Jack Vance; fantasy footnote or literary titan?

Inari Writer

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#23
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.
Yes a lot of them play D&D so they've used the Vancian magic system but almost all of them don't know where it came from.

I enjoyed the tribute anthology as well. Particularly the stuff with the magicians.
 

dask

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#24
There is also a rather good critical appreciation of Vance published by the British Library.
Is this a website, book publisher or an actual building in downtown London? I guess I'm wondering how one can get a hold of that appreciation. Sounds worth looking at.
 

hitmouse

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#25
The British library is a real place in London, roughly equivalent to the Library of Congess in its scope. The old reading rooms, in the British museum, are also open to the public. The modern building is well worth a visit for its extraordinary permanent free exhibitions (Magna Carta/Codex Siniaticus etc). It is a short walk from Kings Cross/St Pancras railway stations. It gets a copy of pretty much all books published in English, indexes by the isbn number you will find next to the library of congress number.

The book Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography has gone up rather surprisingly in price since I got a copy for a tenner off ebay a few years ago (I just checked on Amazon) so unless you are feeling really flush, best to get it on inter library loan, or through your university library if you have access.
 

dask

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#26
The British library is a real place in London, roughly equivalent to the Library of Congess in its scope. The old reading rooms, in the British museum, are also open to the public. The modern building is well worth a visit for its extraordinary permanent free exhibitions (Magna Carta/Codex Siniaticus etc). It is a short walk from Kings Cross/St Pancras railway stations. It gets a copy of pretty much all books published in English, indexes by the isbn number you will find next to the library of congress number.

The book Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography has gone up rather surprisingly in price since I got a copy for a tenner off ebay a few years ago (I just checked on Amazon) so unless you are feeling really flush, best to get it on inter library loan, or through your university library if you have access.
Good information, many thanks.
 

The Big Peat

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#28
I've only read Emphyrio of his works; was pretty fun, but I can't answer the question based on one book alone.

I do think his reputation and influence deserves more than footnote status. If he is no more than a footnote, then a footnote is all any of us would-be writers can aspire to be.
 

Emphyricist

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#29
I think that there's several reasons Jack Vance is increasingly obscure with younger generations.

The first is that younger people, in general, don't seem to read much classic SF. I once went to a panel at ConBust (the only convention I've ever been to, thanks mainly to knowing the organizers) on classic SF, and there were only three people under the age of fifty there: myself, the teenage daughter of an older attendee, and one other person. When it comes to classic SF, almost everybody I know who's read it has read only from what I think of as the "big six": Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Dick, Heinlein, and Vonnegut. Except for Dick who became well-known because Hollywood started adapting everything he's ever written (I look forward to the inevitable adaptation of Clans of the Alphane Moon), all of these were among the best-known SF authors in their time—Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein as the "big three," Bradbury and Vonnegut because they wrote science fiction which they didn't call science fiction and which was therefore acceptable to literary circles.

Secondly, Jack Vance tends to write ideas rather than characters. His protagonists come in variations on a single flavor: clever antiheroes whose only distinction was in the skills they had and the moral codes they kept. And with a few exceptions such as Cugel and Magnus Ridolph, his heroes are largely interchangeable personality-wise. His supporting characters were rarely more interesting.

What makes Vance compelling are the exquisitely detailed worlds and societies he creates. But by the same token, he creates worlds such that the protagonist faces a problem which could not be otherwise in light of how the world works, and then has the hero set about solving it. The hero will be thwarted constantly, but you know that he will eventually solve it in a clever fashion. Moreover, in solving the problem the protagonist is usually going to get the better of those who inconvenienced the hero along the way. (One of my favorite Vance stories is "Milton Hack From Zodiac," in large part because while he solves the problem, the man who created it goes unpunished.) So if you like ambiguous or downer endings, Vance isn't for you, and though he's hardly unusual in this effect (Tolkien is worse about this, his plot is much more straightforward and yet people still read him), I've noticed that modern SF seems to go in less for nice clean endings where all the important ends are tied up.

Fourth, I've noticed that comedy tends to hold up less well across languages, time, and culture than tragedy, and most of Vance's stories, while not humor stories in the vein of Tenn or Brown, are essentially farces. Now, I'm weird in that I enjoy old and cross-cultural humor. I love jokes from the Soviet Union and wise fool folk tales from other countries. I love Mark Twain and Evelyn Waugh even though they write about less relatable situations. However I seem to be unusual in this respect. I've met people who've claimed that Mark Twain is an overrate hack writer, and I have a hard time convincing people that my love of Nasreddin Hoca stories and Soviet jokes is reasonable, even if I can make then crack a smile. I think that humor is both less universal and less "respectable" than "serious" writing of the sort Tolkien wrote or Heinlein usually wrote.

Finally, Jack Vance was a master of the short form, getting an amazing amount of action into a tiny amount of space. Even his novels were usually dense and compact. Nowadays, people tend to go in for longer-form stories, and Jack Vance wrote only a few of those, mostly towards the end of his career and generally less compelling than the shorter pieces he'd written earlier. I think that a lot of people will see a book of the thickness of one of Vance's and say "why would I buy this, when for about the same price I can buy this eight-hundred word book and get so much extra reading time out of it?"

