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Jack Vance

PostPosted: Wednesday, 17 September 2008, 6:23 am
by Jeroen
Hello everybody,

Jack Vance. I think his books are... curious, to say the least. I count him among my favorite writers, but every time I read one of his books, it feels like he let me down. Perhaps I was looking for something that wasn't there. But. But, afterwards certain characters, certain situations jump into my mind and I am at pains to recollect who wrote about them and it always turns out to be Jack Vance.

The best example I can give you is my experience with his Demon Princes series. I read a great deal on the net about the quality of this series, so I was very eager to try it, but it was an immediate let down for me (I still haven't read the 4th and 5th book). But now, months later, I forced myself to quickly leaf through the books to find an explanation for the enthousiasm people have for this series and it suddenly dawned to me how inventive, how original Jack Vance's ideas sometimes are. I expect myself to start reading books 4 and 5 soon. The same goes for his book Emphyrio. The moods, the magic of mythology, that is the stuff that stayed with me.

I guess you either love or hate him. It is my experience that on sf/f forums he is being ignored, but as soon as his name comes up, everybody is at least a bit familiar with him. I guess that is the fate of a writer with a very distinct style. He is hard to compare. He is in his own league.

So, what Jack Vance have I read, besides Demon Princes 1-3 and Emphyrio? The Lyonesse trilogy and his Dying Earth series. Let me end this post with a review of Lyonesse, my personal favorite:

Jack Vance – Lyonesse Trilogy

Suldrun’s Garden (1983)
The Green Pearl (1985)
Madouc (1989)

Everybody who has ever read anything by Jack Vance knows he has a very distinct style, and you will either love it or hate it. His dry ironic manner may at first sound trivial to your ears, but Vance can effortlessly switch to base seriousness and you won’t even notice it. The effect is truly haunting.

It took me a while to appreciate his Lyonesse trilogy as the masterpiece it is, because the first time I read it, I was shaken, stirred and touched by the events that were horrendous for the characters but were treated by Vance as the most normal stuff in the world. He got me so thoroughly involved in his world. It was like opening a door and experiencing history first-hand.

His world-building is utterly perfect. During the trilogy, he shows the entire island he made and the lifestyles and mannerisms of the people living there, including those of the oddest fantasy-creatures. Certain scenes and places stick in the mind as memorable and essential creations in the history of Fantasy. The emotional value attached to Suldrun’s garden, for instance. Whenever a character mentions that garden or the character Suldrun, Vance has got the reader’s total attention. Also, while Vance’s stories are mostly of a pure episodic nature, he attains a fair degree of complexity in this tale.

I find it very hard to select highlights for you, my reader. This might be the best thing Vance has ever written and it offers everything fantasy is loved for. Endless creation of the fantastic, unique and memorable characters, perfect world-building and grand scenes, strengthened by small, emotional touches.

Don’t miss this one.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Saturday, 20 September 2008, 11:16 am
by DavidTate
Jeroen wrote:Jack Vance. I think his books are... curious, to say the least. I count him among my favorite writers, but every time I read one of his books, it feels like he let me down. Perhaps I was looking for something that wasn't there. But. But, afterwards certain characters, certain situations jump into my mind and I am at pains to recollect who wrote about them and it always turns out to be Jack Vance.

[Note: I lost my first version of this reply by foolishly clicking somewhere without saving first. This is a reconstruction of that reply.]

Interesting! My experience with Vance has been exactly the opposite (inverse? converse?) of your own. I find that I enjoy Vance immensely while I am reading it, but that the plot and characters and specific bits of description or dialogue that so entertained me all vanish into a vague mist of impressions within a few weeks. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- it means, for one, that I can re-read Vance more frequently than many authors.

There are some exceptions to that rule. Vance's pure genius for names has created some that stick with me always -- Glawen Clattuc, Skirlet Hutsenreiter, Faude Carfilhiot, etc.

And I certainly agree with you about the merits of Lyonesse. I do not understand why that work is not more widely praised nor critically appreciated. It seems to me a towering triumph, Vance's magnum opus in a career full of great accomplishments. I can still remember waiting with great impatience for the second and third volumes to be published, terrified (for Vance was quite old, even then) that they would never be finished.

