The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Of Strange Worlds and Heroic Adventure

Posted on | March 19, 2015 | 10 Comments

— compiled by Wombat-socho

For once, the New York Times Magazine got something right: when they profiled Jack Vance in 2009, they described him as “one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices”. This verges on understatement. Vance was equally at home in fantasy, mystery and SF, winning awards in all three genres, and his legacy also extends to role-playing games: it is no secret that the magic system employed in Gygax & Arneson’s Dungeons and Dragons is based on Vance’s The Dying Earth. Aside from his D&D connection, Vance is probably best known for his Hugo-winning novellas “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle”, in which human heroes must fight and outwit not only alien invaders but opposition from their fellow humans. This is a recurring theme with Vance; another is the astonishing variety of cultures and societies created by man on the many planets they settle across the universe. For a sample, consider the many worlds traversed by the implacable Kirth Gersen in his one-man war against the criminal lords known as the Demon Princes: the poisonmongers of Sarkovy, with their complicated tribal fetishes, who practice paranoia as a way of life; the inhabitants of Thamber, whose feudal city-states war endlessly among themselves for the amusement of the immortal Kokor Hekkus; the desert-dwelling Darsh, with their equally repulsive food and mating practices…I could go on for pages, and this is just one series of five books! Vance further illuminates his tales of adventure with amusing and (sometimes) informative footnotes and chapter-heading epigraphs, which help provide context…or distraction for people with very short attention spans. Of all Vance’s longer works, I like the Demon Princes novels the best and cannot recommend them highly enough.

Equally rich are the five Planet of Adventure novels, in which astronaut Adam Reith crash-lands on the planet Tschai, where he discovers not only four alien races but their human slaves, taken in Earth’s distant past. Reith must penetrate the mystery of each race in turn while finding a way off the planet to warn Earth, and the reader’s reward is to have each race and its human slaves displayed in turn as only Vance can. Truly, the fun is mostly in the journey, though Reith’s final [SPOILER] is [SPOILER] as well.

Less well regarded, though still fascinating illustrations of Vance’s skill in showing bizarre human societies while still relating a tale of adventure of which Heinlein and Laumer would have approved, are The Anome, in which the musician Gastel Etzwane finds himself unexpectedly thrust into a position and responsibility when the ruler of Shant, the “Faceless Man”, diffidently refuses to confront the destructive invasion of the Roguskhoi; also, the Cadwal Chronicles, which begin with Araminta Station, where the aristocratic Conservancy tries to maintain the natural state of Cadwal against the humanoid Yips and their more “liberal” compatriots. Glawen Clattuc, an agent of the Conservancy’s Bureau B, must negotiate both politics on Cadwal and off-world adventures before the action reaches its climax.

For what my opinion is worth, Vance has no equals in his mastery of both description and action. His books are filled with desperate deeds and heroic acts done in strange landscapes and bizarre societies, and all of them excellently described. Probably his closest modern equivalent is Neal Stephenson, though Stephenson isn’t nearly as baroque as Vance, his cycle notwithstanding. 😉


10 Responses to “Of Strange Worlds and Heroic Adventure”

  1. ZilWerks
    March 19th, 2015 @ 10:26 pm

    Amen. Jack Vance had no equal, and precious few successful imitators.

  2. DeadMessenger
    March 19th, 2015 @ 11:18 pm

    Wombat…dude…whip out on some sweet non-fiction. That’s all I read – nerd alert! If it includes some math and physics, extra points.

  3. Daniel Freeman
    March 20th, 2015 @ 12:33 am

    I’m a big fan of systems science. If you haven’t read Complexity by Waldrop yet, I would recommend starting there — not because it’s the best, but because it does such a good job of bringing you up-to-date to 1993. It’s a foundation.

  4. Fail Burton
    March 20th, 2015 @ 1:02 am

    Vance is probably the most underrated voice of SFF. His Lyonesse fantasy trilogy is at once so traditional and so eccentric people didn’t know what to do with its brilliance. No doubt in my mind it was the best work of it’s generation and one of the best works of fantasy of all time. And Vance was one of America’s best witty prose stylists of the 20th century – in any genre.

  5. Francis W. Porretto
    March 20th, 2015 @ 3:57 am

    Jack Vance has long been my role-model as a fiction writer. Though his gifts were recognized to some extent during his lifetime, he was never accorded the status he deserved, mainly because of the genres in which he labored. I hope his soul is smiling at the posthumous praise he’s receiving.

  6. Wombat_socho
    March 20th, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    I’ve got Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down in my stack of stuff, but that’s not got much math in it.

  7. daialanye
    March 20th, 2015 @ 11:29 am

    Can be compared with Lord of the Rings in its creativity and excitement but ultimately optimistic rather than pessimistic. Truly a great series of books.

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    March 20th, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

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  9. Eric Brown
    March 21st, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

    I would heartily recommend Matthew Hughes to anyone who likes Jack Vance. He writes in a very Vancian style, which is fairly difficult to pull off well.

  10. In The Mailbox: Pre-Death March Edition : The Other McCain
    March 25th, 2015 @ 4:01 pm

    […] Amazon Prime lending library and just $1.99 otherwise. Heck of a deal. Finally, as a follow-up to my previous book post, I cashed in some Amazon gift certificates to get the Kindle edition of Jack Vance’s Demon […]