Some prefatory remarks:
This is a work in progress, initially motivated by my desire to learn as much as I could about my favorite author and his works. Rather than hoard this information, I have invested the time and effort to compose this account because it is a special pleasure to share one’s enthusiasms with others.
I have constructed this account like a quilt, stitching together quotes and information from more than 60 sources, including interviews with Vance, reports on visits to his home and his public appearances, his own autobiographical essay and wife Norma’s published recollections, Brian Herbert’s biography of his father Frank, many critical essays and reviews, and my own few hours of personal conversation. I have chosen not to clutter the text with citations, like an academic treatise, but I will be happy to provide source references to anyone with a need to know. The final version will include a complete listing of sources.
This account is presented in two parts: first, a synoptic biography and running commentary on Vance’s stories and novels as they appeared, then a set of discussions on various topics that do not lend themselves to chronological presentation. I have generally chosen to quote critical commentary with which I agree, but I have also included comments that offer other views of Vance’s work.
Some remaining lacunae are indicated in brackets. Readers may note other places where the text grows thin. There are yet a few interviews that have eluded my grasp, and I also intend to trudge through all the reviews of Vance that have appeared in the genre magazines and the mundane press, mining whatever nuggets of critical insight I can find. There are also many professional colleagues and fans who have crossed paths with Jack Vance but have not published their experiences. I will gratefully receive corrections and additions to this account of a remarkable writer’s life and works.
David B. Williams
P. O. Box 58
Whitestown, IN 46075
dbwilyumz / at / aol dot com
A biographical sketch and literary assessment of Jack Vance
David B. Williams
“I have this theory that the titles of first published stories are symbolic. They seem to intimate the direction of a career.”
-- Barry Malzberg, introduction to The Best of Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in San Francisco, August 28, 1916, to Charles Albert and Edith (Hoefler) Vance. He traces his ancestry back to the Norman Conquest. Three deVaux brothers arrived with William the Conqueror and settled in Yorkshire, and a cadet branch moved north into Wigtownshire, about 80 miles south of Fairlie in Ayrshire. Vance’s lineage is long established in California, one great grandfather arriving eleven years before the Gold Rush.
Vance was the third of five children (two older brothers and a younger brother and sister). The family’s circumstances were comfortable, and he spent his early childhood in a large house on Filbert Street with a view of San Francisco Bay. Then his father essentially abandoned the family to spend most of his time at a large ranch he owned in Mexico; the Filbert Street house was rented to provide support for his wife and children.
Vance’s maternal grandfather, L. M. (Ludwig Mathias) Hoefler, was a prominent San Francisco lawyer (he imported and donated the two Italian marble statues of athletes that still grace the entrance to the Olympic Club on Post Street). He purchased a ranch near Oakley in the Sacramento River delta as a weekend retreat. There Edith and the five children resettled, and Vance spent his school years as a country boy, swimming, riding, camping, flying kites, climbing trees, and reading books.
Vance considers this move to the country at a young age as the most significant event in his life. His bedroom window looked out over rolling hills, orchards and woodlands and, in the distance, the extinct volcano Mt. Diablo. He absorbed it all – sights, sounds, smells, mood, sensations – and used these impressions later in his descriptive writing.
Vance determined to be a writer at an early age. His first work of fiction, written at age 9 and unfinished, was a cowboy story pecked out on a typewriter in his grandfather’s office. He also read fairy tales and was inspired to emulate them. “When I was a kid, nine or ten years old, I first began writing fairy tales set in the same forest, full of magic. . . . I made some drawings and maps too, but I was a little kid and I never finished those stories.” He submitted a tale of the South Seas to the Saturday Evening Post but received no response, not even a rejection slip.
Young Vance was a voracious reader. “By the age of 15, I had read ten times the books an average person might read in a lifetime.” His interest in fantastic literature blossomed early. His mother possessed an extensive library, including the Oz books, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, and several volumes of Verne. He recalled reading The Mysterious Island over and over. He sought out further adventures of Tarzan and discovered Burroughs’ Barsoom novels at the library.
He also devoured the Roy Rockwood juvenile SF books and advanced to the pulp magazines. The mailbox at the ranch was about a mile from the house, and Vance recalled that “on the day I might expect Weird Tales in the mail, I can remember walking down to that mailbox, peering in there, and being very unhappy if Weird Tales hadn’t arrived.” In a bit of foreshadowing, young Vance met prominent SF writer Stanton A. Coblentz at an aunt’s dinner party. (Coblentz, who also edited a poetry magazine, declined to encourage Vance’s poetical endeavors.)
Vance entered high school at age 11 and graduated at 15. He described himself at the latter age as bright, arrogant, introverted, and lacking in social skills. Then his grandfather died, the family was broke, and it was the bottom of the Great Depression. College plans were set aside and, for the next several years, Vance ranged the state of California, working at a wide variety of jobs: fruit picking, canning, construction, surveying, bell-hopping. He described this period as a metamorphosis: “Over a span of four or five years, I developed from an impractical little intellectual into a rather reckless young man, competent at many skills and crafts, and determined to try every phase of life.”
One phase involved roaring around the Bay Area on a motorcycle. At that time the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was under construction, and one evening Vance demonstrated his recklessness by trespassing on the site and walking up one of the suspension cables to the top of a soaring pylon.
In 1937, a small scholarship enabled Vance to enroll at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied for three semesters as a mining engineer and then physics major. He had to take an English class to fulfill course requirements. Each week the students were required to turn in a composition, and one week Vance decided to write a science fiction story. After the teacher read the submissions, he told the class there were some excellent stories in that week’s batch but added, “We also have a piece of science fiction” in a scornful tone, Vance’s first negative review.
He left the university to work and returned in 1939 as a journalism major, reporting for the school newspaper and writing jazz reviews (he became a lifelong devotee of classic jazz). In 1941 he left school again and took a job as an electrician’s assistant at the Honolulu Navy Yard, but the conditions and pay were terrible and he fortuitously returned to the mainland six weeks before Pearl Harbor.
Weak eyesight prevented military service. He found a job as a rigger at the Kaiser Shipyards and enrolled in an Army Intelligence program to learn Japanese. He mastered a thousand Japanese signs but did not prove adept at speaking colloquial Japanese. In 1943 he sidestepped his ocular deficiencies by memorizing the eye chart and joined the Merchant Marine as an able seaman. At sea he practiced jazz cornet and got serious about writing, producing first drafts of the stories that would later be assembled as The Dying Earth.
Sam Merwin, editor of Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, later recalled receiving several “fascinating but, alas, unpublishable, pseudo-Cabell fantasies.” Vance learned the first lesson of a successful freelancer: write what sells. He turned to science fiction and, after attempting an epic space opera in the spirit of E. E. “Doc” Smith, he made his first sale, “The World-Thinker”, which appeared in the Summer 1945 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories (with his name on the cover, unusual recognition for a first-time author). Some episodes from the unsold space opera were later salvaged and rewritten as short stories, such as “The Temple of Han” (Planet Stories 1951).
Robert Silverberg recalled: “Magazine science fiction in 1945 was pretty primitive stuff, by and large, and so too was ‘The World-Thinker’, a simple and melodramatic chase story; but yet there was a breadth of vision in it, a philosophic density, that set it apart from most of what was being published then, and the novice author’s sense of color and image, his power to evoke mood and texture and sensory detail, was already as highly developed as that of anyone then writing science fiction, except perhaps C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett.”
In Peter Close’s assessment, Vance’s first published story “stands as an impressive debut flawed by formula plot, characterization, and pacing, but it revealed Vance’s extraordinary imagination, gift for dialogue, and narrative skill. . . . Studded with exotic detail and elegant dialogue, powerfully vivid and fast-moving, disappointing and flat in resolution, ‘The World-Thinker’ foreshadows the best and worst of Vance’s writing.”
Writing on shipboard in wartime, Vance overcame one further editorial challenge in getting his first story into print: the FBI agent stationed on board. “He seems to be especially suspicious of me, and held up ‘The World-Thinker’ for some weeks, turning the copy into the censors, who got it well rumpled and spotted with lipstick, but finally released it as harmless,” Vance informed his editor.
After the war Vance left the Merchant Marine and returned to the Bay Area. A friend suggested that he enroll as an apprentice carpenter. It would require four years of training, but after that he would usually have a job. Vance decided to give it a try. At the union hall he was asked some simple questions about carpentry, which he answered satisfactorily and, to his amazement, he was sent out as a journeyman – a basically qualified carpenter. “I hardly knew which hand to hold the hammer in,” he recalled, “lasted on the first job one hour, the second job two hours, finally learned the hard way.”
It was during this period that Vance met Norma Ingold, then a student at UC Berkeley. He was standing around a building site one day when he chanced to look over the fence and spotted a young woman on the porch next door, petting a little cat. He thought she looked wonderful, the prettiest girl he’d ever seen. So, “I made her acquaintance, one thing led to another, and we got married” in August 1946.
Norma Vance recalls: “My first impression of Jack was that he was – different. Certainly he was daring: to appear on a girl’s doorstep with a bag of donuts and ask if I could make some coffee?”
While Norma continued her studies, Vance plugged away at writing, publishing two stories in 1946. He later deprecated his early stories as apprentice work, but they were colorful, inventive, and met the basic requirements of pulp fiction. “As a pulp writer . . . there were two things which set Vance apart from the herd,” according to Malcolm Edwards. “There was his style, exotic and strangely mannered; and there was his apparently inexhaustible ability to devise odd and attractive cultural milieux.” Vance became a regular contributor to Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories with his name often emblazoned on the covers.
