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).



Anderson 05.29.13 at 9:13 pm

I spent a good bit of time in high school & college haunting used-book stores, looking for more Vance titles, because his style was addictive & no one else wrote like him. He wrote enough wonderful books to make five authors’ reputations.


casino implosion 05.29.13 at 9:26 pm

The finest American fantasy writer. RIP, Jack Vance.


David 05.29.13 at 10:18 pm

Kind and well deserved words, Henry.


RSA 05.29.13 at 11:13 pm

@1: Matt Hughes has done a remarkable job of capturing the style and atmosphere of Vance’s Gaean Reach novels. Hughes’s Template: A Novel of the Archonate may be the best example, or his Henghis Hapthorn novels. Vance had a much larger range than just those novels, of course.


Dr. Hilarius 05.29.13 at 11:46 pm

What a sad coincidence. Dare I hope there is an unpublished novel or two in the pipeline? His books are among the few that I enjoy re-reading. You’re right, his plots are often of little consequence, it’s the language. Sometimes he reads like a comedy of manners pretending to be space opera.


Anderson 05.29.13 at 11:49 pm

5: he is said to have revered Wodehouse, which fits.


Henry Farrell 05.29.13 at 11:50 pm

I’m not greatly impressed by Hughes’ books myself – to use a favorite Vancean word, I find them insipid. Michael Shea’s authorized alternative sequel to _The Eyes of the Overworld_ has its moments, but is more Shea than Vance (and _Nifft the Lean_, which escapes from Vance’s shadow into its own understanding of the grotesque is considerably better). There were some perfectly decent stories in the Vance tribute anthology of a couple of years ago, but to me they served mostly to demonstrate that the master is more or less inimitable. The best ersatz-Vance I’m aware of is Paula Volsky’s _The Grand Ellipse_, which is not the real thing, but is nonetheless very good.


Henry Farrell 05.29.13 at 11:53 pm

I had thought of Wodehouse as a point of comparison. They’re both wonderful prose stylists, although Wodehouse was a better plotter (the best of the Blandings novels are marvellous apparatuses).


Sam Dodsworth 05.30.13 at 12:22 am

I’d suggest Ernest Bramah’s “Kai Lung” stories as a strong influence, if anyone knows them? The mannered-ironic style is very Vancian.


Anderson 05.30.13 at 12:25 am

Lovecraft fares much better in his imitators, because they can work off his ideas, which are fascinating, while improving on his prose, which is awful. (I read The Dunwich Horror aloud and found it painful not to be able to skim.) Sort of opposite to Vance.

… Re Wodehouse and plot:

‘In 1932, Wodehouse grumbled about a review by J. B. Priestley, who “called attention to the thing I try to hush up,—viz., that I have only got one plot and produce it once a year with variations.”’


bob mcmanus 05.30.13 at 12:43 am

mannered-ironic style

R.A. Lafferty, of course.

“Gilford Gadberry had a contempt for dawns badly
done. He knew how blatant and stylized the outdoor
world can be in its pristine moments: the
contrived shagginess of grass, the stupidity of
trees, the falsity of flowers, the oafishness of
the birds and their inept melody.”

Even the curmudgeonly conservatism, though I think Vance’s was a superficial cynicism while RAL’s was a profound Catholicism.


NickT 05.30.13 at 2:46 am

[aeiou] “As the discussion in comments below makes clear, his fiction had problems, including attitudes towards women and gay people that might most kindly be described as antediluvian.”

No, it doesn’t. It does make clear that you either don’t read the damn comments or chose to side with the shallow and politically correct idiots who couldn’t be bothered to read Vance and think about what they were reading.


Anderson 05.30.13 at 3:26 am

“Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII,” whom I think is intended obviously as a surrogate for the author, is quoted thus in The Star King:

“Then there are those who, like the author, ensconce themselves on a thunderous crag of omniscience, and with protestations of humility which are either unconvincing or totally absent, assume the obligation of appraisal, commendation, derogation or denunciation of their contemporaries. Still, by and large it is an easier job than digging a ditch.”

