Engineer Al's Sci-Fi Library: Jack Vance

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Engineer Al's Sci-Fi Library: Jack Vance
There Will Be Games

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Engineer Al shares his love of Sci-Fi literature.

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Of all the myriads of authors who have created worlds of science fiction or fantasy in the last century or so, none have been more undeservedly ignored than Jack Vance.  For over fifty years Vance brought us some of the most fantastic stories ever to grace the pages of fiction, and more importantly created fully realized worlds that easily allow the reader to be transported in time and space.  He has a voice that is all his own, and uses his extensive and unique vocabulary with the power and precision of a pretty girl’s smile.

So why isn’t Vance’s name easily synonymous with the great writers of Science fiction?  I think there are two reasons.  First, he seems to have been a bit of a recluse.  While many other writers in the early days of the pulp revolution banded together and supported each other, Vance kept very much to himself.  He was not seen at conventions, or at book signings, or pretty much anywhere.  When Isaac Asimov compiled a collection of other authors works in THE HUGO WINNERS, he introduces each selection with a story about the author, all of whom he seems to know.  Except Jack Vance.  Asimov writes:

 “You don’t know these queer people and I do-so I’ll tell you about them. At least, I’ll tell you about all of them except those few, those very few, whom I‘ve never met and with whom I’ve never corresponded. The chances of one of those just happening to come up is laughably small, so let’s all laugh because here comes that chance.  I have never met Jack Vance.”

There is a fantastic radio interview with Jack Vance that was produced in the later years of his life, and the whole thing is posted on YouTube.  When Vance is asked about his reclusive tendencies his reply is along the lines of “I wanted my works to stand on their own merit.”  Commendable, but perhaps not the best business practice.

Certainly another practice that held Vance back from the public eye was his tendency to write his ongoing series at a rate that made HIM happy, and not a publisher or the public.  His DYING EARTH series, for example, has books published in 1950, 1966, 1983 and 1984.  That may be a little long of a wait between books for your typical reader.  But it is all there for us now, so let’s talk about where to start.

Although a large proportion of his works are Science Fiction, there are just a few that fall more neatly into the category of “fantasy”, and these are his best works.  The DYING EARTH series is the first example.  While there is maybe a tinge of Science Fiction here as the setting is the last days of the planet Earth, the stories themselves are pure fantasy filled with magic and wizards and swords and sorcery.  As I stated before, these stories were created over a period of more than three decades, and that is part of what makes them so wonderful, because as the years go on Vance actually becomes a better writer.  Now the initial book of the series is certainly outstanding in its own respect.  With the simple title of THE DYING EARTH it presents us with a series of linked stories that introduce us to a new world and a fantastic collection of characters.  The stories are great on their own and each one could easily stand alone, but the subtle and beautiful thread that links them together is wonderful to behold.  By the time Vance presents us with the final books in the 1980’s he is at the peak of his writing prowess, and the entire series is made more powerful by what he has to present.  Read these books.

Vance’s second and perhaps ONLY other work of fantasy is his  LYONESSE Trilogy (starting with SULDRUN’S GARDEN).  Published entirely in the 1980’s this lavish and lengthy series is in many ways Vance at his best.  While perhaps not as easily digestible as his Dying Earth work, the LYONESSE books are remarkable in scope and just incredibly beautiful due to Vance’s use of language and his creation of intriguing characters and fantastic landscapes.  Featuring politics on the scale of Tolkien and unique takes on magic, fairies and other standard elements of the fantasy genre, the LYONESSE books are an unheralded treasure hidden away on the dusty back shelves of your local used book store. Seek them out.

Perhaps one of the best (and least intimidating) ways to start with Vance is with his early works in the forms of short stories and novellas.  Some of Vance’s most memorable and noteworthy works fall into this category.  The best examples would be THE DRAGON MASTERS (an immersive mix of fantasy and sci-fi) THE LAST CASTLE (robots betray the last vestiges of humanity on Earth) and THE MOON MOTH (which is simply a story that ONLY Jack Vance could write).  All three of these stories are published in THE JACK VANCE TREASURY, which is highly recommended.

And then there are the Science Fiction novels.  Volumes and volumes of Science fiction novels.  Vance wrote for many years, and was quite prolific.  All of it is enjoyable, and much of it is extraordinary.  Vance’s most noteworthy ability is in his capacity as a world builder.  Each story contains a unique world and people with a unique culture, and a propensity for detail that brings Vance’s ideas to life.  