James Blish, writing in 1952, opined that Vance was “a fascinating study in the technical development of a freelance writer. He began with three apparently natural gifts: a free, witty, unmannered style; an almost frighteningly fertile imagination; and a special talent for the visualization of physical color and detail. Any one of these gifts in excess in a young writer can prove fatal, since they can be and often have been used to mask or substitute for the essential construction problems of story-telling. Exactly this happened to Vance in his early work: He tossed off ideas, wisecracks, splashes of color and exotic proper names like a Catherine wheel, while his plotting remained rudimentary or non-existent.”
With experience, Vance gained control of his gifts, eventually mastering the difficult trick of achieving vivid effects with a minimum of adverbs and adjectives. Later, he also applied this less-is-more principle retroactively. To general disapproval, Vance cut many descriptive passages in “Guyal of Sfere”, the final story in The Dying Earth, when he selected it for inclusion in the collection Eight Fantasms and Magics (1969). “As I re-read it, I thought I’d better make a few changes. . . . At the time, I thought I was eliminating over-exuberant expressions and extravagance.” He also later touched up “The World-Thinker” and “I’ll Build Your Dream Castle” when they were collected in Lost Moons (1982), an act he characterized as “rather like putting rouge on a corpse.”
Vance published only one story in 1947, but it was a coup. “I’ll Build Your Dream Castle” sold to editor John Campbell at Astounding Science Fiction, the premier SF magazine of the era. “It’s appearance in this demanding market at such an early stage of Vance’s career was no mean achievement,” according to Peter Close.
Vance submitted all his early stories to Campbell first, but he never became a “Campbell writer” and managed to place only five other stories in Astounding: “The Potters of Firsk” in 1950, “Telek” in 1952, “The Gift of Gab” in 1955, “The Miracle Workers” in 1958, and “Dodkin’s Job” in 1959. “The Narrow Land”, published in Fantastic Stories in 1967, was written for Campbell as the first of a three-story sequence. “But Campbell didn’t like it very much,” Vance said. “In fact, he was rather unreasonable. Since it didn’t sell in a good market, I never completed the sequence.” (Those who have seen the Vance-Campbell correspondence in the Mugar Library at Boston University report that it makes interesting reading.)
“John Campbell couldn’t see me for sour owl spit,” Vance said many years later. “Although that’s not quite true, as soon as I wrote a story for Campbell that involved telepathy, or something similar, he went for it. . . . Campbell was engrossed with things like telepathy, telekinetics, extra-sensory perception of all kinds. . . . I knew I could always sell him something, as long as I threw in something of that sort. Some of my worst stories – just hack writing, some of the worst I’ve ever written, I sold it to him; he loved it.”
Eventually, Vance would define his literary independence in terms of editor Campbell: He got tired of writing to please Campbell and began writing to please himself.
Vance’s single sale in 1947 did not indicate that he wasn’t working hard. But after his initial success in science fiction, he turned his attentions to the mystery genre. Between 1946 and 1948 he worked on three mystery novels: a first chapter and outline for a novel titled Cat Island in 1946; novel Bird Island in 1947, published ten years later as Isle of Peril; and The Flesh Mask, also published in 1957 as Take My Face.
In 1948, hoping to increase his production and income, Vance tried first-draft writing and launched the Magnus Ridolph series in Startling Stories. The first two stories were written in a single weekend. The series continued for several years and was popular with readers, but the plan to write copiously and sell the first drafts didn’t pan out.
Nonetheless, “these wretched stories,” as Vance described them, proved rewarding beyond all intentions. In 1951 Twentieth Century-Fox bought film rights to “Hard-Luck Diggings” (Startling Stories 1948), the very first and, in Vance’s opinion, the very worst Ridolph story, and hired Vance as scriptwriter. Jack and Norma moved to Hollywood. Then within a few weeks the producer changed jobs, the project was dropped, and Vance took the money and ran. Magnus Ridolph helped finance the Vances’ first sojourn in Europe.
Robert Silverberg is charitable toward the Ridolph stories: “There was nothing very memorable among them . . . but it was clear that a remarkable imagination was at work producing these trifles, for even the most minor story had its flash of extraordinary visual intensity and its moments of unexpected ingenuity.” (See, for example, the first paragraph of “The Kokod Warriors”, a quintessentially Vancean descriptive passage.)
Another way to accommodate higher production was to adopt pseudonyms, as when Vance used John Holbrook for “Ultimate Quest” (Super Science Stories 1950) and Jack Van See for “First Star I See Tonight” (Malcolm’s Magazine 1954). “The plan was to have lots of names, to do varied stuff, so as to sell more of it,” Vance explained, “but it didn’t work out. I couldn’t deliver.”
The concept survived only in his later use of his full name, John Holbrook Vance, for mystery titles and the less formal Jack Vance for SF and fantasy. Vance later regretted using his nickname for his SF and fantasy. “I’ve often thought that maybe, if I were starting all over again, I probably wouldn’t use Jack Vance as a byline. John Vance would be somewhat more dignified perhaps.”
At about the time the Ridolph series began, the Vances became enthusiastic about ceramics and opened a shop to sell supplies, tools, and do firing. They were undercapitalized and had to give up the business after a year, but ceramics remained one of Vance’s enduring interests. Later, when he had room at his home in the Oakland hills, he installed a gas kiln and wheel and continued to pursue “this absolutely fascinating set of crafts.” This interest was also expressed contemporaneously in “The Potters of Firsk” (Astounding 1950).
In spite of failing eyesight, Vance actively pursued his ceramic interests through the 1980s. Terry Dowling recalled a visit in 1988 when he and Vance attempted to make a blue faience glaze that kept turning out a moss green. “We’d spend hours in the tin pottery shed outside Jack’s downstairs writing area, with squirrels dropping pine cones onto the roof from sixty feet overhead, two would-be conspirator alchemists . . . striving for faience till Norma called us up for a splendid dinner. . . .”
In 1950, Damon Knight became editor of a new magazine, Worlds Beyond, and bought three Vance stories. The publisher, Hillman Periodicals, was also launching a paperback line, and Knight asked Vance whether he had anything for a book. Vance reworked the unsold fantasy manuscripts he had written at sea, included narrative links to tie them together, and The Dying Earth became Hillman No. 41, an instant collectible because of poor distribution. A teenaged Robert Silverberg ransacked Brooklyn for the book and despaired until a friend gave him a copy.
The Dying Earth made a tremendous impression in the field and established Vance as a first-rank fantasy writer. The opening scene, in which Mazirian the Magician strolls in his garden, leaves an indelible impression in the memory of every reader. (That is, the opening scene in the Hillman edition; the Mazirian story appeared first in that edition, even though it breaks the continuity of the episodes featuring T’sais. Mazirian was placed second in all later editions but was placed first again in the Vance Integral Edition at the author’s insistence.)
Peter Close assessed The Dying Earth as “often brilliant, occasionally crass, bejeweled with splendid descriptive passages, exotic invention, polished dialogue, vivid metaphor, rare vocabulary. In its range of themes and settings, it displays almost all of Vance’s talents and weaknesses.” James Blish agreed: “exuberant, chaotic, colorful and shapeless.” Decades later, Gene Wolfe assessed The Dying Earth: “If it is true, as some say, that the wonder has departed from science fiction, this is where it went.”
But the Hillman paperback was a fluke, an unexpected chance to publish unsold material in book form. It would be years before Vance wrote fantasy again or produced stories in the full “Vancean style,” the characteristic mode of expression that was first displayed, vividly but imperfectly, in the Dying Earth stories. He continued writing for the SF pulps and the growing number of new digest-size magazines in the early 1950s, advancing to longer lengths as his skills developed.
1950 was a breakout year for Vance. During the previous two years, he had published only Ridolph stories. But “1950 saw the publication of work more sophisticated in verbal surface, narrative structure, and characterization than the early Ridolph stories,” according to Russell Letson.
In addition to The Dying Earth, 1950 saw publication of “The Potters of Firsk” in Astounding, the novelette “New Bodies for Old” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, August) and The Five Gold Bands (Startling Stories, November) his first story to be published as a novel (actually only 36,000 words).
As already mentioned, “Potters” reflected Vance’s interest in ceramics. To make the year even more memorable, that story was adapted and broadcast as an episode of Dimension X on the NBC Radio Network, July 28, 1950. The story “contains some effective pictorial writing – for example, the extended opening description of the pottery bowl,” Russell Letson wrote. “What makes the story work, though, is the sense of place with which Vance invests the world of Firsk. . . . The other Vance hallmark is the treatment of alien psychology as simply different rather than evil.”
Robert Silverberg considered “New Bodies for Old [Chateau d’If]” a conventional adventure story in form but added, “the prose was rich with dazzling descriptive passages, sometimes to the point of purpleness, and the science fiction inventions – the Chateau d’If, the Empyrean Tower, the technology of personality transplants – were brilliantly realized.”
Peter Close considered this novelette “a critical turning point in Vance’s career. It was his longest, most ambitious, most accomplished story to date. . . . It is probably the earliest published story in which Vance demonstrated the depth of his potential as a major stylistic talent in the field.”
Silverberg found The Five Gold Bands even more conventional, “a simple tale of interstellar treasure hunt, but it was made notable by its unflagging pace, the lively assortment of alien beings with which Vance had stocked it, and the light, sensitive style.”
Vance’s first short novel is, however, disfigured by the excruciating stage-Irish idiom he wrote for Paddy Blackthorn, the protagonist – an astonishing lapse for a writer who would become renowned for superb dialog. The Five Gold Bands did, however, include a strong female protagonist. Fay Bursill is at least as feisty and a good bit smarter than Paddy.
