A Few Words About Jack Vance
April 10, 2002 1:42 AM   Subscribe

A Few Words About Jack Vance. Gersen entered a hall with a floor of immaculate white glass tiles. On one hand was the display wall, characteristic of middle-class European homes; here hung a panel intricately inlaid with wood, bone and shell: Lenka workmanship from Nowhere, one of the Concourse planets; a set of perfume points from Pamfile; a rectangle of polished and perforated obsidian; and one of the so-called "supplication slabs"* from Lupus 23II.
* The nonhuman natives of Peninsula 4A, Lupus 23II, devote the greater part of their lives to the working of these slabs, which apparently have a religious significance. Twice each year, at the solstices, two hundred and twenty-four microscopically exact slabs are placed aboard a ceremonial barge, which is then allowed to drift out upon the ocean. The Lupus Salvage Company maintains a ship just over the horizon from peninsula 4A. As soon as the raft has drifted out of sight of land, it is recovered, the slabs are removed, exported and sold as objets d'art.
(Not for season ticket holders to The Short Attention Span Theater -More within)
posted by y2karl (39 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
There are two overarching characteristics that mark a Vance tale: mordant dialogue of a flavor nearly unique and extraordinarily rich, vivid, awesomely complete portrayals of wildly bizarre-seeming yet (on reflection) utterly plausible human societies or worlds or people. Those are not his only excellences, but they are the ones that immediately hallmark his work.

From a wonderful entry in Great Works Of Science-Fiction And Fantasy by the delightful, witty, erudite and comprehensive Eric Walker of Owlcroft House. It comes complete with extensive quotations—do read From "Smell Your Best," by Raul Thumm, or (Obloquies against the Toper and his Drink) for a taste, a flavor, of prose Vancean, exactly, even redolently defined. And he is most cogent on Vance's use of footnotes.

For that matter, read Green Magic in its entirety: it was my introduction to Vance when it was first published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, in June of 1963. Another appreciation is Lord of Language, Emperor of Dreams: a profile of Jack Vance.

Between and within those three, all the integral links to matters Jack Vance are provided, so I need not bore you with repeats of same …except for this French appreciation of the Vancean cuisine, which, I must note, is from one of my first posts here. Oh, and for you sound biters, as if you made it this far, the same in English, more or less.

Jack Vance is my favorite science fiction author for reasons obvious to the discerning. Enjoy!
posted by y2karl at 1:43 AM on April 10, 2002

That does it! I'm going to give this guy a try. Really. Thanks for insisting, y2karl.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 1:46 AM on April 10, 2002

Indeed after work, I will purchase my first Jack Vance book. Any recommendations y2k? I want the most mind-fuckingly good one.
posted by crasspastor at 1:55 AM on April 10, 2002

Emphyrio is my favorite, after that The Star King, one of five in a series, now out together as The Demon Princes. But there are so many--Walker's choices are right on the money, for the most part--I think he's a little hard on Cugel the Clever.
posted by y2karl at 2:09 AM on April 10, 2002

Night Lamp is one of his latest--it is excellent, too.
posted by y2karl at 2:15 AM on April 10, 2002

Anyone looking for a sourcebook on Vance's Dying Earth series is recommended to check out the Dying Earth RPG, a superb game that captures the style and atmosphere of the books perfectly. It's just made the shortlist for the 2001 Diana Jones Award (obBias: which I am involved with).

Dying Earth RPG: http://www.dyingearth.com/
Diana Jones Award: http://www.erstwhile.demon.co.uk/dianajones/
posted by Hogshead at 3:34 AM on April 10, 2002

Thanks y2karl! Damn, I should have posted this!

Vance and Lem are my two favorite sci-fi authors. My bookshelf is crammed with their stuff. Essentially, whenever I walk into a used bookstore, I immediately check for books of theirs that I dont already own. I just picked up The Languages of Pao a couple weeks ago - kind of a Whorfyian-totalitarian treatise on language done of course in the form of an adventure story!

