle off the British coast flourishes a few generations before the birth of King Arthur. In Vancian mythology, Arthur’s Round Table has roots in a famed round table in a city in Lyonesse, but this is almost a throw-away detail. Another young protagonist, Aillas, a prince from one of the many separate kingdoms of Lyonesse, finds himself the victim of family rivalry, and as the book opens is tossed off a boat and left to die.
Aillas, like most Vance protagonists, is resourceful. His many adventures range the width and length of Lyonesse, and introduce a variety of races and cultures, including faeries and magicians, trolls, and demons from other dimensions who serve the magicians. The third book features a strong female character, the half-faerie girl Madouc, raised as a human princess, who embarks on her own Grail quest. The Lyonesse trilogy in my opinion is the greatest fantasy work in the English language, far surpassing the Lord of the Rings and anything before and since.
Along with the science fiction and fantasy stories, Vance also wrote mysteries and regional novels. He wrote three books under the Ellery Queen imprint (The Four Johns, The Mad Man Theory, and A Room to Die In). Even in these standard works, Vance’s style and characters step forth from the pages as uniquely his own. Two books set in an imagined area south of San Francisco detail the life of a small-town sheriff. The Fox Valley Murders and The Pleasant Grove Murders both bring this area to life. The region and time where they are set may seem dated, yet again his characters, their background and motivation, make them a compelling read. The Deadly Isles, set in the South Seas and largely on boats, also falls into the mystery genre. An attempted murder results in the victim trying to find out who tried to kill him. The killer remains at large, and each step is fraught with danger. Vance loved the ocean, and his detailed descriptions of boats and sailing make this book a treasure. Considering it’s a rare find, it’s almost a double treasure.
Some of his other books appeared in print only in limited editions. While Strange Notions and The Dark Ocean were published together in 1985, and the main female characters share the same first name of Betty, they are two very different books. The first is set in Italy after WWII, possibly in the late 1950s or early 1960s, and covers dark themes of incest and blackmail. The second takes place aboard a steamer bound from San Francisco to Europe, through the Panama Canal. It evolves into a murder mystery, but this time the killer is known fairly early, unlike Vance’s other mysteries. The Dark Ocean also features a very strong female character who undergoes life-changing events under tough circumstances.
Other books with limited appearances include the mystery novel The Man in the Cage, set in North Africa. The View from Chickweed’s Window, Bad Ronald and The House on Lily Street all take place in California. Like Shakespeare’s “negative capability” that John Keats so often wrote about, Vance makes evil characters equally as believable as good ones. Both the titular character in Bad Ronald and the main character in The House on Lily Street are killers who exist in their own mental worlds, bending reality to fit their crazed views. Other sketches of evil include the various outlaw “demon princes” and their associates, such as Spanchetta and Namour in the Cadwal trilogy, and the rogue wizard Faude Carfilhiot in the Lyonesse books, and many smaller characters whose motives appear petty and self-centered, especially artists.
Vance shows how easily people betray others for a quick coin, or cling to their small motives and often meet their fate with sadness and surprise. He also gave short shrift to religion, such as in the unctuous Brother Umphred in the Lyonesse books, whose final fate seemed too quick and without enough suffering.
Other regional fiction includes Take My Face and Bird Isle, both initially published under pseudonyms, and then released together by the small press Underwood-Miller. Underwood-Miller and Jack Vance have a long history together. Founded by Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, based in San Francisco, they began with a hardcover edition of Vance’s first book, The Dying Earth, in 1976. Although they also published other authors, like Harlan Ellison and Roger Zelazny, they published over 55 Jack Vance hardcover books. These often were limited to 1000 copies or fewer and these days are priced fairly high on the collector’s market.
Ports of Call and Lurulu, his last two novels, sketch a peripatetic journey through space. Night Lamp is a character-driven novel about a young boy found beaten and rescued by an older couple. It is a coming-of-age story that near the end details a society suddenly confronted by the need to change after generations of co-dependency—a theme he visited multiple times (see the Tschai books, The Languages of Pao, Maeske: Thaery, and The Gray Prince, and many more).
Several of Jack Vance’s books have been nominated for the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award. The most notable are Emphyrio, The Blue World, and Wyst: Alastor 1716, and the books from the Durdane trilogy( The Faceless Man, The Brave Free Men and The Asutra). Emphyrio tells the tale of a young boy living with his father in a rigid, welfare-based society. He rebels, seeking a better life. The ideas of individual liberty are infused throughout this novel. The Blue World (based on a novella called “The Kragen”) shows how power collaborates with religion to control people. The message is both overt and subtle, considering how Vance introduces the early settlers of the watery world that forms the setting of the novel, and how the current generation, many years removed from their ancestors, knows nothing of the meaning of their forebears’ professions. Meanwhile, as I’ve already mentioned, Wyst shows the misery and hypocrisy of an egalitarian society, and what happens to those who attempt to keep their individuality.