Worlds Beyond only lasted three issues but the magazine and its editor, Damon Knight, had a brief but significant impact on Vance’s career. In addition to promoting Vance’s first book with an excerpt, “The Loom of Darkness,” in the first issue, Knight bought “Brain of the Galaxy” and “The Secret” and provided the idea for “Abercrombie Station.” “Brain of the Galaxy [The New Prime]” attracted attention with its technical novelty, intriguing readers with five wildly unconnected opening scenes that are, in fact, integral to the story.
“The Secret” entered Vancean legend when Worlds Beyond folded before the story could be printed and the manuscript was lost. Some years later Vance rewrote the story, but this second manuscript disappeared while his agent was circulating the story to potential markets. Vance was unable to find the carbon copies of either manuscript. He decided the story was jinxed and gave up on it, but in 1976 he learned that the story had appeared in an English SF magazine, Impulse, in 1966 without authorization. Where the manuscript had been, and how it got to England, are mysteries. Robert Offutt Jr. published the story with Vance’s permission in his amateur publication, The Many Worlds of Jack Vance, in 1978.
Knight gave Vance the idea of an orbiting satellite as a weightless paradise for grossly obese people and commissioned a story for his magazine. Vance thought the idea “inspired” and wrote “Abercrombie Station.” Then Worlds Beyond folded before he could submit the story to Knight, so he sold it to Thrilling Wonder Stories (February 1952). After the story appeared in print, Knight complimented Vance on the concept and said, wistfully, that the same idea had occurred to him but he never got around to writing the story. Vance reminded Knight that he had suggested the original idea and gave Knight due credit when the story was reprinted in The Best of Jack Vance (1976).
“Abercrombie Station” introduced another of Vance’s spirited young female protagonists, Jean Parlier, who appeared again in “Cholwell’s Chickens” (Thrilling Wonder Stories August 1952). The two novelettes eventually appeared together in 1965 as Monsters in Orbit, half of an Ace Double.
In 1950, small-press publisher Ted Dikty floated the suggestion that “Jack Vance” was another of Henry Kuttner’s many pseudonyms. Considering the technical deficiencies of Vance’s earliest stories, this claim was insulting to the technically adept Kuttner; and any reader sensitive to literary style who read The Dying Earth would never have attributed it to Kuttner. But the rumor persisted for years (reaching as far afield as Germany), in some cases causing librarians to shelve Vance titles with Kuttner’s. Even Kuttner’s death in 1958 didn’t squelch the error, which managed to live on through repetition like an urban myth.
In 1951, Vance discovered that stories written for the pulp magazines could live again in hardcover books when editor Groff Conklin included “Hard-Luck Diggings” in his anthology The Possible Worlds of Science Fiction. The next year, three Vance stories were chosen for anthologies: “Men of the Ten Books” in The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1952, “Winner Lose All” in another Conklin anthology, and “Noise” in The Best from Startling Stories. From then on, most Vance stories found additional incarnations in various theme and year’s-best anthologies.
From first to last, Vance has shown a special regard for flora, as demonstrated by stories during this early phase of his career. Who can forget the flowers bowing and hissing in Mazirian’s garden? Trees are a particular favorite, featured in the novels Son of the Tree (Thrilling Wonder Stories June 1951) and The Houses of Iszm (Startling Stories Spring 1954). “Ecological Onslaught” (Future SF May 1953) is a story of interplanetary war waged with vegetation. No Vance story is complete without a passage naming and describing trees and other local plants.
Some of Vance’s early works also initiated his major contribution to the SF form known as the planetary romance, which, according to John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, is an SF tale “whose primary venue (excluding contemporary or near-future versions of Earth) is a planet, and whose plot turns to a significant degree upon the nature of that venue. . . . In the true planetary romance, the world itself encompasses – and generally survives – the tale which fitfully illuminates it.”
Terry Dowling proposed a more academic term for the planetary romance, the xenographical novel, which he defined as “the portrayal of alien worlds in sufficient detail for that portrayal to have been a major reason for the story or novel.” Just as Doc Smith and Edmond Hamilton were pioneers of the space opera, so Vance is recognized as perhaps the preeminent practitioner of the planetary romance.
Set in the remote future, The Dying Earth has been called “the first full-fledged modern planetary romance.” Vance wanted to title the book Mazirian the Magician (and so it is in the Vance Integral Edition) but the Hillman editor correctly recognized that the setting was at least as significant as the characters and titled the book accordingly. Gene Wolfe put his finger on the matter when he asked, “Did Vance . . . realize that The Dying Earth itself was to be his greatest character?”
But The Dying Earth is fantasy and a suite of stories, not a true novel. A more apt example is Vance’s second major work in this form, Big Planet (Startling Stories September 1952). The novel’s title again indicates the central importance of the setting.
James Blish wrote that in Big Planet, Vance “has gone back to basics, as he was going to have to do sooner or later. Big Planet has the simplest possible construction a long story can have – it is a saga, the primary narrative form of all cultures in the first stages of development. Its sole trace of narrative sophistication is in the circularity of its plot, that is, its return at the crisis to the essential situation with which the story began. . . . By taking himself back to this primitive a narrative form, Vance has found . . . a story structure suitable to his talents and one which he can control. The result is quite striking and completely satisfying, where earlier long stories of Vance’s were not, because for once the technique and the material are wedded to each other.”
Damon Knight gave the novel a rave review: “Big Planet . . . shows this brilliant writer at the top of his form. Big Planet . . . is as vividly compelling as the dream-world of Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros: and that’s the highest praise I know.” Knight also perceived the story’s character as a planetary romance: “Big Planet itself dominates the book. Like Burroughs’ Pellucidar, it colors every landscape with its own overhanging presence. . . . In Vance, as in Eddison, the background is the story.”
Half a century later, John Grant was less enthusiastic when Gollancz reissued Big Planet. Having set up the hero to make a journey of 40,000 miles, he covers only “a tiny fraction of the distance before Vance runs out of steam and the curtains come down on the play. . . . In sum, there’s a strong sense of coitus interruptus. . . . All that said, Big Planet is one of those books that anyone seriously interested in the evolution of fantasy/sf should . . . well, not so much read as have, at some stage, read. It is significant to the history of the genre if no longer, as a novel, especially significant in itself.”
Big Planet might have been titled The Incredible Shrinking Novel. Like the gigantic planet of the title, the original manuscript was enormous for its time, perhaps exceeding 120,000 words. Vance showed it to fellow Bay-area SF writer Anthony Boucher, a founding editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Boucher informed him that it couldn’t be sold – none of the magazines would publish such a long work, even as a serial, and the tiny SF book market also shunned lengths beyond 60,000 words. So Vance cut the work to a more practical length. He sent a 72,000-word manuscript to his agent. When Startling Stories published it, the editor cut an additional three sections, reducing the novel to 52,000 words.
When Avalon Books issued a hardcover edition in 1957, it was reduced further from the magazine text, to about 47,000 words. Paperback editions from Ace reproduced this shortest text, and the “full” magazine text wasn’t restored until Underwood-Miller published a hardcover edition in 1978. This is as much of Big Planet as fans will ever know, because the titanic initial manuscript was disposed of bit by bit, the backs of the pages used to write first drafts of new stories.
Why did Vance write such an extended epic? “Oh, I just felt in the mood.” But for the next three decades, Vance as a practical freelance writer would produce long works in commercially viable segments: the five Demon Princes books, the four novels of the Planet of Adventure, the three Durdane books. Each of these “series” is a single long story, designed and plotted to break into sections to suit the magazine serial and paperback book markets of the era. Subsequently, each of the three series has been published in a single volume. It wasn’t until the economics of the book market changed that Vance again began to invest his time in books with six-figure word counts such as Suldrun’s Garden and Araminta Station.
When Vance traveled to Europe in 1951, he had a commission from the John C. Winston Company to write an SF juvenile, Vandals of the Void, his sole effort in the youth market and, coincidentally, his first hardcover book (and first contract for an original work). Vandals was written in Positano, Italy, in an apartment overlooking the water. It has become a much-sought collector’s item, most copies having been sold to libraries and therefore defaced.
Vance fans don’t rate the story very highly. “The opening paragraph is Vancean in tone,” according to Richard Tiedman, “but he is scarcely recognizable elsewhere.” But Vandals won over some readers. In childhood, John Vance II read the book and liked it. “The rascal won’t read any of my other books,” Vance said at the time. “I think he finds them too grown up. But he thinks I’m a good writer on the basis of Vandals of the Void.”
Vandals also represented Vance’s first overseas book sale and first translation. Following U.S. publication in 1953, the book was published in Italy and Finland in 1954 and the Netherlands in 1955. Foreign sales of Vance’s books would gradually increase, providing another income stream. By the 1960s, every new Vance title was quickly published overseas, reaching audiences even more enthusiastic than in Vance’s native land.
In 1952, Vance returned from Europe broke, and the New York literary agent, Scott Meredith, got him a scriptwriting job on the early television SF serial, Captain Video and his Video Rangers, for the Dumont Network. Vance returned to California, taking up residence on a small farm near Kenwood, north of San Francisco. He wrote five Captain Video episodes (each “episode” included several daily installments) and assisted astronomer and SF writer Robert Richardson (nom de plume Philip Latham) on a sixth episode. This television scripting was strictly for the money. The narrow constraints of TV writing provided no scope for Vance’s particular talents. In his later scripts he began to include bits of mockery toward the series; eventually the producer realized what Vance was doing and terminated his association with the program.
At the time, Frank Herbert was a reporter for the nearby Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Herbert had sold his first SF story the previous year. When he learned that a successful SF writer lived in the area, he quickly arranged to interview Vance. (Herbert drove a 1950 Hillman automobile, a remarkable omen considering that The Dying Earth was published by Hillman in 1950.)
