Jack Vance; fantasy footnote or literary titan?

Inari Writer

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#1
Hi all.

Have you heard of Jack Vance?

I recently ran a game of Kerberos Club at my local RPG club and imported a character from Jack Vance's Dying Earth to serve as a suitably powerful villain - Chun the Unavoidable.

Though surrounded by roleplayers with an interest in fantasy, sci-fi or both I found myself being met with blank stares. It wasn't just that bunch of players, I've found only two people who'd heard of Jack Vance in the club so far. Only one of whom had heard of Chun.

Are Jack Vance and the Dying Earth really that obscure? I thought they were must-reads for fantasy fans.
 

Fedos

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#2
I have only read Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance which I found fantastic. And then I went on to The Complete Lyonesse which hasn't so far lived up to the incredible wit and insight into human nature of The Dying Earth. But because of how much I enjoyed Tales of the Dying Earth I went on a Jack Vance buying binge, having purchased the Planet of Adventure, the Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph, and The Demon Princes among others, all books waiting to be read. And whilst Lyonesse so far isn't as good as Dying Earth I'm hoping I can find something just as good from the many works of his of which I have purchased.
 

Theophania Elliott

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#3
I wonder if it's an age thing? I know the name, but I've never read any of his stuff. This is possibly because I tend to like more modern stuff, so he wouldn't be on my give-it-a-try list.

There's so much fantasy available now that if you tried to read everything on the 'must-read-if-you're-a-fantasy-fan' list, you'd probably die before you got to the end. And you'd be miserable for at least half of that time, because one man's masterpiece is another man's dull-dull-dull-DNF.
 

Brian G Turner

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#4
I've certainly heard of Jack Vance, and Tales of the Dying Earth is on my wish list just because it's regarded as a classic. However, I suspect that's the problem - that for modern readers that's the only compelling reason to read him.
 
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#5
Wow. I haven't seen Conn around for awhile. I hope he never sees this thread. ;)

Massively abridged from the SFE (apologies for the even-more-academic-than-usual aura given off by some of this):

[In the late 40s to 1950] Vance was beginning to compose the kind of story that would eventually make him one of the most deeply influential authors in the sf and fantasy genres after World War Two, an impact greater than that generated by fellow inventors of the modern (post-Edgar Rice Burroughs) Planetary Romance like Leigh Brackett, C L Moore or Clark Ashton Smith. The depth and duration of this influence may have something to do with Vance's long prime as a creative figure, for he was writing work of high quality nearly half a century after he came into his own voice, creating an oeuvre whose surface flamboyance never obscured an underlying seriousness. Authors clearly (and often explicitly) influenced by Vance include such widely divergent figures as Jack L Chalker, Avram Davidson, Terry Dowling, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K Le Guin (though the influences here were almost certainly governed by a mutual concern with Anthropology), George R R Martin, Michael Moorcock, Dan Simmons and Gene Wolfe. There are many others: though their points of view are radically dissimilar, it seems clear, for instance, that the adrift protagonists-in-bondage and the peneplainal venues characteristic of early J G Ballard give off a Vancian aura.​

Within the broad remit of the Planetary Romance, Vance created two subgenres, the first being the Dying Earth story that takes its name from his first book, The Dying Earth...​

Vance's second original sophistication of the Planetary Romance, the big planet story, again takes its name from his first novel to exemplify it: Big Planet...​

As Vance's created worlds became richer and more complex, so too did his style. Always tending towards the baroque, it had developed by the time of The Dragon Masters into an effective high-mannered diction, somewhat pedantic, and almost always saturated with a rich but distanced irony. Vance's talent for naming the people and places in his stories (a mixture of exotic invented terms and obscure or commonplace words with the right resonance) increasingly generated a sense that dream ethnographies were being carved, almost as a gardener would create topiary....​

As a landscape artist, a visionary shaper of potential human societies, Vance was central to both sf and Fantasy. For many of his fellow writers, and for a large audience, he was for more than half a century the field's central gardener of worlds. In 1984 he received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement; in 1997 he received the SFWA Grand Master Award. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001.​

He also won a Hugo and Nebula for the 1963 novelette "The Last Castle," a 1967 Hugo for "The Dragon Masters" (novella, I think), a World Fantasy Award for the 1990 novel Lyonesse: Madouc, and a Hugo for his 2010 autobiography, This Is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This "I").

I'm actually late in following up on Vance, personally - his Hugo winners were among the first SFF stories I read but it's only in the past several years that I've read several novels and a series and many more stories but have still only touched the tip of the iceberg. He's not so far one of my very favorite authors or anything, but he's certainly good and certainly huge and hugely important and not just historically. The cool thing about The Dying Earth, for instance, is that it's set so far in the future and is so much a science fantasy that it's essentially timeless.

