Jack Vance: Lord of Language, Emperor of Dreams
by Nick Gevers
With the Vance Integral Edition, a complete library of the superb works of Jack Vance, now in the process of being compiled, a retrospective consideration of Vance's remarkable career may be useful. This is one reader's view, a necessarily brief and summary glimpse of one of modern literature's great panoramas of the fantastic.
Fifty years have passed since the publication of Jack Vance's first book, The Dying Earth. Then and in the decades since, Vance, a peripatetic, outgoing, jazz-loving Californian, has regaled and enriched SF and Fantasy with, among many other wonders, the following:
And so many more. But perhaps this profligacy of atmosphere and invention is not what makes Jack Vance one of the greatest masters of the literary fantastic. Perhaps it is his command of language, his ear for how ironic understatement and bellicose overstatement, couched in elegant exchanges of tenderness, wit, or vitriol, can sum up character, social difference, and philosophical opposition:
No writer of SF has ever quite equalled Jack Vance in the art of the pithy putdown and the artful epigram, in the exploration and exploitation of the dramatic and narrative cogency of well-chosen words, of sheer stylish wit. But possibly it is his characters, with or without this verbal gift, who truly impress:
There is an integrity, a bracing resourcefulness and self-reliance, in these various characters; they are all in some way reflections of Jack Vance's own sardonic robust independence. Vance's tales of SF and Fantasy are his own in every sense: colourful, poised, exotic, mordant; inimitable mixtures of satire, travelogue, adventure story, Bildungsroman, social comedy, and philosophical disquisition. They can be loosely divided into four categories:
Each category deserves discussion in its own right.
1. THE EARLY WORKS: THE ALIEN ASCENDANT
In the earliest phase of his career, Jack Vance was experimenting very boldly, considering the pulp magazine and cheap paperback markets he was serving, and the fact that his distinctive techniques were still very much in development. He was steadily perfecting his unique exoticism in short space operas and longer planetary romances; and even as he drew his many bizarre alien and far future worlds, he just as remarkably delineated the perceptual and existential dilemmas of humans confronting such worlds. Consider Vance's first major SF novel, Big Planet (1952):
Here, a party of operatives from civilised Earth has ventured to sprawling, metal-poor, anarchic, and barbaric Big Planet, their mission the investigation of the aggressive expansionism of a local despot. The group flees the tyrant's agents, suffering a steady succession of casualties as it passes through a rich succession of odd societies and perilous locales. By the book's end, their mission appears perversely on the brink of fulfillment: they capture the despot, and can return home. But at this point it becomes clear that the surviving Earthmen are going native; they have become little different from the petty warlords they are fighting. A sudden shift of perspective occurs, revolutionary for its time...
But the novella "The Moon Moth" (1961) carries the point further. Its protagonist is a young Earth diplomat on the planet Sirene, whose inhabitants, rugged individualists committed to the cultivation of personal excellence at any cost, wear elaborate masks at all times and communicate only by means of intricately accompanied singing. The diplomat cannot achieve any respect in this society until he obtains it by a desperate trick; he can now wear the most prestigious mask of all; but Vance slyly implies that he has understood nothing, that he has submerged himself in the alien only to betray himself to his death.
In these early tales, Vance was equally adept at conveying the allure of the alien and the danger of succumbing to it. There were many elegant variations on this theme: the Earthmen in Son of the Tree (1951) are won over by the potential of certain far planets, only ambiguously to their own advantage; Aile Farr in The Houses of Iszm (1954) discovers the deeper dangers of long distance trade; the hero of Slaves of the Klau (1952) overcomes his alien masters, only to have to face the more personal crisis of his relationship with an alien woman. Vance was willing on occasion to let the Earthers triumph, as in the comic space opera The Five Gold Bands (1950); but as the linked stories later collected in The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph (1966) showed, the xenological or anthropological insight required by the human wanderers of space was too easily turned against each other, with the aliens as only incidental players, catalysts for roguery...