The two men shared several interests and quickly became friends. Within a few months they decided to move to Mexico and set up their own little writer’s colony. In September 1953, Jack and Norma Vance, Frank and Beverly Herbert, and the two Herbert boys, Brian (age 6) and Bruce (age 2), crammed into the Vances’ Jeep station wagon and headed south to Lake Chapala near Guadalajara. There they moved into a large, two-story adobe and white stucco house on a hillside overlooking the lake.
Brian Herbert recalled the challenges of being a small boy in a house with two writers. “Whenever the men were writing, usually from mid-morning to late afternoon, they enforced strict silence throughout the premises. The house had a long outside corridor where I played with my toys. Especially a little army tank. I was in the habit of simulating war noises, and as I immersed myself in fantasy and made too much commotion Jack or Dad would bellow from one of the rooms, ‘Silencio!’ (‘Silence!’) or ‘Callate, niño!’ (‘Shut up, boy!’) Dad was at his typewriter in one room clacking away, while Jack labored in another room, writing longhand passages that would subsequently be transcribed into typewritten form by Norma.”
Chapala was a sub-tropic locale boasting vivid sunsets and a large population of flies and cockroaches. “Each morning we developed the habit of shaking out our clothes and shoes before putting them on,” Brian Herbert recalls. “Many roaches entered through the drain in the bathtub, and if Mom or Norma saw them when they wanted to take a bath, they came out and waggled two fingers (like cockroach antennae) at one of the men. Then Dad or Jack went in and flushed the filthy creatures down the drain with hot water.”
Chapala was also an artists’ colony and popular with tourists; costs were high by Mexican standards. After a couple of months, neither writer had sold anything and funds began to dwindle. The Vances and Herberts moved a few miles down the road to Ciudad Guzman and a smaller, more economical house (some of the rooms had dirt floors). But with no checks arriving from New York editors, after another two months they had to pack up and return north, back to the Vance’s farmhouse near Kenwood. The Herberts stayed with the Vances for several more months, until Frank landed a job in Oregon. (The Herberts would return south to Stockton in 1959 and San Francisco in 1960, renewing their association with the Vances.)
In 1953, Vance earned additional income for the first time from a paperback reprint of earlier magazine work when Toby Press published The Space Pirate, a reprint of The Five Gold Bands with a new title. This was important to Vance as a working writer. As the paperback industry expanded, he attracted a growing income stream from publication of his old magazine novels and stories as paperback books. Indeed, at this time the pulp magazines were dying, and the rapidly growing paperback market replaced them.
In 1954, the Vances bought three lots and “a rustic little house,” in Norma’s words, in the wooded hills east of Oakland at the top of a long, steep driveway. This would be their home for most of the next fifty years and a multi-decade, multi-level project of expansion and improvement.
“When we arrived here originally, this place was like a chicken shack, perched up in the air,” Vance says. “Over the years, Johnny and I together built the present house around the old house, and essentially threw the old house out through the windows! Without exaggeration, this house we’re living in now encompasses the old shack totally. There’s nothing left of that place except the floor in the living room.”
“The three lots of hillside provided plenty of room for our five cats to roam,” Norma recalls. “The terrain, however, was a challenge, hardly any space on which to build. Using a pick-axe, shovel, wheelbarrow and hard work, Jack created a building site. Wall by wall the rustic cabin disappeared and in affordable stages became a really comfortable place to live.”
This meant that for about two decades, visitors usually found Vance banging away on this endless construction project. The first time David Alexander visited, he found Vance “on his hands and knees, laboriously installing a slate floor in the living room. . . . In the following years, I often found Jack immersed in the building and rebuilding of his home. Jack’s eyesight was very, very bad and it was with not a little concern that I watched him operate the radial saw or hoist four by fours into place. I particularly remember one Saturday afternoon when I found him clambering from beam to beam some twenty feet above my head.”
The finished house is set into the hillside with steep slopes above and below and is arranged on three levels. The entrance on the first level leads directly to a flight of stairs to the second level. The rooms on the first level have accommodated, at various times, a guest room, Vance’s office and writing area, and latterly, after turning the house over to son John and his family, an apartment for Jack and Norma.
The second level is mostly a single large room, a high-ceilinged “great hall” encompassing living room, library, dining area, breakfast nook. The kitchen and bar areas divide this large open space from a smaller room in back with a stone wall, fireplace, and hand-carved walnut ceiling panels from Kashmir. The third level contains bedrooms and boasts an indoor balcony overlooking the breakfast nook and dining area. Each level has access to a patio or balcony with views of the surrounding Oakland hills.
The Vance residence also acquired two appurtenances: a fallout shelter and a tree house. In the 1960s, there was a general concern about nuclear war. Vance was already moving dirt, so he dug a trench into the hillside, terminating in a chamber about eight feet on a side, shored up with heavy timbers. He installed a fireplace and covered the top with heavy plastic before piling more dirt over the excavation.
One day, distracted by activity in the house, Vance retreated to the fallout shelter with a canvas chair, thermos of coffee, lantern, and clipboard to write in peace. Unfortunately, it began to rain and water worked its way under the plastic and dripped onto the author’s head and clipboard. “The fallout shelter was a failure,” Norma Vance reports, “though not entirely. The fireplace provided a safe venue for a young male child to satisfy his firebug tendencies.”
The tree house was more successful. The Vance property has many big eucalyptus trees, and in 1973 Vance built an 8x8-foot cabin about 15 feet high on a suitable specimen. “John and his friends enjoyed this playhouse for enough years,” says Norma, “so that when a terrific windstorm blew it to the ground, along with its supporting branches, there was no great sorrow – just a little sadness.”
In 1956, Ballantine published both hardcover and paperback editions of To Live Forever, Vance’s first book contract for an original adult novel. Vance defined a new stage in his career with the later remark that To Live Forever was “the first of the type of stories I write today.”
Richard Tiedman rated To Live Forever “the most brilliant and important of Vance’s early works. In ingenuity of plot and mastery of prose, it is probably the quintessential assertion of sheer individuality among his novels of this period.” He continued: “This novel is, even for Vance, extremely elaborate and embroidered; hardly any detail is touched on without an embellishmental flourish. Here the full Vancean orchestra is displayed in a way that exhibits his baroque tendencies at their apogee.”
The origins of To Live Forever (Betty Ballantine’s choice for the title, not the author’s) date back to 1953 at Lake Chapala. According to Tim Underwood, “One night Frank and Jack tossed around an idea for a novel and afterward flipped a coin to see who would write it. Jack won the toss and the book became To Live Forever.”
Ace Books’ paperback publication of Big Planet in 1957 began a publishing relationship that would bring many of Vance’s stories and novels from the pulp magazines into print as paperback books. After initial appearance as a solo title, Big Planet was paired with Slaves of the Klau (Planet of the Damned, Space Stories December 1952) for an Ace Double in 1958. Then, after a pause of five years, a steady stream of Doubles followed with The Dragon Masters and The Five Gold Bands in 1963, The Houses of Iszm and Son of the Tree in 1964, Monsters in Orbit and The World Between and Other Stories in 1965, The Brains of Earth and The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph in 1966. Some of these Ace Doubles enjoyed second editions a few years later. (DAW Books also collected three of these short novels (Son of the Tree, The Houses of Iszm, and The Brains of Earth [retitled Nopalgarth] in one volume in 1980.)
Also in 1957, Vance directly linked the magazine, hardcover, and paperback markets with publication of The Languages of Pao, first in Satellite Science Fiction and then as an Avalon hardcover and Ace paperback. This pattern of magazine serialization prior to hardcover and/or paperback release would continue during the next two decades for many novels, including various titles from the Demon Princes, Durdane, and Alastor series as well as singletons The Blue World, Emphyrio, The Gray Prince, and many of the stories featuring Cugel the Clever.
Pao initially disappointed Richard Tiedman: “Vance’s prose, usually so facile, is strangely ineffective here, its normally bright colors diluted into gray halftones. . . . While there can be no doubt that this is second-order Vance, the novel will retain reader interest for the originality of its conceptions.” Fifteen years later, he revised his opinion: “I was not fully aware in 1964 of the tendency toward what Peter Close calls the sociological and anthropological elements in Vance’s fiction. I completely underestimated The Languages of Pao. . . .” The novel also won praise from Walter E. Myers in a study of the use of language and language theory in science fiction (University of Georgia Press, 1980).
Vance’s first mystery novels were also published in 1957, but his entry into this genre was far from auspicious. As noted earlier, Vance wrote these novels in 1947-48, and they remained unsold until Mystery House bought them for the derisory sum of $100 each. Mystery House published these two mysteries under pseudonyms, Isle of Peril as by Alan Wade and Take My Face as by Peter Held. The concealed authorship of these novels was fortuitous, however, because it made Vance eligible for an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America as best “new” writer in 1961 for The Man in the Cage, published by Random House in 1960 under his own name in full form, John Holbrook Vance.
After their first European trip and the Mexico adventure with the Herberts, wanderlust (or prosperity) struck the Vances again in 1957. That summer, they sailed on an Italian freighter from San Francisco to Barcelona via the Panama Canal. They traveled around Spain and Morocco, taking up residence for weeks at a time in Ibiza, Madrid, Tangiers. This was the typical manner of the Vances’ travel. Guided tours or fixed itineraries weren’t for them. They made their own way to chosen destinations, then settled into a house or apartment for an extended stay, living like the locals.
Vance’s trips, lasting many months, caused problems with his trade union. “Every time I had a sale, made some money, I’d quite the Carpenters Union and Norma and I would go traveling. Then the money would run out, and I’d have to sneak back in and try to get a job again. . . . I got in and out of the Carpenters Union three or four times.” Then, sometime in the late 1960s, he returned from overseas to discover a novel situation: he had more money in the bank than when he left, a turning point in his writing career.
