Recently, I googled Jack Vance and got back in excess of a quarter of a million hits. That’s more than Margaret Atwood, Jorge Luis Borges, Elmore Leonard or Gustave Flaubert. It’s a curious thing that such a beloved writer, with such a devoted audience, should be so unknown to the general public. And despite his huge popularity within the science-fiction genre, he’s not usually mentioned as one of its important figures. That’s bound to change when someone finally notices how many other writers, over the years, have paid tribute to him, either by imitation or declaration, as I’m doing now.
Vance is one of the few writers I read in my youth whose work still gives me pleasure. He’s known primarily as a stylist, and that’s a pretty rare thing in science fiction, where what’s usually expected of writers is that they deliver by Tuesday and include some action on the page. Not that you don’t get a lot of action in Vance’s books. In fact, most of them are straightforward adventure plots, with little padding. Sometimes he uses the same basic scenario over and over: the rightful heir to the throne or family fortune must reclaim it; one or more space travellers are stranded on an alien planet and must cross the entire surface to reach safety or rescue; revenge must be taken.
My interest in these books isn’t the originality of the stories, it’s the inventiveness of the variations. Few imaginative writers have been able to match Jack Vance for sheer exoticism. He’s a master at inventing bizarre customs and practices, flora and fauna, languages and names. The only writer I can think of outside the genre with whom to compare him in this respect is the Italo Calvino of Cosmicomics. Vance combines an incredibly rich and colourful surface with a precise, concise style that’s so free of extraneous words it’s practically blunt. His dialogue is so direct and uninflected that only from the context can its emotional content be inferred. 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. (The exception is in the few cases where he uses a device later taken up by postmodern writers: footnotes. Yet even these are brief, matter-of-fact citations that bear directly on the story, and he wastes no time in returning to the action.)
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. This is what his fans refer to as his voice, and what we love him for. 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. I haven’t yet worked my way through his entire output because I can’t bear to exhaust it. And some of his books keep calling me back: The Eyes of the Overworld, The Dying Earth and The Last Castle are all favourites.
Vance’s craftsmanship operates on more than just the story level. He’s got a respect for the work. In the 1960s, he contracted for a five-volume series known as The Demon Princes. After writing Star King, The Palace of Love and The Killing Machine, he broke off work on the saga until he was satisfied that he wasn’t merely petering out, repeating himself. Over a decade later, he returned with The Book of Dreams and The Face. The result? One of the few science fiction series that actually ends as strongly as it began.
Often the virtues of his work aren’t apparent on first reading, but something about the story lingers and invites me to return. A second reading reveals not hidden structural or metaphorical depths, but a complete lucidity despite a florid vocabulary and a simplicity of organization that resists any criticism. The stories are solid, the characters stand only for themselves, no deus ex machina is hauled in to conclude matters, no moral is forced upon us. What’s left? Revenge, greed, lust, gluttony, all swirling around, scrambling for supremacy—and a supremely satiric irony that descends from Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Anatole France, James Branch Cabell, Ernest Bramah and P. G. Wodehouse.
Vance is often at his best when in picaresque mode, as he is in the stories of Cugel the Clever (The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga), in which a completely self-centred rogue not only gets what he schemes for, but pays for it too. In moving Cugel across a large landscape, presenting new dangers and opportunities at every town or way station (some that help, others that hinder in unexpected ways), these stories remind me of the novels of Denis Diderot. It’s as if Jacques the Fatalist had more than a touch of Rameau’s Nephew about him—and I imagine Vance would delight in reading The Indiscreet Jewels.
With over fifty years of work behind him, and still writing in his eighties despite blindness, it would be impossible to list all the highlights of his career. Besides, the attempt would make this a mere list—something you can find on any number of websites. (One of my favourites is the Jack Vance Archive. Although it hasn’t been updated in quite a while, it’s got a large bibliography and a huge collection of scanned book covers.) It’s a shame that many of the first, cheap, mass-market editions of his work suffered from atrocious editing practices—arbitrary cuts to fit preordained lengths, sloppy copyediting—because they’re often the ones with the best covers. Recent publishers have been more respectful of the author and his manuscripts, and some terrific books are coming back into print in restored editions, including The Dragon Masters, The Languages of Pao and The Gray Prince. Perhaps it’s simply middle-aged nostalgia, but, while all are prime Vance, they just don’t look as appealing to me. But don’t let that stop you from a completely unique reading experience.
Tight plotting, attention to detail, an exquisite style, real human characters, an all-consuming atmosphere, subdued humour and a mature viewpoint—these are all ingredients of real literature. I wish more mainstream writers were this good
Michel Basilières, a novelist and new father based in Toronto, is the author of Black Bird. Basilières' column on alternative literature, The Outer Edge, appears the second Saturday of each month.