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December, 2004 : Essay:

An Individualist and a World Creator

The Career of Jack Vance

Jack Vance is one of the great masters of science fiction and fantasy, even if he has never gained the popularity of, say, Asimov or Heinlein. Appreciation for Vance's writing has been deep rather than broad; instead of popping up on bestseller lists, he has a devoted cadre of readers, to the extent that his work is being reprinted in uniform hardcover editions, a treatment virtually unknown for an SF writer1. Although SF is a genre that allows great leeway to the imagination, too much of the field is repetitive and derivative, a tendency that Vance has resisted, managing to write at a consistently high level and to stand out as one of SF's true individualists.

Whereas some writers alter their work every decade to keep selling, Vance's writing developed largely in response to his interests, focusing on the subgenres of planetary romance and space opera, regardless of whether those genres were in mode or not. Vance's novels rely upon common genre motifs of galactic empires, FTL travel, space pirates, space yachts, and an occasional alien, but he makes his writing unique by combining the motifs like a master jazz musician playing variations on traditional riffs.

Vance began writing in the mid-1940s, when most pulp magazine SF was fairly primitive, and his earliest work—mostly Magnus Ridolph tales—reflects that. It doesn't contain the more unique aspects of his later writing. His first major work was The Dying Earth (1950), an influential novel that develops planetary romances and the far future tale. Clark Ashton Smith certainly wrote in the vein before Vance, who acknowledged the influence, but Vance made the motifs his own. The melancholy early tales inspired a number of writers including Michael Shea, M. John Harrison, and Gene Wolfe, who says at one point in his life he considered The Dying Earth a book of gold, “the finest book in the world,”2 which is a bit of an exaggeration but does demonstrate the hold the book has on some readers.

A series of short stories linked by shared characters, themes and settings, The Dying Earth succeeds because its consistent irony and baroque prose create a sense of a dark and melancholic world in which humanity has forgotten most of its knowledge and relies on sorcery rather than science. Humanity has degenerated into savagery or decadence with little hope as the sun slowly dies overhead.

The book's linguistic marvels include its baroque language and ironic dialogue. Vance has a knack for creating the right term and name for things, people and places: spells such as “Phandaal's Gyrator Spell,” “Expansible Egg,” “The Excellent Prismatic Spray,” “The Charm of Untiring Nourishment,” and “the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere”; beasts such as Doedands, erks, and Twk-men. The novel contains odd, humorous plot twists and bizarre cultures with strange taboos and customs, motifs relied on in later work as well.

After Dying Earth his next significant novel is the dystopic To Live Forever (1956). The novel lacks a traditional SF protagonist. Instead of a problem solver or a sympathetic liberator, the protagonist Waylock is an antihero who murders a number of people and destroys everyone around him, including his social order. As the head of the police force says, Waylock “trail[s] a black shadow after [him]; ...horror follows close behind.”3 Throughout the novel we sense Waylock has little choice: backed against the wall he responds to the corrupt society he lives in. Ultimately failing to overcome its limitations, Waylock manipulates his society in ways that eventually destroy it. The internal contradictions would have caused it to fail anyway; Waylock just hastens the collapse. By the novel's end, Waylock symbolizes the immoral decisions everyone in his culture makes because of the corrupt dystopia they live in.

Big Planet (1957) stands out as Vance's second major Planetary Romance, a genre he improves through clever world building. Although Big Planet is much larger than Earth—and Vance puts much descriptive power in its vast horizons—the gravity is Earth-like because it contains few metals in its crust. Because of the metal shortage, the human settlers have no electricity, no long distance communication, and no technical civilization.

Big Planet is the destination of nonconformists. Earth and its colony worlds are utopias: rigid static societies that have largely banished injustice. People who cannot stand living in a rigid society go to Big Planet where they can live as they want, but on a world without any central authority. Each community lives according to its own laws and customs, even if they are unjust. No authority stops raiders from enslaving and killing. The dialectic between community control/individual freedom is a common theme of Vance's, and this novel, with its anarchistic planet, is one of the first examples. The adventure, romance, energy, and excitement of the novel lies in the the planet's anarchy. However, Earth's communal Utopia is more just, and the protagonist, as a representative of that community, attempts to bring justice to Big Planet while allowing it some autonomy.

