What’s so great about Jack Vance?

Very well, I shall be happy to tell you. As a translator of Jack Vance stories into (yes, indeed) Esperanto…and also a one-time contributor to the Vance Integral Edition project, it is likely that I have studied his prose more than many. I was introduced to his work by an actual female fan (yes indeed, there are a few. Kage Baker & Tanith Lee to name just two) who praised him thus, “Even his pot-boilers are better than the best acclaimed works of…”

The names withheld from that quote comprised a list of my own favorites up until that time, a few of whom I enjoy to this day. I would have been mildly offended, except for her clear conviction and also the fact that we both held yet another interest in common. At the time we were speaking in Esperanto, but with a short digression back into native English for lack of a term to carry the flavor of ‘pot-boiler’ in the conversation. This was at a three-week summer intensive course at San Fransisco State University way back in 1987. When the course was over I came home to new job at Prab Robots in my home town, Kalamazoo Michigan, my application having come through while out-of-state. The salary increase afforded me funds to buy new books but none by Vance were to be found. I had to scour the town’s several used-book stores instead.

My goal in this search was partly aimed at disproving Angela’s outlandish claim…and partly in hopes that it might be true. A new best-loved author could only be welcome for any reader so avid as I. But when I did succeed in finding those out-of-print novels, dog-eared and with yellowing pages, the covers were all either lurid or trite so that I fell into short-lived disappointment. Like so…

Covers of the Demon Princes
Cover art of the Demon Princes series.

This fear was relived once I sat down to read. It is well, no doubt, that the first book dredged up from musty shelves turned out to be Star King of his five-book Demon Princes series written over a span of ten years. That book did the very thing which at the time would impress me most. It dropped me right into the middle of things almost from page one. Also right from page one, the story established a mood. I found myself immersed into an environment completely new. A place very somber and dark, overtly quiet and restful, but with looming over it a portent of very dread things to come. This it accomplished with a suffusion of atmosphere an little else. Here was a writer who did not beat into me with hammer and tongs how I should feel. Instead he slowly painted the scene in subtle hues for me to absorb. I didn’t really catch that at first. To me at the time, plot and action were the things most important. And his series, The Demon Princes, indeed has more than sufficient of those. Both of those, but also a suffusion of mood which lasts throughout. And so I have read them six more times since, and shall likely re-read them until I die.

Beneath the plot, almost unseen…but never un-felt…Vance never fails to supply a suffusion of mood. This is what holds up a Vance tale. A deep appreciation of this can hardly be absorbed on the very first reading. And until Vance, books I mostly read only once. So it was only action and plot which carried me through my first experiences of Vance. It is well that I did not begin with his most famous of tales, The Dying Earth (more properly titled Mazirian the Magician). Had that been my first Vance experience, then possibly I might have stopped there. How mistaken I would then have been.

The trouble is that I had long ago quite read my fill of Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, et al. And still had a bad taste in my mouth left from The Hobbit. This latter I had two years prior thrown down in disgust at the point where Tolkien, having written himself (quite literally) out onto a limb, suddenly shattered my suspension of disbelief by calling down a flock of eagles to rescue his cul-de-sac plot. It wasn’t the first book I’d set aside after reading part-way through. The first such had been The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein, at the time one of my most favorite writers. The Hobbit came somewhat after, and other books have followed since, most recently Mistborn by Sanderson, another author who I otherwise like very well. But never do I so put aside any story at all by Jack Vance.

With Vance I might be forced to suffer a very slow build up in service of mood, but never a disappointing deflation. And never a bi-polar mood swing. I’m sure you know what I mean. You’re reading a book, and although the plot carries smoothly forward, it feels as if the writer had put their own work aside to do something else, then took it up some months later…and forgetting how it was supposed to feel…began once again after consulting just the plot outline. Or maybe it is the continuation of the same series in a new book. The writer is now him- or herself in a different emotional state and feels the need to paint that, thickly and with a roller, over all he or she had written before. Thus to the reader, going straight from one to the next feels as if swimming in the very same lake but for no reason now the water is colder or warmer. Not so with Vance. Not even with his Demon Princes series which took over a decade to supply the last book. Oh, how I do love that series. They are my desert island list, even if I were to be permitted only just those five.

And never does Vance write himself out onto a limb of insoluble plot where only some absurd contrivance will save his bacon. At least not in Vance’s original prose. If ever you are so aggrieved, then know it for the work of a hack editor having (as Jack would put it) tarted up his manuscript before publication. Alas, that happened a lot. And much work it was to reverse the damage. Toward this most noble goal was the VIE project started and seen through right to the end: a 44-volume encyclopedic collection of all his works, carefully reconstituted back to his pristine originality (except where the author himself wished a word repaired here or there). Accomplished over a span of years, all by unpaid volunteers, no other author has been so honored within his own lifetime. And not only this, but Vance is cited as the inspiration of many another author whose name may be to you more familiar, George R. R. Martin, for one. Robert Silverberg, Neil Gaiman, and Dean Koontz for others. The list goes on. These and others, also within Vance’s lifetime, joined together to produce this: Songs of the Dying Earth. Need I say more?

