Jack Vance nurtures an abiding desire for independence. Freelance writing eventually provided the independence he craved. “I wanted to get myself in a line of work where I didn’t have a boss, where I didn’t have to show up any place at any particular time,” he told Kathie Huddleston in an interview for the Science Fiction Weekly webzine.
Writing “is an occupation which suits me very nicely; and I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he wrote in an autobiographical sketch. “I am not group-minded by basic preference; I like functioning to my own inclinations, although when necessary I will conform, if only to avoid being ejected from the dinner party.”
Though university educated, it pleases him to say that he has never held a white-collar job, never worked in an office. He wasn’t entirely at ease as a carpenter, because on building sites he was under constant supervision. One of the jobs he liked best was delivering and installing office partitions. “I had a van to myself and I could run around more or less on my own time and slap together these partitions.”
His strong need for autonomy is underscored by his distaste for the mass media. The last movie he saw in a theater was Star Wars, because being part of an audience appalls him (he went because he received free tickets; he liked the movie). “I have an utter revulsion to being part of an audience. Sitting there in an audience and everybody sniffling at once and everybody laughing at once. Everybody’s valves being turned on at the same time.” Vance would have derived no pleasure from joining the Paonese “in enormous clots of ten or twenty million people to chant the ancient drones.”
Vance’s sense of personal autonomy was offended when a British reader sent him an analysis of The Gray Prince and Wyst: Alastor 1716 to prove that Vance was an extreme right-winger. “Which of course, in my opinion, is absurd,” was Vance’s impassioned reaction. “I’m nowhere, not left or right or center of anything. I am an ad hoc individual.”
In asserting his independence, Vance goes so far as to disclaim membership in the fraternity of SF writers. “I don’t like being called a ‘science fiction writer.’ I am totally indifferent to all that stuff. I am outside all trends and fashions of any kind.”
This propensity to stand apart is reflected in the choices Vance made as a writer, developing a distinctive personal style and his own brand of story. Norman Spinrad observed: “He has chosen to write a sort of fiction not calculated to bring him fame and fortune. . . . It is a kind of fiction that is definitely a minority taste, not a mass-market addiction.”
It is almost impossible to read anything that mentions the name Jack Vance that doesn’t also include the word “style”. Crude as his earliest stories may have been, perceptive readers noticed something different about Vance’s writing: “In the early days, after I’d published a couple of short stories, one of the editors mentioned ‘Vancishness’ for the stories I’d written,” Vance recalls. “So evidently even at that time I had a kind of distinctive approach.”
As with all other aspects of his writing, Vance’s narrative style developed as he mastered the craft of writing and found his own voice. “Vance’s early style verged on the purple,” says Paul Rhoads. “As the decades passed he became less lavish with adjectives, impatient with straining efforts to achieve odd or minor effects.”
Norman Spinrad has described Vance as “perhaps the premier stylist . . . in terms of fusing prose, tone, viewpoint, content, and mood into a seamless, synergetic whole.”
Russell Letson considers Vance “a remarkable and unmistakable stylist whose manner cannot be separated from the matter of his fiction . . . his way with words extends the sense of ‘style’ beyond the decorative to the thematic.”
Richard Tiedman agrees: “With Vance it is possible to guess his authorship from a few sentences. His stories are attended by a very personal and unmistakable method of sentence construction, rhythmic variety, and extravagant imagery – all controlled with great technical dexterity.”
“His literary voice is probably his most effective weapon,” according to Malcolm Edwards, “though at the same time it is the thing which most alienates his detractors: they would say the effect for which he strives is meretricious. I would disagree, while admitting that it is certainly artificial. Vance uses words in an intentionally magical way: by a combination of unusual and arcane words, abnormal emphasis on such qualities as the colors of objects, and a rather formal and remote narrative manner, he aims to weave a spell of alieness.”
Paul Rhoads disagrees on at least one point: “His use of words, as brilliant or charming as it may be, is characterized above all by expediency. It is vividness, not style, which distinguishes his writing. . . . The famous magic of Vance’s voice is not an empty arabesque but a function of his unparalleled vocabulary, his mastery of the meaning and force of words.”
Vance’s style has often been called “baroque.” Spinrad: “Vance creates baroque tapestry. Not content to limit himself to the mere world-creation of traditional science fiction, Vance adds those graceful superfluities that give his times and places baronial richness, late Renaissance grandeur, and the weight of cultural and aesthetic substantiality.”
Matt Hughes agrees regarding the effect of Vance’s style but rejects the baroque term: “I see it as far from baroque. It is a combination of minimalism, especially in description, with very careful word choice, the words themselves sometimes archaic, sometimes newly coined from odd roots. Add to this a reserved, ironic tone on the part of the characters and an inclination to indirection and mordant wit in the dialogue and you're getting close to identifying the elements. But it is the masterful way in which these elements are combined that makes the crucial difference.”