The planet is so large that the human communities have spread out and evolved into a patchwork of cultures, some quite bizarre. The different cultures allow Vance to avoid a traditional weakness of space opera, which sometimes revolves around a planet that has one culture (if that), one political system, one industry, and one climate (water planet, swamp planet, ice planet, etc.).

Vance's world building can be contrasted to that of Hal Clement, who in Mission of Gravity extrapolates in impressive detail the physical features of Mesklin—its chemistry and physics—and creates a world that has methane seas and gravity so strong that virtually any fall kills. Clement's aliens are physically well portrayed—foot long centipede-like creatures with thirty-six legs, built close to the ground with a pathological fear of falling—but the aliens do not have a unique culture or psychology; they behave like nineteenth-century salty dogs. A world so bizarre would not produce aliens which behave like caricatures of nineteenth century sailors.

Vance designs one intriguing culture after another, and his humans are often more unusual than many writers' aliens. One innovative culture is Kirstendale, where everyone is a part-time aristocrat but must work two hours for every hour they spend in the ranks of the leisured, thus creating an a nonexploitative aristocratic culture: every citizen gets to be a pampered snob but at the cost of serving as a servant most of the time.

Big Planet does however have structural faults, which it shares with The Dying Earth; it reads at times like a collection of adventures rather than a cohesive novel. Throughout his career, Vance's work is sometimes bedeviled by structural problems, inventively picaresque but unfocused.

After Big Planet, Vance wrote several significant singlets: The Languages of Pao (1958), The Dragon Masters (1963), The Blue Planet (1966) and later The Last Castle (1967). Languages of Pao is one of the few SF books to deal with linguistics as a science, taking the theory that language creates culture and behavior and using it as a thought experiment. The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle each won Hugo awards. In The Dragon Masters humans breed captured aliens as warriors, whereas the aliens use genetically engineered humans as warriors and slaves.

The Last Castle is a far-future tale that contains Vance's usual virtues, such as a richly imagined aristocratic, decadent culture and ironic dialogue, with the addition of an alien species humans have enslaved. The aliens rebel against human control, not to gain their freedom, which would be a human motivation, but solely because of a misunderstanding between the species. The aliens share a group mind, and when they hear one human give a speech advocating returning the aliens to their home world, they rebel and destroy most of the communities on earth, even though the aliens' home world is so hellish that they prefer living in slavery on Earth. Because they have no concept of individualism, the aliens think the speaker expresses not his personal view but the intent of the human race.

Most of Vance's work from the mid-'60s forward consists of a number of series. He returns to Big Planet for Showboat World (1975). He sets several more books on his Dying Earth: The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Cugel's Saga (1983), Rhialto the Marvellous (1984).

The four-part Planet of Adventure series is an especially fine planetary romance (City of the Chasch [1968], Servants of the Wankh [1969], The Dirdir [1969], The Pnume [1970], omnibus Planet of Adventure [1984]). The novel has several interesting alien races: the Blue and Green Chasch, the Wankh, the Pnume, and the Dirdir. Each of these races owns human slaves captured and imported from Earth, selectively bred and raised to resemble the aliens that dominate them. The Pnume are a bizarre underground race who record the wars and happenings on the surface and catalog that history in their museums for no discernable reason other than entertainment. The other races think the Pnume are crazy because of their undecipherable motives. The tree-dwelling Dirdir are a harsh, imperialistic race who hunt humans and other races for sport, taking pride in their carnivorous nature and making sure they don't lose their “edge.” The males have twelve different types of sexual organs and the females fourteen. Each individual Dirdir keeps it a carefully guarded secret what exact type of sexual organ s/he possesses.

The Alastor trilogy is another example of Vance's ability to build powerful worlds and cultures. Each volume portrays a different world with a unique zeitgeist. One of Vance's chief pleasures as a writer—aside from his baroque style—involves creating cultures and worlds. After developing a world, he does not always seem keen on repeating himself by returning to it, which may be one reason it has taken him so long to complete some series (The Demon Prince books, for example, took nearly twenty years to complete). Each Alastor novel focuses on an individual planet, thus the series is linked only by being set in the same universe, allowing Vance to write three very different novels and call the work a trilogy. Why would he do this? I suspect because a series sells better, and he has to deal with commercial concerns to make a living.

