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This is a brief discussion of Jack Vance and, of course, of some speculative-fiction books by Vance.
This discussion and list does not necessarily include every book by Vance: it includes only those books that I both know and like. Just as with the author list itself, omission of a particular item may mean I didn’t think highly enough of the omitted item, or it may simply mean that I have not yet sufficient familiarity with it. (In a very few cases, I have listed some books merely on the strength of my opinion of the author: all such books are clearly marked below, as throughout these lists, with a hash mark (#) before the title so you know what’s what.)
I don’t pretend that this discussion is a deep analysis. My intent is no more than to give you a rough idea of what kinds of tales Vance tells, how those tales are usually told, and what makes them and Vance worthy; in sum, to help you rank Jack Vance (and the works by Vance listed here) on your personal literary “to do” list.
(My apologies for the length of this page: Jack Vance is impossible to describe briefly; more to the point, he wants many illustrative quotations, and even then we glance off the exact stroke of the essence—an observation that is an “in” jest.)
When one looks at Vance’s oeuvre, the numbers alone become daunting. Vance wrote books for over half a century and, just in our fields, has well over two score novels and about a dozen and a half (depending on how one counts) collections of short stories. With such an output, not every single work is going to be a masterpiece, but an amazing many are, and most of the rest are very good; I reckon there are not over two or at most three clunkers (virtually all very early work) in the lot.
(Besides all the books in our fields, Vance has also written over a dozen mystery/crime novels, one of which won an Edgar—the mystery-fiction equivalent of the Hugo—and several of which were printed under the “Ellery Queen” byline.)
Vance’s huge output in our fields can reasonably be divided into four categories, though of unequal sizes. The first division is between science-fiction and fantasy; his output in each of those arenas can then be further divided into comedic tales and heroic tales. The preponderant class is heroic science fiction, but his fantasy tales and his comedic tales (there is much overlap there) contain some of his best-known work.
Despite all that variety, there is not much chance of mistaking a book by Jack Vance for anyone else’s work (or vice-versa). There are two overarching characteristics that mark a Vance tale: mordant dialogue of a flavor nearly unique (only Ernest Bramah in his Kai Lung tales is, to my knowledge, comparable) and extraordinarily rich, vivid, awesomely complete portrayals of wildly bizarre-seeming yet (on reflection) utterly plausible human societies or worlds or people. Those are not his only excellences, but they are the ones that immediately hallmark his work.
Let me try to assess those excellences methodically. As I have said repeatedly on this site, in my eyes the four chief ways in which books may please us are language use, plot, setting, and characterization, so I will speak of each in turn.
In three of those four ways, Vance is superb—richly, inimitably so; only of plotting can we say that it is not a great strength with him. Grasp, if you will, that that is very different from saying that his plots are weak or defective, for they are not—it is simply that his plots are not one of the great attractions that make us seek out his works.
On the whole (though not invariably) his plots are linear and episodic: the point of view is solely that of the protagonist, and the action proceeds steadily through a sequence of relatively distinct episodes. Moreover, there is frequently heavy reliance on coincidence—as if the idea is to get on with the main business of the day, and never you mind how we get there. Vance is neither unaware of plotting mechanics—
The episode had run its course. Emotions, hopes, gallant resolves: all past and gone like sparks on the wind.
The pattern, Gersen reflected, was that of a simple tragi-comedy in two acts: tensions, conflicts, confrontations on Dar Sai, a brief interlude while the settings were shifted, a surge to the climax at Moss Alrune. The dynamic thrust to the production had been provided by Gersen’s folly. How absurd to think of himself against the bucolic background of Moss Alrune, participating in the Methlen frivolities, no matter what his wistful yearnings! He was Kirth Gersen, obsessed by inner imperatives which might never be satisfied.
The drama was ended. The tensions had resolved: the matters at conflict had settled into equilibrium with a ponderous lurching finality.
—nor is he unable to manage complexities when he chooses, for in a few instances (such as the “Lyonesse” series) his plots are complex yet competent.
My own belief is that Vance can best be conceived as a tailor of prose, to whom plots are the tailor’s dummies on which to array the wonderfully cut and remarkably colored garments that are his real business. The dummies must be sturdy and shaped well enough to properly hold and show off those garments, but fashioning such dummies is not what his craft is all about.
In the other three areas of pleasing, Vance is triumphant. His language use is literally wonderful: he coins exotic words so true to roots that one needs to search an unabridged dictionary to discover which of his unfamiliar terms are real (his vocabulary is monumental) and which of his coining. Nuncupatory, twittler, venefice, tintamar—those are in dictionaries you can pick up and read; sanivacity, malditties—those are pure Vance (hurlothrumbo, though not to be found in my copy of the OED, turns out also to be a real word, or name anyway).
But it is in the arch, bone-dry, ironic mode of dialogue Vance assigns his characters that his wit, and his genius with language, is perhaps most manifest. The speeches Vance puts in his characters’ mouths are often not at all plausible, but therein lies their very charm: a dull, stupid, ignorant, old man in a cheap bar remarking that “In this life events bend to no such kindly patterns” (and there you see the resemblance to Bramah and the Kai Lung tales).
At this point with another writer I might simply say “and here are some examples that show you what I mean.” I will with Vance too, but we need first this cautionary note: isolated quotations, even lengthy ones, will not do the job properly. Vance’s dialogues do not succeed, do not achieve their peculiar pungency, their deliciously mordant quality, on the basis of telling punch lines: they succeed by effortlessly sustaining their gentle but firm ironic tone (Vance is never crude or overbearing with his irony) throughout each tale. The effect on the reader is cumulative. Any extract must therefore fail to convey their quality just as one cannot convey the pleasures of a long soak in a hot tub by pouring a thimbleful of warm water over someone’s fingers. With that caveat we can but try:
“In short, you fear that the money will be stolen from you?”
