Article on Robert Heinlein now available online

Robert Heinlein signs autographs at the 1976 Worldcon. (Creative Commons photo).

The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, a project of the Cato Institute, has now been published online. 

As a result, the article on science fiction author Robert Heinlein by academic and LFS member Dr. Amy Sturgis, originally published in 2008, is now available to everyone.

Sturgis argues that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is his chief work. “Heinlein here offered a loose retelling of the American Revolution, with the revolt against tyranny set on the moon. The ‘Loonies’ rebel against the iron control of the authorities on Earth and in the process learn the lesson that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’ or, as Heinlein states it in the novel, TANSTAAFL. Ultimately, the Loonies, like the colonials after whom they were modeled, achieve an independence of sorts, but not without great cost,” she writes.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress won a Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 1983, the first year the award was given.

— Tom Jackson

Victor Koman classic returns as an ebook

Victor Koman’s Kings of the High Frontier, winner of the 1997 Prometheus Award, has just been reissued as a reasonable priced Kindle ebook ($5.95.)

We weren’t the only folks who liked it; see the Amazon page for endorsements from the likes of Gregory Benford and Ray Bradbury.

Koman is a three time winner of the Prometheus Award; more information at his official site. 




Review: Drug Lord by Doug Casey and John Hunt

By William H. Stoddard

Drug Lord is the second volume in the authors’ High Ground series about international entrepreneur and libertarian idealist Charles Knight. I can’t fault it as a libertarian work; of course, libertarians disagree about a lot of specific issues, but any libertarian reader will recognize the basic point of view. And I didn’t bog down in reading it, or find it a struggle to turn the next page.

Nonetheless, I have to say I’m ultimately not satisfied with it as a book.

To start with, the authors seem insensitive to prose. I was struck by one passage where a secondary character, an overtly gay man, makes a joke about being turned on by naked power—“Not so much the power, but definitely the naked part”—in what the authors describe as a prominent lisp. I’ll accept that as a deliberate mockery of the stereotype. But the sentence only contains one sibilant! How can anyone lisp words without sibilants? Casey and Hunt seem to have put words down on paper without thinking about what they sound like. There’s nothing else quite that striking, but the style throughout the book seems flat and unmemorable.

The presentation of libertarian ideas is handicapped by a tendency to present the authors’ evaluations to the reader, rather than showing people and events and letting readers reach their own conclusions. That may appeal to some libertarians (though it doesn’t to me personally), but it’s an obstacle to readers who don’t already share those ideas.

Beyond that, this reads to me like a conventional mass market bestseller. The characterization and motivation don’t seem very deep; I mostly don’t get a sense for why the different characters are doing what they’re doing. The protagonists succeed at most of their actions, even when their approaches look poorly thought out and could plausibly fail; on the other hand, when an action fails, it’s not because there was any deeper error—it reads as if the authors decided they needed a reversal of fortune there and put one in without showing why that specific plot twist would happen. I read through all the action scenes without getting into the heads of the characters, and without any sense of tension about the outcome . . . and that’s really not a good thing in an action novel, such as this sets out to be.

Perhaps the big issue is that I don’t have enough sense for what’s at stake in these novels. We see the libertarian ideas. But we don’t see Charles Knight starting a radical movement to defend liberty, or the antagonistic characters engaged in a sinister plot to annihilate it once and for all. The story goes through the motions of struggle and crisis, but the liberty that’s its nominal theme never really seems to be at stake. I think that above all is why I don’t feel strongly involved in this series.

Tyler Cowen re-reads ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’

The very first Prometheus Hall of Fame Award, back in 1983, was given, in a tie, to Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, published in 1966, won the Hugo for best novel in 1967. It was a favorite of mine when I read it during the 1970s, as a high school student. Evidently it was a favorite of lots of people.

Tyler Cowen, the influential libertarian-leaning blogger, author and columnist, recently re-read The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and found that it holds up. His blog post is not very long, so I’m going to quote it in full:

Yes, by Robert A. Heinlein. I wasn’t expecting too much from this one, which I last read at age 13. Published in 1966, it nonetheless holds up very well and in fact has aged gracefully. It is surprisingly feminist, not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion, does not sound antiquated in its tech issues (e.g., malicious AI), has China as central to geopolitics and circa 2076 Greater China controls most of southeast Asia, and the book is full of economics and public choice. TANSTAAFL is coined, but when understood as a section heading it is actually a Burkean slogan, not a libertarian or Friedmanite idea. The lunar rebellion does not achieve independence easily or by keeping its previous friendly nature, nor does Earth receive those “grain shipments” gratis, so to speak. Burke is the Straussian upshot of the whole book — beware societies based on new principles! This is also perhaps the best novel for understanding the logic of a future conflict with North Korea, furthermore Catalonians should read it too. Most of all, I recall upon my reread that this book was my very first exposure to game-theoretic reasoning.

NB: The “character” of Adam Selene is poking fun at H.G. Wells’s lunar Selenites, from The First Man in the Moon, arguably suggesting they descended from earlier human settlers.

