THE LANGUAGES OF VANCE
Jack Vance is one of the grand masters of science fiction, a multiple Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner, and a writer with the highest sort of reputation within the science fiction community. This is the first time I’ve ever heard that his stories are not considered proper science fiction. Admittedly, some of his best books are fantasy, but all they are all counted among the classics of speculative fiction. He may not sell as many copies as Heinlein or Niven, and he really is more popular in Europe than in America, but this does not mean that he has been ignored.
On the contrary, I know a great many writers and fans who consider him a member of the very highest echelon of SF authors, the masters who can never be emulated, the inimitable craftsmen like Cordwainer Smith and Lord Dunsany. And if evidence of his geek appeal is required, consider that the magic system he invented for his Dying Earth series was the primary inspiration for the Dungeons & Dragons magic system, and the character Cugel the Clever is probably the most important of three or four fictional characters that inspired the Rogue class featured in almost every role-playing game. Outside of the RPG community (and indeed, outside of the SF community altogether), Vance has many highly literate admirers who treat his books like holy relics, made all the more valuable by their rareness. Vance is not only difficult to find in new bookstores, but in secondhand ones as well, partly because of small print runs but mostly because nobody ever sells their Jack Vance books.
In Israel, I once met a man who had spent years searching every secondhand bookstore in the country for science fiction. He wore a simple maroon quat* and had hundreds of high-quality SF books in his collection. He would let trusted friends borrow any of them, except for his Jack Vance paperbacks. Those he would not part with for love nor money. However, it happened that each of us owned one Tschai book the other hadn’t read. In all his years hunting for SF, he had never found a copy of The Pnume. I had that one, but had never read Servants of the Wankh. As quickly as possible, we exchanged books, and spent many happy hours discussing them. This is the sort of thing that happens with people who read Vance.
It’s true that Vance has never become a household name, and none of his books have been adapted by Hollywood. But this is not because he doesn’t write proper science fiction. In fact, it’s the opposite. He isn’t mainstream enough for Hollywood to notice him. His style isn’t cool or trendy or noir enough for the entertainment industry to care. Vance writes pure speculative fiction that appeals mainly to hardcore fans of the genre. His extraterrestrial societies are intricately detailed. His worlds are as realistic as they come. His future histories are impeccably plotted. The background work that he does on every book is simply staggering. Quite often the depth of his setting is revealed only in footnotes, glossaries, introductions and other embellishments surrounding the most down-to-earth plots. Other times, the entire plot can depend on some tiny cultural difference or linguistic point that Vance mentions in passing on Page One and damn well expects his readers to notice and remember.
Vance is on record as saying, “I don’t have any stupid fans.” He doesn’t dumb down his writing for anyone. Just as he expects his readers to pay attention to the elaborate cultures he invents, he expects them to possess proper vocabularies and be able to follow convoluted sentences. Never one to experiment with slangy new styles of dialogue, he writes elegant and old-fashioned prose with a distinctly European lilt. It takes some time to get used to his inimitable style, and his dialogue may sound starchy at first, but after a few pages you find yourself falling into its rhythm. The sentences become easier to follow, and the eloquent dialogue soon starts to sound completely natural, as if this is the way people of intelligence really ought to talk.
Then, of course, you have to go back to the beginning and read it again, because while your brain was trying to adapt to Vance’s style, you were missing somewhere between half and all of the plot setup. His sentences are quite dense; the sort of history that other writers will take half a book to describe can take two sentences in a Vance book. It’s not uncommon to hear his fans saying that on their third reading of a certain book, they finally noticed a historical detail that put the entire conflict of the book in a completely different light.
Jack Vance is not the sort of author who goes out of his way to talk about himself or malign his fellow authors. Nor is he the kind that stirs up controversy on a regular basis. He goes to conventions and signings, but keeps his private life private and never behaves outrageously. This means that although he has been a presence in the SF community since SF fandom began, not a lot has been written about him. Nobody seems to know very much about him, and most of the things people commonly say about him are wrong.
For instance, popular legend tells that he has not read a science fiction book since 1954. He himself has said that he doesn’t usually read the stuff, but this is clearly not a rigid taboo, since he has commented on Philip Dick’s books. (He thought they were interesting, but too depressing. This is about as close to insulting as Vance ever gets.)
Another legend says that he has never been photographed smiling, but I’ve seen at least two pictures of him with very broad smiles. In fact, the impression I get of him is one of a kind and happy man who simply doesn’t talk very much. He clearly cares about his fans, and continues to write, sign books, and talk to fans on the Jack Vance message boards, even though he is in quite poor health and has been blind for several years now. He usually answers fan questions about his life and work with two- or three-word replies, and his son John has to prompt him for more detail. But when he does open up, he is quite entertaining.
