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July 16, 2009 5:05 PM   Subscribe

The New York Times profiles Jack Vance (but fails to mention Vancian Magic. (Curse you Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition!)
posted by Artw (53 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, come on, such casual dismissal of A. E. van Vogt and John Varley! Vance is great and all, but those two are no slouches. I mean, really.

Also, Vance was great in "City Slickers".
posted by GuyZero at 5:11 PM on July 16, 2009

gah, double parenthesis
posted by Artw at 5:24 PM on July 16, 2009

posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:26 PM on July 16, 2009

Wow, I didn't realize Vance was still alive. I need to find copies of the Dying Earth books and reread them.

I can't think of another author who plays with language in quite the way Vance does. I still remember a book in which he refers to an academic who rose to the chairmanship of his department only through "assiduous proctosculation".
posted by tdismukes at 5:28 PM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I've never read any Vance, but are the passages quoted in this article representative? I mean, the reporter waxes lyrical about the high quality of Vance's prose, but follows that up by quoting passages that seem (to put it politely) a bit overwrought:
“As he approached the outermost fields he moved cautiously, skulking from tussock to copse, and presently found that which he sought: a peasant turning the dank soil with a mattock. Cugel crept quietly forward, struck down the loon with a gnarled root.”
I mean, Vance may be a great storyteller, but that passage would not be wholly out of place in the novel discussed in this thread.
posted by dersins at 5:28 PM on July 16, 2009

That Vance bookshelf in the article looks like my Vance bookshelf, and like every Vance bookshelf I've ever seen: multiple copies of the same books, different editions bought because they have different covers and because hey, you're probably going to need to give a copy away someday.

This post scared the shit out of me. I opened my new copy of "Wild Thyme, Green Magic" the other day and was hugely saddened to see that it was "in loving memory of Norma Vance". Jack's only going to be around for a little while longer. With his wife gone, and his blindness, it's hard to imagine what's making him keep holding on.
posted by interrobang at 5:31 PM on July 16, 2009

I mean, the reporter waxes lyrical about the high quality of Vance's prose, but follows that up by quoting passages that seem (to put it politely) a bit overwrought:

It does sound overwrought, doesn't it? It doesn't feel that way when you're in the book. The Cugel stories are two of the funniest novels ever.
posted by interrobang at 5:38 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, come on, such casual dismissal of A. E. van Vogt and John Varley! Vance is great and all, but those two are no slouches. I mean, really.

Umm. Van Vogt is important for historical reasons but I think it is fair to say that I've seen high school Creative Writing papers with a better grasp of the English language. "Clunky" doesn't even begin to describe it.
posted by Justinian at 5:50 PM on July 16, 2009

Vance is right up with there with Olivia de Havilland in the "What? Aren't they dead yet?" Hall of Fame.

If you want some more samples of his prose, check out this appraisal. I wouldn't myself rank him as "one of the greatest writers in the English language," but he has a fine way with the grotesque detail, the unexpected word, and the diverting episode.
posted by Iridic at 6:06 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by kcds at 6:08 PM on July 16, 2009

His books are not the easiest to find - the only one I have found secondhand locally was Araminta Station. I don't know how it stands up now, but as a teenager the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy was a good read.
posted by netd at 6:33 PM on July 16, 2009

This stopped me dead, re The Dying Earth:

the far-future milieu that Vance introduced in some of his first published stories, which he wrote on a clipboard on the deck of a freighter in the South Pacific while serving in the merchant marine during World War II.

He wrote those stories... in the Pacific theatre of WWII? They've been a part of me for so long that I think I had the idea that they had just kind of spontaneously generated or materialized from the ether.

I found a copy of The Dying Earth among my father's books when I was 8, and it sunk so deeply into my head so that I still find myself from time to time writing to the cadences of its prose. T'sais and Embelyon in particular, the multi-coloured sky. I'm so glad to see him getting some attention; he is most definitely a brilliant stylist with huge imaginative gifts. And funny as hell.
posted by jokeefe at 6:38 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah yes, that's the real good stuff:
Such was Mazirian's garden--three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations. Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal--copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium. Here blooms like bubbles tugged gently upward from glazed green leaves, there a shrub bore a thousand pipe-shaped blossoms, each whistling softly to make music of the ancient Earth, of the ruby-red sunlight, water seeping through black soil, the languid winds.
posted by jokeefe at 6:41 PM on July 16, 2009

Jack wrote The Demon Princes, space opera on the Wagner scale. He need apologize to no one.
posted by SPrintF at 7:08 PM on July 16, 2009

You know, as a D&D player of many years, the single thing about D&D my group probably liked least was mages forgetting their spells. We experimented for ages and ages with mana (spell points) systems, before we finally hit on one that was simple enough to be easy, gave enough flexibility to be useful, and didn't make spellcasters completely overwhelming.