Not that Lyonesse is perfect. Its two greatest flaws (as I see them),are:.
  1. The pacing is terrible. The opening scenes, in which very little happens to further either plot or characterization, are half as long as the entire third book. I suspect that the relative leisure of the opening is akin to the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, in that the author wasn't sure where things were going or what the story arc would look like, and so strolled around a bit trying to find it.
  2. The ending is badly rushed (which is a typical Vance flaw, I fear). 27 loose ends are neatly tied up (or brutally truncated) in a few pages, leaving characters who had enormous amounts of spotlight time earlier in the book left out in the cold. Poor Glyneth spends the entire last book offstage, barefoot and pregnant and irrelevant. The plot against Dhrun, and the way it is foiled, seems both labored and abrupt.

In spite of those problems, the story as a whole is riveting, fascinating, moving, amusing, enchanting. Great feats of invention are introduced and thrown away in a single scene, as asides. Side-splitting hilarity tangoes with grim tragedy. Perhaps most notably, Aillas fails to fall into the usual Vance trap for heroes -- he is rational and stoic and obsessed, but manages to remain human and sympathetic in spite of it all, in a way that Kirth Gerson does not. The capture and eventual release of Tatzel is a remarkable bit of character-building.

As for other Vance works, my favorites are (in no particular order)
  • "The Moon Moth"
  • "Green Magic"
  • The Demon Princes
  • The three short Alastor novels, now available in an omnibus called Alastor
  • Maske: Thaery
  • The Cadwal Chronicles, especially the first two books
  • Night Lamp
  • "Rumfuddle"
  • "Liane the Wayfarer" (aka "The Loom of Darkness")

There aren't many Vance works that I don't care for, but there are some. The "Anome" novels were disappointing. I honestly dislike the Magnus Ridolph mystery pastiches. Ports of Call begins reasonably well, but Lurulu is a very weak attempt at finishing it, not that Vance doesn't have more than adequate excuse for that at this point. I haven't read The Grey Prince, which many reviewers have called preachy and strident.

Most of the rest of Vance falls in that broad category of good entertainment -- The Languages of Pao, Big Planet, the Planet of Adventure novels, "The Potters of Firsk", etc. I hope someday to own a Vance Integral Edition, to enjoy by the fire with a vintage port or single malt in my pre-dotage.


Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Tuesday, 23 September 2008, 8:11 pm
by P417
A thought on human and sympathetic in spite of it all, in a way that Kirth Gerson [is] not:

I myself feel rather more empathy with Gersen. While he is often clench-jawed, Heaven knows he has a right to be, all things considered. And remember, 'all things" is not simply the bare fact of his parents' and friends' murders and kidnappings into slavery: it is the almost monstrous regime that his grandfather subsequently put him through.

Also, Gersen is, in ltrerary terms, a dynamic character. As the sequence progresses, he changes, softens a bit, expands into a fuller humanity. A subtle but I think telling point is the moment when, on impulse, he buys the chess-playing puppets, for no other reason than pure lark.

Consider: in the first book--

    Gersen drew a deep breath. Undoubtedly he had lived a grom cheerless existence. Thinking back across the years, scenes came crowding into his mind, all of which were variations on a single theme: other children occupied with irresponsible pleasure, while he, a rather thin boy with a grave face, watched from a distance. He had felt only interest and wonder at the easy gaiety--so he recalled--never relating the scenes to himself. His grandfather had seen to that . . .

    Gersen smiled ruefully. He felt no confidence in his dealings with women; he had known few intimately. . . .

    Still, why deceive himself? Living the life of half a man was difficult, a source of dissatisfaction. . . .

    Still, what of that? He knew his mission in life, and he was superbly prepared to fulfill this mission. He had no doubts, no uncertainties; his goals were exactly defined. A sudden idea disturbed the flow of his self-reassurances: where would he be without this clear purpose? If he were less artificially motivated, he might not show so well in comparison with the easy men around him, with their pleasant manners and fluent talk . . .
And there is more along those lines. Gersen is painfully aware of his artificial, constrained nature, but--plainly put--too timid or shy to do anything but roll down the rails set out for him.

