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Genre Greats
Books Of Dreams:
Jack Vance
by Patrick Hudson

Jack Vance is the pre-eminent voice in contemporary fantasy; few other fantasy writers have shown his range of vision, depth of imagination and control of words. His influence is seen in writers such as Dan Simmons, Gene Wolfe, Iain M. Banks, Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds. He has had an incredibly prolific and lengthy career, working in many genres - this article concentrates on his SF and fantasy, but Vance was a noted contributor to the 'Ellery Queen' series and was awarded the Edgar Award in 1961 for his mystery novel The Man In The Cage. Even with that limitation, the broad view is difficult to encompass.
   Straight biography isn't hard. He was born John Holbrook Vance in 1916. His parents separated when he was very young, and he went with his siblings and mother to live with his maternal grandparents on a ranch in rural California. Vance had an idyllic rural childhood, and the love of the outdoors that he learnt in these early years has remained a strong element of his work.
   The young Vance read voraciously and wrote poetry from his teens. He read Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne, Lord Dunsany and P.G. Wodehouse. Vance's family could not afford to send him to university when he graduated from high school at the height of the Depression, and so he wandered the country, taking on a variety of menial jobs - fruit picking, labouring in a factory making mining equipment, work in mines and oil wells. In Vance's own words:
   For me, it was a time of metamorphosis. Over a span of four or five years, I developed from an impractical little intellectual into a rather reckless young man, competent at many skills and crafts, and determined to try every phase of life. ('Biographical Sketch & Other Facts', from Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations And A Bibliography, The British Library, 2000.)
   Feeling ready for further education, he enrolled at the University of California in Berkeley, first studying physics and then journalism, but he got restless again and ended up in Honolulu, working at the Naval yard. The work was unrewarding and Vance quit and returned to California in time for the start of the World War II.
   After a period training for the US Intelligence Programme (After two years it became obvious I would never learn colloquial Japanese, and I was dropped from the programme) he signed up for the Merchant Marines and headed out to sea. It was during this period that Vance began to write fiction producing, in particular, the stories that would become The Dying Earth (1950).
   The Dying Earth is a set of six linked short stories that tell of the comings and goings of a set of characters living far in the future, when the sun is dimming and expected to flicker out at any minute, plunging the world into apocalyptic darkness. In this distant time, science has advanced to the point of magic, but the general populace live in bucolic medieval isolation. Men share the world with odd creatures, some the product of genetic engineering (or so it's implied) such as the maleficent deodands and the tiny Twk Men, who ride dragonflies and act as spies in return for salt; other alien entities may be extraterrestrial, extra-dimensional or perhaps demons in the traditional sense.
   The unusual structure of The Dying Earth makes it a work of mood and character, rather than plot and incident. Each of the stories centres on a different character, although the first four feature a number of common characters, each of which gets a turn centre stage. Turjan of Mi'ir is a wizard who seeks the knowledge to create artificial life from Pandelume the Archmage; Mazirian the Magician attempts to torture the knowledge from Turjan; T'sais is a 'vat creature' created by Pandelume but who due to a defect cannot perceive goodness and beauty; Liane the Wayfarer is a villainous rogue who gets his comeuppance twice, once in T'sais' and again in his own story.
   The other two stories share locations and tone with the others, but not the characters: Ulan Dhor is the story of a prince sent to find magical secrets in Ampraditvar, one of the ruined cities of the Dying Earth; Guyal Of Sfere tells of a boy full of questions who travels the Dying Earth to find the Museum of Man, wherein all questions are answered.
