Jack Vance

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

Science-fiction grand master Jack Vance recently passed away at the age of 96.  He lived a full life:

John Holbrook Vance was born August 28, 1916 in San Francisco CA. He worked as a bellhop, in a cannery, and on a gold dredge before attending the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied engineering, physics, and journalism, though he never graduated. A lifelong musician and music lover, Vance’s first published works were jazz reviews for The Daily Californian.

Vance worked as an electrician at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, leaving the area a month before the December 1941 attack that brought the US into WWII. His poor eyesight made it impossible for him to serve in the military, but he memorized an eye chart and joined the Merchant Marine. He wrote his first published story, “The World-Thinker” (1945), while at sea. Before becoming a full-time writer in the 1970s, he worked as a seaman, surveyor, and carpenter, among other occupations. He married Norma Genevieve Ingold in 1946; she died in 2008. Vance traveled the world extensively, living and writing in Tahiti, South Africa, Italy, and Kashmir, among other locales.

He published short fiction prolifically in the pulps in the late ’40s and early ’50s, contributing regularly to Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Notable short works include “Telek” (1952), “The Moon Moth” (1961), and Hugo- and Nebula-award winning novella “The Last Castle” (1966).

Vance is perhaps best known for his Dying Earth stories, which hold the dubious distinction of inspiring D&D‘s idiosyncratic magic system:

As he sat gazing across the darkening land, memory took Turjan to a night of years before, when the Sage had stood beside him.

“In ages gone,” the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, “a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills. Today, as Earth dies, a hundred spells remain to man’s knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books … But there is one called Pandelume, who knows all the spells, all the incantations, cantraps, runes, and thaumaturgies that have ever wrenched and molded space .. .” He had fallen silent, lost in his thoughts.

“Where is this Pandelume?” Turjan had asked presently.

“He dwells in the land of Embelyon,” the Sage had replied, “but where this land lies, no one knows.”

“How does one find Pandelume, then?”

The Sage had smiled faintly. “If it were ever necessary, a spell exists to take one there.”

Both had been silent a moment; then the Sage had spoken, staring out over the forest

“One may ask anything of Pandelume, and Pandelume will answer—provided that the seeker performs the service Pandelume requires. And Pandelume drives a hard bargain.”

Then the Sage had shown Turjan the spell in question, which he had discovered in an ancient portfolio, and kept secret from all the world.

Turjan, remembering this conversation, descended to his study, a long low hall with stone walls and a stone floor deadened by a thick russet rug. The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short blue cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel’s Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

He climbed the parapets of his castle and stood under the far stars, breathing the air of ancient Earth … How many times had this air been breathed before him? What cries of pain had this air experienced, what sighs, laughs, war shouts, cries of exultation, gasps…

The night was wearing on. A blue light wavered in the forest. Turjan watched a moment, then at last squared himself and uttered the Call to the Violent Cloud.

All was quiet; then came a whisper of movement swelling to the roar of great winds. A wisp of white appeared and waxed to a pillar of boiling black smoke. A voice deep and harsh issued from the turbulence.

“At your disturbing power is this instrument come; whence will you go?”

“Four Directions, then One,” said Turjan. “Alive must I be brought to Embelyon.”

The cloud whirled down; far up and away he was snatched, flung head over heels into incalculable distance.

Four directions was he thrust, then one, and at last a great blow hurled him from the cloud, sprawled him into Embelyon.

Turjan gained his feet and tottered a moment, half-dazed. His senses steadied; he looked about him.

He stood on the bank of a limpid pool. Blue flowers grew, about his ankles and at his back reared a grove of tall blue-green trees, the leaves blurring on high into mist. Was Embelyon of Earth? The trees were Earth-like, the flowers were of familiar form, the air was of the same texture … But there was an odd lack to this land and it was difficult to determine. Perhaps it came of the horizon’s curious vagueness, perhaps from the blurring quality of the air, lucent and uncertain as water. Most strange, however, was the sky, a mesh of vast ripples and cross-ripples, and these refracted a thousand shafts of colored light, rays which in mid-air wove wondrous laces, rainbow nets, in all the jewel hues. So as Turjan watched, there swept over him beams of claret, topaz, rich violet, radiant green. He now perceived that the colors of the flowers and the trees were but fleeting functions of the sky, for now the flowers were of salmon tint, and the trees a dreaming purple. The flowers deepened to copper, then with a suffusion of crimson, warmed through maroon to scarlet, and the trees had become sea-blue.

“The Land None Knows Where,” said Turjan to himself. “Have I been brought high, low, into a pre-existence or into the after-world?” He looked toward the horizon and thought to see a black curtain rising high into the murk, and this curtain encircled the land in all directions.

Vance’s Dying Earth stories are also known for their sesquipedalian loquaciousness.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    I read a lot of his stuff in the 60s and 70s. The Dying Earth is still on my bookshelf.

    What a great life. Thank you for telling me the back story.

    So much of classical SF is unreadable today. One thinks especially of Heinlein, which I read entire. But Vance is still readable. What happened? Is it us?