Notable shorter works include two novellas, Dragon Masters and The Last Castle. Both blend SF and fantasy, appear set in a far future earth or some off-world planet long removed from present history. They thrust the reader into aeon-long conflicts, masterful strategy and inventions from resourceful individuals, which are contrasted with staid and conservative thinking. In Vance’s universe, change is a constant, yet with change always comes an uncertainty. Vance knew that change isn’t always welcomed by everyone, and many of his stories contrasted people who wanted to hang onto their privileges, against those who chafed and fought to break out of social constraints that bound them, directed their lives.
Aside from the series, other books that could fall into his vast Gaean Reach future history include Big Planet and Showboat World. Both are set on the same vast planet, filled with strange cultures and many adventures. His characters wander from place to place. They sail down rivers and across oceans, ride on vast vehicular zip-lines, fly in space ships and planes, ride on animals and other vehicles. They are constantly exposed to alien cultures, even though most of those aliens are other humans. Vance, having traveled throughout the world many times, knew that even a short distance could lead to differences. His planets and cities had a settled feel to them, a sense of place that exaggerated differences, from the poison-loving Sarkoy, to the Darsh and their strange foods and methods of social punishment, to the aloof Methliens, and many other strange races.
Much as with Edmond Dantès in Alexandre Dumas’ revenge novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, revenge as a motive appears throughout Vance’s fiction. Most notable certainly are the five demon princes, but this motive also appears in To Live Forever, which deals with immortality, clones, and an ever-present social climbing known as “slope.” Gold and Iron (aka Slaves of the Klau) begins on earth, when a handful of humans are enslaved by aliens and transported to their planet. The protagonist begins a relentless, almost monomaniacal effort to escape. Revenge is foremost as well in the mind of Cugel the Clever (in the books The Eyes of the Overworld and its sequel, Cugel’s Saga), who, although he might deserve his punishment, is driven by revenge. The perils of revenge lead Cugel to make many fateful mistakes. Even Kirth Gersen of the five demon prince novels, who might be justified in his motive for revenge (much like Dantès), wonders whether the idea of revenge has filled him with such a powerful motivation that his life would be empty were he to succeed in killing all the demon princes.
Vance also wrote juvenile fiction in the vein of Robert A. Heinlein, in Vandals of the Void, a very early novel. Many of his protagonists are young yet capable: Glawen Clattuc in the Cadwal chronicles, Gastel Etzwane in the Durdane books, Beran Panasper in The Languages of Pao, Jaro in Night Lamp, Roger Wool in Space Opera, and Myron Tany in Ports of Call and Lurulu. Often these young men must placate and deal with an overbearing great-aunt—the roots of this common theme appear to lie in Vance’s childhood, as related in his 2009 autobiography.
His autobiography detailed his life as a boy in San Francisco and nearby sloughs and river, his many travels; it is clear from the descriptions of where he went how his travels influenced his fiction. The science of his science fiction is a minor aspect—intersplit drives, space travel—all are taken for granted, glossed over as simply another means of travel. Vance takes excessive care in constructing his worlds and knows his science, but the science usually takes a back seat to colors and cultures, and human motives and actions.
Vance also liked footnotes, describing strange words or behaviors. He prefaced many chapters with imagined quotes, cited planetary guides, and built an elaborately imagined literary support structure for his worlds. Many of the books set in the Gaean Reach contain quotes and allusions to the curmudgeonly Baron Bodissey, as is the poetry of the mad poet, Navarth. Bodissey’s trenchant dicta seem to echo sentiments found in Ambrose Bierce and H. L. Mencken.
Vance did it all: the style, the sketches of cultures and places, and the characters, from the many memorable male protagonists: Adam Reith, Aillas, Gersen, Glawen, Jantiff, Claude Glystra, Ghyl Tarvoke, Jaro. Then there are his incomparable heroines and female characters: Zap 210, Betty Haverhill, Betty Dannister, Madouc, Glisten, Fay Bursill, T’sais, Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay, Alice Wroke. Although some of the female characters play second fiddle, many are equally resourceful and capable.
