Thursday, 30 May 2013

Remembering Jack Vance

Last night I heard the news about Jack Vance’s death. He died in his sleep, aged 96, in his home in California on Sunday. He was an incredible writer who wrote over 50 novels and 100 short stories in his life, and influenced many science fiction and fantasy authors such as Ursula le Guin and George R.R. Martin.

I was introduced to Jack Vance by my dad, who’s a big fan of his work, and his books were some of the first science fiction I read. I was immediately enchanted by Vance’s unique style of writing: vivid and lyrical; his style always had a beauty and a wonderful cadence to it, even when describing the most mundane things. He would introduce a touch of courtly extravagance here, contrasted with plain speaking there, always using language to set the scene and bring his world to life. There was something slightly old fashioned about it, without ever becoming ridiculous or pretentious, and I’ve never read another writer quite like him.

It’s Jack Vance’s writing and language that I remember best about his work, but he is also an incredible character writer and ideas author. He came up with amazing concepts and worlds, and populated them with the most interesting people – perverse, strange, vain, selfish people as well as the heroic and good-intentioned. One of my favourite characters is the despicable Cugel (self-titled ‘the Clever’), possibly the best anti-hero ever written. He’s a man driven by pure selfishness, a bit useless at everything but possessing sharp survival instincts, who is never likeable yet always fascinating and very funny to read about. He somehow slimes and cheats his way through each adventure, only to end up, quite satisfyingly for the reader, in a worse place than where he started.

Jack Vance will probably be remembered best for his Dying Earth books, all set in the far future where the Sun is dying, the population of the Earth has shrunk, “the continents have sunk and risen. A million cities have lifted towers, have fallen to dust”. The Dying Earth is a fantastic setting that combines science fiction and fantasy elements – magic and adventure and strange artefacts in a distant future in which mankind’s days are coming to an end.

I would recommend the Dying Earth books to any science fiction and fantasy fan; you’re sure to find something surprising here. The world combines elements of old adventure stories, knightly romances, classic sci-fi, and an almost mythical feel. Jack Vance had an amazing imagination and was highly skilled at creating both a fantastic atmosphere and larger-than-life characters who burst from the page. Another weird and wonderful setting is Lyonesse, where more traditionally fantasy (though still with weird and sci-fi elements thrown in now and again) stories take place.

Vance’s stories themselves are often very simple, and his plots are not as strong as other elements. Some of his characterisation and the ways people interact will also seem very old fashioned now, like reading old Ray Bradbury stories. However, the writing, characters and worlds are enough to lift the plots, and I guarantee that you will have never read anything quite like it.

He has written so many books it would be impossible to talk about them all here, but if you are a fan of classic but strange science fiction, there are plenty of marvellous works to choose from. I would recommend the Dying Earth, Lyonesse, and the Demon Princes series, which takes the age-old revenge story and places it in space. Kirth Gersen is on a mission to kill those responsible for his family’s deaths, and his adventures, his methods for finding his targets, and his solutions to sticky situations, are all fascinating and exciting.

I would also recommend Jack Vance’s short stories, which can be overlooked but in many cases are just as good or even better than his novels. Short stories showcase Vance’s incredible imagination and his ability to evoke atmosphere and emotion, without needing long and complicated plots. They therefore play to his strengths, and it is some of his short stories that have, in fact, stayed with me the longest. Try Fantasms & Magics, a collection that contains some of my favourites.

Jack Vance, deservedly so, will always be remembered as one of science fiction and fantasy’s greats, and if you’ve never tried his books, I urge you to give one a read.


  1. Christ that's a good age.. 96.

    I've actually been looking into his books recently as I have Songs of the Dying Earth which I picked up in The Works a couple of years ago, but I want to read his version first.

    1. Ooh I really want to read that! It's edited by George R.R. Martin, I think? Looks good. Yes, I would definitely recommend reading Jack Vance's Dying Earth first though, to get a feel of the original. I think there's actually one Dying Earth book before The Eyes of the Overworld, but I think The Eyes of the Overworld is perhaps the best place to start, as it introduces Cugel, who becomes the main character for later books too. Hope you enjoy Vance when you do get round to reading him! :-)