Michel Basilieres detects some of the same ingredients: “Vance combines an incredibly rich and colourful surface with a precise, concise style that’s so free of extraneous words it’s practically blunt.”
Arthur Jean Cox summarizes: “Jack Vance is the best writer in science fiction. . . . You will notice that I don’t say that he is the best writer of, but the best writer in science fiction – these prepositions making a subtle but powerful distinction.”
Vance didn’t win this crown overnight. “It hasn’t come easy,” he told Charles Platt. “It’s been a matter of plugging away, finding what I can do, and then trying to do it properly. . . . There was a long period in which I wrote a lot of junk, as an apprentice, learning my trade. . . . I finally blundered into this thing which I keep on doing, which is essentially a history of the human future.”
Ursula LeGuin described Vance’s characteristic mode of expression as “an achieved style.” Vance agrees. “My style certainly isn’t accidental; I know exactly what I want to do, and work something over until I get what I want.” This self-critical attention to style certainly slowed his production. Vance told Paul Rhoads that he found it hard to finish Lurulu because each time he read over what he had written, it sounded “so lame” that he felt compelled to rework it.
Vance writes no unconsidered words. While discussing the writing of The Green Pearl, Vance said: “Each word I took out of the word processor and I polished it separately. Each word has to be segregated and inspected and examined for flaws and then put back.”
When Peter Close recalled a split infinitive in The Dirdir several years after publication, Vance responded: “I remember that split infinitive! The rhythm of that particular sentence demanded that that infinitive be split. I tried the adverb on either side but I found no other recourse, so I did it. I’ve always regretted it a bit. I could have used different syntax.”
The mood or atmosphere of a Vance story is an essential part of his style. “When I start a story, I do have a mood, which is hard to explain – a certain feeling, or an idea. Then when I write the story, I make every aspect of it relevant or appropriate to this mood – which would include landscape, architecture, language, costumes, everything. . . . All the parts of the story should be consistent and in line with the mood, reinforcing the mood.” (But Vance is no H. P. Lovecraft. Upon reflection, he cautions: “Don’t take this mood business too seriously, because it’s just a kind of passing ingredient . . . not the guiding factor at all.”)
Atmosphere – light and color – is also important. “I just can’t get away from it, this intensity of atmosphere, of light,” Vance said. “No bright white sunlight, but a richer, goldener color. It’s got so much color in it that the shadows are colored with these dark, somber hues, dark greens and marunes. That’s where you might see little eyes peeking out at you from behind the harebells.”
Arthur Jean Cox particularly admired Vance’s “abstraction of style and the detachment of viewpoint. This cool and reflective tonality of the prose gives to his writings a flavor such as one finds in no other popular writer I can think of, and the calm impersonality offers a welcome relief from so much else we read. It is, in fact, the very intonation of sanity.”
Michel Basilieres also admired Vance’s detachment of viewpoint. “The magic in Vance’s work isn’t in the spells cast by wizards or the advanced technology of alien intelligences, it’s in how his complete distancing of both the author and the reader from the text renders the story and its invented milieu completely transparent. . . . For those with a taste for it, no other writer can so often and so successfully immerse his readers in the experience of fiction. I think this is why, unlike most genre writers, Vance bears rereading year after year.”
Writer Matt Hughes: “You know what a Vance hero is because you see what he does, especially when he is in conflict with external forces. And he doesn’t spend much time in conflict with himself. Like a lot of twentieth century authors – at least in the English-speaking world – Vance was influenced in my opinion by Hemingway’s revolutionary paring down of his stories to give us only what his characters do, what they say and what they see.”
Damon Knight identified this Vance characteristic as early as Big Planet: “Vance’s characters are defined by what they do. The narrative is cool and detached; it’s possible to believe in the heroic energy and resourcefulness of Claude Glystra, and in his understated romance with the Beaujolain girl, because everything is presented as something that happens, take it or leave it; nothing is explained or apologized for, at least until after the event.”
Michel Basilieres again: “He never enters his characters’ minds, preferring strictly to show and not tell, and he never enters the reader’s consciousness, either, eschewing any authorial intrusion.” Dan Simmons noticed the same distanced quality: “We almost never share the thoughts of a Vance protagonist, only their goals and perceptions. . . .”
Vance explains: “I try to describe what’s going on without using emotive adjectives or adverbs, just using nouns and verbs . . . just detailing the circumstances, without commenting upon them.”
Underscoring Vance’s desire for an arm’s-length relationship with his characters, he has written no stories in the first person. The closest he came was “When the Five Moons Rise”, in which the protagonist’s tale is presented as first-person diary entries set within a third-person narrative frame.
It has been observed more than once that science fiction is a kind of dialogue or tag team affair, writers producing new stories building on the concepts introduced by earlier writers. But Vance stories seem to exist in isolation from evolving genre concepts and fads. Vance once claimed that he hadn’t read any science fiction since the early 1950s. This could well be true, because there is a timeless quality to Vance’s stories, as if he truly were unaware of the changes in SF since that decade.
