Jack Vance is one of those authors who — well, simply put, if you haven’t read anything by Jack Vance, you really can’t claim to have read science fiction. His work has been what we are pleased to call “seminal,” stories that take the commonplaces of fantastic literature and push them just a little bit beyond where we thought they could go.
Reading through this bibliography is somewhat of a trip down memory lane for me. I first encountered many of these stories when they were published in the pulps (although by that time we didn’t call them “pulps,” because they were growing up and becoming “magazines”). I remember being captivated by such stories as “The Dragon Masters” (which won a Hugo) and “The Moon Moth” (which didn’t, and should have) when they first appeared in the early 1960s (although by that time, Vance had been a published author for nearly twenty years). I first ran across The Languages of Pao in its publication as a book, and dove headlong into the Planet of Adventure series and the Demon Princes. I still remember The Dying Earth as something particularly strange and rich.
Maybe that’s the most significant thing about Vance: when science fiction was about the beginnings of space flight and stories were concerned more with how rockets worked than how people reacted to them and a story about living on Mars was adventurous, Vance was spanning galaxies and millennia, writing great adventure stories that were really a lot more contemporary than one would expect.
This is not the first bibliography of Vance’s writings. It is, in fact, the fourth. It was simply, at its publication, the most complete (and the authors note that it probably is not completely complete). It has a lot of information: in addition to the annotated listing, by category, of Vance’s writings (including a number of mystery stories), there are a biographical timeline, listings of awards and honors, an outline for a mystery novel, radio and television scripts, a listing of book series, unpublished manuscripts, and even a listing of “phantom editions” and titles that are wrongly attributed to Vance.
The bibliography portion itself is chronological, with exhaustive listings for each title, including foreign-language editions, and, for the books, the cover summaries from the paperback editions, some of which are priceless in themselves. Fortunately, for those such as yours truly, for whom time is a somewhat fluid and arbitrary medium, there is an index of titles, as well as indices of illustrators and cover artists, editors, magazines and periodicals, publishers, critics and reviewers, and secondary sources.
We are also treated to an introduction by Robert Silverberg and an afterword by Tim Underwood, who as half of Underwood-Miller began reissuing Vance’s works in deluxe hardcover editions in the 1970s. As I said, there is a lot of information here, and anyone who takes science fiction seriously is going to find this a valuable resource indeed — it manages to give not only a solid listing of the work of Jack Vance, but a very good sense of what the world of science fiction writing and publishing was like in the Golden Age.
(The Borgo Press, 1994)
Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.
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Jack Vance, who has died aged 96, was a writer of science fiction and high epic fantasy whose work was oddly at variance with the journeyman genre in which it first appeared. His prose – detailed, exotic, resonant of feelings, sounds and fragrances – soared well above the requirements of the genre; he described alien landscapes with bizarre and inventive energy in language that was ambitious, wordy, sometimes lurid, always bold. One of his best-known titles, The Dying Earth, began as a collection of short stories in 1950 and eventually expanded to become a whole series of books set in a far-off future in which the sun is slowly going out, and technology and magic coexist.
His output was vast: he published more than 60 books, some under pseudonyms, among them 11 mystery novels, three of them as Ellery Queen. In addition, he wrote some of the first, and perhaps best, examples of "planetary adventures". He, along with Edgar Rice Burroughs in the early years of the 20th century, and his contemporaries Leigh Brackett, Philip José Farmer and Edmond Hamilton, helped to create the idiom, and his novel Big Planet (which first appeared in a magazine in 1952, and was subsequently revised and expanded) is probably his best of this kind.
Vance's lasting impact may lie in the influence he had on other writers. Many have spoken of the way in which his imagery freed their own imaginations, while others may be argued as having come under Vance's thrall. These include writers as diverse as Ursula K Le Guin, Jack L Chalker, Michael Moorcock, George RR Martin and Gene Wolfe. The critic John Clute has even suggested that JG Ballard's "peneplainal venues" might be traced back to Vance.
But Vance himself was an unpretentious craftsman who consistently claimed to have no interest in the art of writing, saying that he wrote only to make money – which, by working as fast and prolifically as he did, he managed to achieve. The wish to present oneself as a humble wordsmith, writing fast and commercially, was not unusual for a male writer of Vance's generation; he was first published in the commercial-fiction magazines that were still appearing in the US after the second world war. It was a market where writers were treated badly, payment was poor, readership uncritical, and the work often arbitrarily truncated or padded out for reasons of space. Vance saw himself as a modest producer of readable text, with no aspiration towards literary pretension or status. Even when he graduated to publication in book form, many of his titles came out in ephemeral paperback editions, which were carelessly edited and illustrated with garish covers. Even so, these copies sold better than most, disappeared rapidly from the bookstalls and in certain circles soon became collectable editions.
Vance was born in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco, the middle child of five. His mother, Edith, was a prominent socialite, but his father was absent in France, attached to the Red Cross – after he returned from abroad the father moved to Mexico and was never again seen. When Vance was five his maternal grandfather took in the young family, and Vance was raised on a ranch near Oakley, California. From his youngest years, he suffered from poor eyesight but he read avidly and developed his lifetime love of Dixieland jazz.
In 1937, after a series of dead-end jobs, Vance entered the University of California in Berkeley, where he read physics, journalism and English. For one class assignment Vance wrote a short story, his first piece of science fiction. The professor dismissed it with such disdain that Vance threw it away afterwards, but always thought of the professor's remarks as his first bad review.
Early in 1941, bored with academic life, Vance joined the US navy and was posted to Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. Navy life turned out to be menial and miserable, so Vance resigned and was discharged "with prejudice". A week after he arrived home, the Japanese launched their attack on the base.
He returned to university and graduated in 1942. Later he joined the Merchant Marine as an ordinary seaman (first having memorised the eye-chart so as to fool the medics) and was twice torpedoed. He began writing stories for publication while still at sea.
In 1946, he met and married Norma Ingold, and they lived in the same house in Oakland, California, for the rest of their long marriage. They had one son, John. Vance claimed that Norma worked on his stories and books as hard as he did, but never went into detail about what he meant by this. He rarely gave interviews about his writing, and there are few clues in his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009), which concerns itself largely with harmless family reminiscences, and descriptions of extended vacations around the world with Norma.
Early in the 1980s Vance was diagnosed with glaucoma, but an attempted operation went wrong and afterwards he was declared legally blind. He continued to write with Norma's assistance, and later with the aid of special computer display software, but from that time on most of his output consisted of the bringing together, revising and expanding of his earlier stories.
He received many honours: among them three Hugo awards, a Nebula and a World Fantasy award for lifetime achievement. In 1997 he was made a Grand Master of SF, by the Science Fiction Writers of America.
I met him once, when in 1981 he was guest of honour at a science fiction convention in Rotterdam. He was at that time the best-loved and highest-selling SF writer in the Netherlands. His fans were eager to meet him. A genial but private man, he appeared on the platform bearing a ukulele and a kazoo. He said he would answer one question only – from the floor someone asked if he ever used personal experience in his books. He replied "I am not an egotist!" and started strumming.
He was a genuine enigma to his admirers, but his many works are still in print and available online, and will remain his testament.
Norma died in 2008. John survives him.
• Jack (John Holbrook) Vance) writer, born 28 August 1916; died 26 May 2013