   It's easy to identify ingredients used in the mix of The Dying Earth. The far-future Earth and sombre, mordant tone come from Clark Ashton Smith's tales of Zothique, the last continent on Earth at the end of time, published in Weird Tales during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The mysterious Pandelume brings to mind Fafrhd and Gray Mouser's magical mentors, Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, while Liane the Wayfarer recalls a rather more ruthless version of the two adventurers themselves. The various quests in the book - Turjan's search for magical knowledge, T'sais' search for happiness - bring to mind Dunsany's tales of the gods. Vance combines these elements with a superb ear for grandly rhetorical dialogue and an eye for scintillating imagery to create something fresh and vivid.
   Through the 1950s and 1960s, Vance produced stories for the SF, fantasy and detective pulps and worked for a short stint as a scriptwriter at 20th Century Fox. When that ended, Vance and his wife Norma toured Europe, while Jack worked on stories. When they returned to America in the late 1950s, he wrote scripts for the Captain Video TV show for a while in New York before moving back to California. From then until the 1970s, the Vances travelled prolifically, finding an exotic spot to settle for months at a time while Jack wrote.
   Vance produced some of his signature works of SF over these years of travelling, family in tow, including Big Planet (1952), The Languages Of Pao (1958), and The Dragon Masters, which won a Hugo Award in 1963. The science fiction of this period displays a great interest in social science, in the ways societies are shaped and the people that shape them. Huge distances isolate the settlements of Big Planet and the novel is a tour of grotesque communities where human society has adapted in ways at once brutal or absurd. The Languages Of Pao hinges on linguistic theory, while The Dragon Masters features three distinct types of humans, each psychologically adapted for a distinct purpose or environment.
   He wrote (or began) some of his best series, including 'The Planet Of Adventure' series, the Durdane Trilogy and The Demon Princes, which introduced his 'Gaean Reach' setting, a loose intergalactic confederation of planets centring on old Earth. The series follows Kirth Gersen, the only survivor of a raid on his home planet undertaken by five master criminals known as the Demon Princes. Gersen has been trained by his grandfather in all the arts necessary to exact revenge, and proceeds to do just that.
   The five novels of the series relate how Gersen tracks down and eliminates his enemies, one by one, and the stories are packed with action, intrigue, detection and romance. Gersen's travels across the Oikumene (the civilised part of the Gaean Reach) and into the Beyond (where law and order do not reach) paint a colourful galaxy filled with unique and distinct worlds. Vance portrays the people of each world with their own distinctive mode of dress, often accompanied by eccentric flourishes such as painted faces, strange hairstyles or facial hair, and even unique cuisines. He keeps the action moving by presenting the backstory for each planet in the form of snippets from travel guides and anthropology texts, and, memorably, the memoirs of the bombastic Baron Boddissey, all perfectly styled in tone and approach.
   Vance wrote the first three volumes of the five-book series in short order between 1964 and 1967, but did not return to it until 1979, with The Face and then The Book Of Dreams in 1981. In the intervening years, Vance's attitude toward Gersen's single-minded quest for vengeance appeared to have changed, and these final two volumes provide an enormously satisfying counterbalance to the first three. Increasingly, through the actions of Viole Falushe ('The Face') and Howard Alan Treesong (author of 'The Book of Dreams') vengeance is seen to be a petty and self-absorbed emotion. Vance takes another look at a life powered by vengeance only and, on reflection, finds it an empty thing. The series ends on a downbeat note:
   Alice put her hands on his shoulder. "And now, what of you?"
   "What of me how?"
   "You're so quiet and subdued! You worry me, are you well?"
   "Quite well. Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done."