In 1958, Vance published the novella “Parapsyche” in Amazing Stories (August 1958). Richard Tiedman was puzzled and considered it “the novel furthest removed from the main sequence of Vance’s development. It shows that, with him, content and style are not inseparably fused, for his usual identifying touches are almost completely absent. . . . Perhaps a more conventional mode was chosen because of the contemporary Earthbound setting.” This conclusion is well founded; Vance has stated, “I am aware of using no inflexible or predetermined style. Each story generates its own style, so to speak.” Vance’s narrative style is most subdued in his here-and-now mysteries, more evident in his science fiction, especially in far-future settings, and most extravagant in his fantasies.
Also in 1958, Vance began a decade in which he demonstrated his mastery of the novelette form. The novelette length is particularly suited to a Vance story. The short story form is too cramped to allow him to display all his talents to advantage; the greater length of the novelette provides the necessary scope to fully establish the setting and circumstances of the story, without the extended complications and developments required by a full novel.
“The Miracle Workers” appeared in Astounding in 1958, earning Vance his first Hugo Award nomination, followed the next year by “Dodkin’s Job,” his last appearance in Astounding.
Amazing SF provided a venue for “I-C-A-BEM [The Augmented Agent]” in 1961 and “Gateway to Strangeness [Sail 25, Dust of Far Suns]” in 1962. These stories were commissioned by editor Cele Goldsmith, who invited Vance and Frank Herbert to a meeting at Poul Anderson’s house. She displayed a number of SF-style paintings purchased in bulk and invited each writer to select one or two and write a story to match each illustration. (Such commissions usually paid a higher word rate and, of course, guaranteed the writer a cover story.)
Galaxy published “The Moon Moth” in 1961, “The Dragon Masters” in 1962 (Hugo Award for short fiction 1963), and “The Last Castle” in 1966 (Hugo and Nebula awards 1967).
Terry Dowling designated “The Moon Moth” as “the definitive xenographical work. . . . In ‘The Moon Moth’, we encounter that blend of the arcane and the commonplace, that balance of the alien and the exotic with the familiar and the mundane, that is so vital a part of Vance’s writing.”
Regarding “The Dragon Masters”, Lawrence Person has written: “What most impresses is the cleverness of the setup, the way in which Vance has crafted ever-widening circles of mirror-imaged antagonists, like a yin-yang symbol which turns out to be the eye of a larger yin-yang symbol, which, in turn, is the eye of a still larger one.”
Interestingly, “The Miracle Workers”, “The Dragon Masters”, and “The Last Castle” share a characteristic Vancean concept, a remnant human population in the far future of Earth or isolated and lost to history on a remote planet, a “last days” situation reminiscent of the Dying Earth.
This string of successful novelettes was the tip of the iceberg. Indeed, the 1960s were an enormously productive decade for Vance. For much of the decade he was writing full time, markets were proliferating, and he had attained full mastery of his craft.
The era of the great novelettes was coming to a close, however. As a professional writer, Vance needed to maximize income for each hour of labor. Novelettes and short stories could only be sold to magazines for pennies per word, then earn modest additional income if chosen for an anthology or included in one of his own collections. In 1967 Vance told Guy Lillian “only novels now are financially profitable for me.”
The 1960s was an eventful decade for Vance in other ways as well. In 1961, John Vance II was born. He traveled with his parents from the age of 3, celebrating his fourth birthday in Australia. These extended sojourns overseas meant home schooling for John, with Vance supervising math and sciences. In Sri Lanka in 1975, Arthur C. Clarke helped find a proctor for John’s algebra exam. As he grew, John also became his father’s construction assistant on the Oakland hills home and a sailing partner.
In 1962, Vance enlisted Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson in a joint venture to build a houseboat for use as a floating cottage on the waterways of the nearby Sacramento River delta. This interest in waterborne housing has been reflected in a number of Vance stories: the houseboats in “The Moon Moth” (1961), Navarth’s domicile in The Palace of Love (1967), and Jantiff Ravensroke’s moody evening on the family houseboat in chapter 2 of Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978).
The pontoons were constructed in Vance’s driveway, then moved to a beach on the bay near Point Richmond. “This was a happy time,” Norma recalled. “Several friends had now joined in the work, enjoying the sunshine, salt air and companionship. Every stage completed was a cause for celebration; a party atmosphere prevailed.”
Then disaster struck. A storm blew up, one of the pontoons rubbed against the dock until the fiberglass coating wore through, the pontoon filled with water, and the boat sank. Vance donned a wet suite and he and Poul Anderson re-floated the boat by filling it with blocks of plastic foam. The foam was extremely buoyant and elaborate efforts had to be devised to force it underwater. Anderson described raising the houseboat as “an epic of men against the sea that would have been worthy of Joseph Conrad if Joseph Conrad had written slapstick. . . .”
After the sinking, Frank Herbert dropped out of the consortium. But while working on the boat, the three SF writers had plotted a story about an underwater thief, intending to use the pseudonym “Noah Arkwright” in honor of their partnership. Due to other work, neither Vance nor Anderson could get to the project, so Herbert eventually wrote it himself as “The Primitives” (Galaxy April 1966).
The houseboat measured 14 by 32 feet. The cabin included six bunks, a toilet and washbasin, and a potbellied stove in the kitchen-living room. When the work was done, Houseboat (it never received a proper name) was sailed up the Sacramento River to moorage at Moore’s Riverboat Yacht Haven on the Mokelumne River.
“Our houseboat was ideal for life on the sloughs: vacations, parties and overnights, which usually were spent away from the harbor,” Norma recalls. “The houseboat glided along the sloughs to find an ideal anchorage. In the summer there were blackberry bushes loaded with ripe berries to be picked from Houseboat’s deck. When the sun set, we lounged on the porch with feet on the railing, a favorite night-cap in hand, and listened to the sounds of insects, animals and bird calls; it was sheer delight.”
“That was one of the big eras of my life, when I think about it,” Vance recalled years later. “We had so much fun aboard that son-of-a-gun. . . .” Eventually, after years of enjoyment, plans for extended overseas travel forced the Vances to resign from the houseboat partnership, but the vessel lived on with an ever-evolving collection of owners.
In the early 1960s, Vance continued his sideline in mysteries by contracting to write three “Ellery Queen” novels. The Four Johns was published in 1964, A Room to Die In in 1965, and The Madman Theory in 1966. The books were published under the shop name Ellery Queen, and Vance was contractually obligated not to reveal his authorship. In later years, after the word got out, Vance honored the agreement by sometimes autographing these books as “Ellery Queen” with his own initials appended. Vance didn’t regret his name’s absence from the covers of these novels; they were extensively and badly edited, no doubt to make them conform to the Ellery Queen brand, and Vance disowned the results. It was gainful employment, however; he was paid $3,000 per book, substantially more than the typical advance for an SF paperback at that time.
In 1964, Ballantine Books published Vance’s first collection, Future Tense (later reprinted by DAW as Dust of Far Suns). For content, Vance chose four novelettes: “Dodkin’s Job”, “Ullward’s Retreat”, “Dust of Far Suns [Sail 25]”, and “The Gift of Gab”.
Vance’s first great SF novel series also began in 1964 when Berkley published The Star King, first of the Demon Princes books. All in all, this may be Vance’s most popular SF series. (The series name “Demon Princes” came later, as the publisher’s marketing tagline when DAW Books reprinted the novels.)
The Star King was first serialized in Galaxy, and the second book, The Killing Machine, was sold to Galaxy’s companion magazine, If. But in a miscommunication between Vance’s agent and the two publishers, Berkley issued the paperback before the magazine serial could appear (but not before the cover of the January 1965 issue was painted, showing an artist’s conception of Interchange).
Publication of the complete story in paperback prevented the magazine from serializing the novel, and Vance wrote “The Last Castle” to repay editor Fred Pohl for the money already received for The Killing Machine (freelance writers will accommodate sympathetic editors in many ways but they won’t return money). Vance was in Tahiti at the time. “It was just an absolutely glorious place to work,” he recalled, “but it wasn’t so glorious finding I had to write this story for nothing.” In an ironic development, the story Vance wrote for free won him a second Hugo Award as well as the Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Scheduling was more successful with the third volume, The Palace of Love, which appeared in Galaxy in 1966 and as a Berkley paperback in 1967. A decade later, Vance cited Palace among his favorite works, perhaps because of his affection for one of the novel’s principal characters, the mad poet Navarth. “I like Navarth very much,” Vance confessed more than thirty years later. “I identify myself with him!”
There are five Demon Princes, so the series must inevitably have five volumes. But fans had to wait a long time for the last two installments. “I don’t remember why I didn’t go on with the last two,” Vance said. “I think maybe I got sidetracked into a murder mystery, The Deadly Isles.” (He was also sorely vexed by Galaxy editor Pohl, who deleted the wonderful epigraphs at the beginning of chapters in The Palace of Love to squeeze the novel into the magazine’s available pages.)
Then in 1965, with the first two Demon Princes books in print, Vance finally returned to fantasy at full throttle with a series of stories in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, assembled as The Eyes of the Overworld (Ace 1966). The story sequence features Cugel the Clever and returns to the haunted landscapes of the Dying Earth. A second series, Cugel’s Saga, would follow in 1983, making Cugel Vance’s longest running character and perhaps his favorite. Vance confessed that Cugel “surprised me. I think I rather admire myself for having invented him.”