Akadie’s nimble mind had far outdistanced a categorical response. “Can you imagine the vicissitudes liable to the man who withheld thirty million ozols from Sagamondo Bandolio? The conversation might go in this fashion: Bandolio: ‘I now require of you, Janno Akadie, the thirty million ozols entrusted to your care.’ Akadie: ‘You must be brave and forebearing, since I no longer have the money.’ Bandolio:…Alas. My imagination falters. I can conceive no further. Would he be cold? Would he rave? Would he utter a negligent laugh?”
“If indeed you are robbed,” said Glinnes, “one small benefit will be the gratification of your curiosity.”
Cauch pursed his lips. “I perceive something of an inequity. From a mutual project, one man should not derive three times the share of the others.”
“I believe that he should,” said Reith, “when otherwise the other three gain nothing whatever.”
“The point is well-taken,” Cauch admitted. “The affair shall go as you recommend.”
“Your methods are incorrect. Since I entered the chamber first, you should have dealt first with my affairs.”
The clerk blinked. “The idea, I must say, has an innocent simplicity in its favor.”
“Naturally, naturally,” agreed Magnus Ridolph. “However, let us view the matter from a different aspect. Let us momentarily forget that we are friends, neighbors, almost business associates, each acting only through motives of the highest integrity. Let us assume that we are strangers, unmoral, predatory.”
Blantham blew out his cheeks, eyed Magnus Ridolph doubtfully. “Far-fetched, of course. But go on.”
The clerk made a tolerant gesture. “Still, what of it? I too am supercilious now and then.”
“One would never believe it,” Gersen said graciously.
“Oh, I have become easier over the years. Remember, I must deal with every lout and mooncalf who chooses to show me his face, just as I am doing now. For many years my nerves were like electric wires. Then I discovered the first axiom of human accord: I accept each person on his own terms. I keep a close tongue in my head; I offer opinions only when so solicited. What a remarkable change! Dissension vanishes, novel facts emerge, digestion flows like a wide river.”
“Your ideas are interesting,” said Gersen. “I would like to discuss them later, but now I think I will try your restaurant.”
The innkeeper appeared at his elbow. “I have prepared your reckoning, Master Zamp.”
Zamp stared in bewilderment. “My reckoning? I will settle my account when I leave the premises.”
“There has been a mistake. Viliweg had already reserved the chamber into which I mistakenly placed you.”
Zamp lowered his hand to the pommel of his rapier. “Three options are open for your consideration. You may return to Viliweg that sum double your ordinary rent which he has just paid you; you may arrange for me free and without charge the best room available at The Jolly Glassblower; or you may elect to spill a quantity of your blood upon this floor.”
The innkeeper drew back a step. “Your imputations are insulting! I am not a man to take kindly to threats! Still, as I now reflect on the matter, the accommodation I promised Viliweg was not ‘River Vista’ which you occupy, but a section of the ‘Placid Repose’ dormitory overlooking the tide-flats. All is well, after all.”
Sufficient reading in Vance will show that his characters rarely say anything not dryly ironic. But they do not all express themselves alike: there are two distinct modes: sometimes they express their ironies plainly enough, and sometimes they speak that curiously stilted rodomontade visible in the quotations above. To the attentive reader, Vance’s choice of mode is a telling clue to the nature of the character speaking.
Vance’s works are none of them (save the ill-starred Gray Prince) polemic or didactic. It is not that Vance does not have clear, strongly held views, nor is it that those views are not expressed in his works. The crux is how those views are expressed: his works are—as they should be—tales and, taking the gross liberty of quoting myself:
Most of the tales that succeed in duly stimulating us were written by authors who were "merely" telling a story. Without any explicit intent to model this or that truth, such masterly tale tellers model many truths by simply displaying life as they understand it.
And that is what Jack Vance does: he shows us the world as he understands it in his tales without telling us “This is how the world is.” In the world as Vance understands it, there are evidently two broad but relatively definite and distinct categories of persons: a minority of decent, commonsensical, honest, hard-working, kindly, down-to-earth, competent, capable folk, and everybody else, with that everybody else having few or none of the virtues of the minority and being everything they are not—thoroughly selfish, flighty, dishonest, lazy, rude, superficial, incompetent, scatter-brained or downright stupid.
Vance allows himself the luxury of amusing himself, and us, by having folk of the first class, the white hats one might say, speak in unexceptionable English. Those of the second class (which includes Vance’s picaresque protagonists) invariably speak that curious, stilted patois. Not all of the second class are perforce “black hats”—actual villains—but they are a gormless lot.
(It is one of Vance’s most astounding accomplishments that he can work highly comedic forms of irony into serious, indeed grim, heroic tales without missing a beat—though, as we will see, Vance breaks lots of “rules” of writing to wonderful effect; of the quotations above, several come from “serious” tales and it is by no means obvious a priori which are which.)
Vance’s excellences in language use encompass more than just those wonderful dialogues. His descriptions also can be marvelous. In his very first book, The Dying Earth (1950)—a collection of loosely related short stories set on an Earth so far in the future that the Sun is on the verge of going out and magic is, and for ages has been, again operative (a theme now commonplace, almost banal, so many others having since copied Vance’s idea)—the descriptive writing is especially opulent, so much so that many people wrongly associate Vance with the sort of “mauve decadence” such opulence suggests:
Such was Mazirian’s garden—three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations. Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal—copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium. Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upward from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds.