 I find that most of Vance’s Science Fiction tends to fall into one of two categories.  The first is “Mystery in Space”.  Many of Vance’s stories feature a mystery of some sort that must be solved and which pushes the protagonist forward.  Vance is an accomplished mystery writer, and even wrote a handful of novels under the pseudonym of “Ellery Queen”.  Vance’s most enjoyable “mystery” novels include THE DEMON PRINCES series, SHOWBOAT WORLD, and ARAMINTA STATION.

The second category is what I call the “young man is dissatisfied with the way things are and goes on an adventure that changes the status quo” stories.  This second type is I feel my favorite.  Despite some of the similarities in story line, the uniqueness of the worlds and characters within each story is what makes them wonderful. My favorites in this category include THE BLUE WORLD, THE GREY PRINCE, EMPHYRIO, and the wonderful DURDANE series which starts with the book THE ANOME. 

So venture forth brave warriors of fantasy and speculative fiction.  Summer is the time for fantastic adventure, and it will be over far too quickly.  Take advantage of the season and share some time with the wonderful Mr. Vance.

There Will Be Games
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iguanaDitty's Avatar
iguanaDitty replied the topic: #204413 16 Jun 2015 12:23
Thanks Al!
I have a lot of catching up to do, having never read...any of these. I may have seen one or two on the library shelves growing up, but as with so many of the great sf writers a lot of stuff is just buried unless you know to look for it.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #204422 16 Jun 2015 13:42
I have a big fancy Lyonesse collection that was accidentally sent to me from an amazon order, I really need to get around to reading it.
Motorik's Avatar
Motorik replied the topic: #204425 16 Jun 2015 14:06
He also wrote "Bad Ronald," which was turned into a really great and fairly disturbing TV movie back in the 70s. It has a minor cult following.
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #204426 16 Jun 2015 14:10
@iguanaD- Well, now you know. As you may have noticed my recommendations here are stronger than any previous post. I guarantee you will not be disappointed. I'll look forward to hearing what you read and what you thought about it.

@Gary- YES YOU DO!
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #204432 16 Jun 2015 14:36
@Motorik- Quite true. I have never seen the movie or read the book so I don't have much to say. For whatever reason the book is OOP and hard to find. The prices for a used copy on Amazon are beyond ridiculous. It is available on Kindle, but I like BOOKS!

I guess I should give the movie a shot. . .
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #204437 16 Jun 2015 15:19
Well said. Vane is one of a tiny handful of fantasy authors who've risen beyond the pulp conventions of the genre into something unique, with real literary quality. He should have must-read status yet he languishes in obscurity.

I've never read any of his sci-fi work. I should remedy that.
Hex Sinister's Avatar
Hex Sinister replied the topic: #204440 16 Jun 2015 15:57
As a D&D player I'm ashamed I've still not read the Dying Earth. I'll push it up on the queue. Thanks, Al.
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #204445 16 Jun 2015 16:38
Another one who hasn't read any Jack Vance. I'm only aware that his take on magic has influenced many RPGs.

I need to give that Dying Earth series a try. I'll do it this summer. Thanks!
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #204450 16 Jun 2015 17:18
Vance is great. Eyes of the Overworld is one of the three great fantasy narratives and I agree, despite everyone borrowing from him Vance is oft ignored by name. I have Lyonesse, or one of the books from the series but am yet to read it. Good words Al.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #204457 16 Jun 2015 18:37
It sounds like Vance's work was most likely a significant influence on Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #204474 17 Jun 2015 09:58
I've read the majority of the books that Gary Gygax recommended in the first edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide, including The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld. Jack Vance is a fantastic writer, with a knack for interesting names and flowery yet witty language. All four of the books in the Dying Earth series are excellent. I've tried some of his other works, but Lyonesse was long-winded, and his science-fiction Demon Princes books were dry and lifeless compared to the Dying Earth stories. The Dying Earth is a great entry point to the setting, because it's a collection of short stories in that setting, while the other three books are novel-length adventures.

Fans of the Dying Earth should also read Tales of the Dying Earth, a modern collection of stories set in the Dying Earth that were written by other writers. Nearly every single one of them manages to nail the concept, delivering a decent approximation of Vance's writing style and stories that generally fit right in with the setting. One of the best stories was written by George R.R. Martin, who also edited this large book. Each story is preceded by the writer describing how Vance influenced their writing, or at least how they first encountered the Dying Earth stories.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #204475 17 Jun 2015 10:40

Shellhead wrote: I've read the majority of the books that Gary Gygax recommended in the first edition of the Dungeon Master's Guide, including The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld.