In every book, he has relations with a woman, but the nature of these alters. In the first, Pallis Atwrode is barely more than an acquaintance; in the second, Alusz Iphegenia is distant, detached, more of a fortuity than a romance; in the third, Drusilla is little more than a child, with an unconsummated crush on Gersen; by the fourth book, Gersen is having what he thinks is a true romance, but when it comes crashing down on him, he retreats into his old shell:

    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.
But in the fifth and concluding book, the breaking of that shell finally proceeds apace--the first real crack is the business with the chess-playing toy; then:

    It seemed that as time went by Gersen found himself ever more susceptible to strange moods, to which no name could be applied. In the early years his emotions focused along a single axis: hate. He had been humorless, clenched, passionate only in his dedication. Now there were numerous axes, in many directions.
That is not mere auctorial filigree: we see the new Gersen, in his relations with Alice Wroke, for example.

No, I definitely feel Gersen's humanity.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Tuesday, 23 September 2008, 8:48 pm
by DavidTate
P417 wrote:A thought on human and sympathetic in spite of it all, in a way that Kirth Gerson [is] not:

I myself feel rather more empathy with Gersen. While he is often clench-jawed, Heaven knows he has a right to be, all things considered. And remember, 'all things" is not simply the bare fact of his parents' and friends' murders and kidnappings into slavery: it is the almost monstrous regime that his grandfather subsequently put him through.
No, I definitely feel Gersen's humanity.

It's a fair cop; I misspoke. Gerthen is both human and sympathetic. I would have done better to say that Gerson is a damaged character -- that's part of what the story is about -- and that this makes him an object of sympathy for me, and pathos, but I can't really empathize with him in the sense of feeling a resonance in myself with his states of mind and choices. As you aptly note, that changes slowly over the course of the novels, and I do feel the power of his healing, but that's not the same as having walked many miles with a protagonist whose actions are not merely understandable and (perhaps) justified, but also personally compelling.

This may say more about who I am than who Kirth Gersen is.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Saturday, 15 November 2008, 11:53 pm
by allmadhere
I've only read a few of Vance's books, but what I have read so far has been very good. The Lyonesse books are among those of his work which are most appealing to me, and after this disscussion are definately moving up on my 'to read' list! I'd have read them already, except I can't seem to find a copy of the first two books anywhere. I guess it's back to searching AbeBooks... ;)

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Thursday, 27 November 2008, 4:46 am
by owlcroft
As you probably know, I see Vance's books as falling into four classes: one can divide them in one dimension by sf versus fantasy, and orthogonally by serious versus comic (though his "serious" books are all shot through with deep streaks of mordantly black humor). Each class has its own premier work, and I think that in discussing Vance's "best" book or series, one really needs to keep the classes separate, lest one be asking whether one prefers apples to Chevrolets. It is also, I reckon, significant that his work is distributed very unequally among those classes, so that in some picking a winner is fairly easy.

Lyonesse is probably his best serious fantasy (though The Dying Earth (the original collection, not including the later related books) is still, to me, a contender there.

My own favorite of all his works (there I go, ignoring my own advice) is the Demon Princes series. It seems to me that his genius for dark humor was at its zenith there, and that is largely the pleasure (the actual plots, like much of his work, are little more than basic wish-fulfillment). I can re-read those often (though, as the proud possessor of a VIE, I can actually re-read his entire oeuvre frequently, as I do every year or two--something i do with very few authors, most or all of the others being detective fiction: just about every author I list on the sister site Matters Criminous (you have all been there, haven't you?); of sf&f authors, besides Vance, there's Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell (I own a copy of the Storisende edition, nyah, nyah) . . . .

Well, I hadn't previously stopped to consider it, but I guess I periodically re-read almost every one of my 5-star authors (though a little Oz goes a long way), and not a few of the 4-star ones. No wonder I get so little new reading done. I find that as I get older, I more and more like to repeat known pleasures.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Friday, 28 November 2008, 3:54 am
by Jeroen
I would like to hear what you consider his serious and his humorous work, Eric. Because I have a hard time seeing the difference. I would classify the Dying Earth books as humorous, and the Demon Princes as serious (in fact, I thought the Demon Princes was far too serious for my expectations and was at first a let down because of its seriousness. I was hoping for something as hilarious as the Dying Earth books). I agree with you on classifying Lyonesse as serious, but when I read those books again, I am not so sure. The adventures in alternate realities are fantastic.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Friday, 28 November 2008, 4:14 am
by owlcroft
Well, again with the caveat that his "serious" (or "adventure") tales are well laced with mordant humor, I guess something like this. Well, I started to make two lists, but it turns out to be easier to just list his expressly comedic works, since that is a much shorter list. It certainly comprises:

