The New York Times Magazine has a long, appreciative article on Jack Vance, which seems to me to be more or less exactly right on his virtues (his wonderful prose, most especially his characters’ ornate conversational style, which confects a froth of cupidity, amour-propre and sundry other ignoble motives into spun-sugar extravagances of rococo diction), while touching on some, at least of his flaws (poor ability to plot; I would also note his difficulties in creating complex characters, especially female ones). The NYT piece has a nice illustration of the former from Eyes of the Overworld, describing a conversation between Cugel, whose efforts to become a vendor of purportedly magical artifacts have proved unavailing, and the far more successful proprietor of the neighboring booth, who possesses many small items of great value.
“ ‘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.’ ”
Vance’s description of the foppish Ivanello, whose facial expressions run “the somewhat limited gamut between amused indifference and easy condescension,” is shorter, but has some of the same flavor.
One topic that the piece’s author doesn’t touch on is Vance’s sociological imagination, which I’ve always admired. He has a particular interest in status relations – the society of his late novel, Night Lamp, where everyone strives to become members of clubs of ever-increasing exclusivity, culminating in the Clam Muffins who are at the top of the social pyramid, is described in especially droll terms. But the village in Cugel’s Saga, where the men sit all day on pillars to soak up the purportedly healing fluxes of the upper atmosphere, while paying assiduous attention to which of them has the highest pillar, is a very nice discussion of the relative nature of status games (Cugel discerns that they don’t pay any attention to the absolute height of their pillars and uses this to bilk them). One of the novels in the Planet of Adventure series (sadly, I don’t think it is the gloriously named ‘Servants of the Wankh’) has a set-piece that anticipates Mancur Olson on the distinction between stationary and roving bandits. I’ve wanted for years to write a short piece on the sociology of Jack Vance (and now that I have tenure can perhaps do the occasional thing for pure fun). Anyone have suggestions for other sociologically rich parts of the Vance corpus?