   What began as a relentless quest for mortal vengeance ends with a rather squalid murder on a distant world, and this subtle change tone is examined with great insight by David Langford in his essay 'Growing Up, Striking Back: Revenge In The Work Of Jack Vance', in the collection Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations And A Bibliography.
   A similar gap between instalments - and more remarkable change of approach - is seen in the subsequent volumes of The Dying Earth series. After the first volume in 1950, Vance did not return to the setting until 1966, when he did something very different with it indeed. The Eyes Of The Overworld follows the adventures of the scoundrel Cugel the Clever (or so he styles himself - his actions in the stories do not necessarily give credence to the epithet) as he endeavours to fulfil the quest set upon him by Ionoccu the Laughing Magician: to return with the 'cusps' of the title, a set of magical contact lenses.
   In contrast with the sombre mood of The Dying Earth, The Eyes Of The Overworld is played as farce. Vividly grotesque characters converse in droll circumlocutions of dialogue that prickle with one-liners and artfully turned abuse. It is a lewd and violent pantomime, strange and fabulous, where fate and magic play a huge part in the dreamlike, tit-for-tat world. Vance wrote a sequel to Cugel's adventures in Cugel's Saga (1983), following Cugel's further attempts to exact revenge on Ionoccu. He returned to the 'Dying Earth' one more time in 1984 with Rhialto The Marvellous, a collection of stories describing the absurd, Wodehousian adventures of the powerful Archmage Rhialto and his companions in the magician's Order of the Blue Precepts.
   Also in the 1980s, Vance began work on his second signature fantasy series, the sublime Lyonesse novels. In three volumes published between 1983 and 1989, Vance tells the story of events on the mythical island Lyonesse that lies in the English Channel between Britain and France - a feature of early Arthurian romances - that sank sometime before the Norman invasions.
   It is a story of succession and kingship, magical rivalries and love and hate, painted in broad, romantic strokes. The fairytale feel of The Dying Earth series is made more explicit: there are evil step parents, changelings, lost princes, fairy magic, children in peril, and dancing kittens. At same time, the series has a grim undercurrent as in The Dying Earth. Death, pain and perhaps most of all human cruelty are never far away; many people are vain, malicious or avaricious; many come to bad ends, not always deserved. As in the best fairy tales, good prevails in the end and the right king and queen sit on the throne - the final destination was never seriously in doubt, but the route taken is always surprising, intriguing and amusing.
   In the late 1980s, Vance began a further series set in the Gaean Reach, the 'Cadwal Chronicles'. Beginning with Araminta Station in 1987, continuing in 1991 with Ecce & Old Earth and in 1992 with Throy. These novels follow the young lovers Glawen Clattuc and Wayness Tamm as they foil a plot to turn the nature reserve planet Cadwal into a tourist resort. It is an extremely involved plot, encompassing many victories and setbacks. Vance invests the stories with great vigour and excitement.
   The investigative side of the story recalls The Demon Princes, and as there the motivation of the villains of the piece has its seeds in personal rejection - the wish to destroy Cadwal's untouched beauty is a manifestation of the villain's wish to destroy the peoples of Araminta Station. Many of Vance's characters, heroes and villains, are individualists in highly structured and stratified societies, and finding their rightful place - deserved or otherwise - is at the heart of their stories. Glawen Clattuc's attempts to secure a position in the Araminta Bureau show how a hero can prevail against bad luck and human prejudice, while Howard Alan Tressong represents the dark side of the same impulse. Although both hero and villain are motivated to overcome the stupid rules that govern their societies, it is the actions they take that differentiate them. Glawen does not attempt to destroy Cadwal in revenge for the slights against him, but to change it and ensure that the rules that exist are administered fairly and with honesty and intelligence.
   Vance's most recent work has been further novels of the Gaean Reach, Ports Of Call (1998) and Night Lamp (1996). These one-offs show that Vance has lost none of his wit or his flair for action. His work remains fresh and amusing, vivid and brilliant. Another novel is due soon.
   Over the last 50 years Jack Vance has produced some of the finest writing in SF. His work is not politically contentious or formally radical; he does not seek to shock or confound; he is uninterested in technology and how it has changed SF so radically. (Is it significant that in the face of the cyberpunk movement in the 1980s Vance returned to fantasy?) But far from making his fiction seem remote or old-fashioned, it makes it immediate and timeless; his fiction is free of contemporary concerns and offers pure insight into humanity and its many fabulous variations.

Jack Vance

Buy books at:

Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations And A Bibliography

The Dying Earth

Big Planet

The Demon Princes, vol.2


Night Lamp

Jack Vance

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