“Emphyrio . . . could have been published in Astounding in 1940 or 1941 with very little change,” observed Arthur Jean Cox. “There is not much in Vance that would either offend or puzzle a reader of the Golden Age.” Night Lamp, published in 1996, “could have been dropped into Vance's prodigious 1960s output with nary a ripple,” Lawrence Person noted.
Person continued: “The virtues of Vance's work are also the same qualities that make it seem timeless. The focus on elaborate alien and human cultures, a swift-moving plot, competent and sympathetic protagonists, and his arch, mock-archaic authorial voice all wear better than the later work of many of his contemporaries from the 1940s and 50s. This is not to say that Vance's work is modern. For better or worse, everything from New Wave to Cyberpunk has blithely passed him by, leaving his planetary romances essentially unchanged. The only ‘cutting edge’ Vance's work hones these days is stylistic excellence, but when you're as good as Vance is, that's more than enough.”
“Vance seems almost perverse in his disavowal of the modern trends of SF,” in Eric Brown’s estimation. “His characters still communicate by radio and telephone; the science of his spaceflight – along with every other gadget or invention in his novels – is never explained. His characters dress not in the ubiquitous one-piece coveralls of so much stock SF, but in almost medieval garb, lovingly described. Far from being a flaw, the archaic quality of Vance’s work is a strength; it adds to the antiquated feel of his settings, the sense of the timeless history of the expansion of the human race throughout space.”
“When you come right down to it,” wrote Malcolm Edwards, “Vance is an old style pulp writer, who served his apprenticeship in the 1940s in magazines such as Startling Stories. He has survived and prospered in a more sophisticated age – not by abandoning any of the elements of his early material, but by refining and honing them to the point where, when he is impelled by a worthwhile idea, they provide him with a unique and successful set of tools.”
Nor can Vance’s stories be dated by references to postwar scientific discoveries; there are no black holes or lasers or DNA in Vance stories. Don’t look for the words “software” or “nanotechnology” in the latest Vance novel.
“The work of Jack Vance is unique,” writes Eric Brown. “It’s easy to imagine that the lone furrow he ploughs might be alienating to the SF purists for whom science and technology are the only true subject of the genre.”
Descriptive minimalism adds to timelessness: Except for color, shape, and function, technological devices from space ships to ear scrapers are never described in detail, so the SF furniture never announces the decade in which the story was written.
Matt Hughes believes that the key thing in storytelling is not what things are but what they do, and he cites Vance as his model for this approach. “He doesn’t bother with a fanciful explanation of how a device works – the physics of its innards and processes. Instead he shows us what it does, which is all we need because we’re there for the story, not the gizmos.”
In The Face, Gersen rents a “skimmer” to travel to Jamile Wallow. “He jumped into the cockpit, pulled up the cowl, arranged the sunscreen over his head, then took the craft aloft.” That’s all the description Vance allows us.
He is equally sparing in his descriptions of alien creatures. The merlings of Trullion have domed heads and grasp objects with palps; the morphotes of Koryphon are only described indirectly in terms of type (“a beautiful red-ringed bottle-head”) and they swim with a jerking motion. This is all Vance gives his readers to influence their mental imaging of these creatures, which nonetheless have substantial presences in these two novels.
In a letter to one of his publishers, Vance explained his less-is-more approach, specifically regarding the IOUN stones in “Morreion”. “I have purposefully refrained from defining these objects and their uses in overmuch detail. By any such meticulous definition I feel that I both limit them and wipe away some of the gloss of their magic. I like to project hints and allusions into the reader’s mind and allow him to flesh out the concept with his own images; this, in my opinion, creates considerable more impact than if I were to define everything in pedantic and painstaking detail.”
Lawrence Person has summed up the durable quality of Vance’s style: “Fashions come and go in science fiction, but Vance's prose has stood the test of time. For younger readers, the action may be a notch or two less stirring than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs. But reading Burroughs at 38 requires making an effort to ignore all the flaws invisible to a 12 year old, and the battles lose some of their suspense when you already know John Carter isn't going to be eaten by that fearsome white ape. Vance's work has a depth, richness and sophistication that can be enjoyed long after you know how the story ends.”
Like his narrative style, Vance’s dialogue evolved as he mastered his craft. “His later work is characterized by a famous ‘restrained’ or ‘formal’ dialogue style,” notes Paul Rhoads, “but often in his early work there is a prevalence of a less original ‘colloquial’ or ‘vulgar’ style, popular at the time.”
In a discussion of their fellow SF writers, Keith Laumer asked Piers Anthony what he thought about Jack Vance. Anthony said he liked Vance, except for his wooden dialogue. “Not wooden, carved,” Laumer replied.
Ursula LeGuin concurs: “The conversation of his characters is aloof and restrained, very like his own narrative prose: an unusual kind of English, but clear, graceful, and precisely suited to Vance's extraordinary imagination.”