There’s more, but that suffices. It’s excess, but it very certainly is not wretched excess; in time, while he kept the thoroughness, he toned down the opulence a little. Moreover, that passage shows the fine eye for rich, complete description that characterizes Vance, which brings us to his excellences in handling setting. Vance’s eye for detail, for the little things that make a place seem absolutely real, cannot be exaggerated. Moreover, “eye” is an inadequate term: his descriptions always read like an account from one who has actually been to the place, seen its sights, smelled its perfumes, heard its musics, eaten its foods. Vance’s mastery is not only in imagining such worlds, it consists in telling us no more and no less than we would be told of an exotic but real place in a mainstream novel whose protagonist is but passing through that place; Vance does superlatively what I set out elsewhere on this site as essential for an SF&F author: “fully imagine the world of the tale, then simply tell that tale in that world.”
(Food, tastes, seem especially to fascinate Vance; his heroes are never gourmets, but get their share and more of meals: elaborate and simple, appetizing and not—say we who eat snails and livers and brains. [Actually—as Louis B. Mayer supposedly once said—“include me out.” This household is vegetarian.])
The time was middle morning; rain had darkened the black cobblestone pavement. Six-wheel drays lumbered along the streets; the entire district sounded to a subdued hum of engines. As Gersen walked a short sharp bleat of whistle signalled a change of shift; the sidewalks at once became crowded with workers. They were pale people, blank and humorless of face, wearing warm well-made coveralls in one of three colors: gray, dark blue, or mustard yellow; a contrasting belt, either black or white; black round-topped kaftans. All were standard issue, the government being an elaborate syndicalism, as thoroughgoing, careful, and humorless as its constituency.
Experienced space travelers become sensitive to the variations of breathable atmospheres, discriminating between inert gases, oxygen levels and complex organic exudations peculiar to every individual planet. In the air of New Concept Gersen noted a musty peppery redolence, evidently arising from the blanket of turf which cloaked the fells.
[T]onight only the Sarkoy cuisine was offered. The first course was served: a pale green broth of swamp produce, rather bitter, accompanied by stalks of deep-fried reed, a salad of celery root, whortle-berry and shreds of pungent black bark….
The second course appeared: a ragout of pale meat in coral sauce, heavily seasoned, with side dishes of jellied plantain, crystallized jaoic, a local fruit….
The third course was set before them: collops of perfumed paste on disks of chilled melon, accompanied by what appeared to be small mollusks in spiced oil.….
Edelrod looked up from the battery of bowls which had just been set before him, containing a hash of crushed insects and cereal, pickles, a plum-colored conserve and pellets of fried meat.….
Alusz Iphigenia had let the fourth course go untasted. The fifth course was served: a wafer of baked pastry on which were arranged three large steamed centipedes with a garnish of a chopped blue vegetable and a dish of glossy-black paste, which gave off an acrid aromatic odor. Alusz Iphigenia rose to her feet, departed the dining room. Edelrod looked after her solicitously. “She is not well?”
“I fear not.”
“A pity.” Edelrod attacked his food with gusto. “The meal is by no means at its end.”
The air of Ard Court smelled richly indeed, with a heavy sweet-sour organic reek that distended the nostrils. Gersen grimaced and went to the shop from which the odors seemed to emanate. Taking a deep breath and bowing his head, he entered. To right and left were wooden tubs, containing pastes, liquids, and submerged solids; overhead hung rows of withered blue-green objects the size of a man’s fist. At the rear, behind a counter stacked with limp pink sausages stood a clown-faced youth of twenty, wearing a patterned black and brown smock, a black velvet headkerchief. He leaned upon the counter without spirit or vitality, and without expression watched Gersen sidle past the tubs.
“You’re a Sandusker?” asked Gersen.
“What else?” This was spoken in a tone Gersen could not identify, a complex mood of many discords: sad pride, whimsical malice, insolent humility. The youth asked, “You wish to eat?”
Gersen shook his head. “I am not of your religion.”
“Ha ho!” said the youth. “You know Sandusk then?”
“Only at second-hand.”
The youth smiled. “You must not believe that old foolish story, that we Sanduskers are religious fanatics who eat vile food rather than flagellate ourselves. It is quite incorrect. Come now. Are you a fair man?”
Gersen considered. “Not unusually so.”
The youth went to one of the tubs, dipped up a wad of glistening black-crusted maroon paste. “Taste! Judge for yourself! Use your mouth rather than your nose!”
Gersen gave a fatalistic shrug, tasted. The inside of his mouth seemed first to tingle, then expand. His tongue coiled back in his throat.
“Well?” asked the youth.
“If anything,” said Gersen at last, “it tastes worse than it smells.”
The youth sighed. “Such is the general consensus.”
The cafe was crowded; voices, clatter, and shuffle competed with boisterous jigs played by an orchestra of fife, concertina, euphonium and banjo while the clientele danced, cavorted, kicked and pranced after the modes familiar to them.
“I must perform.” Dystar moved back to his bench. He took up the darabence to play a somewhat trivial set of melodies, as might be heard in the Morningshore dancehalls. Just as Etzwane began to lose interest, Dystar altered the set of his blare valve to construct a sudden new environment: the same melodies, the same rhythm, but now they told a disturbed tale of callous departures and mocking laughter, of roof demons and storm birds. Dystar muted the whines, throttled the valves, and slowed his tempo. The music asserted the fragility of everything pleasant and bright, the triumph of darkness, and ended in a dismal twanging chord.…A pause, then a sudden coda remarking that, on the other hand, matters might quite easily be the reverse.