Perhaps that is Vance’s estimate of his function as an author?


Chris Grealy 05.30.13 at 3:49 am

I was a keen reader of Jack Vance in the 70s and 80s, when paperbacks were affordable. Yet it’s only now, after his death, that I read that his fiction had “problems” and that he was un-PC. I can only say it didn’t show through his writing at the time…..my memories of him will be unaffected.
Bye Mr Vance.


Dennis Sheridan 05.30.13 at 6:33 am

I’m 69 years old and have been an ardent admirer and collector of Vance since I was 12 years old. The comment above about him being misogynist or homophobic is slanderous and ignorant in the extreme. It betrays a complete ignorance of the culture in America at the time as well as a complete ignorance of his work. You cannot point to a single sentence in any of Vance’s work that shows any homophobic beliefs. The references to the viewpoints and relationships between men and women are all within the viewpoints of the editors and the demands of the American culture at the time of publication. A comparison of his work in the 50’s and the 90’s demonstrate he was cognizant of the deplorable treatment of women as individuals and their perception of second class citizens. T whmvr wrt sch dtc sttmnts, y ppl r bnth cntmpt.


Sancho 05.30.13 at 8:03 am

It’s disappointing that the discussion of Vance’s legacy at CT hasn’t mentioned his profound influence over the Dungeons & Dragons game.

D&D itself set the template for the explosion of sword & sorcery computer games from Legends of Zelda to World of Warcraft, defined the fantasy genre to a large extent, and without its influence, programs like Game of Thrones probably wouldn’t exist in this era.

Specifically, the written rules of D&D concerning magic are considered “Vancian”, in that users of magic don’t wave a wand Harry Potter style, but must retain a squirming, semi-conscious formula in their head to eventually release as a supernatural effect.

Vance’s style and work is evident in other aspects of D&D, and I suspect that his work would be even more under-appreciated if not for being cited by Gygax and Arneson.


Anderson 05.30.13 at 8:48 am

“You cannot point to a single sentence in any of Vance’s work that shows any homophobic beliefs. ”

Now that’s just silly. Name one sympathetically portrayed gay or bisexual character in Vance. It’s always a vice with which to blacken a villain further.


Henry 05.30.13 at 11:15 am

A reminder to aspiring members of our community that we have comment rules addressing, among other topics, the ways in which you interact with others in these here comments sections. Those who do not abide by those rules are liable to find their comments disemvowelled or deleted wholesale, at the management’s discretion.


David 05.30.13 at 11:50 am

I strongly disagree that Vance was all about style, or mostly about style.


bob mcmanus 05.30.13 at 12:16 pm

1) Lafferty and Vance are maybe more about contrast than comparison. Lafferty, in his Oklahoma tall-tale tradition, tends to use pretty ordinary language in an extraordinary and distancing way.

2) But there is another writer, Clark Ashton Smith, famous for his extreme vocabulary and morbid sensibility, who is very interesting for Vance study. Ashton Smith was a generation preceding Vance, lived one hundred miles away in Auburn, published most of his best work around 1930 in Weird Tales that Vance admitted reading. Vance would have been a teenager. Since Ashton Smith did have some crossover literary significance from his early poetic work in George Sterling’s circle, he might even have been mentioned at Berkeley when Vance was attending.

And Smith’s Zothique and Poseidonis stories are the very nearest to the Dying Earth. Vance went way beyond Smith’s very limited but intense imagination.

3) I always knew or felt when reading, that Jack Vance was a very conservative, pessimistic, even nihilistic writer, perhaps the most extreme and most interesting of the post-war California right-SF community*: Heinlein, Herbert, Poul Anderson. My guess is that Vance was too pessimistic to bother overtly expressing his politics or Weltzschmerz, but I found him unbearably sad and am surprised so many liberals appreciate him.

California literary history rocks. You could also put Robinson Jeffers, Steinbeck, Jack London as possible regional influences on Vance. Much more interesting, politically, than the Northeast Coast.