Michel Basilieres noted the same quality: “His dialogue is so direct and uninflected that only from the context can its emotional content be inferred.”
Joe Schwab thinks Vance’s dialogue style enhances even his inhuman characters: “The baleful creatures of Vance’s fantasies share in common the refined speech that is so recognizable in his dialogues. . . . Such exchanges couched in subtle understatement occur between most of Vance’s protagonists. These dignified conversations lend the exotic creatures of these tales a distinctive presence and allure.”
Eric Walker points out that the impact of Vance’s dialogue doesn’t depend on jokes or bon mots: “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 . . . throughout each tale. The effect on the reader is cumulative.”
As already noted, Vance’s first stories were weak in construction and plot, and this reputation has lingered, with decreasing justification, throughout his career. In 1980, Peter Close opined: “Some weaknesses, sadly, seem inherent. Vance will never be famous for his plotting . . . and, ironically enough, his problems in this area are least noticeable when he settles for an elementary plot structure rather than attempting sophistication.”
Russell Letson, 25 years later, proposed that “Vance has always had an uneasy relationship with plot-driven stories and . . . often seems to merely tolerate the puzzles, piracies, revenges, murder mysteries, and unmaskings as the price of getting aboard some ship-like conveyance in order to wander through worlds of wonder, just enjoying the views – and sampling the viands.”
Gene Wolfe proposed, perhaps seriously, that Vance taught himself how to write by trial and error while penning the Dying Earth stories. Turjan of Miir is a wizard who is attempting to create life, just as a writer struggles to create characters that live, and so forth. “In these tales, we not only watch Vance learning his craft, but actually see him wrestling, in story form, with some of the difficulties that beset every new writer of fiction.”
Wolfe cites “Guyal of Sfere” as Vance’s experiment in making short stories longer by adding incident, approaching the length of a novel incrementally, a technique that “signals unmistakably the novels to come.”
Vance applied this basic structural technique in his first short novel, The Five Gold Bands. The protagonist must locate and acquire the five objects that together provide the secret of interstellar propulsion. Vance writes a set-up, adds five linked adventures for the five bands, and finishes with a climax and resolution. (In this case, five episodes are necessary because all five bands must be recovered before the story can end. Later, Vance would use the same approach to build novel series: If there are five Demon Princes, five novels are required to recount their defeat, and if there are four alien races on Tschai, there should be four novels dealing with these races in turn.)
The same approach, adding incidents to extend the basic story, was applied successfully again in Big Planet. However, this novel’s plot does not require a set number of episodes to complete the story. The fact that Vance, and then his editors, could cut the novel from more than 100,000 words to 48,000 without apparent harm demonstrates the essentially sausage-links construction of the story.
The same episodic technique was used in the Cugel the Clever sequences – a potentially unlimited series of short stories and novelettes (think The Fifty Gold Bands), strung like beads on a string, the string being Cugel’s basic quest to return home to Almery and, if at all possible, avenge himself upon Iucounu the Laughing Magician.
This elemental plot form worked for Homer in The Odyssey, and half a century after “Guyal of Sfere” Vance was still using it in Ports of Call, whose title announces that the story is constructed from a series of stops along the interstellar shipping lanes.
Of course, adding incident can easily lead writers into digressions that don’t advance the story. Sheer inventiveness and wit can make these digressions palatable to sympathetic readers, but when carried to excess the story loses momentum and collapses. Vance has admitted that he is sometimes captivated by a stray idea while writing a novel and begins developing it, only to pull back, discard the pages, and put his story back on track.
“Vance has a unique writing style and he ignores many conventions of modern genre novels,” according to L. C. R. Munro. “For some readers this is sheer delight; for others it may be torture. For example, one favorite Vance-ism is frequent digressions. Some of these turn out to be vital plot points, others are just . . . there. Readers who enjoy ephemera and eclectica for its own sake will be well rewarded as Vance has an amazing imagination; readers hoping to get to the ‘action’ may find themselves frustrated.”
Russell Letson perceives two basic types of Vance story, the plot-driven and the picaresque. “If I had to expand on the distinction between the two modes, I would point to the ways that the Demon Princes, Tschai, and Durdane series are pushed by their protagonists' needs to do something, go somewhere, find something. Ports of Call/Lurulu, on the other hand, is (are?) episodic, with the episodes connected not by the will of a single protagonist but by the vagaries of a tramp freighter's cargo destinations. While the problem of Myron's dotty auntie provides a kind of through-line . . . it does not have anything like the unifying force of the quests that run through Emphyrio, The Blue World, or Durdane. It is closer kin to the Dying Earth or Cugel stories – that is, it is picaresque, a tradition in which being episodic is not a bug but a feature.”