Delicious! How many of today’s deadly serious authors could resist the temptation to tell us, at painful length, far more than even a professional musician might care to know about the darabence and its blare valves and whines—not to mention the place of roof demons in the local folklore. (Incidentally, Vance does not skimp detail through musical ignorance: he is a great long-time fan of Dixieland-style jazz, and could often be found down at Turk Murphy’s joint in San Francisco [note to furriners: don’t ever call it Frisco]; he often finds room, as in Space Opera, to mock the musically afflicted who don’t appreciate a good, noisy jazz band with a banjo in it.)
Vance’s many worlds always seem at first blush to be wild, eccentric, bizarre—impossible. The thoughtless reader might disdain them as ridiculous fancies. But consider: Vance’s tales are almost all set in universes in which the human race has flung itself outward, splintering thereby into large numbers of more or less independent societies—much as has happened several times in our past. And if we look back at the varieties of societies to be found in such eras in real history books, we quickly see that Vance’s are not after all so strange.
(Most of Vance’s heroic sf tales seem to be set in the same historical universe, though he does not press the point on us as many other authors would. A few names or terms crop up in passing as signals to the cognoscenti: the IPCC [Interworld Police Coordinating Company], Navarth the mad poet, the Historical Institute of Old Earth, and so on. Those things are often immaterial to the tales, but do sort of glue them together, though they obviously span differing eras. In that universe, mankind discovered in the late twentieth century—how time catches us up!—far more by accident and luck than anything else, a simple, small, cheap interstellar drive, and has in consequence exploded out into the near galaxy, every smallest group—from religious whackos to vegetarians—setting up its own society on its own world on its own terms—not unlike the colonies in the New World in the 1500s and 1600s, save with even less oversight from a home government. Meanwhile, Old Earth rolls quietly on, largely ignoring the Outer Worlds with a quiet arrogance the rest of humanity finds little less galling than the very term “Outer Worlds”. But plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, and mankind remains incorrigibly mankind, with its vanities, follies, and grotesqueries only exaggerated by the sea changes of emigration to the stars.)
I have spoken of, and tried—in vain I know (for, as I said, only long, continuous reading brings out the subtleties)—to illustrate Vance’s ability to create fully sensed, in-depth, complex, real-seeming worlds. If you don’t already know Vance, you may be thinking along the lines of "Now that’s well and fine, but most good authors can construct complex worlds in some degree of detail; why is this guy harping so on Vance?" I will put aside the deeper depth and richer richness and more elegant elegance Vance achieves compared to most worldmakers to focus on what makes him extraordinary—no, more than extraordinary, unique. That special something is—we should have drum rolls here—Vance’s ability to conjure up whole and complete worlds and societies so quickly, so easily, that he can use them as throwaways.
Every SF&F author is bound to imagine a world different from our own in some way or ways, and to convey to us with a scope commensurate with the scale of the difference the nature and flavor of that world. Good SF&F authors imagine complex worlds for their tales; what Jack Vance does is imagine thoroughly complex worlds so easily, so capably, that he can use them as toys irrelevant to his tales; he does it just for fun; and he throws one after another of these full-scale worlds away in a few pages or, sometimes, a mere few paragraphs. They are like doodles in the margin, yet each is something that most other writers, even good ones, would have had to labor long and hard over as a prime project.
Just look here:
From Life, Volume I, by Unspiek, Baron Bodissey:
If religions are diseases of the human psyche, as the philosopher Grintholde reckons, the religious wars must be reckoned the resultant sores and cankers infecting the aggregate corpus of the human race. Of all wars, they are waged for no tangible gain, but only to impose a set of arbitrary credos upon another’s mind.
Few such conflicts can match the First Vegan Wars for grotesque excess. The issue concerns, in its proximate phase, a block of sacred white alabaster the Aloysians intended for Temple St. Revelras, while the Ambrosians claimed the same block for their Temple St. Bellaw. The culminating battle on Rudyer Moor is an episode to tax the imagination. The locale: a misty upland of the Mournan Mountains; the time: late afternoon, with Vega darting shafts of pallid light here and there, as roiling clouds allow. On the upper slopes stand a band of haggard Ambrosians in flapping brown robes, carrying crooked staves carved from Corrib yew. Below is gathered a more numerous group of the Aloysian Brotherhood; small shortlegged men, plump and portly, each with ritual goatee and scalp-tuft, carrying kitchen cutlery and garden tools.
Brother Whinias utters a cry in an unknown language. Down the slope bound the Ambrosians, venting hysterical screams, to fall upon the Aloysians like wild men. The battle goes indecisively for an hour, neither side gaining advantage. At sundown the Ambrosian Cornuter, by the creed’s rigorous rule, sounds the twelve-tone call to vespers. The Ambrosians, in accordance with their invariable habit, place themselves in devotional attitudes. The Aloysians quickly set to work and destroy the entire Ambrosian band well before the hour of their own devotions, and so ends the Battle of Rudyer Moor.
Back into Old Town creep the few remaining Ambrosians, in secular garments, where eventually they become a canny group of merchants, brewers, ale-house keepers, antiquarians, money-lenders and perhaps pursuivants of other more furtive trades. As for the Aloysians, the order disintegrates within the century; their fervor becomes no more than a quaint tradition. Temple St. Revelras becomes the Domus, grandest of all the Vegan hostelries. Temple St. Bellaw is only a sad tumble of mossy stone.