Vance's climactic works of the 1950s were the novels To Live Forever (1956) and The Languages of Pao (1958). In the first, he explored in sumptuous claustrophobic detail just how alien--and alienated--a human society might itself become, portraying a mighty far-future city state driven by absolute standards of meritocracy turning against itself in hysteria and bloodshed. The Languages of Pao is equally impressive, an account of a planetary ruler attempting to make his billions of subjects into something other--Other--by manipulating the nature of their speech. By the novel's conclusion, nobody is quite what he at first was; the ascendancy of the alien is very effectively underlined.
But Vance has used language as a medium of transformation in other central works: his fantasies.
2. THE FANTASIES: MAGIC'S TRUE MEDIUM
The fantasies appeared over four decades from 1950 onwards; but while their atmosphere and ironic texture are thus quite various, they prove a common point: that what truly makes a fantasy function, where magic truly lies, is the language of the fantastic. Vance's two great fantasy worlds, the Dying Earth and Lyonesse, are first and foremost triumphs of style: their astonishing richness of diction, their panoply of strange names, the majestic evocation of their otherworldly beasts and agencies, their mysterious descriptive vistas and poetic musics, are what place them among the greatest works of postwar Fantasy. The spells and invocations of their magicians are potent because of the brilliant vocabulary that describes them; the exquisite moodiness that characterises them is wholly an artifact of Vance's deft drawing of psychological colour, his unerring command of the spirit of place.
First there appeared the extraordinary story cycles set at the end of this world's existence: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Cugel's Saga (1983), and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984). Their setting is the Earth of the farthest future, where science has segued into magic, where the sheer weight of millions of years of civilisation has vitiated all novelty and purpose and left sinister decadence as the only option to be followed as the sun expires like an exhausted candle. The Dying Earth tells of a few final quests, a last few flarings of curiosity and love as darkness descends; its wizards and pilgrims speak a rich cadenced prose that perfectly reflects their haunted and haunting environment. The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga add irony to the doomful scene; they are picaresques, their anti-hero a wandering adventurer and confidence trickster, Cugel the Clever, who swindles everyone in his path only to be swindled in his turn. Satire mingles with extravagant invention; this is even more true of Rhialto the Marvellous, a novella cycle that transports its flamboyant characters to the ends of time and space, of which they take only casual notice in the heat of their bickering...
Vance's bravura way with the fantastic came to a climax with the Lyonesse Trilogy, made up of Suldrun's Garden (1983), The Green Pearl (1985), and Madouc (1989). The time now is the distant past, some indeterminate point in the Middle Ages, when the lands of Lyonesse, Ys, and Dahaut have not yet sunk beneath the waves. A Machiavellian king, Casmir, seeks to dominate the Elder Isles, an obsession matched on the magical plane by his formidable ally Tamurello. But they are resisted by an alliance of the Arthurian figure Aillas and the Merlinesque Murgen, a clash which plays out in courtly intrigues, desperate journeys, ventures into bizarre alternate worlds, sorties into Faerie, astonishing flourishes of magic, great battles, and all the wonders Vance's mastery of style can conjure. The dark musings of Suldrun's Garden shade into the exuberant colours of The Green Pearl and then into the more intimate amusements of Madouc, in a sequence that, more than any other work of the 1980s, fulfils the true high potentials of the Fantasy genre.
3. WAR AND REVOLUTION: THE NOVELS OF UPHEAVAL
Between 1958 and 1973, Jack Vance published a succession of tales that explored with insight and vividness the causes and courses of wars and revolutions, identifying the tensions that occasion them and the role of individuals in their resolution. This preoccupation may have begun with To Live Forever and The Languages of Pao, but it achieved its definitive expression in two triptychs, one of novellas, the other of novels.
