by ALEX CARNEVALE
We think of Milton blindly dictating his version of familiar events. Or Helen Keller, feeling through the pages of an autobiography she could never truly experience except through touch. It must have been more difficult for Jack Vance, the man who invented the genre of fantasy as we know it, to lose his own sight.
Vance is no longer among us. Before his passing this week, he was nearly completely blind. When he began his writing career, he could see. Vance served and saw the world as a member of the Merchant Marines, and his early works betray that sensibility, although the locations and places they describe resemble those of Earth only in their underlying approach.
His first efforts in the genre were straightforward science fiction with an urbane, heroic protagonist and usually a romance along the way. Today writing a story that deals with any element of the fantastic merely involves rehashing some old theme and giving it a new twist. There is little true originality in the field. When Vance began his career, there existed no Dungeons & Dragons (much of what became the franchise was essentially taken from Vance's series The Dying Earth), there existed no Tolkien-esque template derived from an academic background in mythology. Fantasy writing had no hold or status even as part of a niche.
Science fiction too was merely in its infancy, still trodding through the now stale stories of Asimov and his predictable peers. For Vance to write such fantastic tales took a mind of almost unlimited imagination. His early books like The Five Gold Bands are mere imitations of the pages of such traditional science fiction magazines. To be successful as a writer (and you could survive writing for the magazines alone during this period) making your work saleable was the prime concern. Editors were steeped in a certain iteration of the genre not because they could not recognize good writing, but because they knew their audience.
Reading Vance's first efforts today shows only an inkling of what was to come. It was with his novella The Dragon Masters that Vance first showed his command of dialogue and setting, the two aspects of genre writing where he not only exceeded the work of his peers, but went beyond any of the fiction of the period. Finding a good satirist in a morbid and depressing time is incredibly difficult, but that is what makes it so essential.
Reading the massively entertaining tribute volume to Vance released in 2009, Songs of the Dying Earth, you can get a decent enough sense of the man's style. Vance is great fun to imitate. Many of our finest writers can boast of a prose style that approaches poetry, but Vance's vocabulary was almost unlimited in scope. It is only one of the ways in which he outdoes his spiritual progenitor, Jonathan Swift.
If Vance could not find the right word for something in English, he merely redefined it or invented it. Many of his most memorable concepts were both new to the world of science fiction and new to the universe at large. Yet is Vance's places which are the most sublime. Vance is better than an anthropologist; he describes cultures that never existed as if they were surviving and thriving. And the food! Who could ever forget chatowsies, ahagaree or pourrain?
Jack's characters were sometimes criticized for being too stale or formulaic. If that is true than I can't think of a reason why I remember them all individually, even think of some of their decisions or sayings whenever I close my own eyes. For Vance, character was all about what you did, but that also included what you said and whether you actually lived up to it. Plenty of people in Vance's worlds spoke of certain positive things, like ending poverty or disease, or freeing the enslaved, but he left serious redoubt as to whether or not these individuals (1) were telling the truth or (2) had the same idea of enslavement as you or me.
In what follows I will explain the importance of each of Vance's varied novels, but these past years I kept returning to his last novels, the two-book collection consisting of the masterful Ports of Call and Lurulu. Ostensibly comic novels set in space, like almost all of Vance's work they picaresque jaunts into a familiar universe.
It seemed crucial that Vance explore it one final time, in the guise of interplanetary traders looking for the coda containing their own peace and happiness, called lurulu. It was essential to the story that this kind of lifelong achievement was completely reflective of the individual, and all of the protagonists were allowed their own kind of happiness, in their own way.
I could not help but think of Vance himself then, as I am sure he intended. His novels are wholly unautobiographical, taking place as they do in worlds so unlike our own, but the idea of him finding his own bliss had never occurred to me, since I was only concerned about how his novels brought me closer to mine. We are all selfish, Vance tells us, but that's all right.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. His Reader's Guide to the Novels of Jack Vance appears below. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about James Agee.
Reader's Guide to the Novels of Jack Vance (Don't Argue)
The Dying Earth
The early volumes of The Dying Earth are old now, and the style is quite ancient, even for Vance. Still, his typical humor is on display, particularly in the wizard novella Rhialto the Marvellous, the type of conventional fantasy subject matter he rarely focused on. For our modern purposes, he did not really get going until his classic Don Quixote sendup in three short novels: The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel the Clever and Cugel's Saga. Although decades elapsed before his last story with his comic fop, Cugel's tales are not just comedies, because around the humor lives a merciless and unforgivingly familiar world. Gotta read these every year.
It took me some time to warm up to this story, but once I was able to see it for what it really was - that is, one of the best secret agent novels in a field crammed with mediocre ones - I was able to enjoy it. Horrendous title though.
The Demon Princes
Penned in the mid-60s, The Demon Princes is basically a proto-Kill Bill that involves protagonist Kirth Gersen hunting the men who killed his family. The single-mindedness of the five short novels that comprise the series is what gives them their charm. Gersen's methods and travails are both funny and moving, and the consideration of karmic revenge at hand actually turns this kind of behavior into a genuinely interesting intellectual topic instead of simply a vacuum for explosions and violence. The best of the books, with its extended musings on one of Vance's favorite topics, social class, is clearly The Face, and anyone who argues is mad. Collected together, this is the most fun you can have without a vibrator.