If such things are “throwaways”, where does Vance put them? I said earlier that Vance breaks lots of “rules” of writing; this is one: he puts a lot of his throwaways in as detached material at the heads of chapters. Now many authors start chapters with quotations from works real or imagined; but virtually all of those follow two rules—they are apposite to the chapter to follow, and they are brief. Vance sometimes follows those rules, but as often as not breaks one, the other, or both, to glorious effect. Some of his chapter-heading material runs for pages on its own; indeed, in some Vance series the recurring "quotations" become a virtual running mini-tale of their own: not, of course, complete, as a true tale would be, and necessarily possessed of often-huge gaps, but still a tale. As one example, just the many zany episodes—eventually concluded most satisfactorily—of the adventures of Marmaduke, as reported in chapter-heading “quotations” from Scroll From the Ninth Dimension, would be well worth publishing as a chapbook. And then there is the poetry of mad Navarth, and the copious and compendious philosophical observations of Baron Bodissey in his monumental, many-volume work Life: all joys, bonus joys above and beyond the delightful works they adorn.
Not all the “throwaway” worlds are in chapter headings. Some are embodied right in the text of a tale, like this:
Smade was a reticent man. His origins and early life were known only to himself. In the year 1479 he acquired a cargo of fine timber, which, for a whole set of obscure reasons, he took to a small stony world in the middle Beyond. And there, with the help of ten indentured artisans and as many slaves, he built Smade’s Tavern.
The site was a long narrow shelf of heath between the Smade Mountains and Smade Ocean, precisely on the planet’s equator. He built to a plan as old as construction itself, using stone for the walls, timber beams and plates of schist for the roof. Completed, the tavern clung to the landscape, as integral as an outcrop of rock: a long two-storied structure with a high gable, a double row of windows in front and rear, chimneys at either end venting smoke from fires of fossil moss. At the rear stood a group of cypress trees, their shape and foliage completely appropriate to the landscape.
Smade introduced other new features into the ecology: in a sheltered valley behind the tavern he planted fodder and garden truck; in another he kept a small herd of cattle and a flock of poultry. All did moderately well, but showed no disposition to overrun the planet.
Smade’s dominion extended as far as he cared to claim—there was no other habitation on the planet—but he chose to assert control only over an area of perhaps three acres, within the bounds of a whitewashed stone fence. From occurrences beyond the fence Smade held aloof, unless he had reason to consider his own interests threatened—a contingency which had never arisen.
Smade’s Planet was the single companion of Smade’s Star, an undistinguished white dwarf in a relatively empty region of space. The native flora was sparse: lichen, moss, primitive vines and palodendron, pelagic algae which tinctured the sea black. The fauna was even simpler: white worms in the sea-bottom muck; a few gelatinous creatures which gathered and ingested the black algae in a ludicrously inept fashion; an assortment of simple protozoa. Smade’s alterations of the planet’s ecology could hardly, therefore, be considered detrimental.
And that is about all we ever hear of Smade’s Tavern save for a chapterful of things that happen there but that could just as well have happened in any nondescript—consider that word!—tavern anywhere. But Vance can work his magic in even fewer sentences:
Not far off his line of fission was the star Cygnus T342, and its planet Euville where an unpleasant and psychotic population lived in five cities: Oni, Me, Che, Dun, and Ve, each compulsively built in pentagonal patterns, from the central five-sided citadel. The spaceport, on a remote island, was opprobriously named "Orifice." Everything Gersen needed could be found at the spaceport; he had no desire to visit the cities, especially since each required, in lieu of passport, the tattooing of a star on the forehead, a different color for each city. To visit all five cities, the prospective tourist must display five stars: orange, black, mauve, yellow, and green.
Period: end of sentence, end of paragraph, end of chapter, end of Euville. An entire world, defined well enough that we can supply from our own minds, pointed by the description, enough more to make a place we can visualize well—all that in scarcely over a hundred words, several of which are germane to the tale proper and not the imagined world. And Vance can and does do that sort of thing over and over, all the time.
We learn also from that quotation that we need always to keep our linguistic antennae fully extended when a wordsmith of Vance’s caliber is at work; think about the name of that awful place: Euville. Vance not only coins likely sounding terms, he uses a vocabulary large enough that precious few readers will be able to get through an entire novel without a dictionary (preferably an unabridged). On the whole, no one word is so very exotic, but in sum it amounts to a test. (A favorite amusement of Vance’s is to have a scalawag being questioned with uncomfortable closeness remark disdainfully and thus dismissively of some query “The question is nuncupatory.”)
Here, in keeping with this page’s theme of extensive sample quotations, are a few more examples of Vance’s utter mastery of setting, his throwaway imaginings:
From “Smell Your Best”, by Raul Thumm, article in Cosmopolis, January 1521:
Here is an excerpt from the catalog of AEMISTHES: Perfumes, Redolences, Essences, Pamfile, Zaccaré, Quantique. Each category is further amplified in the body of the catalog, with the nature and quality of the constituents exactly, even redolently, defined.
Section I: Odors for Personal Use.