As indicated by first publication as a series of magazine stories, Eyes of the Overworld is episodic. The novel is a picaresque adventure, a dark comedy set in a world of constant menace, avarice, deception, and betrayal, projecting “a singularly bleak world-view,” according to Robert Silverberg, “made more palatable only by the elegance of the prose in which it is set forth and the unfailing courtliness with which the murderous beings of the dying Earth address one another.”
Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois assessed the Cugel stories in glowing terms: “Although almost quintessential ‘sense of wonder’ stuff, marvelously evocative, the Cugel stories are also elegant and intelligent, full of sly wit and subtle touches, all laced with Vance’s typical dour irony and deadpan humor.”
Considering the two Cugel books together, the double circular plot is an effective advance over the perfunctory linking of stories in The Dying Earth. Each Cugel story is truly sequential. Each adventure can stand alone, but altogether they comprise a grand novel with a beginning and an end, containing “a rigid skeleton beneath its picaresque surface,” notes Robert Silverberg.
The Eyes of the Overworld earned a Hugo Award nomination for best novel in 1966, and the concluding episode, “The Manse of Iucounu”, earned a Nebula Award nomination in 1967 for best novelette.
Vance published more comedy in 1965 with Space Opera. As an editorial joke for SF fans, Berkley Books asked for a book titled “space opera” and Vance accepted the assignment with predictable results (in the same spirit, Philip K. Dick agreed to write a book called The Zap Gun). Space Opera is another Gold Bands, a series of interplanetary encounters, this time featuring a rather passive protagonist and his domineering aunt, oddly echoed almost four decades later in Ports of Call.
The Blue World, published by Ballantine in 1966, was expanded from a shorter magazine version, “The Kragen” (Fantastic Stories July 1964). The novel earned Vance another Hugo Award nomination. Vance identified The Blue World as “my last gadget story,” his break with the traditional concept of science fiction as stories with plots derived from, or resolved by, a scientific premise. In this case, the hero triumphs by extracting copper from blood on a water-world bereft of metals.
The water-world setting is also something of a homage to Frank Herbert’s desiccated planet Dune. While writing his great novel, Herbert had regaled Vance with details of the Dune setting, and Vance wrote The Blue World as a kind of counterpoint to his friend’s planetary romance. (When Dune proved to be a phenomenal success, Herbert often told interviewers that he owed it all to Jack Vance’s encouragement – much to Vance’s surprise, since he hadn’t thought much of the idea when Herbert first described the story and setting.)
More than one Vance fan believes The Blue World is an underrated work. Writing in 1978, Malcolm Edwards declared The Blue World to be one of the two stories in which Vance had shown his talents at full stretch (the other was “The Moon Moth”). Richard Tiedman called it “a tale of initiative, ordeal, and change, with a magical, fairy-tale atmosphere – altogether one of Vance’s most beautiful books.”
When The Blue World was reissued by Gollancz in 2003, Joan Montserrat was less fulsome: “The book begins promisingly but, as sometimes happens with Vance’s novels, as the plot unfolds it seems to lose dramatic energy. . . .” She also faults a lack of real surprises or character development. Nonetheless, “The novel’s real strength is Vance’s quasi-sociological description of the way social rules operate in an extreme situation so as to generate a kind of order, albeit often at the expense of truth. . . . This is vintage Vance: light, but not entirely light, reading, and in any case highly entertaining.”
The Brains of Earth appeared in 1966 as half of an Ace Double with The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph. Brains is the only first-publication work among Vance’s Ace Double titles. It seems stylistically old-fashioned for the author who had already published “The Moon Moth”, “The Dragon Masters”, and Eyes of the Overworld, and Vance himself doesn’t rate it highly. But Richard Tiedman disagreed: “The Brains of Earth is a fascinating study on some of the same themes of parapsychological phenomena [that Vance used in “Parapsyche”] and is an underrated work.”
In 1966, just as the third Ellery Queen novel appeared, Vance resumed mystery writing under his own name with The Fox Valley Murders, published by Bobbs-Merrill. This was the first Sheriff Joe Bain novel, to be followed by The Pleasant Grove Murders in 1967. The Joe Bain novels are California regionals, set in the imaginary San Rodrigo County of central California. Both books were reprinted as Ace paperbacks in 1969. An outline for a third Joe Bain novel, The Genesee Slough Murders, appears in Hewett and Mallett’s The Work of Jack Vance. But Vance’s editor at Bobbs-Merrill died, and the new editor wasn’t interested in continuing the series.
As the third Demon Princes novel, The Palace of Love, was seeing print in 1967, Vance was writing his second SF series, the four Planet of Adventure or Tschai novels. These books were commissioned by Ace as paperback originals. “They enticed me with talk of big promotion, million-copy sales,” Vance recalled a few years later. “I had fun writing these things, although I never made much money out of them.” The Ace editors apparently thought there was big sales potential in mentor-protégé stories along the lines of Obi-wan and Luke in Star Wars or Batman and Robin. Vance, of course, wasn’t interested in writing to formula and added the sly and sardonic Anacho the Dirdirman to form a trio with Adam Reith and Traz.
City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, and The Pnume appeared in rapid succession between 1968 and 1970 (The Pnume garnered a Hugo Award nomination for best novel in 1970). The series was later reissued by DAW and enjoyed several foreign editions as well as omnibus editions from Grafton (trade paperback 1985), Tor (hardcover 1992, Orb trade paperback 1993), and the Science Fiction Book Club, so the series’ ultimate earning power far exceeded the initial advance.
As the collective Planet of Adventure title indicates, these four novels comprise a quintessential planetary romance. Vance recalls that he began writing the series with a definite mood about the planet Tschai (which Vance, inexplicably, chooses to pronounce as “shay” while all his readers pronounce it “chy”) A few readers have speculated that Vance received some inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels when he wrote the Tschai books, and Vance was indeed an avid Burroughs fan as a boy.
“I read Tarzan and was fascinated by it,” Vance recalls. “I got all the other books from the library. Barsoom, I thought, was wonderful; Burroughs had a knack for creating this wonderful atmosphere . . . and the atmosphere of Barsoom got into me when I was seven or eight years old and never left me.” But he denies any conscious influence in his Tschai novels: “I had no intention of emulating Burroughs’ Barsoom books in Tschai; I never even thought of Barsoom while I was writing Tschai; totally separate, brand new.”
In the same year that the second and third Tschai novels appeared, Vance published one of his finest works, Emphyrio (Arthur Jean Cox: “in my opinion, the best SF novel of 1969”).
Joanna Russ assessed Emphyrio as “not an adventure story but a Bildungsroman (a novel of the formation of a character, of the process of passing from childhood to adulthood, making oneself into a person) that describes a perfect curve from beginning to end.”
According to Stuart Carter: “The depiction of an over-attentive, restricting and ultimately self-serving welfare system struck me as a very American invention. That it is overseen by ‘Lords and Ladies’ is an even more emphatically republican statement. Emphyrio isn’t otherwise a political novel. The overthrow of the welfare system is of only cursory interest, it is rather the road to truth against tradition and ignorance that is the major theme. . . .”
In Terry Dowling’s analysis, “Emphyrio conforms perfectly to the selective-and-expanding focus – exotic travelogue – mystery format Vance has devised.”
Emphyrio has been called “dark,” perhaps because this is a rare novel in which Vance has suppressed his usual humor.
The year 1969 also saw publication of Vance’s last conventional mystery, The Deadly Isles, again from Bobbs-Merrill in hardcover and Ace as a paperback (1971). This novel draws on Vance’s sojourn in the South Pacific in the mid-1960s and his love for blue-water sailing.
When Donald A. Wollheim left Ace Books and established his own paperback imprint, DAW Books, in 1972, he took an affinity for the works of Jack Vance with him. At Ace from 1952-71, Wollheim published Vance in a series of Ace Doubles, solo titles including The Languages of Pao and The Eyes of the Overworld, and the four Tschai books as an original paperback series.
At DAW, Wollheim republished the first three Demon Princes titles and signed Vance to complete the series. DAW promoted Vance as a major SF author and systematically republished all the Vance titles for which rights were available. To mark the publication of The Book of Dreams in January 1981, DAW celebrated Jack Vance Month and advertised its list of twenty Vance titles. Over the years, of all Vance’s American publishers, Wollheim did more to promote and popularize Vance than any other. In North America, the majority of today’s mature Vance aficionados discovered their favorite author thanks to an Ace or DAW paperback.
Vance’s paperback success was fortunate, because the SF magazine market was contracting sharply. Vance’s last story published in a magazine was “The Seventeen Virgins” (F&SF 1974). First publication in original anthologies replaced magazines for a few remaining stories, as Vance phased out shorter forms to concentrate on novels. “Morreion” appeared in Flashing Swords 1, 1973, “The Dogtown Tourist Agency” in Epoch, 1975, “The Bagful of Dreams” in Flashing Swords 4, 1977, and “Freitzke’s Turn” in Triax, 1977. The short novel Fader’s Waft and “The Murth” appeared as original works with the reprint “Morreion” in Vance’s own volume, Rhialto the Marvellous (1984).
The 1960s had been a prodigious decade. The 1970s began quietly. No new Vance books appeared in 1971 or 1972 (except for magazine serializations of books to come), but this was the lull before the storm. From 1973 to 1976, Vance published eight SF novels plus his last non-genre work, Bad Ronald.
Bad Ronald (Ballantine paperback, 1973) is not so much a mystery as a psychological thriller. If proof is needed that Vance does not fit his stories to a consistent style but adapts his style to each story, Bad Ronald is Exhibit A, starkly different from anything else he has written. The story of a 17-year-old rapist and murderer is bleak and disturbing, being written from Ronald’s point of view. In 1974, the novel was adapted for television as an ABC Wednesday Night Movie of the Week.
