Jack Vance 1916-2013

Sad news from Oakland: Jack Vance died on Sunday at 96.

I discovered Vance fairly late — his books were too baroque for my tastes as a young teen, but I was ready for him in my 30s, and was amazed at what I’d missed. There was The Dying Earth, and Lyonesse, and Araminta Station, and before I knew it I was hooked, scouring eBay and used book stores for Vance titles. (I eventually bought a good chunk of the Vance Integral Edition, one of the great efforts by any fanbase.)

Oddly, I’d just rediscovered Carlo Rotella’s Vance appreciation over at the New York Times. Among other things, Rotella perfectly describes a key component of Vance’s style as “feral, angling politesse”. He also notes that while Vance made his living as a genre artist (that’s the title of Rotella’s piece) working in science fiction, fantasy and mystery, he transcended those genres. Vance was a writer’s writer, an artist whose breezy way with characters and plots masked a master’s command.

Vance had a gift for world-building, for constructing intriguing societies from odd starting points and making them work. He was a master of archly barbed, mock-lawyerly dialogue — but also of spare, enviably economical descriptions. (For example, he invented about a bazillion superb, evocative names for deadly creatures.) And while plotting wasn’t his strongest suit — his trilogies had a way of blazing through jaw-dropping beginnings, then wandering to mild (but still entertaining) conclusions — he came up with any number of intriguing engines for stories, inventing plots that were intriguingly original and had their own clockwork logic. And he was funny — variously deadpan and dry to the point of astringent — in genres that are often bereft of so much as a smile.

Vance is very, very hard to sum up — I look back on that last paragraph and cringe at how thoroughly it misses the mark. But I’ll give it one last try: His work could be simultaneously light and picaresque and shot through with darkness and terror. His writing had a fierce moral clarity, but he consciously refused to balance it with any assurance that justice was at work. Reading Vance, you never knew when a merry romp might turn deadly, a character might meet a pitiless end, or some bit player would offer a flash of insight that would change the way you think about something forever.

He’ll be missed — but we should all be so lucky to live to 96, lead an adventurous, marvelous, oft-self-invented life, and have our books live on to be appreciated and admired by so many readers and fans.

My style is too different from Vance’s for me to claim him as a writerly influence. But I enjoyed him immensely as a reader, and have paid homage to him as a craftsman: the Super Star Destroyer Whelm and the taking of Kuat in Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare were both tips of the cap to him, and there’s a chapter in the second Jupiter Pirates book that’s consciously and lovingly Vancean.

If you’re a Vance fan, like me, go back and read him again. If you’re new to him, I envy you — there is so much great stuff ahead of you. Here’s a short list for starters: The Dying Earth books, Trullion: Alastor 2262, The Demon Princes series, Araminta Station, the Lyonesse trilogy. Or any of the strange and wonderful stories of the 50s and 60s. Dive in until you’ve read it all, and marveled at it all, and then start again.