Dr. Hilarius 05.30.13 at 3:54 pm

Vance shares a viewpoint with Grimm’s Tales (the original dark ones); terrible things happen for no rational reason in a world indifferent to human feelings. Characters who recognize that reality can sometimes avoid severe consequences. Those who reject this reality, and choose to behave as if the world conforms to their norms, often suffer bad outcomes. Vance shows little sympathy for the latter. He respects the action of natural selection.

The many worlds of Alastor illustrate the varieties of normative human conduct. It may seem foreign, depraved, or irrational but there it is. His protagonists can escape it, go along with it or outwit it by analysis and cleverness, but never deny it. In accepting, without moral judgment, these varieties of social conduct, Vance was a multiculturalist well ahead of his time.


mookie 05.31.13 at 1:23 am

I’ve only read the Tales of the Dying Earth collection, but I enjoyed it. Any recommendations on where to start branching out?
I second Henry Farrell’s Michael Shea recommendation. Nifft the Lean is fantastic.


David 05.31.13 at 3:09 am

[aeiou] Frankly, Mookie, I don’t think you can go wrong with any Vance Book. He was that entertaining. Don’t even get me started on the whole PC thing. People here seem not to realize that the whole “that’s not PC” thing was a parody on the part of the sensible left in the early seventies to ludicrous exercises in thought control. At the risk of disinvoweling, I’ll paraphrase Sam in Burn Notice : you know academics, a bunch of bitchy little girls. I’d swear that half the people here who claim to like Vance don’t.


GeoX 05.31.13 at 3:20 am

Indeed, David: liking an author means steadfastly refusing to critically engage with his work and dismissing any possible concerns as the increasingly-meaningless “political correctness.” REAL fans know that kneejerk, willful myopia is the best way to respect a writer and his work.


David 05.31.13 at 3:29 am

Go ahead, GeoX, make my point. Btw, too many Davids here. I’ll be Kid


Bruce Baugh 05.31.13 at 8:05 am

How to be a fan of problematic things, perennially useful.

Mookie, my own recommendation would be for the Demon Princes series, a five-volume science fiction series with our hero on a mission of revenge against the five masterminds of the attack that devastated the hero’s home when he was a child. It’s in print, including in a Kindle omnibus. There are a lot of echoes of Dumas in it, and a wide variety of schemes and capers, and a lot about the toll revenge takes. As with the Dying Earth stories, some parts are hilarious, some tragic.

There’s also “The Last Castle”, a novella also for sale as a stand-alone lil’ volume, which includes early on about the perfect epitaph for Vance:

In the end, death came uniformly to all, and all extracted as much satisfaction from their dying as this essentially graceless process could afford.

It’s about what happens when the alien race future humanity has enslaved and used for centuries rises up. It had – has – a powerful impact on my moral imagination, with a sense of the terrible costs of both of servitude and of rulership, and how even desirable change can carry its own terrible costs.


Sancho 05.31.13 at 9:58 am


I had to push my way through Last Castle, and the Demon Princes is the only Vance series I put down out of boredom. In no way do I consider my tastes superior, but it just goes to show.

I loved the Cugel series because it reinvigorated my long-atrophied appreciation of the fantasy genre, but as a general rule, short stories by fantasy/sci-fi authors are often the tastiest morsels, so get thee a Vance collection.

Also, the Moon Moth graphic novel is great.


Rich Puchalsky 05.31.13 at 12:01 pm

Here are my recommendations:

1. The Lyonesse series. I don’t think that you’ll miss anything critical by starting with The Green Pearl, the second book in the series, which I think is a good deal better than the first book. Then go on to read Madouc, and back to read Lyonesse / Suldrun’s Garden if you want more.

2. The Cadwal Chronicles. The best, I think, of his SF series.

3. The Dying Earth. I’d start with the collection of stories rather than The Eyes of the Overworld / Cugel’s Saga, because you’ll probably really like the latter work or really not.


