Jack Vance Has Died

by Henry Farrell on May 29, 2013

Locus has a “short obituary here”:http://www.locusmag.com/News/2013/05/jack-vance-1916-2013/. As the “discussion”:https://crookedtimber.org/2013/05/28/the-sociology-of-jack-vance/comment-page-1/ in comments below makes clear, his fiction had problems, including attitudes towards women and gay people that might most kindly be described as antediluvian. Still, his prose style was gorgeous, distinctive and exact. He had a profound influence on the genres of science fiction and fantasy (Gene Wolfe is perhaps his most obvious heir, even if he took Vance’s ideas in directions of his own). Yet if I were to compare him to someone, I’d look not to another f/sf author but to Edward Gibbon, another author who combined reactionary politics with a dash of iconoclasm. I can’t help but think that Vance had read Gibbon and been shaped by him. Vance’s particular sort of sociological curiosity, his lovely long sentences in which structural complexity is used deliberately to convey irony and ambiguity, and his uncanny ability to choose precisely the _right words_ from a rich and idiosyncratic vocabulary, have no modern analogue.

You don’t read Vance for the politics, or for the plot (which was usually either slapdashly cobbled together from standard parts or an out-and-out picaresque). You read him for the language – the magisterial cadences of an Augustan, miraculously transported to the modern era and become a pulp writer, describing starmenters, Ioun stones and Demon Princes. His body of work is extensive. One place to start is his last really good book, _Night Lamp_, a standalone that nicely conveys his strengths, while being more gentle in its politics than some of his other work. The society described in the first half of the book (including a wonderful setpiece around a disastrous academic conference) is a lovely and funny sociological fantasia. As already said, I’ll be publishing several posts on Vance that I had already planned over the next few months (that this should start just after his death is an accident entire – I’ve been meaning to do this for years, and was finally prompted to get up off my arse by a conversation last weekend with a friend who had read the draft versions and asked what I planned to do with them).