The first draft of Bad Ronald was written as early as 1955 and revised for publication in 1973. Ed Winskill believes this early novel previewed better-known characters to come: the Demon Princes’ Viole Falushe and especially Howard Alan Treesong. “Ronald Wilby is in many ways the direct ancestor of Howard Hardoah: the murder of the first girl who rejected his advances and the Book of Dreams-like fantasy writings in his hideout, in particular.”
Dell published the Durdane trilogy as a paperback series following serialization in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (The Anome 1973, The Brave Free Men 1973, and The Asutra 1974). According to Malcolm Edwards: “What Vance is doing in these three novels is to set up a series of levels of opposition: each time Etzwane defeats one antagonist, he finds he has to face a new and more difficult opponent,” first the Chilites, then the Anome, then the Roguskoi, then the Asutra and their Ka opponents.
Edwards rates The Anome “among Vance’s best half-dozen novels” but thinks the series declines progressively through the subsequent two books. The hero, Mur, begins as an insider, growing up and struggling within the society in which he was born, but as Mur becomes Gastel Etzwane and struggles against progressively higher levels of opposition, he becomes more and more an outsider in his own world. Edwards thinks The Anome is “Vance at the top of his form . . . unfortunately, the story starts to emerge from its background about two-thirds of the way through the first book, and the remainder of the trilogy never recaptures that early magic.” Vance’s fellow SF writers were not as dismayed, and The Brave Free Men earned a Nebula Award nomination for best novel.
In 1973, Vance launched a new kind of series with Trullion: Alastor 2262, followed by Marune: Alastor 933 (1975) and Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978). These are stand-alone novels sharing the common background of the Alastor Cluster and the Connatic, ruler of the cluster’s 3,000 inhabited worlds. Trullion and Marune are planetary romances, Wyst a satire on egalitarianism.
Trullion introduces the game of Hussade, a team sport presented in typical Vancean detail. Vance first demonstrated his interest in game design as early as 1948 with the casino game Lorango in the Magnus Ridolph story “Sanatoris Short-Cut” and repeated the exercise with Hadaul, played on Dar Sai in The Face.
Marune centers on a conflict of interests between an indigenous species and humans, with side issues involving various factions of human settlers, a field of enquiry also examined in the same year in The Gray Prince.
A fourth Alastor Cluster novel, to be titled Pharism: Alastor 458, was contemplated but never written. Vance may have been deflected by his return to the Demon Princes series.
[To come: comments on The Gray Prince 1975, a rare “polemical” Vance novel; Showboat World 1975, a return to Big Planet; and Maske: Thaery 1976, which has signs of a series that was never continued.]
Something else happened in 1976 that made a significant contribution to Jack Vance’s career. Tim Underwood and Chuck Miller decided to form a company to publish deluxe, limited, hardcover editions of works by important SF and fantasy writers, and they chose The Dying Earth as their first project. After the Hillman edition in 1950, Lancer had brought The Dying Earth back into print with a paperback edition in 1962 (reissued 1969, 1972), but Vance’s most acclaimed work had never appeared in a durable binding. Underwood-Miller printed 1,100 handsome hardcover copies, including 111 signed and numbered. All the copies were sold in five months, demonstrating there was a good market for limited, quality, hardcover editions of Vance books.
Over the following two decades, Underwood-Miller would publish hardcover editions of more than 50 Vance novels and collections, eventually gathering all of his short stories (a few never before reprinted) into the more permanent hardcover form. These Underwood-Miller editions lent a note of dignity to Vance’s works, earned reviews in major newspapers, and stimulated library sales, putting Vance books where more readers could discover him. Last but not least, over time they also represented a modest but cumulatively significant income stream for the author.
Then in 1977, more than a quarter century after Vance became a recognized name in the science fiction field and a decade after he won Hugo and Nebula awards, Maske: Thaery became his first selection from the Science Fiction Book Club. Part of the delay might be explained by the fact that very few of Vance’s previous adult SF/F books had appeared first in hardcover editions. Nonetheless, it is remarkable that a novel as fine as Emphyrio, first published by Doubleday (owner of the SFBC!) in hardcover in 1969, did not make the SFBC list.
In the following quarter century, the SFBC published club editions of the three Lyonesse and the three Cadwal novels, Night Lamp, and the combined Ports of Call/Lurulu. The club also made up for missed opportunities by issuing omnibus editions of the Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes series and The Compleat Dying Earth.
Vance’s second career as a mystery writer lacked the momentum of his SF and fantasy work and essentially ended in 1973. As a practical freelance writer, Vance found that he simply earned more from his SF/F writing, and the commercial publishers weren’t clamoring for more Vance mysteries. In fact, when Underwood-Miller began printing limited editions of Vance’s SF and fantasy, they learned that he had four unsold mystery manuscripts. Underwood-Miller published these novels in limited editions: The House on Lily Street and The View from Chickweed’s Window in 1979 (450 copies each) and The Dark Ocean and Strange Notions in 1985 (500 copies).
By the 1970s, the Vance home in the Oakland hills had expanded enough to allow the Vances to entertain their wide circle of friends. Norma became renowned for her Sunday dinners, at which up to a dozen guests would enjoy conversation and a gourmet meal. “The guest list usually included persons of diverse professions,” according to David Alexander: “doctors, architects, pottery makers, cabinet makers, contractors, a lawyer (me), nuclear physicists, computer hackers, and even, occasionally, a writer, an agent, an editor, or more rarely, a publisher.” Full-blown parties might include a jazz combo with Vance performing on banjo and kazoo.
[To come: commentary on Wyst 1978, another “polemical” novel.]
In 1967 Vance had left his Demon Princes series unfinished, to the lamentations of his fans. But a decade later, opportunity knocked a second time. DAW Books acquired reprint rights to the first three Demon Princes titles and gave Vance a contract to complete the series. The Face appeared in 1979 and The Book of Dreams in 1981. The paperback industry had changed and longer books were now favored, so the last two Demon Princes novels are substantially longer than the first three.
Critics have sometimes claimed that Vance’s series seem to lose energy as they progress, but even if that is true in some cases, the Demon Princes series is an exception. The final two novels demonstrate Vance’s ability to take up a series after a long hiatus and recapture the original tone and spirit of the first volumes (with one minor slipup in continuity – Gersen’s grandfather in the first three installments becomes his uncle in the last two). Perhaps the long break in the series allowed Vance to take it up again with fresh vigor.
As Steven Sawicki wrote when reviewing Tor’s two-volume reprint of the five Demon Princes books, “There are Vance books which better represent his plotting and there are Vance books which showcase his language manipulation and word creation and there are Vance books which shine with his talent at naming. The Demon Princes books are perhaps the best example of Vance running on all cylinders.”
Vance also revisited an earlier stage in his career in 1981 with publication of Galactic Effectuator as an Ace paperback, a collection of his two Miro Hetzel adventures. The novella “The Dogtown Tourist Agency” (1975) and the novelette “Freitzke’s Turn” (1977) had first appeared in anthologies of original stories. Together, these tales of an interstellar detective appear to represent Vance’s second take on Magnus Ridolph with a quarter-century’s additional skill and experience. Vance might easily have extended this series, but he was now focused exclusively on novels.
The year 1983 was an annus mirabilis for Vance’s fantasy fans. Eighteen years after Eyes of the Overworld, Vance brought back Cugel the Clever in Cugel’s Saga (Baen 1983, not Vance’s title). This second Cugel outing had a long incubation with two of the component novelettes appearing in 1974 and 1977. Vance may have been encouraged to complete a book’s worth of new adventures after “The Seventeen Virgins” (Magazine of Fantasy and SF October 1974) won a Jupiter Award for best novelette in 1975 and “The Bagful of Dreams” (Flashing Swords! #4, SFBC) garnered a 1978 World Fantasy Award nomination for best short fiction. Cugel’s Saga tied with Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore in the best-novel category for Spain’s Gilgamesh Awards.
Also in 1983, Vance launched a major fantasy trilogy with publication of Lyonesse, Book 1, Suldrun’s Garden, to be followed in 1985 by The Green Pearl and concluding in 1989 with Madouc. Vance told Locus that, after completing the Demon Princes series with The Book of Dreams, “I wanted to write a large book – three large books. As far as I know, no one has written about Lyonesse before, and it seemed high time to do it.”
Unlike the remote future setting of the Dying Earth fantasies, Lyonesse is set in pseudo-historical times, after the collapse of the Roman Empire and a generation or two before King Arthur. Vance explained that this more conventional fantasy setting was chosen “to do something to sell to the general public, a broader audience. These particular situations and characters, I think, will have a wider appeal than some of the other stuff I’ve written.”
[To come: Lyonesse assessments; Madouc, World Fantasy Award, best novel 1990.]
Publication of Suldren’s Garden in 1983 marked a tectonic shift in Vance’s career. Up to then he had written stand-alone novels or series composed of short paperback novels (Demon Princes, Tschai, Durdane, Alastor). But for the next decade, Vance’s creative energies would be invested in the long and elaborate installments of the Lyonesse trilogy and the Cadwal Chonicles.
Vance still had some shorter works in the pipeline. In addition to the new Cugel adventure, and perhaps counterbalancing the intended broader market appeal of the Lyonesse series, Vance published Rhialto the Marvellous in 1984, his last venture into the remote future of the Dying Earth and the ultimate Vancean fantasy in style and content. The book includes novelettes “Morreion” and “The Murth” and the short novel Fader’s Waft.
Never before or since has Vance been more droll, whimsical, mordant. His matchless imagination soars, his view of human (and sandestin) nature has never been more sardonic, his dialogs are like knife fights. According to Joe Schwab, “Rhialto the Marvellous presents the ultimate demonstration of Vance’s skills and shows that forty years of experience have truly elevated his prose style to a masterful level.”
