RIP Jack Vance

by stephenpalmersf

RIP Jack Vance

Sad today to hear that Jack Vance has died, after a long, illustrious and inventive life.

Jack Vance was one of the first SF/Fantasy authors I discovered as a teenager, along with such luminaries as John Wyndham, Frank Herbert and Tolkien. But Jack Vance was somehow different. The colourful imagined worlds, the surreal characters in even more surreal situations, and of course the unique prose and the unique words he had his characters say – all these combined to form a body of work the like of which we will never see again.

My first exposure to this unique imagination was the Demon Princes quintet, in which coolly vengeful Kirth Gersen tramps across the known and unknown universe hunting down five criminals responsible for a horrific event in his childhood. The best of these books was The Face, with its extraordinarily vibrant and exotic cultures, its cunning plot, its horrors and its joys – the only book of the series I re-read. After the Demon Princes books I discovered many more of Jack Vance’s one-offs, and also Big Planet (and its sequel Showboat World), which was another classic world of adventure, plot, sub-plot and really wild things… Vance could also do thought-provoking, for example The Languages Of Pao. The Grey Prince meanwhile featured a really strange other-worldly society, which without effort the author made entirely his own.

Jack Vance though will perhaps be most fondly remembered for two iconic series – the Dying Earth series and the Lyonesse trilogy. The former spawned a whole sub-genre of SF, led by Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, which for me remains SF’s greatest work. Jack Vance’s Dying Earth was a maze of magic and lyrical speculation, of mages and freebooters questing for this, that and other, and all in prose as beautiful and vibrant as Art Nouveau jewellery – every image a gem. The series also spawned one of Vance’s most engaging characters, namely the loveable rogue Cugel.

For me though Jack Vance’s very finest work was the Lyonesse trilogy, particularly the first two books (I have mild reservations about the third one, which includes the kind of distasteful, misogynistic fantasy occasionally created by older men). The zest with which Jack Vance entered this fantasy world made its complex, strange, remarkable and eventually satisfying plot all the better, carried by another of its author’s finest characters, King Aillas. With Lyonesse, Jack Vance seemed to entertain all the tropes of myth and fantasy, throw them into a melting pot and emerge with something so sparkling, full of life, wit and wisdom that as a narrative he never bettered it. Lyonesse stands alongside Lord Of The Rings in my opinion. The British editions of the novels were also notable for their wonderful Mick Van Houten covers, amongst the most beautiful paintings that artist has ever done.

Jack Vance’s later work was perhaps pale in comparison to the sparkling early and mid-period works. Nightlamp was good, but the Cadwal Chronicles were perhaps a little tired, as was Lurulu, the last novel I bought by the author. But his legacy is a collection of books that can be returned to and enjoyed on and on.

So, farewell Jack Vance. You were Great.