: For the sorcelment of a strange maiden
: To induce a new gallant
: To announce a triumph
: To stupefy a noisy child
: To welcome a lover
: To hint at revulsion
: Small societies
: Occasions of dignified circumstances
: While discussing family secrets
: At the god-yell
Section II: Ceremonial
: For the house
: For the lich-way
: For the ancient tree
: At water-tasting
: To lave the feet of the Zatcoon
: To cast upon an imminent battlefield
: To facilitate flight
: To scent the wind
: To welcome good fortune
What you should learn from the foregoing is plain: when you visit Zaccaré, don’t wear perfume—you may find yourself involved in circumstances you didn’t bargain for. The people of this fantastic and beautiful land are as sensitive to odors as the Sirenese are to music, and an apparently insignificant daub of scent affords an astonishing amount of information. As can be seen, every occasion requires its correct perfume, and a mistake will seem utterly ludicrous to the folk of Zaccaré. Unless advised by a local, go scentless. Better neutrality than gaucherie!
From the teachings of Didram Bodo Sime, 6:6
(Obloquies against the Toper and his Drink)
It is not good to inebriate nor to souse, using swillage, near or far beers, or distillations.
The toper is a fuming bore, a loon, a mongrel, a social mockery. Often he soils his clothes and commits malditties. He smells and belches; his familiarities trouble all decent folk. His songs and tirralays offend the ears. He often gives breath to scurrilous conjecture.
The toper suborns good fruit and gives it to decay, and the good person who wishes to enjoy the sanivacity and good savor of the wholesome fruit is bereft and must raise this outcry: “Why have you despoiled me, O toper, of my fruit and given it to filthy decay?”
The toper performs foolish dances. He postures like a clown and cleans his ears with broomstraws. He is prone to perform pugnacities upon good and earnest folk who chance to halt upon their way to chide him for his folly.
That, I submit, is clutch-your-vest-double-over-fall-to-the-ground-laughing humor (your opinions are your own). And I could go on all day—or at dozens of books’ length, for virtually every scrap of Vance is quotable. (By the bye: in the passage above, test yourself: how many Vance coinings are there?)
Another place Vance puts his throwaways is remarkable, and is another “rule” broken to wondrous effect. It is a thing that ought not to work, and in other hands likely would not work: footnotes. You don’t put footnotes in novels! But Vance does and, because they are not really parts of the tale but only further opportunities for playful ironies, they work. Oh, do they work:
Gersen entered a hall with a floor of immaculate white glass tiles. On one hand was the display wall, characteristic of middle-class European homes; here hung a panel intricately inlaid with wood, bone and shell: Lenka workmanship from Nowhere, one of the Concourse planets; a set of perfume points from Pamfile; a rectangle of polished and perforated obsidian; and one of the so-called “supplication slabs”* from Lupus 23II.
And here the asterisked footnote:
* The nonhuman natives of Peninsula 4A, Lupus 23II, devote the greater part of their lives to the working of these slabs, which apparently have a religious significance. Twice each year, at the solstices, two hundred and twenty-four microscopically exact slabs are placed aboard a ceremonial barge, which is then allowed to drift out upon the ocean. The Lupus Salvage Company maintains a ship just over the horizon from peninsula 4A. As soon as the raft has drifted out of sight of land, it is recovered, the slabs are removed, exported and sold as objets d’art.
Such a description excites, in the reader with sensibilities, many emotions, none calming. And such a one cannot dismiss it as a fictive frivolity, because it is a marvelous cameo archetype of the sort of tiny but monstrous horror actually being perpetrated every hour of every day somewhere, somehow, in the real world.
That brings us round to a point that needs emphasizing: because Vance’s tales, even his heroic ones, are brimful with humor, we must take especial care never to lose sight of his base seriousness. The comic tales themselves have comments to make on the human condition, but the serious tales are not just alternating irony and action: they have depth, fullness.
What is an evil man? The man is evil who coerces obedience to his private ends, destroys beauty, produces pain, extinguishes life.
In a reasonably long life that has included a not-negligible wading in the rivers of philosophical literature, I cannot recall a more succinct satisfactory working definition.
Vance has seen much of the world, both literally and figuratively. Thus, in his tales, we find much of the world, also both literally and figuratively. Ethics is not the only branch of philosophy delineated; esthetics gets its due as well:
“I am an unhappy man. I am haunted by my inability to express the inexpressible, to come to terms with the unknown. The pursuit of beauty is, of course, a major psychological drive. In its various guises—which is to say, the urge to perfection, the yearning to merge with the eternal, the explorer’s restlessness, the realization of an Absolute created by ourselves, yet larger than our totality—it is perhaps the single most important human thrust.
“I am tormented by this thrust; I strive, I build; yet, paradoxically, I suffer from the conviction that should I ever achieve my peculiar goals, I might find the results dissatisfying. In this case, the contest is worth more than the victory. I will not describe my own struggle, my griefs, my dark midnights, my heartbreaks. You might find them incomprehensible, or worse, ludicrous.”
“See me! I am Navarth, called the mad poet! But is not every poet mad? It is inevitable. His nerves are conductive and transport uncontainable gushes of energy. He fears—how he fears! He feels the movement of time; between his fingers it is a warm pulsing, as if he grasped an exposed artery. At a sound—a distant laugh, a ripple of water, a gust of wind—he becomes sick and faints, because never in all the extent of time can this sound, this ripple, this gust recur. Here is the deafening tragedy of the journey which we all undertake!”
On the whole, Navarth is a ludicrously comic figure:
Navarth attempted to lay his finger slyly alongside his nose, but miscalculating, prodded his eye.
Pure Three Stooges. Yet—as the prior quotation shows—cut him and he bleeds. At his core, beneath his follies, in his own realm, Navarth is another person: he is a great poet. And in such three-dimensional characterization lies another facet of Vance’s genius.