  • The Eyes of the Overworld (Cugel the Clever)
  • Rhialto the Marvelous
  • Cugel's Saga (Cugel: The Skybreak Spatterlight)
  • Showboat World (The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII, South Big Planet)
  • Space Opera
  • The Complete Magnus Ridolph
One might--it is arguable--also include Galactic Effectuator (The Dogtown Tourist Agency) or the Ports of Call duology.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Monday, 05 January 2009, 12:22 am
by pragnar

It's not clear to me from your original post -- what is it about Jack Vance that leaves you disappointed?

The one that nags me when I read Vance's work is that he is not terribly interested in plot. Readers of Vance aren't going to be on the edges of their seats wondering if the hero is going to win the day, or who the bad guy really is. I do miss that element when reading his stories, but he compensates with his fantastic characters and his dark humor. He writes the most delightful and despicable scoundrels in the genre.

The only other qualm I might mention is that, while I often enjoy the detail he puts into the many new civilizations he invents, it can sometimes be tedious to read through long-winded descriptions of the architectural and clothing fashions of each culture that the main characters happen to pass in their travels.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Thursday, 22 January 2009, 3:48 pm
by vancian

I don't know if you have got around to reading the 4th and 5th of the Demon Princes books, but it is worth noting the large gap between publication dates. The first 3 came out in the mid 60's and the last 2 in 1979 and 81.

Seems likely that Jack was dissatisfied and took that long to work out where he was taking it - personally I think they are the best 2 - the wait was worth it.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Friday, 06 February 2009, 4:35 pm
by thepaladin
While I am by no means a “Vance authority”, my experience with the books I’ve read is that they don’t fulfill their promise. It often seems to me that he starts out with a wonderful idea or grand premise and loses it somewhere along the way.

In the interest of “complete disclosure”...I haven't read a large number of his works and have enjoyed some far more than others.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Friday, 06 February 2009, 11:26 pm
by pragnar
Which have you read? I have yet to read the Lyonesse series -- I just received them for Christmas, but have been working my way through a number of other books first. (Most of which I heard of through this site; I just finished the Worm Ouroboros.) But from what I have read -- Dying Earth, the Demon Princes, the Planet of Adventure series, and the Alastor series -- I most highly recommend Dying Earth, and in particular the middle two books involving Cugel the Clever. Not the most serious of his works, but utterly delightful.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Saturday, 07 February 2009, 12:33 am
by thepaladin
I finished the Demon Princes fairly I said not really impressed, sorry if you liked them. i'm sure there are books I've loved that others cold. I have one of the Lyonesse Trilogy on my shelf and have been meaning to get to it for a long time. Over the years I've read several of his stand alons books, one f the dying earth and so on. As I said, not an authority, after I read more my attitude may change. Getting a negative attitude on a first book can taint further reading. I find a lot of interesting things in the vance I've read and on the whole lean toward the dying earth books. When I've read Lyonesse that may change.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Tuesday, 24 February 2009, 2:11 am
by Jeroen
vancian wrote:Jeroen

I don't know if you have got around to reading the 4th and 5th of the Demon Princes books, but it is worth noting the large gap between publication dates. The first 3 came out in the mid 60's and the last 2 in 1979 and 81.

Seems likely that Jack was dissatisfied and took that long to work out where he was taking it - personally I think they are the best 2 - the wait was worth it.

I'm afraid I still haven't read the 4th and 5th book. There is so much stuff sucking away my attention. I have been travelling a lot and I have become very interested in reading about history. Anyway, sf and f are still big in my interests and I have been reading as much as I can. I even read Moby-Dick, can you imagine?

I find it hard to explain why Jack Vance lets me down a bit while reading. Perhaps, while experiencing his command of the english language, I would expect his plots to be less...episodic. I still plan to finish the demon princes and perhaps read his Planet of Adventure novels. What do you think of Planet of Adventure?

greets Jeroen

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Tuesday, 24 February 2009, 12:37 pm
by pragnar
Just to disillusion you straight away: lots of Jack Vance's writing is episodic, especially the Demon Princes books and Planet of Adventure. If you know that's going to bother you, you may want to skip it straight away. As I mentioned earlier, Vance does not seem overly interested in crafting suspenseful or surprising plots.