I agree that there are so many "classics" it's practically impossible to read them all but he'd certainly be on a short list, rather than the long one.
 

Extollager

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#6
For me, Vance is a good example of a highly mannered author whose style can be very appealing for a brief time, and later becomes off-putting. Over 40 years ago I was quite a fan and read a number of his works. Although I still can enjoy one or two of them, in general I find I can't get into his writing now. I tried to read "The Moon Moth" and I think I got to the end, but it was work. I started his Planet of Adventure quartet and soon decided to give away the omnibus containing them. Similarly I briefly was a big fan of Lord Dunsany, but most of his work really puts me off now. Both of these authors seem to me to flaunt the unreality of their confections. They are "anti-Tolkiens."

In contrasting them with Tolkien I'm not thinking primarily of what, around here, is called "world-building." I think "world-builders" can amass huge quantities of details while writing work that is utterly unreal. Tolkien does much more than build an elaborated imaginary world with its own languages, histories, etc etc. His work is rooted in deep realities of a wholesome human life, permeated with wisdom. And so Dunsany and Vance are anti-Tolkiens. Their work is thoroughly unreal, not just set in imaginary worlds but having very little human depth. They are habitual ironists and it's a very, very easy, unearned irony -- and so it is likely to appeal to bright adolescents.

So: Vance is a fantasy footnote; no literary titan.
 

hitmouse

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#7
Basisically, Vance is one of the great prose stylists of 20th century SF. His economical descriptions of byzantine and fragile alien societies and exotic worlds is unsurpassed, as is his mordant humour and ironic dialogue. Lyonesse is a seminal work in modern fantasy.
If the op had taken 5 mins to search the forum, he would find that his starting assertion is redundant.
 

BAYLOR

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#8
I read Tales From The Dying Earth several years ago. It more then lives up to its reputation as one the best fantasy sagas of all time . If you never read it , then you missing out on a great series by great writer. (y):):cool:
 

Peter V

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#11
I read the Planet of Adventure series in one volume many years ago. I really enjoyed it so might have to dig it out and see if it has survived the test of time.
 

Extollager

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#13
The illustrative quotations at the site Hitmouse linked to show a characteristic feature of Vance's writing, the way his characters talk the same way. It's entertaining, but ... it's entertaining.

I'm reminded of the way someone described the music of the prolific composer Alan Hovhaness, as an endless roll of beautiful hand-made wallpaper.
 

Caliban

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#14
I'm fairly young - 21 - I've heard of the name but haven't read any of his work. I'm not averse to reading his stuff but he's fairly far down on an ever expanding tbr list.
 

J Riff

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#15
There aren't any writers left from the real Golden Age, but Vance is one of them. (?) A much better writer, in general, than any 'new' SF I've run into, but basically just good adventure SFF. He really is good at putting you in deep space, as a detective or whatever, in a couple of pages.
 

J Riff

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#19
He hits you suddenly with the great prose here and there, funny stuff from nowhere, then the story goes on. Invisibly good writing, Vance is, a lot of it is, and he was a fun guy, a banjo player who knew a lot of pre-1940 tunes. He didn't like the 'new' jazz. *
 

Werthead

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#20
Hi all.

Have you heard of Jack Vance?

I recently ran a game of Kerberos Club at my local RPG club and imported a character from Jack Vance's Dying Earth to serve as a suitably powerful villain - Chun the Unavoidable.

Though surrounded by roleplayers with an interest in fantasy, sci-fi or both I found myself being met with blank stares. It wasn't just that bunch of players, I've found only two people who'd heard of Jack Vance in the club so far. Only one of whom had heard of Chun.

Are Jack Vance and the Dying Earth really that obscure? I thought they were must-reads for fantasy fans.
Do any of them play D&D (particularly any edition apart from 4th)? In that case, they've used Jack Vance's magic system and some of Jack Vance's spells.

Vance is hugely important, influential and inspirational. However, he is certainly relatively obscure in his own right. His main influence is the authors who read him and were inspired to go on to write their own things. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the creators of Dungeons and Dragons, were the most important writers influenced by him. They moved the Dying Earth magic system into D&D hook, line and sinker. Gene Wolfe was also massively influenced by The Dying Earth when he wrote The Book of the New Sun (The Dying Earth itself is in the story, as a tome called The Book of Gold). Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons and Tad Williams are also all huge Vance fans.

Most notably, Jack Vance is George R.R. Martin's favourite author and elements of Vance can be found in many of Martin's works, particularly Tuf Voyaging.

I do strongly recommend Songs of the Dying Earth, the tribute anthology (written with Vance's permission) Martin and Gardener Dozois assembled a few years ago. A very strong collection of stories set in Vance's world, and it's fun to see Cugel back in action again.
 

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