The Demon Princes is fantastic. If you want a real page-turner pick up the Planet of Adventure series. I think the Cadwal chronicles are under-rated.

Baron Bodissey's Life, quoted in the article, is my favorite imaginary work.

But, Bodissey's work has its detractors:

A monumental work if you like monuments....One is irresistibly put in mind of the Laocoon group, with the good baron contorted against the coils of common sense, and the more earnest of his readers likewise endeavoring to disengage themselves.
Pancretic Review

Ponderously the great machine ingests its bales of lore; grinding, groaning, shuddering, it brings forth its product: small puffs of acrid vari-colored vapor.

Six volumes of rhodomontade and piffle.

And so on...
posted by vacapinta at 4:11 AM on April 10, 2002 [1 favorite]

I've got really picky about what I read these days, fed up with crap books. That said I've haven't read much Vance. I will now correct that and, fingers crossed, won't be disappointed. Thanks for the intro.
posted by jackspot at 4:23 AM on April 10, 2002

There's a huge collection of jack vance's stories in a big chunk of a book called Science Fiction Masterworks - Tales of a Dying Earth - i'm in the middle of re-reading it, its the only thing that stopped me going insane stuck in traffic on the way into work this morning.
posted by kev23f at 4:25 AM on April 10, 2002

Not to hijack the thread, but there's some overlap between fans of Vance and fans of my favorite SF author, Gene Wolfe (link is to an awesome appreciation piece recently published in the Washington Post).

Wolfe is also the engineer who designed the first Pringles machine.
posted by straight at 6:00 AM on April 10, 2002

Night Lamp is one of his latest--it is excellent, too.

Night Lamp also gave the world the Clam Muffins (not a food, a social organization).

I like Maske: Thaery (though it really goes nowhere). I've also read, but only semi-enjoyed, the "Planet of Adventure" series, which included the book with maybe the worst title ever, Slaves of the Wankh.
posted by rodii at 6:15 AM on April 10, 2002

Thanks, straight! I collect paeans to my idol, Gene Wolfe, and I'd somehow missed this one. Preesh!
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:32 AM on April 10, 2002

Gene Wolfe is a great writer, but not so great as a human being, I think. It he really your idol, or do you just really like his work?

The WashPost article was interesting in that it tried to fold The Fifth Head of Cerberus into the Briah series, at least thematically. Cerberus, for those of you that only know the "major" later Wolfe, is a hauntingly beautiful book.

Paul McAuley, in his "Confluence" series, has kind of done for Wolfe what Wolfe did to Vance's "Dying Earth" stories--modernized it to reflect contemporary concerns and come down in a slightly different place in the dialogue between fantasy and science. Prose-wise, he's no Vance or Wolfe, but the books (Child of the River, Ancients of Days, Shrine of Stars) have enough gasp-worthy moments to be worth a read.
posted by rodii at 7:11 AM on April 10, 2002 [1 favorite]

Interestingly enough, I cam across a reference to an evidently never written Soldier of Sidon in Walker's list of Wolfe's works and ran it in Google, where I found this interview and, subsequently, The Lupine Nuncio. And in the recent news there, I found that R. A Lafferty died March 19, 2002. Damn.

I loved The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus, rodii, and now, thanks to your virtually nuncupatory response, intend to seek out Paul McAuley, as well as, Ernest Bramah, who Walker compared to Vance.
posted by y2karl at 7:50 AM on April 10, 2002

Gene Wolfe is a great writer, but not so great as a human being, I think.

What?!? Again, I don't want to hijack the thread, but I have no idea what you could be talking about. Are you perhaps confusing Wolfe with one of his characters?
posted by straight at 7:52 AM on April 10, 2002

Yeah, straight, what you said.

I love the way the guy constructs his books and am enthralled with the way he uses the language. But I know nothing about him as a person. Please, rodii, hijack this thread momentarily and explain what you mean.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:09 AM on April 10, 2002

Whoa, I should have said The Fifth Head Of Cerebrus!
posted by y2karl at 8:15 AM on April 10, 2002

Jack Vance is starting to fall into the trap of writing the same book over and over again. But it's a very good book, so he is more than forgiven IMHO.