The early 1980s saw the culmination of Vance’s interest in sailing. Sailboats long represented his dream of travel and adventure. He was always studying plans and assessing features for the safest, most seaworthy craft. He bought plans to build a 36-foot trimaran and completed the three hulls. Then the designer disappeared at sea, dampening Vance’s enthusiasm for that design. Over the years, Vance owned a 17-foot cutter-rigged Venture, used to teach sailing to John II; a 35-foot ketch-rigged Columbia, and finally a 45-foot Explorer that was christened Hinano.
This largest vessel was intended to carry Jack, John II, and one or two additional companions on an extended cruise of the South Pacific. Norma recalls: “One of the happiest periods of Jack’s life was spent in the company of John, rigging Hinano, installing all sorts of hull-strengthening devices, radar, running lights, radio, safety net and railings, choosing sails, buying charts and planning itineraries.”
By this time, however, the first symptoms of glaucoma were diminishing Vance’s already poor vision and John needed to start his studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Vance held on to his hopes for a while, accumulating funds to finance the voyage and maintain Norma at home (she wasn’t planning to make the trip). But the berthing fees and maintenance costs were high, no compatible crewmembers presented themselves, and Vance couldn’t quite manage to pile up enough money to finance the adventure. Eventually, he decided that this was one dream that wasn’t going to come true and, with great reluctance, he sold Hinano.
Over the next decade, Vance’s glaucoma progressed, finally leading to surgery. “The doctor who tried to repair my eyes did so using the laser, and every time he operated on me my eyes got worse. He finally just gave up.”
Eventual loss of eyesight also caused Vance to abandon his active participation in classic jazz, “one of the great interests in my life.” Music has always been important to Vance. “In fact, I think of myself more as a musician half the time than a writer.” He played cornet and banjo in bands occasionally, but “nobody tried to get in touch with me when they needed somebody to play, only as a last resort. I enjoyed it tremendously . . . but when my eyes went out I kind of hung it up.”
[To come: The Cadwal Chronicles, Araminta Station 1987, Ecce and Old Earth 1991, Throy 1992.]
When Throy appeared in 1992, Vance was 76 and nearly blind, but his abilities were undiminished. That year he was named Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Orlando (MagiCon), the SF field’s highest popular accolade, the genre equivalent of a Roman triumph.
After completing the vast Lyonesse and Cadwal trilogies, Vance returned to the one-volume novel with Night Lamp in 1996. This is another rare example of a “dark” Vance novel, the story propelled by horrid crimes and tragedies. The new book earned good reviews (New York Times: “Vance at the top of his form”).
L. R. C. Munro, reviewing the novel online for Science Fiction Weekly, called it “a somewhat rambling novel, written with an eye for fanciful detail, a poetic turn of phrase and a dry sense of humor. . . . If Charles Dickens and Dr. Seuss teamed up to write a space opera, they might manage to come up with something as imaginative, whimsical and entertaining as Night Lamp.”
Till Noever found Night Lamp “a profoundly satisfying book, despite its grim tone. . . . when all is done there is a sense of completion; that things happened as they must have, and that, despite a note of wistful sadness, all is well; and that, when you have friends, the universe – though often dangerous, twisted, morbid, and evil – is not a bad place to be; and that there are things to do, places to go, and wonders to behold.”
To cap his Worldcon Guest of Honor selection in 1992, Vance’s professional colleagues in the Science Fiction Writers of America named him a Grand Master in 1997. He had long expected to be named. “I think it was something I’d been waiting for for many years,” he told an interviewer on the Sci-Fi Channel, “and when it came I was properly, uh, not thankful, or grateful or anything, but I kind of took it for granted. I went to Kansas City, and I was polite; I got up and made a little speech, said thank you, accepted the award, came home and put it somewhere, I don’t know where it is.” (Vance couldn’t see it, but in 2004 his Grand Master trophy was on display in the central dining/living room of the Oakland hills house beside a World Fantasy Award.)
The fact that Vance long expected to be named a Grand Master indicates that he recognizes his high status in the field; yet typically, he distances himself from the honor, disclaiming gratitude or special satisfaction in the achievement. Paul Rhoads has pondered on this trait: “I am intrigued by Jack’s ambiguous relationship to his success/non-success. I think he knows who he is (an exceptionally great artist) but that his life experience and character are such that his natural exuberance and combativeness have become hidden so that he practices a modesty and detachment not fully representative of his deeper character.”
One important element of that life experience was the years Vance spent writing for the cheap, gaudy SF pulp magazines for as little as half a cent per word, followed by many more years as a novelist whose work appeared almost exclusively in paperback editions without serious critical attention.
One part of that Vance character is a highly self-critical nature. He doesn’t reread his old stories; once a manuscript is mailed to his agent, it’s no longer his concern. He readily dismisses his early stories as “apprentice work” and refers to his later writing as “my stuff” or “my junk.” He assumes no airs as a writer and explains that writing is just his job, what he does for a living.
Vance never expatiates on the artistic aspects of his writing; indeed, he generally declines any analytical discussion of his work. When asked what aspect of his work has given him the most satisfaction, Vance replied: “Getting the check. I’m not fooling! But to be not quite as sardonic, I could say: writing the words ‘The End’.”
Nonetheless, son John testifies that his father does derive satisfaction from the creative process: “Growing up, when I was fooling around, running around the house while Dad was writing, occasionally out of nowhere he’d chuckle to himself. It was very clear that he was enjoying what he was doing – that the writer was having a good time.”
Ports of Call appeared in 1998. To the dismay of some readers, the novel ends abruptly, without resolution. It is, in fact, only the first part of a larger work completed by publication of Lurulu in 2004.
“When I was writing Ports of Call,” Vance says, “I wound up with a long book, but still had a lot of material I wanted to use. So freely, unconventionally, I said, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve got to stop this story here, and continue in the next volume. And so I ended Ports of Call.” Unfortunately, the publisher didn’t label the book “volume 1” or print “to be continued” at the end.
Ports is another of Vance’s episodic novels, in this case a series of situations and incidents that has a beginning but lacks conventional plot development. The novel is a “tour de force” of Vance’s “fervid and boundless imagination,” wrote reviewer Brooks Peck in Science Fiction Weekly. But “what Ports of Call lacks is a central plot to carry it from port to exotic port, adventure to adventure.”
Paul Rhoads is unconcerned. Ports “might seem a mere improvisation without plan or purpose. In fact it is a subtly structured meditation upon no less a subject than mortality. In admirable order each episode casts a light on life as seen from the various limits imposed by time and death. For the reader who can take hints the book’s casual charm is supplanted by a growing mood of poignant urgency which could be neither generated nor sustained should the theme be stated less quietly.”
Six years later, Lurulu continued the tale begun in Ports of Call, bring the combined work to 140,000 words (and published in a single volume by the Science Fiction Book Club in 2005). As a continuation of Ports, Lurulu is equally episodic and lacks a central plot, though story elements begun in Ports are brought to a conclusion by the final pages. Myron does finally return home, and he has learned things about himself and the meaning of life; but he has not won the girl, achieved revenge on his enemies, or demolished a calcified society as so many protagonists do in earlier Vance novels.
Lurulu is “a story that reveals a truth that is no less profound for being simple: life is a voyage whose significance is in the going, not in the arrival,” says Matt Hughes. “So the tale is not about a beginning, a middle and an end, connected by an arc of character, but is instead a celebration and an urging to live this fleeting moment to the full.”
Vance explained lurulu as “a special word from the language of myth.” Patrick Hudson noted that “Lurulu is the name of the mischievous troll befriended by Prince Orion in The King Of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany, who was a popular fantasist around the time that Vance was a boy - The King Of Elfland's Daughter was first published in 1924. Much of Dunsany's book concerns Orion's search for the ineffable Elfland, which seems to taunt him with its closeness yet torment him with its remoteness. Similarly, Myron and friends find lurulu is both impossibly distant and paradoxically close at hand.”
Once again demonstrating that Vance discards nothing in story ideas or words, Lurulu is also the name he gave to the eponymous character in his story Golden Girl, published in 1951 (Marvel Science Stories) but written as early as 1946.
Considering Ports of Call and Lurulu together, Russell Letson classes the work not as “a plot-driven adventure but a ‘Vancean Ramble’. . . . It does not have anything like the unifying force of the quests that run through Emphyrio, The Blue World, or Durdane. It is closer kin to the Dying Earth or Cugel stories – that is, it is picaresque, a tradition in which being episodic is not a bug but a feature.”
When he delivered the manuscript of Lurulu to his editor at Tor, Vance declared himself “semi-retired.” He began a new work but without contract, deadline, or certain expectation of ever finishing it. He continues writing, he explained, because “that’s what I do” and, after writing continuously for sixty years, he would feel restless if he didn’t have a work in progress, something to occupy his mind.
Over a career spanning six decades, Vance has written 4.6 million published words. His works have been translated into a dozen languages (even Esperanto). He achieved his childhood goal of becoming a writer and enjoyed his work, which gave him the independence he craved and which he was able to perform in many locales while exploring the world.
Vance has received the highest honors in all three of the genres to which he gave his attention, the respect of his professional colleagues, and a worldwide readership so admiring that many collaborated over a period of years to publish his collected works in a handsome edition with corrected texts. He had the time and acquired the means to pursue his avocations – ceramics, cooking, sailing, jazz – and built an elaborate home with his own hands. He has lived to an advanced age without decline in mental acuity and with all but one of his faculties intact.
In Jack Vance’s own estimation, “I’ve had a lot of fun in my life without too much hardship or tragedy.”
[ Part Two ]