The latter three reasons, incidentally, are also reasons I like Vance so much. His lack of characterization may be too, insomuch as he cuts out the space that would be devoted for characterization, leaving only world-building and plot.

For the record, I think Tolkien was not just overrated, but actually a bad writer. Yet Tolkein's influence was undeniable. Even if you don't like Vance, I think the same has to hold true. He influenced a generation of writers and inspired the creation not just of whole new subgenres of SF but a whole new genre of games: Gary Gygax was inspired to create Dungeons and Dragons by Jack Vance. Now, people are still reading Tolkien and not reading Vance but part of that may be that Tolkein wrote a single, seminal long-form fiction series while Vance was a prolific writer of short fiction. I wonder if Vance might not be better-known today had he only written the Dying Earth.
 

Connavar

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#31
Wow I'm surprised to see this thread topic in these forums because even the youngest SFF readers should know writers like him.....

If you only care about the mainstream popular stuff like Tolkein maybe then you shouldnt know Vance. Saying Vance is a fantasy footnote like saying classic great authors you havent read is nothing because you havent read or heard much about them. I knew Angela Carter, Borges or a great like Lord Dunsany was hailed as classics even before i read them. Great authors live in memory even before you read them......


The Genre Artist

When its about literary talent there has been very few fantasy, SF authors who are on his level, if its a popularity of course lesser prose talents, lesser authors are bigger than him. Im with The New York Times, he is a titan as a writer,artist in his field, even if he didnt write SFF he would be a great, a modern classics author like Vonnegut is outside SFF.

If he’d been born south of the border, he’d be up for a Nobel Prize.” Michael Chabon, whose distinguished literary reputation allows him to employ popular formulas without being labeled a genre writer, told me: “Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If ‘The Last Castle’ or ‘The Dragon Masters’ had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.”


Im with Chabon and fans who know the history of the genre shouldn't mix popularity with influential ,great authors of the genre. I mean in the history of the genre popular authors today like George Martin wouldn't suddenly get the acclaim of Vance, Moorcock, Le Guin, Vonnegut,Dick etc in 50 years.....
 
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Connavar

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#32
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.
It depends on what kind of SF,fantasy you like if, like the types he wrote, was so great in maybe he should be high on your list but not if you like Robert E Howard/Gemmell type heroic fantasy, urban fantasy etc

If you like weird,witty,smart SF, science fantasy that is not like anything else then maybe he is for your taste.
 

Hugh

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#33
I'm working my way slowly through his novels/novellas (as listed on wikipedia) and must be well over halfway through by now. There may well be an element of intricate wallpaper as @Extollager says, but he's always entertaining and imaginative. I'll be sorry when I've read them all.
I was lucky enough to read "The Dragon Masters" in the Galaxy pulp when young, with the illustrations of "dinosaurs" and those images and the storyline have always stayed with me. In the mid-70s (early twenties) I found him tiresome ("The Demon Princes") and did not read him again for a long time. Now I just enjoy him: he may be somewhat predictable and may lack depth, but that's no problem for me.
 

Connavar

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#34
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.
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.


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.
Why must they compared to Tolkien? What seems like their flaws to you is what made them influence so many writers, fans.

Little human depth is pretty harsh even if you don't like them anymore. I have to disagree there but it would be like limiting Tolkien to weak prose, just a world builder. I'm not a fan of his but I respect him more than that. The genre is much bigger than a single famous writer like him, Lord Dunsany even if I'm biased fan can never be called anti-Tolkien because he was seminal decades before him....

There are many SFF legends that are not to my taste but I wouldn't dismiss their quality.
 

picklematrix

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#35
I enjoy stories told in the 'travelogue' format, in which a vast, imaginative world is explored by a character, going from one strange location to another. Vance is one of the best at that.
 

picklematrix

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#36
Recently reread the dying earth books. Absolutely fantastic, and even better the second time round. I'm going to read planet of adventure soon. His works always contain a lot of fun and excitement. It may not be Dostoyevsky, but in its way, I think Vances writing is timeless and supremely well written.
 

Hugh

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#37
Recently reread the dying earth books. Absolutely fantastic, and even better the second time round. I'm going to read planet of adventure soon. His works always contain a lot of fun and excitement. It may not be Dostoyevsky, but in its way, I think Vances writing is timeless and supremely well written.
I've almost finished an erratic read through of all his SFF works
(as listed in wikipedia and on Summary Bibliography: Jack Vance).

I did not set out to do this, and had previously read just a few of his works, but one book led to another, and one short story to another.....

All that I have left are:
(1) Currently reading the "Wild Thyme and Violets and Other Unpublished Works" collection.

(2) After that I have the "Tales of the Dying Earth" series, which I've been saving until the end because I wanted to finish with stories that I really like.

(3) The Autobiography.

(4) That will just leave the third volume of the Lyonesse series, which I intend to forego for the time being, in part because I've heard mixed reports about it, in part because it is with a great sadness that I realise that by that time I will have read all his SFF works and so prefer to leave something unread in order for there still to be something of his waiting for me to read at some future date.
 

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