Vance is neither unaware of, nor indifferent to, structural concerns. In his introductory notes for The Best of Jack Vance (1976), he wrote that “Ullward’s Retreat” is one of his favorites among his own stories, one reason being that it is “well constructed from a technical standpoint. . . .”
Vance also revealed his awareness of story construction in a passage in The Face (as Eric Walker has pointed out):
“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 drama was ended. The tensions had resolved: the matters at conflict had settled into equilibrium with a ponderous lurching finality.”
Vance’s remark about mystery writer Anne Perry also confirms his awareness of story construction and pacing: “She has a bad habit of fluffing out her work with chapters of dialogue that don’t push the story forward.”
Can Jack Vance plot? He needed about ten years to learn his trade. But Peter Close, while lamenting the construction flaws in many early Vance stories, acknowledged “the meticulous precision” of To Live Forever. From that point onward, it is difficult, or arguably impossible, to point to a Vance story or novel with flagrant plot problems (setting aside the usual cavils about hurried or unsatisfying endings).
In Joanna Russ’s assessment, Emphyrio “describes a perfect curve from beginning to end.” Commenting on the Cadwal Chronicles in the Vance entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Malcolm Edwards and John Clute remark that in this series, Vance has expanded “the planetary-romance idiom into very long books with a sophisticated, newly plot-wise leisureliness which almost fully warrants their length.”
Dan Simmons: “Many critics have suggested that Jack Vance – like many other lyrical writers . . . has trouble with his plots. I would suggest that this is true only in the sense that Vance’s plots are always incidental to the core of his poetry. . . . Jack Vance’s work is not – as is most SF – guided and goaded on by plot.”
Eric Walker has proposed a useful metaphor to explain Vance’s relationship to plot: “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.”
If Vance’s critics have a universal theme, it is that his endings are weak, hurried, contrived, or otherwise unsatisfying.
Richard Tiedman thinks this characteristic is not entirely unconscious and says, regarding To Live Forever: “Perhaps this ending needs to be more fully explicated. . . . Yet this is quite in keeping with Vance’s tendency not to come around full circle, but to leave something unsaid on the verge of accomplishment. We see the same distaste for ending on the tonic, so to speak, in Telek and Gift of Gab.”
In a 1977 interview, Peter Close asked Vance why To Live Forever “falls apart so badly at the end” in improbable instant revolution. Asserting that the plots of subsequent stories also seemed to falter at the end, he invited Vance to comment. Vance responded: “No, I don’t have any particular comment, except that sometimes I write myself into traps. I have to end the story some way or another. I should take much more trouble with my plotting than I do. I think I start writing on the basis of a mood and figure: Oh well, the story will take care of itself. Of course the story doesn’t take care of itself, and halfway through, I start asking myself where is the story going? Sometimes I find that in order to end the story in 60,000-70,000 words, I have to go through some rather undignified antics. Well, I’ll try to do better in future.”
Malcolm Edwards has proposed a broader thesis to explain why, in his view, too many Vance novels or series seem to lose momentum as they progress: “Much of the fascination of reading Vance lies in the baroque embroidery with which he decorates his creations. His time-locked societies develop elaborate, decadent arts, rituals and institutions. Vance devotes great care to describing these, to the extent where one suspects that, for him, the main pleasures are over before he actually starts to write the story. The setting is the main focus of interest (and this may explain why Vance stories all too often begin with the author writing with loving care, but begin to look, well before the end, as if writing has become an unwelcome chore).”
One particular Vancean ending should be noted. Several major works during his middle period end with the protagonist bleak, alienated, without purpose. At the end of The Book of Dreams, Alice Wroke says to Gerson: “You’re so quiet and subdued! You worry me. Are you well?” And Gerson explains: “Quite well. Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done.”
At the conclusion of Emphyrio, Ghyl Tarvoke destroys the fraudulent society of Ambroy, then commands the air car to take him to the Brown Star Inn, not to the home and workshop where he has lived his whole life. At the end of the Durdane saga, Etzwane recalls far places and offers himself as an assistant to Ifness, who is leaving Durdane. Ifness rejects the possibility. Frolitz invites Etzwane to play his khitane, but Etzwane is spiritless. “He looked toward the door, though he knew that Ifness had gone.” Etzwane is marooned, and as a result of his experiences, he is now a stranger in his native land.
As a distinctive stylist, Vance has been relentlessly questioned throughout his career about possible literary influences on his work, something rarely suffered by the likes of Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein. Vance has always denied any direct influences on his work; he has certainly never tried to mimic the style of writers he admires. But from early childhood he was an omnivorous reader and absorbed lessons and inspiration from dozens of sources.
“There were a lot of influences and it would be most difficult to put names to all of them,” he told Marty Halpern. “Robert Louis Stevenson, for one. Golden Book magazine had a fantasy story each month, a wonderful magazine. . . . I loved the Oz books as a child too, but you’ll not see any of those influences in my work.”
Vance readily admits one influence: “P. G. Wodehouse is my God. I think he’s the greatest 20th century writer, but he ran out of gas after the war. His best stories were in the ‘20s.”