Chris Williams 05.31.13 at 12:34 pm

My Vance recommendation list has _Showboat World_ at the top of it – though the companion work _Big Planet_ fizzles out towards the end. I’d put the ‘Durdane’ books (_The Anome_,_The Brave Free Men_, _The Asutra_) in the top ten as well, since Gastel Etzwane is the classic Vancian ‘driven young man’*, and the format, of a continent full of cantons, was the right size to explore in the trilogy.

*I’m sure I got this phrase from someone else’s review, but I can’t remember whose: the only online ref I can find is to me using it on a 1999 thread on rasfw which might also be useful for people looking for Vance recommendations: https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en-GB&fromgroups#!topic/rec.arts.sf.written/af9VxAuYifA. Also on that thread you can find Quiggin’s Bane, Doug Muir.


Anderson 05.31.13 at 2:05 pm

“has _Showboat World_ at the top of it”

That moment right after the guy’s head is lopped off in the play is one of my favorite Vance moments ever. (Agree that “Big Planet” is overrated.)

28: there is sooooo much good stuff in “Suldrun’s Garden.”

Murgen seemed to smile. “I will cite first, the Wastes of Falax; second,
the Flesh Cape of Miscus; third, the Totness Squalings. Reflect; then go
your way, and be grateful for my restraint.”


Will McLean 05.31.13 at 2:17 pm

This site advises to start at his good books rather than his very best, so you have his best to look forward to:



Bruce Baugh 05.31.13 at 9:50 pm

Sancho: Tastes vary, I hear. :)


David 06.01.13 at 12:17 am

Nice find, Will McLean. I’ve long been partial to The Demon Princes, in part due to having to wait over a decade for the final two. The middle book is my favorite.


Pierce Timberlake 06.01.13 at 4:45 am

When once asked in an interview about his politics, specifically how he stood between political Left and Right, Jack Vance answered, “Between and above.” Having read his books most of my life, I think his answer was accurate. When Vance presented various character types, he was adept at adopting the tone and mindset appropriate for that character. It requires some subtlety to differentiate between a writer’s views and those of his characters. Adding to this challenge, there is an unfortunate but well-established tendency for commenters to read into others the issues that most engage them — whether or not they’re really there. To put it more directly: I think Henry only partially gets Jack Vance.


Ajax Plunkett 06.01.13 at 7:45 am

As American fantasists go Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber are considered the best hands down. According to Michael Moorcock.

Vance also was the only author I can think of to win a Hugo and an Edgar award for best novel ( 40,000 or more words ).

I’m not sure about his 3 or so writing weaknesses mentioned here. He did have a tendency for fey like young woman but there was some diversity. Read To Live Forever.

Limited plot devices is subjective and doesn’t feel like a substantial criticism.

As for his supposed homophobia?

Is it possible for a writer of creative fiction who is left wing or conservative in some degree to write characters as gay ( or a minority or female etc. ) in the position of being the antagonist ( villain ) in a work of fiction and not be themselves homophobic? Or racist? Or etc.

Vance wrote over 50 novels. How often did this occur?


Chris Williams 06.01.13 at 1:00 pm

I can’t think of a single positive gay character in any of Vance’s work. But hey, he was born in 1916 (though many of his books’ blurbs say 1920…), so I’m not really expecting to find any. On the one hand, it’s not something I’d condemn him for, on the other, it’s entirely legitimate for his fans, including obsessive fans like me, to point this out.


James Gary 06.01.13 at 7:18 pm

The only Vance characters I can think of offhand who are explicitly identified as gay (or at least bisexual) are Tamurello and Carfilhiot (from the Lyonesse series), and they are definitely evil.

It’s obviously only my opinion, but reading the books I’ve never gotten the sense that Vance was passing judgment on homosexuality with those two –it seems more to me that he used their romance as a way to justify a close political alliance between two characters that otherwise wouldn’t have much in the way of common interest.


David 06.02.13 at 3:53 am

I see that the moderator has made my point more eloquently than I could.

I s tht th mdrtr hs md m pnt mr elqntl thn I cld.

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