Much later, I saw an explanation that 'memorizing spells' was actually casting almost all of them, and then putting a little binder on it, leaving the spell unfinished. The actual 'casting time' later that day was the last little bit of the spell. Mages, in this explanation, didn't forget their spells, they just needed to precast, which took a long time.

Had we seen that explanation sooner, we might never have played with mana systems. But I'm glad we did. We had a lot of fun tinkering.
posted by Malor at 7:10 PM on July 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Wow. Word for word almost the same experience, Malor.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:11 PM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

I found The Dying Earth to be unreadable on the plain sentence level. Incredibly turgid prose.

So please dear mefites, could someone give me some suggestions as to where to start? Because I do want to "get" his stuff and thought I was starting in the right place.


"Vance, who is 92, says that his new book — a memoir, “This Is Me, Jack Vance!”

Um, could someone tell him this is a terrible idea?
posted by bardic at 7:13 PM on July 16, 2009

Green Magic, Vance's classic 1963 story.

I realize this is an online cliche along the lines of "I just spit coffee all over my keyboard," but the deeply moving finale of this story literally gives me chills.
posted by Ian A.T. at 7:22 PM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Here I thought this was going to be about that Eraserhead guy.
posted by Mountain Goatse at 8:00 PM on July 16, 2009

Another thing about Vance is that he didn't have a single, set style: compare Five Gold Rings to The Dying Earth or a lot of his short stories, and you'll see what I mean. Personally, I love his stuff. Yes, it can be overwrought, but like jokeefe said, his sense of humor, imagination, and knack for clever description more than make up for any minor stumbles. He's one of those guys that I don't get the impression most modern SF fans (or writers, for that matter) have spent much time reading, and that makes me sad for them.
posted by Amanojaku at 8:20 PM on July 16, 2009

One could draw an interesting parallel between mages forgetting their spells and Vance forgetting his words, which was perhaps the most unsettling revelation in that excellent article. I adore Vance and it will be sad indeed when he shuffles away.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:44 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Emphyrio is part of the SF Masterworks serious and not a bad read at all. His style takes a bit of time to get used to, but once you're in, it's like a movie in your head.
posted by smoke at 9:02 PM on July 16, 2009

What does the word "libram" conjure up in your mind?
Oh yeah, that was a Jack Vance word.

For the record, Vancian Magic is fine in prose, but bad in practice, unless you are crouched around a table tossing Platonic Solids with superlatively creative people.
posted by ktrey at 9:10 PM on July 16, 2009

The New York Times profiles Jack Vance

This is literally fifty years behind the curve. Did the Times take any notice at all in the late '50s when he published Big Planet or The Languages of Pao?

Next week: the New York Times discovers that up-and-coming science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 9:13 PM on July 16, 2009

The parts of the prose of the Dying Earth stuff (and really all of them are worth a read) that seem overwrought, even to the point of having the feeling that your vocabulary was getting reamed out, was not merely some random stylistic choice or a need for the author to smack you about with the realization that your current stock of English words was insufficient, rather it is part and parcel of trickster fiction both Western and Eastern.

The first three novels are travel novels, and within that framework we can see what these are about — stories of medieval setting, simply dressed up with magic and a smattering of fantastical science fiction.

These stories, coming as they were before Shannara, Vance had the difficult task of blending fantastical magic with equally fantastical science fiction in a way pleasing to the reader; though many of the tropes are similar, melding the two has long been difficult; the seams are obvious and the welds seldom hold. To make the far, far future appeal less like rocketships and Science!, mechanical devices must be reduced to molten mathematical property itself, as seen in The Dying Earth, then poured into the mold of fantasy and forged anew. Genetic engineering becomes hybridization; vats from which such creations emerge are laboratories suspiciously like cauldrons.

This pleasure would be sterile, a mere exercise, were it not for the prose, which must finally adopt all of the contrivances of tales of days gone by. As the sun blinks out, nearly all days have gone by, and the Earth itself is old, old, old, so this is not as forced as one might imagine. In many such stories, from Chaucer at least, is the continual warning: which stranger may you trust? (Answer: usually none of them.)

