In Memoriam Jack Vance 1916-2013
I learned, without surprise, but with sadness, that Jack Vance passed away last week; the best kept secret of the science fiction and fantasy world has been lost. He was a great author, rich in vocabulary, imagination, and wit; a Croesus of the English language. I would have loved to hear him nuncupate some of his dryly humorous writing, such as this exchange from The Eyes of the Overworld:
As he turned away a bravo swaggering across the room jostled him. Voynod snapped an acrimonious instruction, which the bravo did not choose to ignore. “How dare you use such words to me! Draw and defend yourself, or I cut your nose from your face!” And the bravo snatched forth his blade.
“As you will,” said Voynod. “One moment until I find my sword.” With a wink at Cugel he anointed his blade with the salve, then turned to the bravo. “Prepare for death, my good fellow!” He leapt grandly forward. The bravo, noting Voynod’s preparations, and understanding that he faced magic, stood numb with terror. With a flourish Voynod ran him through, and wiped his blade on the bravo’s hate.
The dead man’s companions at the counter started to their feet, but halted as Voynod with great aplomb turned to face them. “Take care, you dunghill cocks! Notice the fate of your fellow! He died by the power of my magic blade, which is of inexorable metal and cuts rock and steel like butter. Behold!” And Voynod struck out at a pillar. The blade, striking an iron bracket, broke into a dozen pieces. Voynod stood non-plussed, but the bravo’s companions surged forward.
“What then of your magic blade? Our blades are ordinary steel but bite deep!” And in a moment Voynod was cut to bits.
I had considered writing Mr. Vance a fan letter a few times, and I now sorely regret not putting pen to paper. So, Mr. Vance, if the luminous City of God gets wi-fi, and you can read this, I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for showing me, who thought fantasy the domain of lengthy novels and who despaired of every writing one, the power of the short story. Thank you for Prismatic Sprays and Etarr the Masked and Guyal of Sfere and the Sea-Dragon Conqueror mask. Thanks for the laughs, the suspense, the wonder, and the important life lessons (protip: don’t try to run from Chun the Unavoidable, he’s kind of…unavoidable. Also, trusting the hospitable natives is contraindicated).
For those who have not encountered Vance’s work before, I highly recommend it. The Dying Earth is a great starting point, though more well read Vance fans have recommended The Demon Princes as some of his best work. I was introduced to him by my English professor in a course on classic science fiction. For each class we read a short story and wrote a page-long reaction to it. A little bit into the semester, with some good and some terrible stories under our belts, we were assigned Jack Vance’s short story “The Moon Moth”. I reprint here, a little over two years later, my initial response to Vance’s excellent story:
The Moon Moth is now my favorite of the stories read so far, and will definitely maintain a position in my top five by the end of the semester [it ended up in first place]. I found no major plot holes or wall banger moments in it, and enjoyed the longer story line and more complex plot. I also enjoyed the genre shift to an actual mystery story instead of a suspense or horror story.
Vance’s writing style was not clunky or padded, and he showed good judgement in consigning some of the information to footnotes [in hindsight, I should have worded this so it couldn’t be read as condescending]. The footnotes added a level of realism to the story, as if Sirene were a real place. Also adding to the realism was all that was left unexplained, such as the Night Men, or why exactly everyone wears masks (my theory is that the original inhabitants of Sirene were clones). The in-story universe seems larger and more life-like because neither the reader nor the author actually knows the width and breadth of it.
I managed to figure out who Angmark had killed after Thissell first talked to Welibus; well sort of. I make the same mistake everytime I read a short mystery: I correctly identify the solution early on, then end up changing my mind several times as the story progresses. In this case, first I though Angmark was [redacted for spoilers], then [spoiler], then [spoiler] again, then [spoiler], and could not decide between [spoiler] or [spoiler] until the reveal. Vance did a good job crafting his mystery, and I wonder now if it is possible to gather the same data that Thissell did if I take notes on who is wearing what mask.
I liked how Vance either intentionally or accidentally wrote Thissell as a kind of Christian hero, and wrote the invisible hand of God into the story. Thissell does not attain victory through force of arms, but through perseverance to his mission. Angmark is brought down by Thissell’s perseverance, mercy (not shooting the Forest Goblin with his power pistol), and all of the “accidents” that happened along the way. This was a nice change from stories such as Arena.
Reading The Moon Moth has had three effects on me. First, I will recommend it to my brother, who has been reading through my sci-fi books for this class. Secondly, I know what I will be doing for this Halloween(know where I can acquire a krodatch?). Thirdly, I intend to pick up some more of Vance’s work for reading over the summer.
Carlo Rotella wrote an excellent piece for The New York Times on Vance a few years back which I discovered when doing research for a Vance short story project that unfortunately never materialized past the first few paragraphs. It is well worth the read, and can be found here. From the opening:
Jack Vance, described by his peers as “a major genius” and “the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy,” has been hidden in plain sight for as long as he has been publishing — six decades and counting. Yes, he has won Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy awards and has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and he received an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America, but such honors only help to camouflage him as just another accomplished genre writer. So do the covers of his books, which feature the usual spacecraft, monsters and euphonious place names: Lyonesse, Alastor, Durdane. If you had never read Vance and were browsing a bookstore’s shelf, you might have no particular reason to choose one of his books instead of one next to it by A. E. van Vogt, say, or John Varley. And if you chose one of these alternatives, you would go on your way to the usual thrills with no idea that you had just missed out on encountering one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices.
R.I.P., Mr. Vance.