The novellas "The Miracle Workers" (1958), The Dragon Masters (1962, winner of the Hugo Award), and The Last Castle (1966, Hugo and Nebula winner), in their elegant spare compass consider the scenario of colonial conflict: human settlers, arrogant in their feudal regalia, must come to terms with reality as aliens challenge their supremacy. Humans think they are "The Miracle Workers" as they abandon science for sympathetic magic, but this is little use against indigenous creatures skilled in biological warfare; paradigms must alter quickly, and they do. "The Dragon Masters" make war on each other with draconic aliens they have shaped into willing, and very effective, warriors; but the aliens have bred humans for the same purpose, and startling ironies are registered. And the jaded aristocrats of "The Last Castle", having resettled near-abandoned Earth, discover almost too late that their alien servants have come to consider Earth their home ground, a claim they assert in a war of extermination; Vance's inversion of conventional perceptions here is a subtle, though didactic, delight.
Humans are the exploited class in the novels of this phase. The Blue World (1966), which opens with the brilliant conceit of a society descended from shipwrecked criminals but blithely innocent of the fact, portrays the struggle of one faction, hindered by an establishment of religious conservatives, to free their colony--which inhabits giant water-flowers in the absence of terra firma--from the depredations, and psychological bondage imposed by, an enormous sea monster. Vance is on the offensive now, analysing the connections between external threats, internal repression, and religious conformism. Emphyrio (1969) is a more deliberate work, a sensitive study of a child's maturation in an oppressive culture, a maturation that his compatriots as a group must match if they are to escape a crippling urban feudalism, behind which even more sinister forces lurk. This formula is just as memorably expressed in The Anome (1971), which forms the Durdane Trilogy together with its sequels The Brave Free Men (1972) and The Asutra (1973). Again a boy experiences early hardship, and comes slowly to an awareness of how wrong his country's political order is in its passive acceptance of human suffering and outside manipulation. Over the three volumes he accomplishes victory and some enlightened reform, but a fundamental--a revolutionary--restlessness remains. Durdane is a richly textured planetary romance, with time for painterly contemplation of strange landscapes even as it sets forth its protagonist's subversive unease; it is a high point in the Vance canon.
Another series, Planet of Adventure, composed of City of the Chasch (1968), Servants of the Wankh (1969), The Dirdir (1969), and The Pnume (1970), explores similar themes in a cruder, but exuberantly exciting, manner.
4. THE GAEAN REACH NOVELS: GALACTIC IDYLL
Despite the relative radicalism of the novels just discussed, Vance was now entering a more relaxed phase, in which plots would matter less than places, the locations he has always drawn so well. The works of this mature period share a setting: a far future Milky Way which has been settled by wave after wave of human colonists, who have tamed countless planets to their needs and have for the most part settled down to the enjoyment of their estates and familiar sedentary pursuits. This is the Gaean Reach, very old but very vast, so that some frontiers remain; it offers innumerable venues for adventure as well as repose, whatever a character's tastes; it is a long galactic idyll...
But this locale had vigorous beginnings, in a series of space operas of revenge that rank among Vance's finest works: the Demon Princes sequence. In the Thirty-Sixth Century, the Gaean Reach exists in nascent form as the Oikoumene, a loose federation of civilised worlds intermittently under threat from the piratic criminals of the lawless Beyond. The worst of these predators are the five Demon Princes, crimelords who in their combination of anonymity and extravagant egotism are amongst SF's most commanding villains. In each of five volumes--Star King (1963), The Killing Machine (1964), The Palace of Love (1967), The Face (1979), and The Book of Dreams (1981)--Kirth Gersen, whose parents and countrymen were massacred or enslaved by the five, hunts one of the Demon Princes down, a series of quests structured as thrillers but filled with Vance's marvels of exotic description, sociological invention, and mock-philosophical discourse (many imaginary future texts are quoted, to very amusing effect). Gersen himself is the quintessential Vance protagonist, competent and resourceful but constantly at odds with the murderous requirements of his avenger's role.