As strangers appear, it is difficult to ascertain anything like reputation, and instead you are left with impressions, and we know how those go. Fine words, offered by rogues, might distinguish them from churlish bandits. Swindlers, who make great show of slashing through "jungles of verbiage" even as they generate the most tropical of gardens with their flowery utterances, must deceive through casual words mysteriously turned contract and, if it is to their advantage, grim promise which might be remembered as said only in a "spirit of jocularity."

Many, many characters seek to bolster the opinions of others by aggressively displaying their learning; one of the cheapest and easiest ways to do this is via two-bit words, or in Cugel's case, ten-terces words. Tossed about by the vicissitudes of Fate (translation: revenge by the wronged), you might find yourself lacking in both sword and coin, but your mendacity, as carefully covered by florid prose, is always at hand. The Dying Earth novels are, if nothing else, a parade of characters who seek to cast their basest urges in higher lights, and do so by strategically seeming to take offense at the same time they disguise chicanery with lofty statements of purpose. Cugel contrives as he connives; Rhialto obfuscates. "The question is nuncupatory" is brilliantly evasive; it simultaneously seems to admonish the querent while merely ("innocently," were it come to that) stating that it has been spoken aloud.

Those who consider Vance's diction to be supererogatory commit obloquy.
posted by adipocere at 9:59 PM on July 16, 2009 [15 favorites]

For a moment there it sounded like you were comparing Vance's writing to a .wad file, but then it got really good.
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:04 PM on July 16, 2009

I love Jack Vance, but I'm having trouble seeing him as a literary giant, because:

--He's a one-trick pony. His books are as self-similar as those of P.G. Wodehouse. In particular, all his characters have virtually the same voice.
--He's pretty much the epitome of a niche author--either you'll enjoy him or find him really irritating.
--It would be unfair to claim that he's merely a combination of James Branch Cabell and Clark Ashton Smith, but if you read those authors you'll see where he got a lot of his famous quirks. To be sure, he's better than Smith and more consistent than Cabell, and combining the two is a masterstroke in its own way.

All that said, his best books are an absolute joy to read. Bless my grandmother for giving me a copy of Eight Fantasms And Magics for my tenth birthday.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:01 PM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Jack Vance is without a doubt one of my top 3 all-time favorite writers. Gorgeous colorful prose and vivid alien worlds of the far future, taut thrilling space adventure and grand opera, detailed and nuanced explorations of alien cultures and peoples; it all came to life in unbelievable, completely engrossing pages of text from this man's hand.

Been an avid fan since the late 1970's, own every novel (though not multiple copies - that's danger territory), and have never found anyone else quite like him.

One of my personal literary heroes. Thank you Jack Vance.
posted by Aquaman at 11:22 PM on July 16, 2009

I think The Blue World is his most perfect novel.

The Planet of Adventure tetralogy is his most emotionally satisfying work, perhaps, and has four of the more compelling alien cultures anyone has been able to achieve so far. That's where I'd start.
posted by jamjam at 12:53 AM on July 17, 2009

As a Vance fan, I wouldn't send a novice toward Dying Earth. My two suggestions.

The Demon Princes - A set of connected stories. The protagonist is obsessively out to assassinate the Demon Princes - ultra-powerful men (galactic gangsters). Revenge is the motive.

Planet of Adventure - The story begins with a spaceship crash landing on a distant planet. One survivor encounters a strange world populated by alien creatures and mysteriously, with men just like him. Adam Reith's tale is as good as any Indiana Jones type hero saga.

I've read the Demon Princes three times. I've read Planet of Adventure about 7 or 8 times. There's something about how Vance portrays alien cultures and societies. They seem much more carefully drawn than any other sci-fi writer i've seen. His Chronicles of Cadwal is full of this society-exploration, the interaction of classes, populations that spawn both selfish and greedy actors as well as the kind and altruistic - the whole human dimension.
posted by vacapinta at 3:55 AM on July 17, 2009

Don't make me start another list ...
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:03 AM on July 17, 2009

I came here basically to say what doubtfulpalace said, though I probably would have been a little snarkier about it. Vance is one of those authors who is ill served by the excessive enthusiasm of his devotees. It's not enough to say "Hey, this guy writes pretty well, I think you'd like him"—no, it's got to be "THIS MAN IS ONE OF THE GREATEST PROSE STYLISTS EVAR AND YOU HAVE TO READ EVERYTHING HE EVER WROTE, HERE LET ME LEND YOU ONE OF MY TEN COPIES OF THE DYING EARTH!"