The Cadwal Chronicles
Possibly my favorite of Vance's books, the Cadwal Chronicles — Araminta Station, Ecce and Old Earth, and Throy are definitely not for beginners either. They are quite pedantic and overlong in parts, but this is simply another aspect of their charm. Vance made a habit of taking up subjects that other authors would not touch. Here he considers the topic of preserving a planet's natural environment, and the complications that ensue when well-meaning people stifle the tide of progress. To turn that into a hilarious comedy is quite the feat indeed. The motivations at play are quite mature for Vance, and the love story is his very best.
The Languages of Pao
Vance obviously loved playing around with language, and he was deeply interested in how changing what something was called affected the surrounding culture. At first I was a little cold on this dystopic story, but I later appreciated the ideas in it a lot more. Unlike most of Vance's work, it has little to no romance in it, and a limited set of characters and situations. Still, it's a fascinating treatise.
Vance's three novels set in the Alastor universe don't really connect in any obvious way. The second, Marune, is one of Vance's least compelling narratives, taking up as it does the familiar cliche of a character who does not remember his past. Trullion in contrast is regarded as one of Vance's most famous works. It is a brilliant mystery with many exciting revelations, and the culture it presents is both behind and ahead of its time. It is the source of Vance's famous fictional sport hussade, which I still need to play. The last novel in the series, Wyst, is basically Vance dabbling in the idea of a monoculture and it's a great adventure novel too.
Vance's Durdane trilogy (The Anome, The Brave Free Men, and The Asutra) is often overlooked. I don't want to say it is for good reason, since they are very good, but something was missing here. I think the problem is in the characters. It's hard to really identify with the heroes' struggle, and the surrounding world-building is a bit confusing at times. The aliens themselves are also not Vance's best. Still I've probably reread these books as much as anything except for The Eyes of the Overworld.
The Gray Prince
Vance disdained ideology. His attack on identity politics is contained in this slim novel, which concerns a world in which the status of a group of autochthons is very much in doubt. The Gray Prince was also his comment on the significance of national borders (and by extension the plight of Israel), and as such, deserves to be made a part of every single international relations course offered. It's also a thriller of sorts that considers ideas like racism and poverty in a way accessible to those who might not normally be intrigued by them.
Vance's comic novel of a world in which the only true life consists of stage shows traveling up and down rivers is a bit slight compared to his other works, but it's great fun nonetheless. His love for the theater pops up all over his oeuvre.
Planet of Adventure
Very misunderstood. In the guise of an adventure novel Vance placed the story of Adam Reith, a strange from Earth who crash lands on a savage planet called Tschai, where four different alien races conflict with humans in various way. Planet of Adventure is first and foremost Vance's funniest novel, but within that comic stricture are overarching themes not really approached by other authors. The best of the four sections is of course, The Dirdir, which finds Reith and his compatriots murdering the lion-men Dirdir in their own hunting grounds in order to collect sequins from their evil victims. Not all of Vance's work is so clearly conducive to cinematic adaptation, but given all the other junk that is being adapted into film and television, you would have to think someone would take a serious look at this eventually. A masterpiece.
Vance clearly labored on this extremely long fantasy saga, and the only text available contains a number of contradictions and errors. The three books — Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc — are sort of all over the place at times. They contain, however, the best of Vance's serious writing, and the unexpected shock death in the first novel basically ensured Ned Stark would die much much later on. The female characters here simply shine. Lyonnesse is definitely flawed and not for those new to Vance; however, its depiction of war, slavery and politics in the Elder Isles is so impressively detailed, with the characters so remarkably themselves, that is is worth coming back to once you get the hang of JV.
To Live Forever
One of Vance's early novels, the very idea of a character named Gavin Waylock is enough to recommend it. A dystopian novel that asks whether or not life extension is maybe not the best idea for a free society.
The Blue World
I guess they just stole Waterworld from this? Not sure how that works. The idea of a planet without land and what the people would do who lived on it is here not simply fodder for Dennis Hopper's coke-fueled monologues. A great adventure novel with a relentless and scintillating atmosphere that really deserves more attention.
It is seriously astonishing that this was written in the 1950s, because at this time nothing on its scope or theme had ever been accomplished in fiction. The atmosphere that surrounds the characters here is arguably more important the events or people themselves. In this way Vance posited one possible direction for fiction, in which the real events to take notice of occurred in the minds of the reader long after those described in the novel had finished. In short, a perpetual process of world-building.
Vance's later novels were clearly hampered by the fact that they had to be dictated. At times, some of them seem a little distracted, and have trouble correctly revisiting themes or places in the same manner as the old Vance. Night Lamp suffers from this kind of inconsistency in character and plot, and its world is maybe not as impressively detailed as some of Vance's other novels in that vein. Still, no one ever gets tired of the war against slavery, and the cultural notes at play here generate an amazing travelogue.
The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph
The ideal introduction to Vance's satire comes in this slim volume of detective stories. In some ways, Ridolph's ungainly form is a loathsome sight for both his friends and adversaries; in others he is a conveyer of justice unlike any other. Here Vance is reduced to the simple mysteries he found in everything, and the work shines.