Jack Vance

While Jack Vance’s passing on 26/5/13 was hardly a surprise – he was ninety-six – it still saddened me. Jack Vance might still be largely unknown outside genre circles, but he has been enormously important for me.overworld

I picked up my first Jack Vance novel in Adelaide when I was fifteen. The Eyes of the Overworld was a slap in the face, a dash of cold  water, a literary Taser. I’d literally never read anything like it. I devoured the book whole and I’ve re-read it a dozen times since. It’s a wonderful example of mature Jack Vance, a sublime construction following one of Vance’s typical trickster protagonists on a picaresque journey through a wildly imaginative world. This might sound like a thousand other generic fantasies, but Jack Vance is different – startlingly different. His characters are sardonic, often detached and aloof, with motives that are guarded and inscrutable. His prose is inimitable, full of words repurposed for lyrical effect, sentences with jagged, archaic, stylised rhythms. His writing is so carefully purposed, so distinctive, that even the shortest extract announces its creator:

Cugel was a man of many capabilities, with a disposition at once flexible and pertinacious. He was long of leg, deft of hand, light of finger, soft of tongue. His hair was the blackest of black fur, growing low down his forehead, coving sharply back above his eyebrows. His darting eye, long inquisitive nose and droll mouth gave his somewhat lean and bony face an expression of vivacity, candour, and affability. He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine discretion, a mastery of both bravado and stealth.

The whole effect is a supremely idiosyncratic creation, a joy to read and to be part of.

After this, I couldn’t get enough Vance. I sought out his Dying Earth, the precursor to The Eyes of the Overworld, and I was similarly dying earth bowled over. Luckily for me, Jack Vance has been a prolific writer, so I had plenty to catch up on. I found The Dragon Masters, his Demon Prince series, the Cadwal series. I was given a copy of The Languages of Pao, his fascinating exploration of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis where languages determine national characteristics. I tracked down his short stories – read ‘The Moon Moth’ and prepared to be astonished.

When he began his masterly Lyonesse trilogy, I was lining up for it – and not disappointed. Many of his earlier dragon masters works were short stories or novellas, in truth. The Lyonesse trilogy gave Vance elbow room. The result is elegiac, lyrical, playful, discursive, confronting, melancholic and wistful, a book series to read and re-read again and again.

Jack Vance is a truly great writer, but one who is appallingly neglected by those unfamiliar with the best that genre can offer. Sometimes this inspires an unhealthy feeling of glee – ‘We have him to ourselves!’ – but more often I’m dismayed that the rest of the reading world is missing out on the work of this extraordinary artist.

Vale, Jack Vance – and thank-you.lyonesse

Jack Vance on Wikipedia.

The Jack Vance Website.