Engineer Al shares his love of Sci-Fi literature.
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.