Tyler’s post inspired 55 comments (so far!)

— Tom Jackson


‘Eric Kotani’ has died

Science fiction writer Eric Kotani  has died. His novel The Island Worlds, co-written with John Maddox Roberts and published in 1987, was a finalist in 2016 for the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.

The name “Eric Kotani” actually was a pen name for American astrophysicist Yoji Kondo, who was born in Japan.

See this excellent obituary in the Baltimore Sun.  Some highlights: Kondo wanted to see the world, so he learned Portuguese, which allowed him to obtain a job in Brazil. He eventually moved to the U.S., earning a Ph.D. in astrophysics. He then worked for NASA and held various academic jobs.

When Robert Heinlein asked him questions about astronomy, the two became friends, and Kondo began his second career as a science fiction writer, collaborating with Roberts on a series of novels and also writing a Star Trek novel, Death of a Neutron Star, on his own.

Review: Arkwright by Allen Steele

Arkwright, by Allen Steele (TOR Books, March 2016)

By Michael Grossberg
Science-fiction writers and fans have imagined the spread of humanity to the stars for generations.
Allan Steele hasn’t given up the dream.
In Arkwright, Steele sketches out a generations-long saga in an effort to dramatize how we plausibly can get there – even if we can’t overcome or get around such implacable limitations as the speed of light, a major stumbling block to interstellar travel given the vast distances between solar systems in this spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.
A heartfelt valentine to the golden age of science fiction, which embodied an optimistic view of human progress and technology fueled by a stlll-potent Jeffersonian liberalism (i.e., libertarianism) that has since sadly faded, the novel is especially flattering to SF fans because of its focus on a popular science fiction writer whose financial success and legacy sparks a long-term plan to reach the stars.
Arkwright Cover photo
Epic but also highly episodic, the 332-page novel seems consciously aimed at those who yearn for the return of a can-do American era, such as the early 1960s, when the popular culture was more heroic and hopeful about the future.
Steele, who has carved a respectable niche as an SF writer inspired by the golden age of Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, tends to write more in the realistic and prosaic style of Ben Bova but with a touch of the poetic flair of Ray Bradbury.
While some fans may question in certain ways just how likely is the real-world success of Steele’s particular space-flight scenario, Steele has written a story that flatters the assumptions of diehard SF fandom that’s been waiting for what seems like forever for humankind to finally figure out a way to colonize nearby exo-planets.
Better yet, it’s a story easy for hardcore SF fans – the kind who attend Worldcons and regional SF cons – to fall in love with. (In fact, I haven’t read an SF novel so appealing to knowledgeable SF fans since Red Shirts, John Scalzi’s clever and amusing starship-mission reconception of and tribute to the template of Star Trek.)
Arkwright fleshes out a multigenerational, private and largely discreet effort to develop, finance and launch the first working starship without government support or state bureaucracy. Such a broadly libertarian approach prompted the nomination of this entertaining work last year for a Prometheus Award for Best Novel.
Early chapters should entertain older SF fans in particular because of their charming focus on the Legions of Tomorrow, a fan-based group that emerges from the first World Science Fiction conventions as the roman à clef story blends fictional characters with such familiar faces as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Frederick Pohl. That fan spirit animates the entire novel.
The novel’s title refers to beloved author Nathan Arkwright, best known for his “Galaxy Patrol” series of space adventures. (Think Heinlein crossed with E.E. “Doc” Smith, but with a heavy dose of Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek.)
When Arkright dies, he leaves his entire and considerable estate to create and sustain the Arkright Foundation. The goal of the foundation: to send human genetic material inside a rocket to a habitable planet, so that the rocket’s computer can create embryos and raise them in artificial uteruses into people who would colonize the new frontier.
Succeeding generations of Arkrights further the foundation’s efforts, with varying degrees of commitment and doubts, in what’s basically a series of loosely connected vignettes, stories and novellas. (Some sections initially were published in Asimov’s Magazine.)
But the devil, as always, is in the details.
Perhaps inevitably, as a byproduct of the novel’s very concept and structure, generations come and go too quickly to allow much reader identification with particular people. Even when a character sustains interest, he or she departs from the story within another few chapters as a new generation dawns.
There’s some welcome suspense and mystery – What obstacles will pop up to delay or foil the plan? And will the latest generation of characters have the means and will to recognize and overcome difficulties? – but the ultimate resolution is rarely in doubt.
One gets so involved with some initial leading characters that one misses them as the story moves on through five centuries.
One concern: A small part of Steele’s scenario is simplistic or stereotyped (the worst stereotypes are about religion or race, but are thankfully minor and brief, largely reflecting familiar SF tropes that champion reason and science while condemning religious fundamentalism or ethnic fanaticism), making it a little harder for this novel to connect with today’s welcome and more diverse readership.
Beyond questions of plausibility about the science and social changes, some have wondered whether even a wealthy private foundation would have enough millions to sustain any effort over a century. I didn’t have a problem with that – not only because of what financial investment advisers like to refer to as “the miracle of compound interest,” but also because of the widely underreported or taken-for-granted incredible progress that humankind already has made over the past century or two. (I highly recommend reading British science writer Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist or Johan Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, insightful and revelatory books that marshal an amazing range of (often revelatory) history, statistics, science, economics and logic to demonstrate that our species has made enormous progress over the millennia and in recent centuries, largely because of the moral and practical policies that only in very recent generations have gelled into the social philosophy of market-oriented liberalism.)
If we’re so much richer, healthier, freer, more peaceful and longer-lived than past generations – and we are worldwide, with only a few grievous exceptions in the remaining dictatorships – then it’s certainly plausible for Steele to imagine that his centuries of further advances in prosperity, growth and wealth will be more than enough to fund interstellar travel.
The focus on human achievement – through private enterprise, and largely outside politics – is refreshing. Steele is at his best in exploring and dramatizing the real-world challenges of building and powering the starship, and identifying and later terraforming a suitable planet for colonization.
Yet politics does intrude here and there, which also seems sadly plausible.
Some libertarians, in judging this novel for the Prometheus Award, objected to one plot point, when the foundation makes a sizable campaign donation to a prominent member of Congress in order to affect federal legislation in a way favorable to future private space flights. My view: If the donation had been made to obtain a special federal subsidy or to directly harm competitors through government penalties, I’d agree with that criticism. But the foundation’s action seems acceptable (if not ideal) to me because it’s taken to forestall coercive governmental overreach threatening the foundation’s legitimate private efforts. Individuals – and groups of individuals, working through an organization, union or company – do have rights, including the right to self-defense, the right to advocate and to lobby to preserve their freedom.
Overall, despite the episodic gaps built into its four-part generations-spanning structure, Arkwright offers an inspiring and realistically complicated family saga about a seemingly plausible effort to develop the technology to build an interstellar starship that flies at up to half the speed of light and is capable of colonizing a planet in a solar system about 20 light years away.
Ultimately, this is a novel that champions initiative, entrepreneurship, private enterprise, innovation, technology, progress, fandom and the animating power of science fiction itself.

