Thursday, May 30, 2013


Jack Vance RIP

One of the best writers of the past hundred years died last Sunday night, while I happened to be sleeping under the stars on Oxwich Beach. I felt oddly troubled the following day. I don't believe in telepathy, ghosts, supernatural events; on the other hand I don't not believe in them. It was as if I felt an important part falling off the engine of the world. It was Vance, of course, but I didn't find that out until yesterday.

If I hadn't discovered the works of Vance I probably wouldn't be a writer today. He kept me going by showing me that it was possible for fantasy and other genre works to be clever, witty, wise and sophisticated literature. He was a master of imagination, invention, colour, mythology and wry ironic humour, heir to the 'muscular baroque' comedies of Richard Garnett, Ernest Bramah and James Branch Cabell (though he more often cited P.G. Wodehouse as his biggest influence).

The first Vance story I ever read was 'The Last Castle', a novelette that impressed me with its epic qualities at an age when I was very Homeric in my tastes. But it was The Eyes of the Overworld that really turned me into a Vance devotee. I discovered this book when I was 19 years old and it has remained my favourite fantasy novel ever since: it's a collection of linked picaresque adventures featuring a rogue by the name of Cugel the Clever. Saturated with irony, the anti-jingo tone, quirky humour and 'Reynardine' aspects of the story perfectly appealed to me. The book also has one of the best circular plots I have encountered.

The Eyes of the Overworld is only one of four books in a grand sequence called Tales of the Dying Earth. I can think of no finer single volume in the entire history of fantasy writing. This is definitely one of my 'desert island' books; in fact it might well be THE desert island book for me (its only rival: Calvino's Our Ancestors). I found the cumulative effect of the separate parts of this masterwork to be utterly overwhelming: the beauty, wistfulness, cunning, bitterness, sweetness, everything richly but also sombrely coloured. There is something that connects deep with the human psyche (or at least with my psyche) in Vance's vision of a farflung future Earth that is home to the last gasp of humanity, where technology and real magic coexist and the exhortation carpe diem has never been more important and never made more futile by weariness and resignation.

Although Tales of the Dying Earth is my ultimate choice as a Vance classic, he wrote many other astounding works that I have enjoyed almost as much. Big Planet has lodged itself firmly in my memory; the Durdane sequence is equally wonderful; the Demon Princes series is superb too; to say nothing of The Blue World, Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery and the magnificent Showboat World... Next on my reading list are The Dragon Masters and the Alastor trilogy. I have never yet read a bad Vance work.

JACK VANCE (1916-2013)

I can't say it better.

I remember reading "Liane the Wayfarer" a very long time ago, and thinking something like, *that* can happen in a fantasy story? I liked his stories before I was writing my own, and now that I am writing I really love them -- I'm always in awe of how finely his plots are constructed, and yet they don't seem labored over. I feel like he must have written very intuitively.
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