Do you have the full list? I would love to see Gygax's recommendations. There's at least one tale in The Dying Earth that is pretty much a D&D adventure, specially in mood (The one in which one guy can't suffer no ill as long as he stays on the path).

I read The Dying Earth a while ago, it was incredibly dry at first and it made my head hurt. But after a while it gets better and you stary enjoying it more and more. I think Vance writes fantasy as one would write science ficition which is odd, but gives the tales a lot of character (I mean, strictly speaking the series IS science-fiction, isn't it?). I think his prose gets much, much better as he ages, I want to check out later books of his for this reason.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #204476 17 Jun 2015 10:51
www.digital-eel.com/blog/ADnD_reading_list.htm

Anderson, Poul: THREE HEARTS AND THREE LIONS; THE HIGH CRUSADE; THE BROKEN SWORD
Bellairs, John: THE FACE IN THE FROST
Brackett, Leigh
Brown, Frederic
Burroughs, Edgar Rice: "Pellucidar" series; Mars series; Venus series
Carter, Lin: "World's End" series
de Camp, L. Sprague: LEST DARKNESS FALL; THE FALLIBLE FIEND; et al
de Camp & Pratt: "Harold Shea" series; THE CARNELIAN CUBE
Derleth, August
Dunsany, Lord
Farmer, P. J.: "The World of the Tiers" series; et al
Fox, Gardner: "Kothar" series; "Kyrik" series; et al
Howard, R. E.: "Conan" series
Lanier, Sterling: HIERO'S JOURNEY
Leiber, Fritz: "Fafhrd & Gray Mouser" series; et al
Lovecraft, H. P.
Merritt, A.: CREEP, SHADOW, CREEP; MOON POOL; DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE; et al
Moorcock, Michael: STORMBRINGER; STEALER OF SOULS; "Hawkmoon" series (esp. the first three books)
Norton, Andre
Offutt, Andrew J.: editor of SWORDS AGAINST DARKNESS III
Pratt, Fletcher: BLUE STAR; et al
Saberhagen, Fred: CHANGELING EARTH; et al
St. Clair, Margaret: THE SHADOW PEOPLE; SIGN OF THE LABRYS
Tolkien, J. R. R.: THE HOBBIT; "Ring trilogy"
Vance, Jack: THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD; THE DYING EARTH; et al
Weinbaum, Stanley
Wellman, Manley Wade
Williamson, Jack
Zelazny, Roger: JACK OF SHADOWS; "Amber" series; et al
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #204477 17 Jun 2015 10:52
www.digital-eel.com/blog/ADnD_reading_list.htm

Some of these books didn't make a lasting impression on me. Some of these writers had a major influence on fantasy and need no further endorsement. But I do want to call attention to The Face in the Frost, by John Bellairs. It was a wonderfully quirky story about wizards, either amusing or spooky at various points.
iguanaDitty's Avatar
iguanaDitty replied the topic: #204487 17 Jun 2015 11:38
On that list I am a huge fan of Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories, which was recently reprinted by paizo under their planet stories line.

Great Appalachian horror-fantasy type stuff. Really nails the feel; Silver John plays a silver-stringed guitar and songs are an important part of the stories.
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #204491 17 Jun 2015 12:12
Glad to see that there is some excellent conversation going on here. My favorite part of posting these blogs has been getting recommendations from you guys for stuff I haven't read. I just ordered THE FACE IN THE FROST on Amazon. Unfortunately WHO FEARS THE DEVIL, which is the collection of "Silver John" stories published by Paizo, seems to be OOP and of course selling for unreasonable prices. Hopefully it will be reprinted soon as it looks very interesting.
Mr. White's Avatar
Mr. White replied the topic: #204492 17 Jun 2015 12:14
Along with Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe is an author I've been meaning to give a read. How do they compare? I guess it would be Dying Earth v New Sun?
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #204494 17 Jun 2015 12:56
Gene Wolfe is an excellent writer, though his prose is less flashy than Vance's. Wolfe does interesting things, like significant tonal shifts and unreliable narrators, and his New Sun works provide a rich setting. However, Wolfe often ends his earlier stories with frustrating ambiguity. Not in a classic way where the reader can choose whichever interpretation is most satisfying, but more in a what-the-hell-just-happened way. Maybe he just doesn't know how to end stories, or maybe it's an extreme stylistic choice on his part. The other interesting thing about Wolfe is that his writing continues to impress, even in just the last few years. Fans of Lovecraft should read An Evil Guest.
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #204498 17 Jun 2015 16:08
Just ordered the Dying Earth books. There may not be an author that I've been "meaning to get around to" more than Jack Vance.

