It seems that everyone who knows Jack Vance’s work has a few favorite Jack Vance passages. Here’s one of mine. It’s from The Dying Earth, the 1950 collection of linked stories that launched Vance’s career:
Mounting the north bank of the Scaum, he saw ahead the Porphiron Scar, the dark poplars and white columns of Kaiin, the dull gleam of Sanreale Bay.
Wandering the crumbled streets, he put the languid inhabitants such a spate of questions that one in wry jocularity commended him to a professional augur.
This one dwelled in a booth painted with the Signs of the Aumoklopelastianic Cabal. He was a lank brownman with red-rimmed eyes and a stained white beard.
“What are your fees?” inquired Guyal cautiously.
“I respond to three questions,” stated the augur. “For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.”
It was all there right from the start: the casual, almost offhanded inventiveness with language; the formal, elegantly shaped style; the bone-dry wit, frequently accompanied by mildly barbed satire. After the flurry of poetic place names and images — the River Scaum, the dark trees mingled with white columns, and what one could only assume was an impressive landscape feature called the “Porphiron Scar” — the clanking awkwardness of the “Aumoklopelastianic Cabal” serves as a mental banana peel for the reader. In an era when virtually every genre magazine carried full-page ads from a poppycock cult calling itself the Rosicrucians — “Secrets entrusted only to a few!” — there was no mistaking the target of the jab. I also find myself wondering if “Aumoklopelastianic” isn’t an old, obsolete word instead of a new coinage. Vance is adept at using both, and he mingles them thoroughly and gracefully. Years after “deodand” was cemented in my mind as a fanged man-like monster with taste for human flesh, I discovered the word is actually a medieval term for a “tainted tool” forfeited to the crown. Gene Wolfe adopted this device for his four-part epic The Book of the New Sun, which he has made clear is partly a tribute to The Dying Earth.
Here’s another fave passage, taken from “The Moon Moth,” a 1962 novella about a spacefaring diplomat assigned to a planet with a dauntingly complex culture based on absolute individuality and personal attainment. Since the accidents of genetics and appearance are considered irrelevant to one’s place in society, the inhabitants wear masks corresponding to their self-images — belligerent Forest Goblin, unassuming Moon Moth, heroic Sea Dragon Conqueror — and converse while playing an array of small musical instruments, each keyed to the social standing the speaker enjoys, or hopes to enjoy. Loss of face is a crippling blow, even in a society of masks, and affronts to one’s dignity must be avenged on the spot. This creates a world that, to put it mildly, upends our own moral priorities:
Four men clutched Haxo Angmark. The Forest Goblin confronted him, playing the skaranyi. “A week ago you reached to divest me of my mask; you have now achieved your perverse aim.”
“But he is a criminal!” cried Angmark. “He is notorious, infamous!”
“What are his misdeeds?” sang the Forest Goblin.
“He has murdered, betrayed; he has wrecked ships; he has tortured, blackmailed, robbed, sold children into slavery; he has –”
The Forest Goblin stopped him. “Your religious differences are of no importance. We can vouch however for your present crimes!”
The hosteler stepped forward. He sang fiercely, “This insolent Moon Moth sought nine days ago to preempt my choicest mount!”
Another man pressed close. He wore a Universal Expert, and sang, “I am a Master Mask-maker; I recognize this Moon Moth out-worlder! Only recently he entered my shop and derided my skill! He deserves death!”
“Death to the out-world monster!” cried the crowd. A wave of men surged forward. Steel blades rose and fell, the deed was done.
It appears that 2009 is Vance’s valedictory year. His six-decade career has received the overdue benediction of a New York Times profile, salted with laudatory quotes from literary heavyweights, and boutique imprint Subterranean Press has published his memoir, This Is Me, Jack Vance. The same house has also published Songs of the Dying Earth, a bulky anthology of stories from nearly two dozen authors paying tribute to Vance’s best-known setting.
It’s never a good idea to read through an anthology too quickly, especially when the stories are meant to emulate a single distinctive author, so all I can say about Songs of the Dying Earth right now is that the Robert Silverberg entry is a little disappointing: Silverberg seems to have missed his mark and paid tribute instead to Clark Ashton Smith, a clear influence on Vance, but still not the man of the hour.
This Is Me, Jack Vance , meanwhile, is a charming, chatty book that will be of zero interest to anyone not thoroughly steeped in Vance’s work, and not even most of them. The book is a scrapbook of reminiscences, fond portraits of well-loved relatives, travelogues of the many places Vance has visited in the course of his life. As a fan I was happy to get a copy, but the book contains nothing in the way of what Vance calls “shop talk” on writing — as the man himself warns at the start, he considers creative work and inspiration beyond explanation. The personal detail will be of great help to anyone writing a critical biography of this underappreciated American master, but there’s more literary disclosure in Vance’s brief preface to Songs of the Dying Earth than there is in all of This Is Me, Jack Vance:
I wrote The Dying Earth while working as an able seaman aboard cargo ships, cruising, for the most part, back and forth across the Pacific. I would take my clipboard and fountain pen out on deck, find a place to sit, look out over the long rolling blue swells: ideal circumstances in which to let the imagination wander.