Vance’s characters, like his books, become like old friends. While some of the protagonists have flaws, most have clear-cut ethical values. The values of decency, loyalty, and bravery are often contrasted with narrow and callous self-interest in both evil characters and ones who simply cannot understand that other people might not share their vision.
Vance’s heroes, both male and female, but more usually the former, are capable, resourceful individuals who find themselves in tough positions and never give up. Betty Haverhill in The Dark Ocean is tossed overboard near the Panama Canal, and she must either swim the shark infested waters at night to survive, or give up and die. Adam Reith is stranded on a strange planet, the only survivor from a space ship, and single-handedly changes the lives and fates of many cultures. Glawen Clattuc finds himself in many dangerous situations, yet never gives up, nor does Aillas, the young prince captured and enslaved, branded and bound. There are many inspiring stories in Vance’s books, many lessons young readers can take to heart.
I never knew Jack Vance in person, never met him at a science fiction conference or otherwise, but I’ve known his fiction for almost thirty years. Vance rarely wrote or talked about his fiction. He often dismissed much of it as hack work, or juvenilia; he wrote to get paid, and one time tried to write as many words as possible to sell as many stories as possible. Over a sixty-year span he published as many books and many short stories. He had a long and fruitful literary life, and a remarkable and rich life outside literature. A few of his collections contain a page or two introducing the stories. These he appears to have written reluctantly. He preferred to let his art speak for itself. Either you bought it or you didn’t, you liked it or you didn’t. What the writer thought at the time is irrelevant to your appreciation of his stories, he seemed to say.
Vance won a handful of awards in his lifetime, across a vast spectrum. He received the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, as well as the Edgar for best mystery. Most of these appeared in the mid-point of his career, the 1960s, but his last award came in 2010, a Hugo for best related work with his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance. This book, fairly slim, appeared near the end of his life, five years after his last novel, and hardly mentioned his fiction. Instead, he traced his life growing up, his influences (literary and personal), his many travels around the world. His autobiography also is notable because he dictated the entire book. Legally blind for many years, at one time he wrote using a computer with special software. As in the case of Ludwig van Beethoven, the fates sometimes can be cruel, in this case robbing a writer with Vance’s talent of his sight. Yet he never quit.
The poet and fantasy author Clark Ashton Smith sketched alien worlds while rarely leaving his home near Auburn, California. Vance, on the other hand, lived in many countries, on houseboats and cabins. He designed and built his own house, sailed many oceans, traveled to countless countries, ate and drank exotic foods. All those experiences infused his fiction. While he tended to gloss over science in his science fiction, the colorful descriptions of planets and cities, locales and cultures, people and aliens, remains unrivaled. He invented strange beasts, coined more words than William Shakespeare, and crafted each sentence so they appeared both economical and lyrical.
Today, Jack Vance’s books remain elusive in large book stores. The Vance Integral Edition (VIE) collected all his works in a limited but authorized editions (see http://www.integralarchive.org/index.htm). Spatterlight Press, established in 2012, has begun the process to convert his books into electronic editions from the VIE texts. Subterranean Press, a small press that publishes handsome limited editions, has published several volumes collecting his short stories and mystery works, which often are sold-out upon publication. His legacy extends to the many authors that he has influenced. The most notable example might be Michael Shea, who in the early 1970s requested and received permission to write his own sequel starring Cugel the Clever.
Perhaps the eBook revolution will gain him new readers. Perhaps publishers once again will bring out mass market editions of his books. While the science of Vance fiction dated quickly, this is but a minor part of his fiction. The true aficionado appreciates more than ephemeral science and prediction ratios. Then again, perhaps Vance is not for everyone. Fashions come and go, from cyberpunk to hard sf to Tolkien pastiches to harlequin/sf mashups and beyond. Yet I cannot help but think that in the history of SF, once the wheat is separated from the chaff, that Jack Vance will stand among the giants of SF. Virtually all those giants now are gone: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury. Perhaps these are giants also because those of us who see them as giants read them in our formative years. Regardless, I cannot count the number of hours I have spent immersed in the many worlds of Jack Vance. Inevitably when I think or write about Vance, I pick up one of his books, and before I know it I have read several in a row. Perhaps that’s how Vance would have liked to be remembered: an author, a spinner of yarns. He wrote his fiction, lived his life, and lived it to the fullest. I salute you Jack Vance. There will never be another quite your like.
Thanks for the stories, the characters, the prose.
[This essay first appeared in Prometheus, Volume 31. No. 4, Summer 2013.]