Jack Vance was one of my favorite science fiction authors; a SFWA grandmaster; winner of three Hugo awards, an Edgar award, a World Fantasy award, and a Nebula; and arguably one of the most enduring writers in the genre. He passed away over the weekend at the age of 96. 1916 to 2013, that’s almost an entire century. That’s a pretty damn good run.
The first Jack Vance I read was The Dying Earth. My uncle used to give me $25 gift cards for Borders Books—ah, another deceased literary giant—as birthday gifts, when I was in middle and high school. I’m not sure the exact reason I picked up the Tor/Orb four-in-one Dying Earth collection, but it’s probably because I’m a huge damn dork and heard it was a big influence on Dungeons & Dragons. Well, it was, and it helped me understand not just older editions of D&D but also Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, two more Tor/Orb volumes I’d picked up with later years’ gift cards. (Years ago I read some fan speculation that the Book of Gold mentioned early in the Book of the New Sun is actually a brittle copy of Vance’s Dying Earth; Vance’s influence on Wolfe’s series was palpable, to say the least.)
The Dying Earth showcases Vance’s talents, each and every one of them. It’s lyrically brilliant, especially the witty word battles Cugel engages in, but also a beautiful depiction of a world so far advanced yet so forgotten and decayed that science has devolved into formulas indistinguishable from magic. As the sun becomes cooler and its rays dimmer, Vance takes us to visit the world’s inhabitants: drunken revelers prepareing for the end of the world, canny explorers and exploiters, wizened mages clutching their few trinkets and formulaes in vain ignorance of their impending pointlessness. It’s a blend of science fiction’s far future and fantasy’s sword-and-sorcery action, with a dash of unique linguistic flair and some of the most creative originality found in the genre.
That’s only scratching the surface of Vance, who wrote shelves’ worth of quality fiction. I’ve read and reviewed a handful of his award-winners, The Last Castle and The Dragon Masters, and was planning on breaking out some more Vance novels sooner or later. I own plenty. Big Planet is renowned as one of the best of his earlier novels, a sardonic space opera set on a metal-poor planet. The Languages of Pao is, much like Delaney’s Babel-17, a brilliant work based around the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. His Demon Princes series has also received all manner of positive praise.And it wasn’t just science fiction; Jack Vance gave fantasy the Lyonesse trilogy, and wrote a number of mystery novels that Subterranean Press has collected. (They’ve also been publishing limited hardcover editions of the collected Vance works.)
That doesn’t include Emphyrio, Lurulu, Green Magic, Ports of Call, Araminta Station, the Planets of Adventure novels, or any of a dozen other novels I could name; even his lesser works like The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph or The Houses of Iszm are packed with wit and charm and wonder, picaresque larks and roaring space operas set amid bizarre aliens and unique societies. It’s impossible for me to describe Vance’s baroque writing style while doing justice to his writing skills; an example would better illustrate its charm, such as this evocative snippet of high-brow wordplay detailing the low motives of two rival hucksters selling bazaar gewgaws:
‘I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’
‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.’
This is, of course, shamelessly ripped from the 2009 New York Times piece “Genre Artist,” since a cursory skim couldn’t find me the scene I was looking for, where Cugel haggles with someone over a used pelgrane.
After his debut story “The World-Thinker” in 1945, Vance penned over 60 novels—11 of them mysteries under his real name of John Holbrook Vance, plus three bearing the name Ellery Queen—and more short stories than I can comprehend. Even though he hadn’t been up to writing new material for years—since the 1980s, it had been a struggle to fight past his glaucoma to write, a battle he fought long and gracefully and lead to his 2010 Hugo-winning autobiography This Is Me, Jack Vance!—Jack Vance’s pen will be missed, though fondly remembered in the dozens upon dozens of stories he told.
Some links to other sites’ remembering this great writer:
- NYTimes.com: The Genre Artist (from 2009, a great look back)
- io9: We’ve lost another one of the greats: R.I.P. Jack Vance, 1916-2013
- Locus Online News: Jack Vance 1916-2013
- The Guardian: Jack Vance dies aged 96: master of bold and bizarre science fiction