Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Goodbye, Jack Vance

Well... shit.

Nobody lives forever. But I'm saddened by every one of my childhood heroes who dies. Not long ago it was the redoubtable Ray Harryhausen. This time it's Jack Vance.

If you haven't read Jack Vance's stuff, you've got a wonderful surprise ahead of you. He worked in SF and fantasy, and for me, it was his mid-career stuff that worked best. He had a brilliant imagination, creating bizarre societies and alien races that resonated with life and vigor and verisimilitude, no matter how weird they got.

Best of all, though, was his dialogue work. Vance's characters could say and do more in a couple exchanges of dialogue than most of us can manage with a chapter of hard-worked exposition. I'm not even going to try to reproduce the kind of thing he did. I'll just say that reading Vance's dialogue was, at its best, an unmatched joy.

If you haven't read anything by Vance... well, his Dying Earth books are fairly brilliant. Cugel's Saga and The Eyes of the Overworld follow the misadventures of Cugel, who isn't nearly as clever as he'd like to think, while The Dying Earth and Rhialto the Marvellous are short story collections sharing the same setting, and occasionally some of the same characters.

His straight-up SF five-parter about a vengeful character named Kirth Gersen pursuing the so-called 'Demon Kings' of crime in an interstellar blood feud is almost as good. Yes, it's old-school, but once again: colour, movement, detail, character work and elegant dialogue lift Vance's stuff out of the realms of the pulp-pushers, and into another place altogether.

Vance was one of the genuine greats of speculative fiction, and a huge influence on me in both my reading, and my writing. Those who know me will be aware that I prefer to learn how to avoid mistakes and bad writing, rather than trying to learn how others write well. Your mileage may vary, but I find that if I read, say, Dostoyevsky, then afterwards all I can write is a bad Dostoyevsky pastiche... but if I read Dan Brown, I learn a great deal about what NOT to do in narrative, which helps me tremendously.

Vance is one of the very few exceptions I have ever allowed to that process. I was so taken with his dialogue that I read and re-read a number of his works very carefully, trying to understand how he used what often seemed like quite stilted and unlikely speech to build wonderfully flawed and intricate characters. I can't say I mastered the idea, but I learned a great deal, and I came to appreciate the value and importance of dialogue in narrative fiction as a result.

All of which is a dry, didactic little aside, when what I really want to do is simply step away, and get quietly drunk in memoriam of a man whose thousands of wonderful worlds made my childhood an infinitely better place.

Best of luck wherever you be, Jack. And thank you.


  1. And wasn't his magic system in the Dying Earth the basis for D&D's magic system?

  2. Once every year I end up reading the Dragon Masters, the Blue World, the Last Castle and the Languages of Pao. It isn't a goal. It just happens. In no particular order. I just look at my books, looking for something to read, and take one of his off the shelf. I start reading and can't put it down until I am done. I have others by him, but I keep returning to these short novels. And each time I read one again it feels like the first time and I realize what a wonderful story teller Mr. Vance is. Was. Damn, I am sad.

    Yes. Yes, thank you, Mr. Vance. I don't have the words to adequately express my sadness to learn you have passed away.

    1. Yeah. He's one of the few authors that I also regularly re-read.