The first of the Alastor worlds is Trullion: Alastor 2262 (1973), a hedonistic world that values beauty and leisure more than productivity. The relative comfort and ease of Trullion is disrupted by a new philosophy, Fanscherade, which is vaguely Nietzschean and focuses on striving and egotism. Fanscherade develops as a reaction to the hedonist, easy-going life on Trullion. Its adherents want to accomplish something unique and set themselves off from others. Trullion youth practice Fanscherade and cause a low-level war near the novel's end.

Trullion, like the other novels in this series, contains a lot of mystery motifs. Vance wrote a number of mystery novels, including some Ellery Queen novels, and often adds mystery elements to his SF. Trullion is not the best entry in the trilogy: its central mystery is easy enough to figure out that it detracts from the suspense. Also, the clash of philosophies is not always riveting. It ranks as an average novel for Vance, but its true value is that it introduces us to the world of Alastor and the last two novels, which are superb.

In Marune: Alastor 933 (1975), the narrator suffers from amnesia and finds himself in a spaceport, not knowing his name or his origin. Amnesia is an old mystery motif, but Vance makes good use of it. Over the course of the novel, the narrator discovers his personal history and how he lost his memory; in addition, Vance introduces us to the culture of the Rhunes through the narrator's gradual understanding of the world around him, allowing him to portray his world without excessive info-dumping.

The different phases of Marune's suns shape Rhune culture. Four stars reside in the planet's vicinity, giving it varying amounts of light, rather than an alteration of day and night. During the different phases of light—all of which the Rhunes have named—they practice different forms of etiquette; behavior acceptable during one phase is considered a faux pas or worse during another. In various phases people study, practice formal ceremonies and fight duels. Once a month during Mirk the land lies dark: repressed instincts are released; people kill and commit horrible deeds with no one held responsible.

Sebalism is the Rhune concept for sexuality. Rhunes frown on intimacy and touching; sex only occurs during Mirk as rape. Marriage consists of a joining of economic or political forces and has nothing to do with love or sex. Lineage is maternal and the man who raises a child may or may not be his biological father. This is a finely detailed world, quite unlike any other in science fiction.

Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978) is another fine novel set within the milieu of the Alastor universe, but has its own unique set of concerns: satirizing egalitarianism and demonstrating Vance's libertarian political views.

The Wyst philosophy is egalism. Arrabins—citizens of Wyst—only work thirteen hours a week, their “drudge.” They drudge for their apartment block and for the state. Instead of working the same jobs every week, Arrabins are randomly assigned work by lottery; thus, no one has any particular expertise. Arrabins do not know how to perform even simple tasks like repairing the phone. Well-paid outsiders termed contractors perform the important jobs.

The Arrabin system produces little but leisure, and although citizens are paid for their drudge there are no real goods to buy. They eat the same monotonous processed food for every meal: gruff and deedle, with a bit of wobbly to fill in the chinks. They lust madly for bonter, which is real, unprocessed food. The novel contains a lot of humor as we view the absurdities of the Arrabin system. It also has a lot of writing about food, more than any work of science fiction I'm aware of.

In addition to the economic limitations of egalitarianism, Vance portrays the perverse psychological effect of the philosophy. The Arrabin obsession with equality causes them to take virtually nothing seriously: sex and relationships are devalued; they achieve nothing and strive for nothing.

Arrabins condemn sexivation, the expression of sexuality or acknowledgment of sexual differences, refusing to use male or female pronouns, thus denying and subordinating even biological realities to “egalism.”

Envy is the basis for egalism—a common critique of egalitarianism. Although the Arrabins defend egalism and push it to absurd lengths, no one really wants to be “equal.” The novel's plot and at least one subplot swirl around attempts by several Arrabins to obtain money and easy access to bonter.

These novels contain a number of brilliant touches: mystery plots, political satire, brilliant extrapolation of worlds and cultures and excellent use of language. The humor and dialogue tends towards irony.