Paul Rhoads compares Vance and Wodehouse: “Both hide their large understanding of the human soul under a froth of comedy. . . . Their real similarity lies in their extraordinary sensitivity to words. . . . To them, language is neither a vial of delicate perfume to be wafted artfully about, nor are words just so many bricks to be piled up into stories. Words to them are living personalities; amiable, solemn, refractory or gay which shiver and hop upon their pages like chained animals eager to escape and go their own ways.”
Another writer of Vance’s youth stands with Wodehouse as an exemplar: “There’s also a fellow from the 1920s called Jeffrey Farnol; he wrote adventure stories, he used dialogue with a great deal of care, and was also excellent at it. These two, especially, gave me a goal to work towards; if I could write as good dialogue as Wodehouse and Farnol, I felt as though I was doing something good.”
The appeal of another childhood favorite has already been mentioned: “I loved Edgar Rice Burroughs as a kid – Barsoom!”
Many commentators have suggested the influence of Clark Ashton Smith on Vance. “That’s true,” Vance told Charles Platt. “Smith is one of the people I read when I was a kid. But it only influenced The Dying Earth.” Vance read many of Smith’s stories in Weird Tales as a child. He rates Smith as “one of the generative geniuses of fantasy. . . . When I wrote my first fantasies, I was no longer aware of Smith – it had sunk so far into my subconscious. But when it was pointed out to me, I could very readily see the influence.”
Dunsany also made an early impression, but Vance changed his mind as his own writing style matured: “I was much fonder of Lord Dunsany as a young man than I am now. Now I think he’s over-written, overripe, over-emotional, over-sentimental. But when I first read him, he made a big impact.”
Humor is so pervasive in Jack Vance’s novels that his few “dark” novels such as Emphyrio and Night Lamp stand out in contrast.
In his critique of The Eyes of the Overworld, Tiedman remarks: “Vance has not been given his due as a humorist; indeed, he seems to be one of the funniest writers alive, in or out of the genre. . . .”
In her essay "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" Ursula K. Le Guin commented upon Vance's humorous prose: “And while we are on the subject of humor, Jack Vance must be mentioned, though his humor is so quiet you can miss it if you blink….”
Vance usually has shunned overt messages in his fiction. “I have done it a couple of times,” he told Charles Platt. In The Gray Prince, Vance responded to the complaints of tribes or peoples who have been displaced from ancestral lands, positing that these peoples had displaced others in their turn – “a very simple fact, which everybody knows but doesn’t want to admit” – so that, to return land to their previous owners, justice would require going back to the first inhabitants.
In Wyst: Alastor 1716, “the theme was even less inflammatory, in fact it was so trivial as to be trite. Essentially, I said that socialism, the welfare state, is debilitating. That is such a trite thing to write a book about. . . . But the idea of this very, very large welfare system carried to extremes had such grand possibilities for picturesque episodes that I decided to go ahead with it.”
[To come: comments on “Assault on a City” (urban subjectivity) and “The Murthe” (gender politics)]
Paul Rhoads has proposed that the Cadwal Chronicles is another case of “polemical” fiction: “Vance’s political philosophy is nowhere more evident than in this book. . . . What drives this drama, when all else is stripped away, is the problem of private property; a venerable problem of political philosophy. . . . Because Vance’s work is considered SF, and because the majority of SF readers don’t even bother with him, the publication of Cadwal went unnoticed in the world at large. But this book, in its own register, has the stature of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and would have ignited extreme passions across the political spectrum if it had been written by a well-read author.”
Perhaps the only consistent ideology in Vance’s fiction may be a conviction that neither individuals nor societies can remain frozen, that at critical points they must adapt to changing circumstances. Vance protagonists are often opposed by characters who, according to Lawrence Person, “share a deadly penchant for self-delusion, for seeing the world not as it is, but as they wish it were. Jack Vance's protagonists are not always smarter than their opponents (though frequently they are), but they always seem to see the world more clearly, peering past the veils of taboo and custom to the heart of the matter. It is this clarity, both rational and moral, that allows them to triumph over long odds.”
From the 1940s through the early 1980s, Vance wrote his first-draft manuscripts by hand, using different colored inks for revisions or simply to suit the mood of different scenes and including little sketches, maps, and doodles. Norma converted these “ornately illegible” manuscripts (in Tim Underwood’s words) into clean typescripts, which Vance then revised and edited again.
Vance began writing in the Merchant Marine, where he would sit on deck with a clipboard on his knee, and this remained his preferred mode of composition for the next four decades, whether at home, on the beach in Tahiti, or in a houseboat in Kashmir.
In the mid-1980s Vance jumped from the 19th century to the 21st, as Robert Silverberg described it, and converted from pen and paper to a computer with word-processing software. Suldrun’s Garden (1983) may have been the last novel written entirely in longhand. The Green Pearl (1985) was written at least in part on the word processor, Araminta Station (1987) exists only as a digital file. At the age of 70, Vance was an enthusiastic convert to word processing and was soon urging Poul Anderson to make the change.