When you read a Demon Princes book, you know that (a) it's going to start with Gersen getting a lead on a Demon Prince, (b) over the course of the novel he will discover more about this Demon Prince and ultimately confront him, (c) despite this being a futuristic world with guns, Gersen will be involved in at least two brawls or melees, and (d) when Gersen finally meets the Demon Prince, he will be in disguise amidst a group of people, and Gersen will have to puzzle out which one is actually the villain.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Thursday, 07 May 2009, 4:51 pm
by emphryio
I have read about 50 books by Vance. I think the main impression I'm left with is that of stoicism. Which surprisingly I can't recall having ever heard this mentioned with regard to his books. In the 'serious' books, the hero is always a stoic and I see the preaching of stoicism as the ideal philosophy to be the main goal of Vance's writings. On top of that he really knew how to put together a setting.

Like Tolkien his settings are very real. Like Tolkien the characters aren't so interestng. Same thing with plot. Vance has little plot.

Vance has hardly any characters. Variation of the same stoic. And then Cugel types.

But the settings are excellently made. And what little characters there are have a positivity to them. The stoicism is comforting. It would be boring except the setting is... usually enough to keep things interesting. The villians and annoying beauracrats at least have a great vocabulary, thus you at feel you're amonst intelligent people while reading it. I occasionally pull out Tschai (Planet of Adventure) or a few others back out for the comforting escapism of it.

There was a push for Vance to be considered serious literature instead of 'dismissed' as sci-fi/fantasy. I think in order for a story to be 'literature' it must giving some kind of social critique. I suppose Vance would qualifies. But actually so would much else that is 'dismissed' as sci-fi/fantasy.

Blue World shows a fascist takeover.
Tschai (Planet of Adventure) certainly gives some thoughts on religion.
The Durdane series lightly looks at an alternative political system.
There is another that has a version of communism.
There is Emphyrio, the socialist story... with it's strange ending...
The Grey Prince was attacked for being a polemic.

The problem is that so many of his books just aren't really saying anything. And even those that are, largely do so just as an afterthought. And, ultimately the characters are just too hollow. Two dimensional evil and stoic heroes.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Tuesday, 14 July 2009, 10:56 am
by pragnar
Just to follow up: I finally read the Lyonesse books. They're fantastic! Definitely some of his most compelling work. For those of you left unhappy by his lack of attention to plot in other works, be sure to pick them up.

emphryio, I don't agree that the protagonists are always "stoics." Several notables are -- Kirth Gersen, Adam Reith -- but it's certainly not a hard-and-fast rule. Have you read the Alastor series? They're peculiar books, but good. The protagonists are never "heroes," and definitely not stoics.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Thursday, 16 July 2009, 12:32 pm
by Dr Fidelius
There's a lovely profile of Vance in the NYT this week. Requires a log-in, but you can always get one from Bugmenot.

Re: Jack Vance

PostPosted: Wednesday, 12 August 2009, 9:54 am
by Estraa
I don't think too little happened in Suldrun's Garden. I became very fond of Suldrun in the beginning, so I'd say some of those scenes that David says didn't further characterization much must have done so.

That Vance profile doesn't require any log-in to read.


PostPosted: Friday, 20 November 2009, 6:49 pm
by steveplant
I'm new to this site, having been an avid sci-fi reader during and after college. I found the site after reading the tribute to Jack Vance in the Sunday Times magazine. (I had never heard of Jack Vance!) The exhaustive nature of this site is formidable... I decided to check out the writers I remembered from my youth and found, aside from my beloved Tolkien, most of the writers I was fond of then were either not on your author list at all, or were not highly rated- some of those include Heinlein, Azimov, Arthur C. Clarke. But I found that Jack Vance was given 5 stars, so I checked out a couple of his books. Wonderful short stories and I'm 2/3s through the Lyonesse trilogy and can't wait to get Madouc.
So I was thinking I'd try R.A. Lafferty next, whom I have also never heard of. Any suggestions?