Thursday, 30 May 2013


I've been reading some of the obituaries and appreciations of Jack Vance and yet again feeling there is something I have missed. I've tried twice to get into Vance's work--once when I was in college and reading a lot of sf and quite a bit of sword & sorcery, and my roommate Rico (actually, Reeko, but that's another story) suggested him. But it never clicked, and I moved on.

The second time was when I first moved to Britain, and was down in Sussex with my wife's family. Vance was one of the things, besides pipe tobacco, which united my father in law, James Tower, who was one of the world's best potters and a fine sculptor as well, and his son Nick, who was an emergency room doctor in Thunder Bay, Ontario. James would find the paperbacks in junk shops and they would read them with delight, passing them back and forth like kids with comic books. I gave it another try, but again the spark was just not there.

In the past couple of decades I've picked up some of Vance's later books but put them down without getting far, and I've tried a couple of the classics with similar non-results. It's hard not to keep trying with a guy who basically invented two main strains of what the Science Fiction Encyclopedia calls 'Planetary Romance', each exemplified by the titles of Vance's novels, The Dying Earth and Big Planet. I suppose Planetary Romance is itself an offshoot of Space Opera, and Vance also wrote a novel called Space Opera, in which opera companies go into space. His work was basically borrowed for the concept of the original Dungeons and Dragons, although that in itself was nothing to recommend it to me. Now, once again, in the wake of reading so much about Vance, I've attempted to figure out why I haven't become a follower.

My sense was that Vance's style was somewhat too baroque for me. The diction is mannered, the vocabularly often flowery or exaggerated, often for comic or ironic effect. And the novels often drift, never getting beyond the set-up. They concentrate on the characters, with a realistic attitude to the vicissitudes of life, particularly its evil, which has been an obvious influence on any number of writers, particularly in fantasy, who've brought that anti-heroic modern sensibility to their work--I'm thinking particularly of Ursula LeGuin, Gene Wolfe (another writer I admire, but have had trouble with), Glen Cook or George RR Martin.

But it occurred to me that the genre writer Vance most resembles may be Raymond Chandler. It's a stylistic thing, where Chandler's prose often becomes perfumed in its metaphoric flourishes, but they both labour under a sensibility that is hard-boiled on the surface but romantic underneath. Like Vance, Chandler's early novels show the signs of his skill at shorter lengths, and are often stitched-up. And like Vance, Chandler eventually began taking advantage of longer forms--though not to the extent of Vance's Lyonesse or Cadwal series; both much more expansive. John Clute in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia recommends Vance's 1996 novel Night Lamp as being 'remarkably complex'-- I think of Chandler's Long Goodbye. Interestingly, I have read a couple of Vance's Ellery Queen novels (Ted Sturgeon also wrote under the Queen pseudonym) and his style is well-suited for Queen's somewhat fruity tone. If you gave such a tone to Philip Marlowe you'd probably have someone very close to Cugel.

What strikes me about Vance is that he has fun with his imagination, and he treats his characters as adults with the kind of dry sense of humour, the kind of cracking wise, that appeals to the idealistic adolescent in many adult readers. Unlike Chandler, Vance didn't reach a mainstream audience, but like him he has been appreciated by some mainstream critics and, as I mentioned, been a huge influence to any number of writers who have become best-sellers, received mainstream critical acclaim, or indeed both.

I suspect it's time for another Vance revival in my reading life. Perhaps this time it will be third-time lucky.


Ruzz said...

Great to see the appreciation - I thought I might find something on your blog - and I wouldn't worry too much about "getting" JV. I adore him - but I think that anything built around archness of diction is always going to be a Marmite moment. I have friends who can't stand Wodehouse. I can't stand Benson. And so on and so forth. The initial hook for me was less than the language than the sense of "anthropological" speculation - different societies and values. I think this has probably not always dated well. But as the readership has matured so we've come to delight in the baroque splendour of the language. An interesting debate on another blog around the dated attitudes to homosexuality and to women in general - and it's undeniable that there's truth in that - but it's hard to critique books written forty years ago from the perspective of today - and it would be a shame if the sheer inventiveness and sense of fun were lost behind these concerns. Give Vance another go - hope it works for you next time.

Michael Carlson said...

Interesting what you say because apparently Wodehouse was Vance's favourite writer!

Ruzz said...

I supppose not surprising - but with Wodehouse the verbal pyrotechnics are often exactly that - pyrotechnics. Vance's sense of humour can be pleasingly dry. Take this from a footnote in the Night Lamp:

"Early chronicles declared that the three statues represented the same individual, the fabled justiciary and law-giver David Alexander, depicted in three typical poses: summons to judgment, quelling of the rabble, and imposition of equity. In this latter pose he carried a short-handled axe with a broad lunate blade, possibly no more than an object of ceremonial import."