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Jack Vance in the 25th Century -- and Beyond
a feature by Peter D Tillman

Lyonesse by Jack Vance: Suldrun's Garden (1983), The Green Pearl (1985), Madouc (1989, World Fantasy Award 1990); all reprinted in mass market paperback, all out of print.
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Rating: "A+".

Lyonesse is, I think, Vance's masterpiece: a mannered, leisurely faux-historical fantasy, set in the mythical Elder Isles (south of Ireland and west of France) at about the time of Uther Pendragon.

"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."
-- Nick Gevers, "Lord of Language, and Emperor of Dreams", infinity plus, 2000

I'm rereading Lyonesse -- if you've missed it, you have a wonderful treat in store -- and, aside from reminding you of the beauty and grace of this masterwork, it strikes me that Lyonesse could be reinterpreted as science fiction -- say, along the lines of Gene Wolfe's SF-as-fantasy works, or indeed Vance's "true" SF: 

Indistinguishable from magic?

Hans Moravec, in "Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind" (1999, reviewed at Event Horizon) speculates that ultimate machine-intelligences will someday be able to simulate, well, pretty much everything that ever did, or could, happen:

"... in an ultimate cyberspace, the physical 10 exp 45 bits of a single human body could contain the efficiently encoded biospheres of a thousand galaxies... The expanding bubble of cyberspace... will absorb astronomical oddities, geologic wonders, ancient Voyager spacecraft, outbound starships, and entire alien biospheres. These entities may continue to live and grow as if nothing had happened, oblivious to their new status as simulations in cyberspace..."

As Moravec notes, this could have already happened: "Single original events will be very rare compared to the indefinitely multiple cyberspace replays... There is no way to tell for sure, and the suspicion that we are someone else's thought does not free us from the burdens of life..." And the replays could be endlessly varied, to cover all of the possibilities of Alternate History, or indeed any fiction, as passing fancies strike the vast, cool Intellects that have supplanted us....

Well. See also Frank Tipler's "Omega Point" speculations -- these ideas show up pretty regularly in science fiction, notably in RC Wilson's interesting Darwinia (1998, reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus). Heinlein played with fiction becoming "real" as well, and his Glory Road (1963; Hugo 1964) is a masterpiece of SF-as-fantasy. And Vinge's True Names (1981; Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, 1982) is a wonderful tour of the pioneer stage in "ficton"-cyberspace. 

Wheels within wheels....

So. Suppose for a moment that Lyonesse is an ultimate play-within-a-play at the end of time. Outside -- if there is an outside -- the stars are guttering out, the Earth is dying. Inside -- deep inside -- by the warm atotechnic hearths of Haidion, a subatomic Suldrun plays out Vance's immortal drama once again. It's real to her, to King Casmir, to Murgen, to Shimrod. Suldrun's old nurse Ehirme shrieks in true agony in the Peinhador as Zerling cuts out her tongue....

Shimrod "travels" to Irerly via deep-forensic reconstruction of a malfunctioning VR-telepresence rig, c.2250: "The sheath of sandestin-stuff... allowed sound, toice, and gliry to chafe against his flesh... Further, the disks intended to assist perception were out of proper adjustment..."

Persilian, the magic mirror, is obviously an atotechnic simulation of an early 25th-century Medieval-Revival computer-toy: "... in one of its flippant moods, [Persilian] reflected the wall first upside-down, then reversed left-to-right, then..." -- cf. any adolescent AI in the literature.

Princess Madouc (my favorite Vancian pixie-princess) temporarily uploads herself to Faery, to meet Twisk, her carelessly cruel "mother" [note 1]. Twisk teaches Madouc a useful protective "spell": "Twinkle-Toes", an emulation of a 22nd-century medical-engineering self-defense implant, which injects a neurochemical cocktail into the target's CNS, simulating (among other possibilities) the well-known "tarantella" of ergot-poisoning. "Twinkle-Toes" itself is a whimsical projection-forward (or is it backward?) of mid-20th-century purse-size pepper-sprays.... 

Is it magic, or science? Or both?

I'm certainly not suggesting that Vance consciously wrote Lyonesse as science fiction -- but then, there really isn't that much difference between Vance's fantasy and SF anyway. His sfnal technology is almost always sci-magical -- really, it's the apotheosis of the 1940s and '50s pulp-consensus, polished to a high gloss and lapidary finish.

My point is simply that Vance's "magical" plot devices could be made to work in our universe, about as well as the standard sfnal sci-tech devices. Beneath Vance's baroque ruffles and flourishes beats the stout heart of an engineer -- his training was in mining engineering [note 2] -- and he keeps the engineer's rational worldview throughout almost all of his fiction.

Well, perhaps a poet-engineer.... and a marvelous writer. Truly SF's "Lord of Language, and Emperor of Dreams". If you are new to Lyonesse, I envy you.

But you'll have to hunt around for copies, because the Lyonesse trilogy appears to be out-of-print worldwide. It's hard to believe that Vance's masterwork, and one of the finest fantasies ever written, has fallen out of print.

**Get these books back in print!!**


1) Working out Madouc's "true" sfnal relationship to Twisk is left as an exercise for the (simulated) reader. [...back to main text]

2) Suldrun is one of the few of Vance's works that features a mining scene -- the secret tunnel-construction project at the fortress Poelitetz, with mining techniques straight out of Agricola's late-medieval "De Re Metallica". [...back to main text]

© Peter D Tillman 2001.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Elsewhere on the web:

    There are many sources of Jack Vance information on the web - these are some of the best starting points:
  • The Jack Vance Information Page - includes a bibliography, scans of annotated manuscripts, The Vance Phile fanzine, news, links and more.
  • The Jack Vance Archive includes international bibliographies, cover images and a range of other information.
  • A Visit to Jack Vance by Joe Bergeron - an essay from a progress report for Magicon, the 1992 Orlando World Science Fiction Convention, at which Vance was Guest of Honour.

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© Peter D Tillman 11 August 2001