Vance’s characters are in many ways like his settings: bizarrely varied, but not impossibly so: they are but the logical products of their bizarrely varied societies. Again Vance fulfills superlatively my criteria for excellence, in this case:
[F]or master tale-tellers there are no “minor characters” or human plot devices. Every being who steps on the stage of such a master writer’s story has a past and a personality; she or he exists in the author’s mind and can thus exist in ours.
Navarth is perhaps not a “minor” character. But consider these snippets—all folk we see for perhaps, at most, one or two paragraphs each:
The director of the lyceum was Dr. Willem Ledinger, a bland large-bodied man with taffy-colored skin and a lock of yellow hair which wound around his scalp in a most peculiar manner. Gersen wondered at the man’s audacity thus to present himself before several thousand adolescents.
Somewhat to the side sat a young man wearing workman’s breeches with a fine green jacket and yellow shoes. In a quiet voice, to no one in particular, he spoke a single word: “Twittle.”
One of the workmen nudged Gersen. “Watch this now. Watch the Darsh.”
Gersen looked at the Darsh who as before sat staring into his beer.
“Pfit,” said the young man in yellow shoes.
The Darsh lowered his head between his shoulders, but still did not raise his eyes. The young man jumped to his feet and went to the door. Along the street came a stout gentleman with a moony face, a pair of glossy mustaches, wearing a fine Mongrel suit.
“Phut,” said the young man, and quickly ran off down the street. The Darsh jerked to his feet and lumbered out the door. The stout gentleman attempted to move aside but the Darsh seized him, threw him to the ground, kicked his round rump, poured a mug of beer over his head, then slouched off down the street.
The gentleman in the black suit sat up, to stare in perplexity this way and that. Slowly he rose to his feet, shook his head in wonder and continued on his way.
The workers returned to their conversation.
Inside the shed Gersen discovered a small fat man dozing at a table, the remains of his lunch spread before him. He wore what had once been a smart uniform of black, tan and red twill; but for breeches and boots he had substituted a white knee-length skirt and sandals.
Gersen rapped on the table; the official woke abruptly. Almost before opening his eyes he groped for his cap and pulled it over his balding pate.
Such are the secondary characters, who—in Vance—are in essence part of the settings themselves. Vance’s primary characters, his heroes and villains and picaresque protagonists, are something else again.
In Vance’s picaresque tales, the villain, to the extent that there is one, is not integral to the tale: the real villain is the protagonist himself, who is usually not the winsome rogue the word “picaresque” sometimes evokes but rather a blowhard, a semi-competent or incompetent egotist with few or no morals; such protagonists—for his picaresque tales are all meant as savage humor—ultimately prevail (if they do indeed prevail) either by blind luck or by dint of their lying and cheating ways. To my own tastes, Vance’s picaresque tales are his least successful (though still books by quality), owing to the protagonist’s often failing the test I set out elsewhere on this site: “we can have no understandings with folk whose mental processes, intellectual or moral, are simply alien to us”—we cannot fathom them, we cannot empathize with them, we cannot enjoy them, save as we “enjoy” seeing someone slip on a banana peel. For myself, Vance’s two “Cugel the Clever” novels are his least satisfactory mature work; but his novel Showboat World (the publisher’s title—see the book list below) is much more enjoyable, perhaps because the protagonist, while another blowhard, at least has some scraps of wit and ethics and courage.
It is, not surprisingly, Vance’s heroes who speak most to us. For all their colorful variety, Vance’s numerous heroic tales have many features in common. The prevalent motif is the hero indomitable. Vance’s heroic protagonists again and again suffer reverses in fortune that would surely (the phrase is irresistible) daunt lesser men. These reverses are not “Conan the Barbarian” difficulties that require simple, sheer muscling out of: they are complicated situations. Vance clearly sees the hero as the man who will not give up in the face of difficulty, who perseveres no matter what. Frequently, but by no means always, they are men with special abilities: not innate abilities, but abilities acquired through long, diligent, difficult effort and iron-willed training—sometimes voluntary and sometimes forced on them by unpleasant circumstance.
Equally commonly, Vance’s heroes are social freaks: men swimming forcefully against the prevailing currents of their time and place. A regular plot pattern is the oncoming debacle or extant gross iniquity properly appreciated only by the hero (and perhaps a few stalwart allies), who is mocked by his community if he calls its attention to the problem—a problem that is invariably deflected or dispelled by his intrepidity (and careful forethought, planning, timely precautions, and huge exertions). It is largely a matter of personal taste as to which class of Vance’s heroes are most esthetically successful: the ordinary fellows who, under the press of circumstances, do extraordinary things, or the extraordinary-to-begin-with fellows. One would think the former, save that Vance is mature enough to make plain to the reader the prices the extraordinarily talented ones have paid for those talents (a theme weak in the “Planet of Adventure” series, which somewhat diminishes it, and strong in the “Demon Princes” series).
The villains in Vance’s earlier works are, like the plots, devices needed as props on which to hang the garments of the telling. In his later works, there is a definite maturing: in the five-volume “Demon Princes” cycle, the hero takes one book per Demon Prince to wreak his revenge on the five greatest criminals of his era (“revenge” because their piratical raiding killed or enslaved all of the hero’s family while he was a child). The five are portrayed as consummate monsters, but of profoundly different types, some even superficially appealing to the public (rather as the dapper Robin-Hood-style portrayal of Mephistopheles can be). The irony is that as the hero pursues their histories (for each is universally known by name and legend, yet is anonymous in personal detail so that he may freely walk the worlds in public), we come to see that each, for all his giant legend and very real power, is at bottom just a loser of one sort or another, a child pulling the wings off flies on a galactic scale. When once deprived of their anonymity, they are like evil counterparts of The Wizard of Oz behind his screen. Vance’s irony plays richly with these villains, schoolyard bullies on steroids. In a sense, the quality of each of those five books—in my opinion among his very best—depends on the “quality” of the particular villain in it.