To pay the bills, Vance was required to crank out his share of pot-boilers (and as it turns out, pot-boligilo does suffice for an Esperanto translation among the fluent). But even these, as has been asserted, work to establish and carry a mood. Of those which aren’t pot-boilers at all, many did grab me right from page one: Emphyrio, The Demon Princes, The Moon Moth, Three-legged Joe. Others, however, I failed to allow an adequate steep, attempting to read them too quickly: The Dying Earth, and also Lyonesse. To my then impatient mind, the plot seemed too long to build. How very mistaken I was in my first, much too rapid, readings of those. The higher the tower, the deeper must be its foundation. This is what you must be prepared for when reading Vance. Patience is not a virtue of mine. And so I missed this at first.

That was then and this is now. I have since re-read all five of the Demon Princes volumes at least seven times, his Cugel stories more often yet (if I may count MP3 audio versions). But his original sextuplet of the Dying Earth I did not get back to right away because the first time I’d read them too quickly. When after more than ten years I did at last re-read them again, by then I knew better how to read Vance…allowing the mood to seep in more deeply. And that is the thing. Plot is important, but once exposed, its impact is spent. Upon re-reading, even the most intricate plot is not improved by a study of each fine detail. Mood, however, is quite another. And this is why people re-read Jack Vance. A mood, when revisited, only deepens the more. And to absorb mood, you must steep yourself in the story. Vance is best read, however quietly to oneself, at the same speed for which might read it out loud to others. Vance constructs more subtle moods than as if you were reading it aloud to someone else. Sight-skim the text and you are sure to pass by most of the mood. Vance goes for a much deeper, more subtle quality of mood than those more cheaply attained. Other writers ply their readers with shock and awe. And those writers works I quite like as well…but seldom for more than one or two readings. Once the surprise is expended, go back and it will be less. In a further hundred years, those books will be forgotten I think. Vance, however, will surely endure.

Still, Jack Vance is not for everyone. Nor did he make the least attempt on that goal. In writing for mood over mere escapism, Suldren’s Garden spends well more than 100 pages, well near the whole book in fact, to construct a foundation of mood. The plot does not take off until right near the end. That mood, once established, buoys up the two books to follow. A rip-roaring plot which drops me into the middle of action right on page one is also something I quite enjoy. But if by page one hundred, there is no mood…or worse, if the mood is too often fractured…then I will set that book aside to pick up again later. Or perhaps not...as in the case of The Hobbit. To me a book must have both, but it’s the mood which is more important. It is the mood, more than the action, that takes me away from myself and drops me onto a far distant shore. Perhaps that is escapism too. When a writer takes me someplace, it needs to also feel differently once I do get there. Otherwise, what is the point?

And as for Cugel, it is a sore mistake to lump them together with more common action adventures. Know them for comic tragedies…or perhaps tragic comedies. Not even The Demon Princes can class quite action-adventures. While heroic, they too are slightly tragic as well, the story of a man raised from childhood to pursue a goal not at all of his choosing, doing that extremely well, succeeding every step of the way but losing bits of himself in the process. He fears to become the thing that he hates. Likewise full-bodied in heart and soul are the five villains whom he hunts down. Less so in the first book, as Attel Malagate comes off a bit too enigmatic for the reader to identify with his motives. The second villain to be hunted down, Kokor Hekkus, is more vile yet, and no less one you mind to see taken down. The last three, however, are not only types that you love to hate, but also ones that you can’t help but hate to love. You just cannot help yourself but to at times cheer them on, villain or no. And how many writers can manage that? And this is why never will I re-read Harry Potter however much I enjoyed it the first time. Voldemort strikes me as little more than some kind of magical Hitler. Nothing by way of real imagination there. Compare his like against that of those final three demon princes: Viole Falushe, Lens Larque or, best of all, Howard Alan Treesong!

Not willing to commit yourself to an entire five-novel series just for a taste of Vance’s mastery over mood? Then permit me to recommend a very short story indeed, Ullward’s Retreat. It’s set in the future but not even properly science fiction. Instead it’s about the human condition. On that one topic, this little story tells you all that you need to know. However you may feel about eBooks, they are about the only reliable source for the pure unedited versions. Here is a link where you may purchase for just $6.99: The Moon Moth and Other Stories. And should you not yet possess any kind of eReader, then here is a download link for Calibre, the very program which I use to do my translations into Esperanto at Eldonejo Mistera Sturno

Your’s sincerely,

Ĝan Ŭesli Starling

PS: Some photos from the Janurary 2000 VIE working party may be viewed here:  html