(Belated) Happy Birthday, Jack Vance!


John “Jack” Holbrook Vance was born on 8/28/1916, just a little over one hundred years ago yesterday.

“Who is Jack Holbrook Vance?” you may ask.

Come, I will explain presently!

The man named Jack Vance came from a moneyed family, but upon a turn of fortune was forced from youth to work an assortment of jobs, including bellhop, carpenter, surveyor, ceramicist, a laborer upon a gold dredge, and as an electrician at Pearl Harbor.

He was unable to serve in the military due to weak eyesight, but in 1943 he apparently memorized an eye chart and was able to join the Merchant Marine. It wasn’t until the 1970s that he established himself fully as a writer of mystery and scifi/fantasy.

Vance was also a big fan of jazz and an amateur musician.  He traveled extensively. He was close friends with Frank Herbert, author of Dune, and scifi/fantasy great Poul Anderson. The three built a houseboat together, as a matter of fact!

In the 1980s Vance went legally blind, though he continued to write in a diminished capacity.

Vance has been cited as an inspiration to a number of popular authors, such as Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, and George R. R. Martin.

“And?” you ask.

That’s not enough for you?! Well, Jack Vance also inspired the magic system for D&D! How about that?

My first exposure to Vance was through the Cirsova blog. I had come across a writeup of The Gray Prince, which caught my eye. If you’re not interested in the economic discussion piece of the article (though I think it goes to show how layered Vance’s writing can be), drop down a little to…

Lastly, I’d note that the Uldras cannot have failed to shape Morrowind’s Dunmer; I’d never believe you if you told me that no one on Bethesda’s creative team had read and loved this book. Blue nomadic people, some of whom are content with their political status in an imperial colony, others of whom violently hold onto traditions and are just as at odds with their fellows as they are the outsiders? Uldras or Dunmer? Slavers who moralize about ancestral land rights? Uldras or Dunmer? The blue nomads who want the outsiders to leave are the ones with slaves and the blue nomads who are okay with the outsiders are not? Uldras or Dunmer? I could go on, but I won’t. At least not today.

Wha – inspiration for Morrowind?! Hot dog – let me on this ride! And so I read, and I thought my own thoughts. The verdict was that The Gray Prince was awesome and I wanted more.

It took me a while to return to Vance, but when I read the Dying Earth, I was simply blown away. The seamless integration of fantasy and science fiction; the rich description; the imaginative magics and variety of artifacts; the wit and affectations and personality of Vance’s characters – moi (imagine I just brought my fingers to my lips and then briskly reversed the motion with a kiss)!

Since reading all the Dying Earth tales, I’ve read the first three books of the Demon Princes series, the first of the Alastor books, The Blue World, and The Narrow Land and Dust of Far Suns collections. I’m currently two deep on the Planet of Adventure series and still going.

One element of Vance’s writings that has continued to impress me is his mastery of the language, particularly of obscure words. Hell, I could probably do a month or two of “Word-Hoard” posts featuring Jack Vance excerpts. Vance uses the words in such a way that you’re sometimes driven to reach for a dictionary, but often can glean the meaning by his usage, which is as it should be. You don’t want to abstrusely throw around million-dollar words, willy-nilly,  just because you can.

Second, I absolutely love the strangeness of his worlds, and the way the devices of his imagining differ, sometimes wildly, from the common tropes you see nowadays. For example, one of the peoples in the Planet of Adventure books wear “hand catapults” on their wrists that can fire deadly bolts. So far as I can tell, these weapons are basically wrist crossbows, but how much cooler does “hand catapult” sound?

I could go on and on about Jack Vance and his stories, and rest assured there will be many Vance-related musings and gushings to come. But for now, a belated happy birthday to one of scifi/fantasies grandmasters! His works are due for a resurgence, and I hope that I may play some small part in evangelizing a new generation of fans.

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