It’s not hard to imagine that those long days and weeks at sea were reflected in the languorous pacing of some of those first Dying Earth stories. Readers in search of more insights should track down a copy of The Best of Jack Vance, a 1976 collection published by Pocket Books that offers six key Vance stories with brief introductions from the man himself. There’s also a short preface in which Vance reveals himself to be either remarkably unaware of his own technique or remarkably obtuse about admitting it: “I am aware of using no inflexible or predetermined style.” I can’t think of another author in any genre — Dashiell Hammett comes close — whose writing voice was so fully formed at the start, and whose prose style has changed so little over time.
Fortunately, it’s a brilliantly readable style, and it means that anyone who likes a given Vance title is apt to like the others as well. In his straight science fiction mode, Vance works within a loose framework that imagines a galaxy-wide imperial expansion of the human race, followed by a collapse in which the isolated worlds have been left to develop on their own. The plotting and characterization are rudimentary: even the more forceful Vance works, like the five “Demon Princes” novels about a galaxy-wide quest for revenge, or the “Planet of Adventure” cycle in which a stranded space voyager must survive a world colonized by several mutually antagonistic alien cultures, are simply showcases for the lavish bounty of Vance’s imagination, which excels at creating societies of Byzantine complexity and danger. The biggest problem with this approach is that when Vance has rung all the possible changes on a given setting, his loss of interest is palpable. Where the “Demon Princes” books remain clever and engaging right up to the last word, the final “Planet of Adventure” series ends with a thud.
My first encounter with Vance’s work was in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which serialized the first volume of a three-part series now known as the Durdane cycle. (Though the volume eventually saw book publication as The Anome, F&SF ran it as The Faceless Man, a far more intriguing title.) After that I read “The Moon Moth” and, especially, The Last Castle, a Spenglerian tale of a decadent human culture that must rediscover action and initiative when threatened with destruction by its alien servant caste.
But the book that really made the difference for me, and which cemented Vance as a sought-after author, was The Dying Earth, with its carefully wrought sentences — James Branch Cabell is another of Vance’s influences, and a positive one — overflowing with brilliant invention. Vance in his straight fantasy mode is irresistible, and once it has been read the setting of The Dying Earth is as indelible as Oz, Barsoom, or Wonderland: Earth millions of years from now, the sun dwindled to the point where its illumination approximates twilight, science forgotten or subsumed into magic, magicians scheming to increase their power while bizarre monsters roam the forests. In The Book of the New Sun, the Master Librarian describes what he calls The Book of Gold, which is the first book to fire a young reader’s imagination. Wolfe once wrote that he loved The Dying Earth so much that as a young man he could feel magic puff from its pages whenever he pressed down the cover. I know what he means. The same magic curls through the three sequels: The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.
The sheer volume and variety of Vance’s imagination makes the Dying Earth series worth a try, but there is also subtle wit at play even when the stories are at their gaudiest. The various spells deployed by the magicians all have names redolent of snake oil and medicine shows — The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Gyrator, Lugwiler’s Dismal Itch, The Spell of Forlorn Encystment — and the magicians themselves are, for the most part, spoiled children made dangerous by power and the ennui of their magically prolonged lives. In the final Dying Earth story, “Morreion,” a band of quarrelsome wizards sets off across the galaxy to rescue a long-lost colleague — the twist being that they have lived so long and so selfishly that they’ve forgotten they are the ones responsible for his plight.
Of the four books that share the Dying Earth setting, my favorite would have to be The Eyes of the Overworld, if only because it introduces Vance’s most (and probably only) memorable character, Cugel the Clever. The name is meant ironically: Cugel is a coward and thief, not nearly as smart as he thinks, and his schemes almost invariably leave him worse off than before. As with most of Vance’s books, The Eyes of the Overworld is structured as a picaresque, with Cugel moving through various exotic situations as an unlikely catalyst for justice. Even when his behavior is at its most reprehensible, Cugel’s language is never less than urbane — indeed, in Vance’s world, even the monsters can bandy words with style:
The deodand had pulled himself against the rock and hissed in horror at the sight of Cugel’s naked blade. “Hold your stroke!” it said. “You gain nothing by my death.”
“Only the satisfaction of killing one who planned to devour me.”
“A sterile pleasure!”
The pleasures of Vance’s work are anything but sterile, and if you have yet to enjoy the fertility of his imagination, I envy you the discoveries ahead.