Looking over all that I have presented here, I fear that I have, for all the length, still somehow managed to miss the essence of Vance. I suppose that is in part because, as I said earlier, his effect is cumulative; the quotations give you tidbits, but without reading an entire work or two you don’t realize how high and consistent the quality is. Let’s just put it this way: Jack Vance is one of the greatest writers in the English language. Go read his stuff—lots of it.
“Then let’s visit the Jiraldra, where we can discuss Wellas and Nai the Hever and what lies beyond Zangwill Reef, and I’ll describe the music of Eiselbar.”
“An idea of great merit! While we are alive we should sit among colored lights and taste good wines, and discuss our adventures in far places; when we are dead, the opportunity is past.”
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The actual list of Vance books appears a little further below. For mechanical reasons, I find it convenient to keep that list identical with what is in the books-by-author pages of this site, so here I will collect the books under approximate rating headings.
Vance wrote wonderful tales for over half a century, so naturally the list is long. But, while they are, of course, not equally fine, there is scarcely a dud in the lot, even in his earliest work.
In short: Vance started with a bang in 1950 with The Dying Earth, a top-notch work. He did a couple of commercial potboilers in the early ’50s, then rang the bell again with To Live Forever in 1956. He next did a couple of weaker but credible books, books in which we already see the buds that will blossom more fully in his later heroic sf books. Over the next half decade he produced four very strong books, including the first two “Demon Princes” novels. After that he sort of idled, producing in the mid-’60s five good but not great books, then the surprisingly weak Brains of Earth. But that was his last sub-par book: from the excellent third “Demon Princes” novel in 1967 he went on from triumph to triumph—almost 30 books of superb quality (saving, perhaps, 1974’s The Gray Prince, a political polemic), not even counting his short-story collections.
The sub-lists below are inexact and are one man’s preferences: even Vance aficionados can have very different preferences within his body of work. (Be warned, for example, that my distaste for the Cugel books is not universal: many others would rate them higher.) Note that I have not attempted to rate the collections of his short stories; of his novels, are all rated but Vandals of the Void, a horrid old rarity commissioned and written explicitly as a “juvenile” (for a multi-author series) and implicitly for rent money—not a “real” Jack Vance book at all.
Note: the titles in parentheses after some novels are the titles Vance intended for them, as opposed to those under which editors—many of whom were jackasses—published them.
It is, I reckon, most unwise to first essay an author with what may be the very cream of his work: wiser, I think, to start "mid-pack", knowing that greater treats then await, than to have no place left to go but down, however slightly down that may be.
Thus—assuming all of Vance’s works equally available—I would recommend the following as fair samplers of Vance’s several voices:
My own favorite works are the five novels of the “Demon Princes” science-fiction cycle (all the quotations here with Kirth Gersen in them are from this cycle).
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The obvious first resource is the Official Website: Jack Vance, now operated by his family. There is also a Vance tribute site, Foreverness; it doesn’t add much to a knowledge of Vance’s work, but it is charming and touching.
Through noble and heroic efforts, the collected works of Jack Vance were published in a single uniform set of 44—yes!—volumes: The Vance Integral Edition (VIE for short); sale was only as a unit of all volumes, with a limited number of sets printed. There is more information about the VIE at the VIE site Foreverness (confusingly the same name as the other site mentioned above). The project is long over and done with, but individual volumes from broken-up sets are still to be found for sale, plus other editions dervied from the original VIE can also be found, usually at reasonable prices.
While you can and should explore that whole site, an important resource within it was the once-ongoing journal Cosmopolis (followed by successor Extant), with articles and essays about Vance and his works (but latest items date from 2007).
As one would expect, the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a solid Vance page. And yet another interesting site is the Vance Message Board. Also, there is a Facebook page, By NO means!! A Jack Vance appreciation society..
To see how someone else came out of wrestling with how to explain Jack Vance and his works, visit Lord of Language, Emperor of Dreams: a profile of Jack Vance (a great title). Another quite interesting (and lengthy) essay is “Deserted By My Enemies: Vengeance as a Theme in the Writings of Jack Vance”, by Martin LaBar [archived copy].
A devoted Vance reader describes his visit with the author, which offers some insights into Vance’s nature, in the aptly titled essay A Visit to Jack Vance [archived copy]. And another appreciation of Vance, with a biography included, can be found at 100 Years of Jack Vance, a page on Walter Bitner’s site.
Will Vance ever finally arrive on the big stage? There was an extensive article, “The Genre Artist” by Carlo Rotella, in The New York Times Magazine for July 15, 2009. It’s a nice article, though it could be better in some ways. One must hope it will turn out to have been a first step in elevating Vance’s popular esteem. [Regrettably, the Times, apparently starved for income, has put that article behind a paywall—not even the Wayback Machine can get at it.)
And there is Totality Online, where you can search the totality of Vance’s oeuvre as set forth in the VIE (a free registration is required). This is wonderful for all sorts of Vancian research, whether serious or frivolous.
The links above are the more significant ones for Vance, but Heaven knows there is plenty more out there, including numerous reviews of particular works; Google is your friend.
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