While not as portable as his customary clipboard, Vance’s computer also traveled with him. When Vance was Guest of Honor at the World SF Convention in Orlando in 1992, he and Norma crossed the continent in a Carmen Ghia convertible loaded with baggage. When they stopped in New Orleans, they set up the computer in the hotel room and Vance got some work done, his nose almost pressing against the monitor.
As time passed, Vance’s word-processing system was progressively upgraded to compensate for his failing eyesight, for example by attaching little projections to the character keys to assist navigation. As his vision continued to dim, Vance’s writing workstation included large-font software projecting 32-character lines onto a 30-inch monitor and, finally, a speech synthesizer to read back his words in a peculiar little robotic voice.
Needless to say, blindness slowed Vance’s writing. “Before, I could read up and down the page and get a sense of the flow of the material; now, with my eyes out, I have to try to pick out the flow of the stuff via what the voice tells me. I have to go back and forth, make sure that it isn’t just a jumble of disconnected phrases. I have to do it via my ears, and go back and forth a sentence or two. If I’m really audacious, I go back several sentences.”
Though writing had become such a tedious and frustrating process, “I’m not bellyaching too much. I just bellyache a little bit.”
Vance completed the first draft of his latest work, Lurulu, in early 2003 at the age of 86. The writing had progressed slowly, and his editors at Tor despaired of seeing the book finished. But through all the difficulties, Vance kept writing because, as he said, it’s what he does. Wife Norma and son John provided essential support, John processing the files for such things as margins and formatting; Norma, as always, reading the text for meaning, raising questions and calling attention to inconsistencies.
“Blindness has slowed Jack’s work but in general he remains philosophical about the difficulties,” John reported. “Frequent computer crashes and occasional loss of files have definitely caused moments of frustration, not to say panic; fortunately nothing has ever been irretrievably lost thanks to a rigorous backup procedure and the Unerase command.”
The invisible man of SF
In the early decades of his career, Vance avoided talking about himself or his writing in the belief that knowledge of the writer might predispose a reader’s response to the work. “Professionally, I don’t care to make my living through my personality,” he explained to Charles Platt. He was particularly repelled by the thought of appearing on the dust jacket of a book in a posed photograph, complete with obligatory cat or guitar. (But in 2000 it happened; see the “author with banjo” photo in Jack Vance, Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography.)
But he was no recluse and enjoyed meeting people, even his readers. In 1967, Guy Lillian III, then a freshman at Berkeley, phoned Vance and asked if he could come over for a visit. Vance agreed. When Lillian arrived, he met the author from the bottom up, as Vance descended a ladder. He was, as usual, working on his house, but he spared an hour to chat with this young fan and autograph a book. (As Lillian was leaving, Vance apologized if he had sounded too weird or too stuffy. Lillian remarked that it was a popular misconception that SF writers were weird. Vance grinned. “Well,” he said, “some of them are.”)
When David Alexander learned that Vance was a fellow Bay Area resident, “with some trepidation I called Jack and asked if I could meet him. He said that I could, provided that I did not talk to him about writing.” This disinclination to talk shop was attested by friend and fellow SF/F writer Poul Anderson, who recalled that during their close association over several decades, Vance almost never discussed writing.
In 1987, Joe Bergeron entered into correspondence with Vance and was invited to stay at the Vance home whenever he was in the Bay Area. After a long talk and an excellent dinner, he slept over in the downstairs guest room: “I spent the night with their cat, who was old, fat, and companionable.”
Vance did not merit his reputation as “the invisible man of science fiction”. He was a guest of honor at more than ten conventions, from Westercon in 1962 to Marcon in 2003, including the 1980 World Fantasy Convention and the 1992 World SF Convention, and in locations spanning the globe from Sweden to Australia. In the later decades of his career he also gave an increasing number of interviews, going so far as to publish an eight-page autobiographical sketch in 2000. In 2003, he answered questions about his life and works submitted by fans on the Jack Vance Message Board (at least, those questions that sparked his interest).
An SF Writer?
Vance disavows the science fiction label and claims that he hasn’t read any SF since the 1950s. “My stories deal with the development of humanity in various environments. I don’t like the word ‘science fiction.’ I like stories about people finding themselves in varied circumstances, and how those circumstances modify their ideas.” But when those circumstances arise in the far future of humanity’s interstellar diaspora, it’s impossible to assign any label other than science fiction.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be so damned ticklish, or vain, or whatever it is. I should bite the bullet and say, ‘All right, Vance, everybody thinks you’re a science fiction writer, you might as well accept it.’ That’s probably the sensible thing to do. But the vanity is that I just don’t want to be in the same leaking rowboat as Star Trek.”