KillerPenguin has already posted a more or less complete list of Vance’s works, but I’d like to mention a few in particular, as people are always asking me what Vance books they should try first. Having only read a dozen or so of his works, I’m not really an authority, but here are a few that I know are especially good starting points:
- The Tschai series: (originally published as “Tschai, Planet of Adventure”; now available in an omnibus under “Planet of Adventure”.) A quartet of books written in the late Sixties, the Tschai books are not Vance’s best, but are very popular. More to the point, they are still in print, unlike many of his books. They read easily as simple SF adventure stories, almost reminiscent of ERB’s John Carter books, concerning the attempts of interstellar scout Adam Reith to escape from the planet of Tschai. His efforts are foiled by the dominion of four alien races over the planet, and each book follows his dealings with one of the races.
- The Dying Earth series: if you haven’t read at least one of the Dying Earth books, you don’t know how good Swords and Sorcery fiction can be. Vance’s most popular work by far, this is another quartet fashioned out of a score of novellas and short stories that take place on Earth several billion years in the future, when the stars are going out one by one and technology has disappeared completely. Earth is all but unrecognisable in these books, and is ruled by mysterious and capricious wizards. Amongst the heroes of the Dying Earth is Cugel the Clever, the definitive spec-fic antihero - a charming rogue who concocts scheme after elaborate scheme to line his pockets, defraud wizards and get into bed with every fair maiden on Earth. Sadly, every single one of his plans fails completely, and Cugel spends most of his time running, riding, flying and sailing away from people he assumed were easy targets for bullying or swindling.
- The Dragon Masters: this Hugo-winning novella starts out simple and gets deeper and deeper as the plot progresses. At first it seems like a fantasy, but it isn’t. A perennial favourite, the Dragon Masters is usually found coupled with other novellas - “The Last Castle” in one paperback edition, and “The Languages of Pao” in the handsome VIE edition.
- Maske: Thaery: this one is a bit more risky for first-time Vance readers, but I believe it is one of his best. A standalone ** science fiction novel from the Seventies, it describes the campaigns of one Jubal Droad to correct grave injustices done to him by a wealthy nobleman. Jubal is a typical Vance hero - obstinate, intelligent and utterly unwilling to let any man, woman or sentient tree insult him in any way. His adventures are quite hilarious, and strangely reminiscent of D’Artagnan’s perils.
THE INTEGRAL EDITION
Of course, once you’ve read these books you’ll want more Vance. But where can you get a fix? Most of his books are out of print and hard to find. But don’t worry, a mere $1500 will get you the Vance Integral Edition, a beautiful library of 44 hardbound Jack Vance books that are available only as a complete set (hence “Integral”.) The work of a group of particularly ardent Vance fans, the VIE is the definitive edition, containing every piece of fiction the man ever wrote. Titles and text have been labouriously corrected to Vance’s original versions, using his original manuscripts whenever possible and subject to the approval of the Vance family.
Or, for $3000, you can buy the Deluxe Version of the VIE, which is even nicer. These really are stunning books, but they aren’t the pinnacle of fan devotion. That would be the Life Edition, bound in wooden covers (an homage to Vance’s recent book “Night Lamp”) with additional illustrations. The Life Edition is still in its theoretical stage, but if it comes to pass it will sell for $7500, with a print run of 5-9 copies. And, believe it or not, there are already three or four people who have put down $3750 deposits for it. Jack Vance will do that to you.
*Vance seems to be obsessed with hats. In every one of his books that I’ve read, there are lengthy descriptions of people’s hats, which often play central roles in the story. Sometimes he uses them as indicators of characters’ status or stages in the transformation of a hero, with footnotes describing the hats and their traditional significance. A quat is a hat from “Maske: Thaery”, described in a footnote as “a flat, four-cornered hat, sometimes no more than a square of heavy fabric, occasionally weighted at the corners with small globes of pyrite, chalcedony, cinnabar, or silver.” And no, my friend didn’t actually wear a quat, maroon or otherwise. He did have a cool beard though.
Jack Vance died at his Oakland, California home May 26, 2013 at the age of 96.
**KillerPenguin lists this as part of a “Gaean Reach” series. I would contest this. Although Vance wrote a lot of books placed in the Gaean Reach, they aren’t a series. They don’t, in fact, have anything to do with each other - the Gaean Reach is a big place. In any case, M:T is a standalone book, which Vance has sometimes said he would write two sequels to if he ever got the chance, making it Book One of a projected Maske series. Of course, it is now unlikely that this will ever happen, but it is very high on many fans’ wish lists.