And yeah, the casual dismissal of John Varley pissed me off too; he's "one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices" as well, and frankly I'd probably give someone "The Persistence of Vision" to read before I gave them Vance.
posted by languagehat at 6:19 AM on July 17, 2009

I bounced off the first Dying Earth book a couple of times before finally getting into it a couple of years ago, and since then have read around 20 Vance books. He's a treasure. I totally agree with the assessment of his limitations given by doubtfulpalace, though. I love his books, but I wouldn't push them on people unless I knew they were likely to dig his style.

Lyonesse, his Arthurian-style fantasy series, is another good place to start. But my main suggestion would be to buy the Tales of the Dying Earth anthology and skip over the first of the four books, which is extremely mannered in a way that requires the reader to be willing to meet it halfway. The other three books in the series (the two Cugel ones and Rhialto the Marvellous) are hilarious.
posted by dfan at 6:32 AM on July 17, 2009

And why might Vance be a one trick pony, ill-served by the excessive enthusiasm of his devotees? Maybe because imitators of Dunsany, Cabell, and Bramah are so rare they are cherished above their worth? I don't know, but I can more easily see how Vance may deserve better than I can worse. I'm not worried about an over-correction by any means.

Anyway, I came here to put in a good word for the Durdane trilogy (the books are very short). The protagonist goes to extraordinary lengths to get to the bottom of some strange things happening in his world. In the end, there is no bottom, really, but things aren't circular or self-causing either. It strikes notes of futility, betrayal, and desolation. It's summer now, but in the autumn some of you will probably need your high-fantasy expectations dashed.
posted by wobh at 7:11 AM on July 17, 2009

Jack Vance would not be Jack Vance without Clark Ashton Smith, Cabell, and Lord Dunsany as mentioned above, but I think he's a stronger writer than any of them. That said, he's great, and great fun, and I've always liked his stuff. The Blue World might be his best but I do love The Dying Earth and Eyes of the Overworld.

A good place to start with him would be the short story, The Moon Moth. It's clever, funny, and exotic, with a thoroughly alien culture based on masks and musical instruments.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 8:18 AM on July 17, 2009

For those fans of Dying Earth still unaware, Subterranean Press has just released its tribute anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, with the likes of Dan Simmons, George R. R. Martin, Robert Silverberg, and Neil Gaiman contributing.

Hopefully, they'll be releasing copies to regular booksellers in the near future, as I see they're sold out on the SP site. Mine just came in the mail this week, and I expect to have a good sit down with it this weekend.
posted by zueod at 9:19 AM on July 17, 2009

> And why might Vance be a one trick pony, ill-served by the excessive enthusiasm of his devotees? Maybe because imitators of Dunsany, Cabell, and Bramah are so rare they are cherished above their worth?

Yes, I think that's true. But I also think Dunsany, Cabell, and Bramah are overrated, so take my opinion with a grain of some rare condiment imported from Poictesme under the resplendent, journeying and procreative sun.
posted by languagehat at 9:55 AM on July 17, 2009

I think Dunsany and Cabell, at their best, did what they did (ironic, mannered fantasy) as well as it could possibly be done. They weren't always at their best, and what they did will only appeal to some readers, but I think everyone with any interest in fantasy should at least try The Sword of Welleran and either Jurgen or Figures of Earth. If nothing else, you can find out where my handle came from.

Bramah, on the other hand, is moderately entertaining at best, and a notch above "Confucius Say" jokes at worst. I don't get his cult at all.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 10:07 AM on July 17, 2009

I mainly know Dunsany as "the guy who inspired the HP Lovecraft stories I like least."
posted by Artw at 10:16 AM on July 17, 2009

Turtledove to Varley
posted by interrobang at 10:35 AM on July 17, 2009

I mainly know Vance as "the guy who inspired Gene Wolfe's books, which are among my favorite ever." I've been trying, ever since a mefi thread that mentioned this influence actually, to find Vance books and it's nearly impossible. If people buy many copies so that they can lend them, I understand why. Hopefully Amazon's download service for kindle and iphone will have some good stuff.
posted by shmegegge at 10:35 AM on July 17, 2009

oh fuck that shit. amazon's download service has 4 books. that's four, in case you think I mistyped. 3 of what seems to be a series of books called the Lyonesse series, and one called the Men Return.

are these good books? should I download one?

posted by shmegegge at 11:04 AM on July 17, 2009

Edition Andreas Irle is reprinting some of Vance's work, and they're using the Vance Integral Edition for their source. You can't get much better than that. I have their Lyonesse reprints and they are absolutely worth the price. Wonderful stuff.