For the most part Vance is a storyteller who dislikes putting messages in his work. But another Vance novel that critiques egalitarianism is Empyrio (1967), which portrays a planet of artisans the government supports through a massive initiative-crushing welfare state. Everyone has equal income regardless of his/her talents or willingness to work. The novel satirizes socialism and the welfare state, portraying it as slavery hidden under a mask of benevolence. It stands out as a powerful individualist novel, composed with panache and style.

The Demon Prince novels are another series that gets stronger as it progresses (Star King [1964], The Killing Machine [1964], The Palace of Love [1967], The Face [1979], and The Book of Dreams [1981]). The basic premise is that five “Demon Princes” invade a world and kill or enslave its inhabitants except for a couple of escapees: Kirth Gersen, who loses both his parents, and his grandfather, who trains him in combat so he can avenge himself on the Demon Princes. Each volume revolves around Gersen tracking down and killing one of the princes. The central revenge quest is an old motif, but these books fascinate through their mystery elements and revelation of each villain's character. The master criminals are, underneath it all, pathetic bullies who are making up for the abuse they endured while growing up. The novels abound in humor, irony, and bizarre interactions with exotic cultures.

Another interesting touch are the Borges-like excerpts from imaginary books leading off every chapter: scraps of poetry, handbooks to the planets, theology, philosophical treatises, a poet's table talk, food criticism, academic writing, journalism, and The Book of Dreams, the imaginative diary of the fifth Demon Prince. The series even contains footnotes; it must be one of the few SF series to use that device.

In the mid-'80s Vance concentrated on fantasy rather than space opera: two more Dying Earth novels and the Lyonesse trilogy. This shift was probably commercial, since big fantasy novels sold quite well in the ‘80s, but what he produced was hardly cookie-cutter.

The later Dying Earth fantasies are just as compelling as the original volume, focusing on the character Cugel, an amoral rogue who Vance has identified as his favorite character. Cugel the Clever is a con man, a fantasy hero vastly different from Conan; Cugel defeats more powerful opponents such as Iucounu the Laughing Magician through wit and luck, not brawn. I find the two Cugel Dying Earth novels The Eyes of the Overworld (1966) and Cugel's Saga (1983) hilarious because of the relentlessly ironic dialogue and the characters' roguish behavior.

The fantasy of Lyonesse (Lyonesse I [1983], Lyonesse II [1985], and Lyonesse III [1989]) is set two generations before Arthur but doesn't really resemble most Arthurian fantasy except in some of its outward trappings. It is an even more stylistically refined trilogy than Dying Earth, containing many genre elements such as faeries, magic, and warring kingdoms, but having a flavor all its own.

Vance still publishes fiction, although less prolifically. I don't find any decline in the last couple of novels he's written, space operas set in the Gaen Reach Universe: Night Lamp (1996) and Ports of Call (1998). A new Vance novel, Lurulu, was just published this month.

Vance has approached his career as a thorough-going individualist. He has never been completely in the mainstream of SF, tending to avoid conventions. His baroque prose distinguishes him from most SF writers, who rely on a more straightforward style. His choice of genres harks to the past, and he hasn't conformed to trends like new wave or cyberpunk. The same was true in his earlier writing as well: when the most prominent style was that propounded by Campbell's Astounding, he wrote A. Merritt/Clark Ashton Smith/Leigh Brackett-style science fantasy. One of the pleasures that many SF&F readers search for is a writer's ability to create another world. Vance stands out as a master of this illusion, crafting universes as fully realized and complex as anything Frank Herbert, Tolkien, or anyone else in the genre can manage.


  1. The Vance Integral Edition is the corrected, preferred edition of Vance’s complete works in forty volumes. See The Vance Integral Edition web site. Back
  2. Gene Wolfe, The Castle of the Otter, Willimantic, Connecticut: Ziesing Brothers,1982, p.1. Back
  3. Jack Vance, To Live Forever (New York: ibooks, 2004), 214. Back

Copyright © 2004, Robert Bee. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Bee

Robert Bee is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. For his dayjob he manages a library in Trenton. He has published over 30 short stories and a dozen book reviews in magazines, e-zines and anthologies such as Outer Darkness, Parchment Symbols, Letter Magazine, Blue Murder, Parageography, Alienskin, Glyph, Cabal Asylum, Welcome to Nod, Nocturnal Ooze, Dark Krypt, Kings of the Night.