In terms of his works, I'm a bit partial to Rhialto the Marvellous and Maske: Thaery.
posted by jaek at 8:43 AM on April 10, 2002

A wildly enthused shoutout here to The Dying Earth. I read that book when I was in Grade 2 and it permanently ruined me for normalcy or so-called "real life". Oh, the fabulous prose, oh, the many coloured-sky of Embelyon. Thank you, thank you, J.V.
posted by jokeefe at 10:11 AM on April 10, 2002

Oh, and has the Jack Vance Archive been posted to this thread yet? at http://www.jackvance.com/

*pause*... okay, how do you link to something from a comment... shouldn't be too hard... I'll look around... nope, haven't found anything so far... oh dang, people will laugh at me... oh the hell with it, I'll post the url and hope someone will gently show me the obvious and simple way to do the link, and I'll try not to blush too hard...
posted by jokeefe at 10:35 AM on April 10, 2002

You paint the word or words you want to link, Jack Vance Archive, say, click on link down there in the lower left hand corner, and paste the appropriate URL there, either from another window or, in this case, your text up there, into the box that appears. and click OK. I didn't link that one because it was linked in both the pages I linked. But it is informative on matters Vance.

Be sure to click on the link in preview to make sure it works.
posted by y2karl at 10:46 AM on April 10, 2002

In intend to look into Jack Vance's books. But I notice, in reading that first page's examples of his "dryly ironic" dialogue, that his characters, like a lot of science fiction and fantasy characters in all media, never use contractions like don't, can't, won't, I've, you're, I'll, we'll, etc. For instance, it's always "Do not go there, Henson, you can not succeed. I will not let you. I have placed a trap for you. You are in danger. I will destroy you. We will destroy your people." Why is that?
posted by Faze at 10:54 AM on April 10, 2002

You paint the word or words you want to link
Thanks, Y2karl. I didn't even have to blush.
posted by jokeefe at 10:55 AM on April 10, 2002

Contractions are for the gormless, Faze, I am a Glint of high ilk.
posted by y2karl at 11:01 AM on April 10, 2002

talking about integral...

posted by dorian at 11:32 AM on April 10, 2002

Sorry, I came across more harshly about Wolfe than I intended. I don't mean he's a bad man, by any means. But he's a very conservative Catholic and an admirer of Pat Buchanan, and I find that many times when people learn about his political and religious views, they don't like him so much anymore. (I'm not advocating it, just noting it. I think sometimes when we find an artist we admire a lot, we sort of imagine them as a sort of superior alternative self, or something.)

Anyway, here's a good Wolfe site with links to interviews, as well as to sites on Vance (and Cordwainer Smith and Clark Ashton Smith, who should also be somewhere in this discussion of...what..."mannerist SF"?).

Karl: Most of McAuley is anything but Vancean, though there are echoes in odd places.

OK, thread hijack over? Sorry for the distraction.
posted by rodii at 6:57 PM on April 10, 2002 [1 favorite]

(Oh, slightly relevant mini-hijack: I find it interesting that Wolfe is also an admirer of R.A.Lafferty, who just died recently, who was also a very devout Catholic, as well as Chesterton. I don't know anything about Vance's religious affiliation, but is there something about Catholicism that leads to lush, dark SF?)
posted by rodii at 7:04 PM on April 10, 2002

Hey, rodii, don't you read the comments anymore? By the way, this one's referring Cave Canem, a Fifth Head Of Cerebrus encyclopedic saturnalia. Sheesh, lazy ass old timers...
posted by y2karl at 8:11 PM on April 10, 2002

Uh, yes, I not only read it, I was responding to it, part of it, anyway. I just didn't follow your links, so I didn't realize they were the same as mine.