Vance is, of course, a superlative science fiction writer. He can deny the label by adopting a constricted definition of SF as “gadget stories” and “that Star Trek stuff.” But finicky as he may be with definitions, he has not refused the top awards of the World Science Fiction Convention (Hugo) and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (Nebula). He traveled halfway across the continent to receive his well-deserved and long-delayed SFWA Grand Master recognition in 1997.
Arthur Jean Cox : “In most highly regarded science fiction, the theoretical element is very strong: it is decisive in determining the events of the plot. But it seldom does in Vance’s fiction. While there are strong thematic motifs and more ideas in his work than generally are recognized, he usually tells a story motivated by something other than a thesis. The result is science fiction, however.”
The first critical appreciation of Vance was Richard Tiedman’s 1965 monograph, Jack Vance: Science Fiction Stylist, published as a mimeographed booklet by Robert and Juanita Coulson in 1965. Tiedman is remarkably perceptive in spotting all of Vance’s literary virtues in the writer’s early stories and novels without foreknowledge of the many superior works to come.
Tiedman’s pioneer study was followed by three full-blown books of essays, Jack Vance (Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller, ed., Writers of the 21st Century Series, Taplinger, 1980), Demon Prince: The Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (Jack Rawlins, Borgo Press 1986), and Jack Vance, Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography (A. E. Cunningham, ed., The British Library, 2000). The heterogeneous collection of award-winning writers who contributed to these volumes demonstrates the broad and deep appreciation for Vance in the professional community: Poul Anderson, Terry Dowling, Harlan Ellison, David Langford, Robert Silverberg, Dan Simmons, Norman Spinrad, Gene Wolfe.
Tiedman’s 1965 essay was accompanied by a bibliography by Robert Briney. The first major bibliography of Vance’ s works was Fantasms, A Bibliography of the Literature of Jack Vance, prepared by Daniel J. H. Levack and Tim Underwood and published by Underwood/Miller in 1978 in both paper and hardcover. The goal was to prepare a complete listing of all Vance’s works published in English, but numerous titles in other languages are included. This compilation is long out of date but remains of interest because it includes black and white reproductions of many Vance book and magazine covers. The main listings are alphabetical with a supporting list of titles by year of publication.
The bible of Vance bibliography is now The Work of Jack Vance, Jerry Hewett and Daryl F. Mallett, Borgo Press, 1994. The listings are comprehensive and compile Vance’s works in all languages. Detailed notes on bindings, artists, publication information, cover price, and pagination help to distinguish various editions and printings of the same title. There are also numerous supplementary listings, including published reviews of each novel, nonfiction by Vance (mostly introductions and forewords), essays and critiques about Vance, awards received, etc. Two unique items in this volume are a chronological sketch of Vance’s life, schooling, travels, and writing career contributed by Norma Vance and an outline for an unpublished mystery novel. In such a massive work, the 24-page index is invaluable.
[To come: From Ahulph to Zipangote [U-M]; Mellen, Vance Encyclopedia]
With the possible exceptions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard, Vance may be the SF/F writer with the most fanzines dedicated to his works. These have included The Many Worlds of Jack Vance, Robert Offutt editor, two issues 1977-78; Honor to Finuka, Kurt Cockrum editor, four issues, 1979-80; Cosmopolis, George Mina editor, one issue, 1988; The Vance Phile, Greg Parmentier editor, seven issues, 1993-96; Cosmopolis, the official journal of the Vance Integral Edition project, various editors, more than 50 electronic issues, 2000-05; and Extant, Paul Rhoads editor, more than nine issues, 2005-xx.
THE VIE [incomplete]
Few living SF authors (perhaps only H. G. Wells, 1927) have been honored with publication of a complete set of their works in a single homogeneous edition. Vance is certainly unique in having this tribute performed by his admiring readers at their own expense.
[The climactic fan project. International. Computer/Internet enabled.]
Aside from cleaning up typos, transposed lines, and other errata, the VIE editors found and restored numerous cases of pointless copyediting, text deletions, and worst of all, editorial additions to Vance’s original texts. For example, in the case of Pao, Vance himself made different cuts in the original manuscript at the request of his magazine and book editors; the VIE was able to merge the two published versions, restoring the novel more nearly to Vance’s full text, otherwise lost because the manuscript is no longer available.
[Also restored Vance’s preferred titles (Dying Earth, To Live Forever, Showboat World, et al., special case of The Wankh.]
[Cosmopolis, entirely electronic, 700 readers around the world, far surpassing the circulation of any previous Vance fanzine and demonstrating the reach of the Internet.]
[The restored VIE texts began to appear in commercial editions of Vance works even before the second half of the VIE volumes were published. E-books, Fictionwise, Lyonesse; ibooks: Gray Prince, Maske: Thaery, Dragon Masters/Last Castle, To Live Forever, The Languages of Pao, Emphyrio. . . . New French translations also based on VIE.]
[ Part One ]