Great article as always, Al.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #204505 17 Jun 2015 18:14
You can say again about Wolfe being fond of ambiguity. I threw Solider of the Mist across the room in a rage when I got to the end.

The Books of the New Sun don't read at all like Vance to me. They're very clever, multi-layered and evoke an extraordinary sense of place. But they also have a tendency toward being plodding. And the series is over long. At times, it just felt like Wolfe was getting a little too fond of his own cleverness.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #204509 17 Jun 2015 19:12

MattDP wrote: You can say again about Wolfe being fond of ambiguity. I threw Solider of the Mist across the room in a rage when I got to the end.

The Books of the New Sun don't read at all like Vance to me. They're very clever, multi-layered and evoke an extraordinary sense of place. But they also have a tendency toward being plodding. And the series is over long. At times, it just felt like Wolfe was getting a little too fond of his own cleverness.


If you ever give Wolfe another try, pick something that he has written in the 21st century. His stories are more focused, with better pacing, and the endings steer clear of ambiguity, aside from the unreliable narrators. I do like the unreliable narration, because it gives a story at least one extra layer of depth. Here is the story, and then here is the narrator's understanding of the events in the story. For example, an unreliable narrator might congratulate himself mentally on handling a conversation with his wife well, but a reader might read the dialogue and shake his head, thinking "you shouldn't have said that."
Josh Look's Avatar
Josh Look replied the topic: #204513 17 Jun 2015 21:45
Amazon really jacks the price up on Paizo's Planet Stories books for some reason...The Complete John Silver is available directly from Paizo at a fairly reasonable price.

paizo.com/products/btpy85jz?Who-Fears-th...Complete-Silver-John
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #204515 17 Jun 2015 22:06
I actually like a Soldier of the Mist, and have its follow up in progress. As for Vance vs Wolfe. Vance is easier to read and more of a fun first approach, Wolfe is very intellectual. In The Book of the New Sun and a Soldier of the Mist he is studying the realities of translating ancient texts and whether you can really trust or understand the account as the writer intended. Vance, at least in the Dying Sun and the other bits I've read isn't trying to make some sort of grand observation, he's writing fantastic fiction. I'm not sure who i prefer.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #204516 18 Jun 2015 02:11
I thought the Memento-style conceit of the Latro series was brilliant but I definitely had some detective fatigue/frustration during the last half of the story. The lacunae in the Book of the New Sun were just leading enough to allow for some pretty awesome conclusions to be deduced on a single read, but the stretch with the Talos "play" always feels like purgatory to me and Urth of the New Sun just wasn't written as well as the rest of the series; to the point where I wished I hadn't read it and tainted my experience. Gotta love Baldanders though (I always picture him as Andre the Giant).

I think my favorites of Wolfe are some of his older, shorter ones: The Fifth Head of Cerberus because of its weird, loosely but not-so-loosely interrelated novellas told from different vantages that still held together as a prismatic whole, and Peace because it initially reads like a surrealist gothic rambling that someone like Djuna Barnes might have written but contains a twist that, once perceived, mutates the book into something more evil and intentional.

I still think some of his work is hit-or-miss depending upon how much he decides to (or is a able to) formulate characters that can remain as points of identification despite narrative unreliability. I never got through the Long Sun series because Patera Silk was just too damned boring and I walked away from the Wizard Knight still thinking that Sir Able of the High Hart was mostly a little shit.

Anyway, enough rambling about Wolfe. Time to read some more Vance.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #204526 18 Jun 2015 09:08
I got through the Long Sun series just fine, only to stumble into one of Wolfe's worst endings. I literally do not understand how that last book ended. If Wolfe was a comedian, it was as though he finished his set by speaking in tongues and then dropping the mike. I ignored Wolfe for many years after that, until I read Home Fires a few years ago. It wasn't his best work, but it was much more accessible, and I have since read more of the modern Wolfe books and found them enjoyable.