There used to be a more extensive version of that Duggan interview floating around that had some pretty harsh stuff in it, but Paul Duggan seems to have vanished.
posted by rodii at 8:55 PM on April 10, 2002

Well, in that case... Didja ever read the short story Waterspider by Philip K. Dick?--it's a short story where these time travelers from the future comeback to a 60s science fiction convention to kidnap a precog (natch... since it's a Dick short story), er, science fiction writer. Anyway, they settle on Poul Anderson, but before they do, there's this scene where Jack Vance walks by--he's described as a burly barrel chested guy you probably wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley. It was in a 1963 Galaxy I picked up at a rummage sale and anthologized in a collection called In The Fun House.
Prretty light but there's your thread un-hijack...
posted by y2karl at 9:12 PM on April 10, 2002

I read The Dying Earth in the sixth grade, and since then I've read every scrap of Vance I could get my grubby mitts on. Not that I have anything to contribute other than "By golly, that Vance guy sure is a swell writer!" but I let both the Cordwainer Smith and Pogo threads slide by, and I'm going to post something here, dammit.
posted by gamera at 11:32 PM on April 10, 2002

I find that many times when people learn about [Wolfe's] political and religious views, they don't like him so much anymore

Yeah, well I probably don't like all your political and religious views, but I still enjoy your posts and would buy you a beer if you were in town.

I find it interesting that Wolfe is also an admirer of...Chesterton...is there something about Catholicism that leads to lush, dark SF?

Note that G.K. Chesterton also wrote some weird SFish stuff, the best of which is the wonderfully bizarre "The Man Who Was Thursday." "The Ball and the Cross" is supposedly pretty good too (I haven't read it) but much more overtly religious.
posted by straight at 8:57 AM on April 11, 2002

Yeah, well I probably don't like all your political and religious views, but I still enjoy your posts and would buy you a beer if you were in town.

Again, I'm not criticizing Wolfe, I'm just telling you the reactions I've observed. People seem to think that someone who writes such beautiful prose must be all arty-farty and sensitive in real life--and when he turns out to be a grouchy, plain-spoken right-wing Catholic, they feel betrayed.
posted by rodii at 9:29 AM on April 11, 2002

But he's a very conservative Catholic and an admirer of Pat Buchanan

Among others:

JJ: North in this book [There Are Doors] reminded me of Gordon Liddy.

GW: Very much so, very deliberately so. I originally started out with the idea of modeling him on Oliver North. He had a different name at that time. And I later came to realize that North was not the sort of person I thought he was. But Liddy really was and I read Liddy's book Will, which is an astonishingly good book, and I sort of caricatured Liddy to some degree.

Yikes! It really does put a different spin on things...
posted by y2karl at 9:35 AM on April 11, 2002

i'm reminded of this suck article on cartoonist cranks, sort of about our behavioral expectations of people we admire. also reminds me of that salon interview with orson scott card.
posted by kliuless at 10:23 AM on April 11, 2002

Hey what would you rather have, folks: The party line, or a good party? I prefer good books to pretty politics.
posted by Faze at 10:49 AM on April 11, 2002

That seems like a false dichotomy to me.

Great links, kliuless, thanks. Though I have to say, the interviewer in the Salon piece was so annoying I was disconcerted to find myself rooting for Card. How dare he not be as anti-rape she thinks he should be!?
posted by rodii at 11:29 AM on April 11, 2002

JJ: North in this book [There Are Doors] reminded me of Gordon Liddy.

Note that North in There Are Doors is an insane villain! Just because Wolfe liked Liddy's book doesn't mean he likes the guy or his politics. (Judging from the Amazon reviews, the book might be fascinating even to those who find Liddy himself repugnant.)
posted by straight at 11:58 AM on April 11, 2002

Great links, kliuless, thanks.

Yes, I agree. And with rodii, too--even 'though I was aware of Card's views, the breathless introspection of the interviewer left me, well, gasping.

And that cartoon of Objectivistman, hee hee...
posted by y2karl at 12:13 PM on April 11, 2002

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