In the mid-Seventies, before completing the Demon Princes quintet, Vance began his long, leisurely depiction of the mature Gaean Reach. One sector, the Alastor Cluster, consists of three thousand human-colonised worlds under the discreet rule of the Connatic, who wanders his domains incognito, quietly righting wrongs; occasionally he must intervene in local crises with overwhelming armed force, but this is a reluctant recourse. Within this context, Vance tells a tale of intrigue and (invented) sports in Trullion: Alastor 2262, a story of murder among nobles of extreme feudal sensibility in Marune: Alastor 933 (1975), and the history of a welfare state gone brutally insane in Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978). In the wider Reach, isolated planets face upheavals of their own: The Gray Prince (1974) is a study of how land claims can backfire in an ethnically very mixed milieu, and Maske: Thaery (1976) wittily tells of a backwoodsman's success in climbing the professional ranks in a society of humorous hauteur. Galactic Effectuator (1980) contains two linked novellas about a private investigator whose peculiar cases sum up the Gaean Reach's oddly archaic eccentricity, the attribute of a polity large and tolerant enough to accommodate almost anything.
Later, Vance took the time to write a novel similar to those of the Seventies but far more expansive and considered: the Cadwal Chronicles, a large trilogy consisting of Araminta Station (1987), Ecce and Old Earth (1991), and Throy (1992). One of the Gaean Reach's most treasured nature reserves, covering all of the magnificent planet Cadwal, has a small attendant human population, some conservation staff, some rich dilettantes, some highly acquisitive squatters; a faction drawing on elements of the latter two groups threatens the status quo for selfish reasons, and the hero, Glawen Clattuc, must master internal politics as well as the skills of exotic adventure in seeing off this menace. Strange biologies, claustrophobic societies, and monstrous egotisms add copious spice to the brew. Another late novel, Night Lamp (1996), is a superb merging of Bildungsroman and galactic quest; and Ports of Call (1998) offers a sort of guided tour of the Reach's more perilous regions, a journey of episodic charm and danger. And Vance is not finished with the Gaean Reach yet: a further novel, Lurulu, is forthcoming, a sequel to Ports of Call.
This quick summary of the masterful oeuvre of Jack Vance has hardly mentioned his fine short stories, and has passed by the many mystery novels he has published as John Holbrooke Vance. And then there is his musical odyssey Space Opera (1965), and his inspired picaresque follow-up to Big Planet, Showboat World (1975). It is hard to account such an embarrassment of riches. Let these plain facts be considered: in fifty years, Jack Vance has proved himself, prolifically, one of the greatest stylists, one of the greatest creative imaginations, and one of the most compelling storytellers genre fiction has ever produced. He is a lord of language, a master of dreams; and the Vance Integral Edition is now doing him full honour and justice.
The VIE (Vance Integral Edition) is a non-profit, all volunteer, Internet based project. Its major goal is to project the work of Jack Vance into mainstream consciousness. Specifically the VIE will publish the complete works of Vance in a 60 volume set. This limited edition will arrange Vance's texts in chronological order and restore them to conformity with the author's intent. VIE sets will be sold at cost (about $1,000 per set) and by subscription only. Jack Vance and his family support the project. We hope to go to press sometime in, or before, 2002.
The VIE project was launched on the Internet in August of 1999. It now counts over 200 volunteers, and some 400 subscriptions, including a $50,000 donation from Paul Allen for donations to libraries worldwide. So far the project has digitized Vance's work, and is beginning to correct (from manuscripts), compose and proofread.
An archive of our monthly newsletter, Cosmopolis, is available on site. All those interested may receive Cosmopolis directly; contact Bob Lacovara at firstname.lastname@example.org
The founding idea of the VIE is that work of Jack Vance, though it begins by working the veins of various popular genres, becomes, by the early sixties, a thing in itself. We believe that if Vance could reach his natural readership, this will prove far wider than the restricted corners of science fiction and fantasy he currently occupies. While Vance is hardly an important 20th century literary figure, we are convinced he is one of the greatest; and that he will prove to be an important force in 21st century literature.
Paul Rhoads, Editor-in-Chief of the VIE
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© Nick Gevers 15 April 2000