Jack Vance R.I.P.Posted: June 1, 2013
All three people who read this blog probably already know that Jack Vance, author of The Dying Earth stories and so much more, died last month at the ripe old age of 96. If you are looking for the facts, the LA times can tell you what you need to know.
The first Vance book I remember reading was “The Gray Prince.” I remember finding the cultures Vance described as very interesting, and after I started reading the Dying Earth stories, I began to understand that Vance wasn’t just another science fiction/fantasy author; I think he was a social commentator in the style of Swift or Twain. In “The Gray Prince,” Vance presents us with fictional world in which numerous intelligent species claim to be the original inhabitants with a moral claim to primacy; by the end, we discover that nearly all of the sentient races of the world are the descendents of colonists who have been practicing generations of self deception and selective editing of their own history and the real ‘original inhabitants’ are the ‘morphotes,’ a race of bisexual savages that all the other species have previously agreed to collectively look down upon as utterly degenerate. Stories like Rhialto the Marvelous or the Cugel saga seem (at least to me) to have more in common with Twain’s “Roughing It” or Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” than the offerings from George R.R. Martin or other science fiction/fantasy genre authors. Maybe that’s why Vance isn’t as well known as most of his contemporaries; with it’s social satire elements, Vance’s work might have been too ‘highbrow’ for the science fiction and fantasy crowd who wanted pure escapist fiction, but, since it was also associated with the pulps genre fiction, it was too ‘lowbrow’ for the academic world. I don’t know if lacking the household name status of some of his near contemporaries irked Vance; to his credit, he didn’t seem to try to change his style or his content to pitch his fiction to a wider audience.
But I think Vance was, to a large extent, a satirist who happened to work in sci-fi/fantasy. Consider this humorous exchange from Vance’s “Cugel’s Saga:”
“The folk are peculiar in many ways,” said Erwig. “They preen themselves upon the gentility of their habits, yet they refuse to whitewash their hair, and they are slack in their religious observances. For instance, they make obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand, not on the buttock, but on the abdomen, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What are your own views?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method carries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views!”
I also love Vance’s baroque prose and imagery. In any case, it’s been a while since I have read any Vance; now might be the perfect time to dig out some of his books and read them again.