  2. Isegoria says:

    I don’t know if most Golden Age science fiction is unreadable today, but I did recently reconfirm that I do not grok Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.

    (When exactly is the Golden Age of science fiction? The joke is that it’s 13 years old.)

  3. I haven’t reread any Heinlein other than Starship Troopers since I was in high school (2006), but I found his prose unproblematic. Since then I’ve read most of H. Beam Piper as well as E.E. Smith’s Skylark series and noticed no oddities other than some linguistic archaisms in the latter; reasonable as it was written over 70 years ago.

    Prior to that I read pretty much every sci-fi story I could get my hands on, quite a lot of it from the Golden Age. Not much of it was up to Gene Wolfe’s writing standards, but I remember only rarely putting things down because of that kind of unreadability.

    Then again I might just be weird. I like Lovecraft’s prose, for instance. Could never understand all the criticism over things like using “rugose” to describe something that was… well, rugose.

  4. Isegoria says:

    I read Starship Troopers during my own Golden Age of Science Fiction, and I felt it held up when i re-read recently. (Don’t get me started on the movie.) So I have a soft spot for Heinlein. That said, I haven’t really enjoyed much else of his, now that I think about it.

    Stranger in a Strange Land made little sense to me a year or two after I first read Starship Troopers, and I reconfirmed that I still don’t grok it.

    The Cat Who Walks Through Walls never worked for me.

    Glory Road was… fine.

    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress seemed like it should be right up my alley, but it was… jusk OK.

    Farnham’s Freehold was… OK.

  5. Isegoria says:

    H. Beam Piper’s Space Viking is cursed with a terrible title — and rather wooden characters — but it struck me as very Moldbuggian and neo-reactionary. I suppose the historical parallels may be a bit too on the nose, as well — but I found it curiously compelling nonetheless.

    I haven’t read Skylark, but I have read (most of) E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen novels, which aren’t so much good as influential. Really, just about everything in sci-fi comes from Smith’s space operas.

    It’s fitting that you’d mention Gene Wolfe in a tribute to Jack Vance — but I never much enjoyed his New Sun novels. I guess Vance’s dark humor makes such dark post-apocalyptic futures palatable.

    Lastly, Lovecraft’s writing has a certain unspeakable something, but I wouldn’t call it good. And kudos for using rugose as your example. I’m so used to eldritch, cyclopean , non-Euclidian, etc.

  6. Isegoria says:

    If you want readable science fiction from the Golden Age, pick up The Science Fiction Hall of Fame — every volume.

  7. You know, now that you mention it a lot of Heinlein’s widely talked about stuff like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and Farnham’s Freehold didn’t really do anything for me either. When I think of Heinlein, though, what I generally have in mind are his early novels and short stories about the exploration and settling of the solar system; the works he wrote before he became “The Dean of Science Fiction.”

    I agree with regards to Space Viking. It seems like Piper had two modes, one where his characters suffered but the political/historical aspect was very well developed and another in which his characters were well developed and the political/historical context is less filled in. For a good example of the former (and the acme of reactionary scifi, in my opinion) try Uller Uprising. Little Fuzzy on the other hand is representative of the second mode. If Piper had a major weakness, it was titles.

    The New Sun novels are a real slog, but in the same way Dostoevsky can be. It’s… intellectually nourishing I suppose is the closest I can come to a meaningful description. And a masterwork of prose; I once read the same chapter in Book of the New Sun four times in a row and got four completely unique narratives that were each equally but independently illuminative of the main plot.

    I think what separates people who love Lovecraft from people who can’t stand him (I’ve rarely found another category) is how impacted they are by that “unspeakable something.” In my case I discovered his writings at the same time I was seriously academically studying metaphysics, quantum mechanics, and the limitations of general relativity. Some of the things he was getting at seemed and still seem very important to me, though I honestly struggle to get it into words.

  8. I admit that growing up fairly prole has resulted in a higher-than-average tolerance for crappy writing/filmmaking, as long as I can connect with an interesting idea at the heart of the story/setting. To steal a term of Larry Niven’s, my tendency is to go hunting for “playgrounds of the mind” and ignore the dross attached to them.

  9. Isegoria says:

    I’ve been meaning to read both Uller Uprising and Little Fuzzy. (They’re available for free, in electronic format, by the way.)

    Lovecraft’s modern post-Christian nihilism really stands out to me after spending some time in the neo-reacto-sphere. He’s clearly doing something interesting, even if it’s flawed.

    And I wouldn’t consider it “prole” so much as “geeky” to seek out “playgrounds of the mind” — and no one around here is going to cast the first stone on that point.

  10. Several months ago I went through a bout of illness that had me more or less confined to bed for a week, and I chose to spend it reading fiction. For anyone with an I-Device, I strongly suggest Apple’s free “classics” library, as it has a lot more than just what most people consider the classics. They have tons of old scifi and fantasy, including some very obscure works. It’s all available elsewhere for free but its nice to have it collected together and formatted decently, and you can find things by browsing that you’d never think to go looking for.

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