Jack Vance wrote idiosyncratically in a field of idiosyncracy. The very lushness of his prose bespoke an era well past its prime that, when sought, could never be found. Azure, jeweler’s brass, roseate and softly crystalline. Contradictions made to coexist and cross-inform. Footprints trace a path along the the receding shore of a sea once filled with more deliberate monsters than now, the waves gilded by a fading sun that somehow shines proudly if wearily, attesting to empires whose ruins are more wondrous than any new powers might contrive.
He often wrote of the stuff of melancholy, while avoiding melancholy itself. One could see how tales told about these times and places might turn maudlin for greatness lost, but not yet, not now. Now we must see what fascinations recomplicate in a present not yet to form a past still waiting.
Was it science fiction? Fantasy? Did it matter?
Suis generis is sometimes used only when imagination fails to pigeon-hole, where appreciation falls short, and the thing judged is greater than those judging. Works can signify its proper definition, but more often individual writers are better gauges. Jack Vance wrote science fiction (The Last Castle, Araminta Station) and fantasy (Lyonesse, Maduouc), and amalgams of both (Mask: Thaery, Dragon Master, The Dying Earth) that even within their clearly defined provinces did not quite fit with expectation. He was an altogether sensual writer more concerned with moving the reader slantwise into a state of mind to perceive in unique ways places that ran counter to any norm than might be applied.
Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet. Such was Mazirian’s garden—three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations. Certain plants swam with changing iridescenses; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal…
He established a quasi-mystical ground for what might loosely be called science-fantasy, worlds where physics and genetics obtained but suggestively and where the motivations of alien minds twisted landscapes into ur vistas against which struggles for power played out in atypical fashion.
In The Languages of Pao power resides in grammars, linguistics the key to control, and a strong and unusual acknowledgement that cultures are latent repositories of destiny. In The Last Castle a comfortable ruling class is suddenly face with the fact that their servants have become more powerful than they and because thought was never given to them as more than labor, any basis for negotiation is completely unknown.
Vance seemed to write most eloquently about the days just before declines begin. A last Indian Summer played out sometimes across galactic stages. He was never less than grand.
The impact of an artist can be seen in his or her heirs, those who internalize their vision and produce new works. Gene Wolfe paid homage to Vance in his Book of the New Sun even as he did something wholly his own and in some ways superior. Vance was certainly not the first to try to combine science fiction with fantasy, but he was one of the most successful, and writers like Roger Zelazny, Lin Carter, and Michael Moorcock benefited from the results.
There is a bit of Tolkein to be found strewn throughout his prose, but Vance began publishing before Tolkein’s epic appeared, so the apparent influences are coincidental only. They shared, if anything, a sense of the vastness of time and the importance of even forgotten history. Vance’s stories are weighted with the awareness of pasts.
Vance retired from writing several years ago. Eyesight failing, health precarious, he withdrew. Now he has gone. Other writers of his generation—Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, Silverberg, Williams—seem to have garnered more attention. At least more vocal advocates. But each of them held Vance in high regard and the enormous body of work Vance has left us seems to be tenaciously inspiring new works and reassessments and gaining new readers.
“There is your home; there is Saponce. Do you wish to return?”
She shook her head. “Together we have looked through the eyes of knowledge. We have seen old Thorsingol, and the Sherit Empire before it, and Golwan Andra before that and the Forty Kades even before. We have seen the warlike green-men, and the knowledgeable Pharials and the Clambs who departed Earth for the stars, as did the Merioneth before them and the Gray Sorcerers still earlier. We have seen oceans rise and fall, the mountains crust up, peak and melt in the beat of rain; we have looked on the sun when it glowed hot and full and yellow…No, Guyal, there is no place for me at Saponce…”
Guyal, leaning back on the weathered pillar, looked up to the stars. “Knowledge is ours, Shierl—all of knowing to our call. And what shall we do?”
Together they looked up to the white stars.
“What shall we do…”