(Michael Grossberg, co-founder of the Libertarian Futurist Society and currently LFS board secretary and chair of the Prometheus Best Novel Finalist Judging Committee, has worked for more than four decades as an award-winning journalist and theater critic based in Columbus, Ohio.)

Prometheus Award winner Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017)

Jerry Pournelle at NASFiC in 2005. Public domain photo by G.E. Rule. 

If you follow science fiction news, you likely have heard by now about the death of Jerry Pournelle, who died Sept. 8, age 84.

Pournelle was arguably best known for his collaborations with Larry Niven, which earned Hugo nominations for The Mote in God’s EyeInferno, Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall. He won the Prometheus Award in 1992 for Fallen Angels, a collaboration with Larry Niven and Michael Flynn, and the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award in 2001 for The Survival of Freedom, an anthology he co-edited with John F. Carr.

You can read a tribute to Pournelle from Sarah Hoyt, herself a Prometheus Award winner (for her novel Darkship Thieves.)

There is also a useful Wikipedia entry. 

See also the Science Fiction Encylopedia article.

Victor Milán on classic SF works to remember’s excellent “Five Books” section has a recent piece by Victor Milán, “Five Classic Works of SFF by Authors We Must Not Forget.” He recommends Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore, The Planetary Adventures of Eric John Stark by Leigh Brackett, The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance, Berserker (Berserker Series Book 1) by Fred Saberhagen and Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny.

Milán won the Prometheus Award in 1986 for Cybernetic Samurai. His latest book is The Dinosaur Princess. Find out more about him. 


Johanna Sinisalo accepts her Prometheus Award

Johanna Sinisalo accepts her Prometheus Award for Core of the Sun. It was presented to her at the recent Worldcon in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo by Ryan Lackey).

Finnish science fiction writer Johanna Sinisalo with John Christmas, left, an author and LFS member, and Dr. Steve Gaalema, a scientist and LFS board member. Photo by Ryan Lackey.

The Libertarian Futurist Society gave Finnish science fiction author Johanna Sinisalo, a guest of honor at the recently concluded worldcon in Helsinki, her Prometheus Award at the convention. The LFS was represented by John Christmas and Steve Gaalema.

John reports, “The award ceremony went well. Steve and I both sat at the front and made some opening comments about the LFS and the Hall of Fame Award, Special Prometheus Award, and Prometheus Award. Then, we presented the award to Johanna and she made an acceptance speech.”

Read the award announcement.

Read Chris Hibbert’s review.

John Christmas at the Worldcon.

In memoriam Jack Vance: 1916 — 2013

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.

book coverIn 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.

book coverAlthough 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.

book coverWhile 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.

book coverOther 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.

book coverPorts 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.

book coverAside 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.

book coverVance’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.

book coverI 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.

book coverThe 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 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.]