Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Why I Admire Jack Vance

Cover of the deluxe limited edition by Underwood Miller (1996)


I admire Jack Vance. Really do. Have for as long as I can remember, and still do. And having observed what's going on in the the field of SF&F  right now—for some time, actually—my admiration for Jack has reached new heights as of recent. The reasons for the admiration have also changed, because looking at him in the light of 'today' I discovered things that indeed make him into the brightest star in a firmament of lesser, transient lights. Of which there are aplenty!

I could start a tirade about how I feel about contemporary SF&F, but shall refrain from doing so. It wouldn't be pretty and create me more grief than I care to deal with. So, let me focus on Jack Vance.

Don't know what originally attracted me to him. The issue is murky, partially because the first time I read his stories in German translations; which carry little if anything of the magic of his word-smithery. And since a lot of the praise heaped on Jack by other writers and the odd literary critic relates to the English versions of his writings, it appears fair to suggest that English is kind of important here. Well, maybe. As I'll try to explain below, there's more to it; though language, and specifically English, has a lot to do with it.

People commenting favorably on Jack's work tend to focus on certain limited aspects. Even if they criticize other elements, the following tend to be found in the 'praise' category—and I'm leaving out all 'language-related' components, including his power of description, facility with words, sentence structure, and style:
  • Irony.
  • Picaresque characters and stories.
  • Mordant observations of human nature and the structure of society.
  • Creation of droll/remarkable/unusual social settings and cultures.
Even those who suggest that Jack's characters have a certain one- or two-dimensionality about them, tend to be full of praise with regards to the points above.

Also, a lot tends to be made of the major influence of J B Cabell. While this is no doubt correct, said 'influence' was there primarily in Jack's initial works. It continues as an undercurrent and provides contextual elements throughout his writing, but this fades away in his later works as the focus 'characters' becomes more pronounced. This is unsurprising, because as a writer's narrative skill increases and matures, it tends to become character-oriented, with everything else, including social commentary and technology, serving to provide context and MacGuffins, rather than being at the heart of the story.

Over the years I have increasingly become aware that, unsurprisingly perhaps, the observations of Vance fans and critics alike are woefully incomplete (as no doubt are mine). They are also made, by and large, by a particular type of white male somewhere between the age of 30 and demise-time.

Is this relevant? Possibly. Jack's fiction is by and large a fiction for men. That may sound like an strange observation, but the fact is that when you look at Jack's fan clubs and his literary admirers, you'll find that they are predominantly male. That's not because females are excluded but because, I would suggest, Jack's themes as well as his style of writing resonates more in one gender than another.

That's a pity. His later major works especially contain much that would appeal to both genders, even though it might be argued that the current Zeitgeist, with its post-post-modernist quirks, fashions and screwed-up philosophies and sensibilities, may not provide a congenial ambience for the appreciation of Jack's genius; leaving it to a very few to continue to try and promote his work and preserve his legacy.

Of course, I'm prejudiced.  Also, I'm a male, always have been, and I have no intention of changing anytime soon—or ever. And I started liking Jack's stories when I was in my teens; which is quite a few years back now. His philosophy has profoundly influenced my way of looking at the world, and his style has equally profoundly affected my writing, though over the years that has become much more my own. Still, Jack remains that bright star in the firmament of lesser lights, and without him my English—not being my native tongue—would probably be even worse than it is.

But let's forget about the marvel of his language for a moment. What Vance fans are missing—and what his critics just plainly don't understand, mainly because of his chosen 'genre'—is that Jack had certain preoccupations, concerns, and passions that ran deep indeed, and which filter into almost everything he wrote, right from day one.

These include:
  1. The nature of love and hate.
  2. The nature of good and evil.
  3. The tribulations, conflicts and joys of growing up. Like Joss Whedon he obviously never forgot that—socially speaking—school often is hell on Earth.
  4. The conflict between the individual and its desire to be or become a true 'individual' and how society works both for and against it.
  5. What is a 'complete' human being?
  6. Schizophrenia/multiple personalities.
  7. The nature of ugliness and beauty.
  8. The destructive nature of religion all all ideology.
  9. The evils of monomania/vanity/self-indulgence.
  10. The influence of the environment on culture/society/individuals. 
  11. The need of the individual for 'society', despite its propensity to try and de-individuate.
  12. What is justice?
  13. The law of "Cosmic Equipoise".
  14. The terrible beauty and magic inherent in the natural world, and our obligation to honor and preserve it.
  15. Death.
  16. Insanity.
  17. The inevitable failure of, and the folly of wanting to create, utopias. 
  18. The lure of exploration and 'vagabondism'; and its complementary urge, to set down roots.
In many of his short stories these themes run through as undercurrents, barely visible, but nonetheless present. In others, as well as most of his novels and series of novels they are made very explicit indeed. How can anybody miss it?

One of my favorite of his short stories is T'sais from The Dying Earth collection. It is the final story in a triplet, which also includes Turjan of Miir and Mazirian the Magician. In these pithy three tales, we find explicit treatments of just about every theme in the list above (except for  3, 8, 10, 17). Three stories whose profundity and elegance elevate Vance to the level of  a Shakespeare—even then; long before he really got going.

If another example is needed, one just needs to look at Nightlamp, written at the opposite site of Jack's writing life. Nowadays, if an unknown author were to submit the manuscript for Nightlamp to a publisher, it would go right from the slush-pile into the trash; with the author unlikely to receive more else than a form-email—if lucky. But Nightlamp is s a towering achievement by an author at the peak of his powers—despite being legally blind and severely diabetic—presenting the reader with a complex, involving, multi-faceted deeply human narrative, at times profoundly tragic and suffused by evil and twisted characters, at others by the best of human nature, friendship and love; as well as a scathing and merciless denouncement of the vanity of social striving, mixed in, ironically, with a depiction of how even most most individualistic of individuals need a social framework. The Cadwal Chronicles are another work that combines too many elements and subtexts to mention, all woven into a sweeping narrative of greed, murder, lust, betrayal and love.

Other works span a similar spectrum, and even if they do not rise to the level of Nightlamp, they still tower above what really are lesser works by other, often far more celebrated, authors. And that is not confined to the SF&F realm, even though in the literary space spanned by that genre, Jack, as a storyteller with a deep understanding of human nature, stands above them all. Looking for a novelist who deserves to be compared to Shakespeare, the playwright? Well, here he is.

My Vance favorites, next to the ones mentioned above?
  • The Lyonesse series.
  • The Demon Princes series.
  • Tschai.
  • The Alastor novels.
There's one more thing I love about Vance. Even though in the end he wrote an autobiography, unlike other writers growing old today, Jack never did grow old. When I met him in 2004, life had already become very difficult for him. Still he continued with what you might call 'deep writing'. No social media or blogging bullshit, or reversion to short stories; or maybe, like some others, giving up on writing fiction altogether. A true writer/storyteller, a man of words, whose fire was his passion, and for whom storytelling was probably the best therapy he could possibly have to deal with the body that betrayed him.

What's there not to admire for anybody who understands and shares the passion of storytelling? Maybe when Jack started he just wanted to earn a few dollars; but stories like T'sais indicate that already there was far more than that.

As I said, he's still my guiding light, even though he's no longer with us.

I mourn him still, and when I finished re-reading Nightlamp and Cadwal recently and I thought of him gone I wanted to cry. But, as someone once said "look back but don't stare". Only those whose minds are getting old will constantly look over their shoulders and reminisce, instead of looking ahead and into the future, no matter what it may bring.