Monday, August 29, 2016

Jack Vance the Magician



"The less a writer discusses his work - and himself - the better. The master chef slaughters no chickens in the dining room; the doctor writes prescriptions in Latin; the magician hides his hinges, mirrors and trapdoors with the utmost care." Vance in the afterward to "The Bagful of Dreams" The Jack Vance Treasury (2007)

August 28, 2016 would have been Jack Vance's 100th birthday.

The man had an incredible gift to spin worlds from nothing and paint them with a palette of the most vivid language imaginable.

His work is so compelling, in fact, that it’s very hard to remember that every word he wrote after 1980 (a list that includes 11 novels, 27 short stories, and a number of essays, forwards, afterwards, and footnotes) was written by a man who was legally blind and growing steadily blinder. This bibliography is impressive enough – but let’s not forget that in 1980 Vance had already been publishing stories and novels for thirty-five years.

Vance reputedly kept an arm’s length between himself and fandom, rarely exposing himself to real world scrutiny. He is said to have compared himself to a stage magician, whose power of illusion would be spoiled by revealing how his tricks were done. But I sometimes wonder if the truth is that he was actually rather shy of the attention he would have gotten if he’d put himself in the limelight.


In many ways, he was, after all, a very solitary man. Not unsociable – the fact he played several instruments that fundamentally require other musicians to even make sense makes that clear – but simply the sort of man who loved sailing and similar pursuits mainly because of the solitude they can sometimes offer, along with the regenerative powers of contemplation and reflection. Certainly, some of his characters that seem richest and most compelling to me are the men (and sometimes women) who likewise seem to spend a great deal of time alone: sailing (or space-borne variants), certainly, but also drinking wine in the quiet of a working pier at dusk, looking out over the crowds of an esplanade with an exotic cocktail, sipping a fragrant tea in the corner of a luxurious hotel lobby.

I think, actually, this may be what compels me about Jack Vance’s work – the way so many of his richest characters resonate with me. I will never share a carafe of wine with Mad Navarth, or nibble delicacies as I watch the Twik-Men work, or sip gin slings on the terrace at the Yipton Hotel, or listen to the wind as it howls across the pampas, nor even sup on fragrant stews at Smade’s of Smade’s world, but like the characters of Vance’s that grab me I need time to think and recharge, and it is the way in which these characters take the time seems like sheer luxury to me. Moreover, like them – and, I think, like Vance (though perhaps I’m flattering myself) – I love to watch people far more than I enjoy engaging with them directly.

My shelf of books that I can read again and again without end is short, but the V section is enormous. I fell in love with Wayness Tamm right alongside Glawen, and I've wandered the wilds of the Planet of Adventure. I've sneered at Cugel moments before wondering at his incredible luck, and of course I've rolled my eyes at the ineffable arrogance of Rhialto and his peers. And those are just a few of the worlds of Vance I could live in forever.

Vance's brilliance has had an enormous impact on my own writing, and if not for him I might never have become so interested in revisiting the pulp classics - yet another thing that drives my writing.

Since his passing in 2013, one of my greatest literary regrets has been that I never mustered the courage to actually sit down and write to him to tell him what an inspiration he has been to me. How could I humiliate myself with a letter that couldn't possibly match the words he would use?

The sting is worse when I read about what a kind, personable man he was - how he took a phone call from a fan and conversed for hours, how he replied to fan mail. What a joy it would have been to get a letter penned by the man himself. It would have gone on the shelf with his work that I read when I feel too stretched by real life.

But in the end perhaps it's best this way - as he said himself, it's like stage magic. Maybe the memory of the legend is what I really need.

Dammit Jack, I miss you.

7 comments:

Seema Tabassum said...

I know nothing about him,I'm not that well read you see,would you please recommend a book,one you think is best,so I can read and learn something,I am those people who need time alone more than they need food,I'm sure I'll like his work,so please let me know,thank you...again this is a great post.

Kevyn Winkless said...

Seema, I'm glad it touches you but not sure what to recommend. Vance's work is mostly science fiction (light on the science - big on social dimensions) or fantasy. He also wrote crime/mystery as Ellery McQueen (as many authors did). For sci fi, I would usually recommend Araminta Station as a starting point for people not already sci fi buffs, for fantasy the Lyonesse books are an obvious choice. I don't really know Vance's mystery works though.

Seema Tabassum said...

I'm not a fan of sci-fi but crime/mystery i love...al right,i'll look if i can get my hands on the books you recommended,thank you very much,have a nice day :)

Kevyn Winkless said...

If you enjoy crime/mystery you may enjoy Araminta Station - like I said, Vance (esp in his later books) was more of a social writer, so rockets and laser guns are very much an after-thought, though technology does occasionally figure in the story. Araminta Station (and the sequel, Ecce and Old Earth) are very much mystery stories, and the main protagonist - Glawen Clattuc - comes of age in the process of solving a group of interconnected murders. Araminta Station is a bit more science fictional, but Ecce and Old Earth (especially the parts that follow Wayness) is much more a mystery story.

Seema Tabassum said...

thank you very much Kevyn :) I'm going to look if I get those books,have a nice day. :)

John Wright said...

You could always write to his son, John Vance, and tell him how you admired his father's work. I have exchanged two or three emials with John Vance, and he left a very favorable first impression of a polite, kind, and honest man, the type one would like to go sailing with, or drain a carafe of Blue Thunder.

Kevyn Winkless said...

That's an excellent notion, and one for me to consider. I really do regret not writing to the great man himself, but I'm very glad for the option of sending a letter to his son, if only to thank him and his mother for the work they've done to ensure his father's work remains in print.