Tales of Dying Earth, The Demon Princes, and Planet of Adventure are all available from Amazon in anthology form and are a great place to start with Vance.

I'm a Cugel/Dying Earth fan first, and a Vance fan second, although his Lyonesse boooks hold the same sense of wonder for me. The ones I'm looking forward to seeing back in print are Big Planet and Showboat World. Hopefully the renewed interest in Vance will push more of his works back into print.
posted by zueod at 11:38 AM on July 17, 2009

Never forget to inspect your worm's clote; it may be impacted!
posted by fraxil at 11:46 AM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Umm. Van Vogt is important for historical reasons but I think it is fair to say that I've seen high school Creative Writing papers with a better grasp of the English language. "Clunky" doesn't even begin to describe it.

I like to think of it as "stylized".
posted by GuyZero at 12:11 PM on July 17, 2009

shmegegge, try Abe Books.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:13 PM on July 17, 2009

I like to think of it as "stylized".

Who knew that all those 14 year olds in english class weren't bad writers, they were just stylized!
posted by Justinian at 2:58 PM on July 17, 2009

Man, did AE van V kick your dog or something? OR MAYBE YOU'RE A RULL, HUH?
posted by GuyZero at 3:07 PM on July 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been trying, ever since a mefi thread that mentioned this influence actually, to find Vance books and it's nearly impossible.

Yeah, it is a pain these days. I have several dozen Vance books, the result of thirty years of dedicated scrounging through the V section of used bookstores (which unshakeable habit has left me with a pretty fair knowledge of the catalogues of not only the aforementioned van Vogt and Varley, but also van Sycoc, Vinge, and van Lustbader). I rarely see any Vance anymore, and when I do, it is often one of the lesser ones (To Live Forever or The Five Gold Rings or somesuch).

In about 1988 some university buddies who were going home for the Christmas break asked me to look after their apartment for a couple of weeks -- feed the cat, water the plants, etc. I said I would be happy to, and much to my surprise, over the break they both scoured the used bookstores in their hometowns. Between the pair of them, they had dug up twelve or fifteen Vance paperbacks, which they generously gave me as a thank-you gift upon their return. This sort of gesture would be near-impossible to replicate now.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:15 PM on July 17, 2009 [2 favorites]

Artw: Dunsany's aesthetic requires extreme writing chops to pull off. Lovecraft didn't have them. You might not like Dunsany anyway, but you can find out for free.

shmegegge: I think Lyonesse is one of Vance's best, but if you want the book that influenced Wolfe, you need The Dying Earth.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 11:49 PM on July 17, 2009

Crap. I don't know how I missed this post. Since the thread is still open I would like to mention that for years I thought the "deodar" was some sort of made-up Vancian space-tree, and only recently found out it's a kind of cedar.
posted by gamera at 5:31 PM on July 19, 2009

Jack Vance is one of my favorite authors. I think of his writing as "entertaining" rather than "serious," though. What I really like about Vance's writing (besides his ironic humor and his use of language) is his sheer inventiveness. He's able to describe imaginary places more vividly than I actually experience the real world! The "what-if" aspect of his science fiction is sociological: he invents societies which are recognizably human, but with very different customs from our own. As Iridic's link points out, his imagination in this respect appears inexhaustible.

One of the stories in the new tribute collection, Songs of the Dying Earth, is available online: Sylgarmo's Proclamation, by Lucius Shepard.

shmegegge: I've been trying, ever since a mefi thread that mentioned this influence actually, to find Vance books and it's nearly impossible.

I'd start with your local library. The New York Public Library catalog lists 53 items. His most popular books are definitely still in print--I bought the Demon Princes novels and the Alastor novels through Amazon a few years ago.

bardic: could someone give me some suggestions as to where to start?

Not everyone likes his style. If you want to give him another try, I'd recommend any of the three Alastor novels (Trullion: Alastor 2262, Marune: Alastor 933, or Wyst: Alastor 1716). Each is a standalone story.
Navarth sat drinking wine with an aged acquaintance who bemoaned the brevity of existence. "I have left to me at the most ten years of life!"

"That is sheer pessimism," declared Navarth. "Think optimistically, rather, of the ten hundred billion years of death that await you!"

--Jack Vance, The Book of Dreams
posted by russilwvong at 6:50 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

i actually finally found a copy of Tales Of The Dying Earth at a barnes and noble in queens, so I'm reading that now. thanks, all.
posted by shmegegge at 3:31 PM on July 20, 2009

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