Jack Vance, August 28 1916–May 26, 2013
Amiante said to Ghyl in a voice Ghyl would never have recognized, “Take the papers. They are yours. Keep them safe.” He went into the square and sat upon a bench.
Ghyl hid the portfolio under the roof-tiles. An hour later welfare agents came to take Amiante away.
When he returned after four days, he was bland, easy, indifferent. A month later he fell into a dull mood and slumped into a chair. Ghyl watched him anxiously.
Amiante dozed. When Ghyl brought him a bowl of gruel for his lunch, Amiante was dead.
I first read these words over 30 years ago. Since then I have re-read them … 10 times? 15? They are from Emphyrio, one of my favorites of all the works of Jack Vance, who died this past Sunday. The book tells the story of Ghyl Tarvoke. Inspired by the legend of the hero, Emphyrio, and by the courage and lonely death of his father, Ghyl overthrows the “lords” who economically and spiritually oppress his world. His weapon: Truth. Along the way Ghyl experiences love, loss, the infuriating futility of religion, the bleak helplessness of totalitarianism, and a whole host of human weaknesses.
One reason I enjoy the words above is because of the author’s control. Up to this point we know the young Ghyl has tremendous respect and love for his father, Amiante. Yet Vance spares us the tortured outpourings of feeling so typical of today’s writing, instead choosing to make his message with the very starkness of the scene. Later in the book we reflect on the life of Amiante in one of the ironic twists Vance is so famous for. In Ghyl and Amiante’s society, duplication (or “duping”) of any kind is forbidden; the social and economic rule of this planet is that duplicates are inherently worthless and only unique handcrafts command enough value to trade with. Amiante is a wood-carver; earlier in the book we see him execute a carved wooden screen he names “Remember Me”; for this work he receives a pittance, what we would call minimum wage. Later, when Ghyl escapes the planet and travels to other worlds, he comes upon his father’s screen in a shop:
The screen had been carved to represent a lattice festooned with vines. Hundreds of small faces looked earnestly forth. Remember Me, read the plaque. Near the lower right-hand corner Ghyl found his own childhood face. Close at hand, the face of his father Amiante peered forth.
He entered the shop; a clerk in a black and white robe of a mercantile functionary approached him. “Your will, sir?”
“The screen in the window — the price is four hundred and fifty bice?”
“Correct, sir. Somewhat costly, but an excellent piece of work.”
Ghyl grimaced in puzzlement. Going to the cabinet, he inspected the screen carefully, to learn if it might have been damaged or misused. It seemed in perfect condition. Ghyl peered close, then all his blood turned cold and seemed to drain to his feet. He turned slowly to the clerk. “This screen is a reproduction.”
“Of course, sir. What did you expect? The original is priceless. It hangs in the Museum of Glory.”
To try and sum up Emphyrio in a few sentences is as futile a premise as trying to “recover an elixir … inadvertently spilled in the sea”, to use another Vance image. Rather than attempt either feat, I will instead essay a few observations on Vance and why I find him so engaging. This seems to me a nervelessly easy task – ‘”Simplicity itself”, as Cugel would confidently declare.
No writer of SF&F can match Vance in the number and impact of his imaginings. His earliest work, The Dying Earth, is an invention of incredible power: An Earth, billions of years in the future, where every possible achievement of science and magic has been made and forgotten countless times, and where the Sun is feeble and almost extinguished. For many writers this would have been a career in itself.
But Vance’ well of ideas seems endless. Consider The Moon Moth. Just a short story, yet in a little space he crafts a wondrous society where communication is done via music and the medium of economic exchange is strakh, or prestige. Again, for other writers this would be an entire franchise; for Vance it’s almost an after thought.
Then there’s Rhododendron Way, a sort of religiously-mandated system of prostitution instituted by the chillites, a sect Vance presents in The Anome, first book of the Durdane trilogy. It is on Rhodenderon Way that Dystar the Druithine (a kind of philosopher-troubadour) encounters the indentured woman Eathre and fathers Mur, who later takes the name Gastel Etzwane. Again in a little space Vance puts forth an idea that captures at once the full force of the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism, and also the bittersweet nature of the human condition as well.
Vance’ ideas are not the mechanistic kind so often associated with SF; Vance has no equivalent of the 3 Laws of Robotics, for example. As far as I’m concerned, that’s good; Vance’ ideas are not algorithms or scientific cleverness, they are reflections of human nature – as when he articulated the principle of magic in the Dying Earth, where the very words of a spell are so potent and fraught with power that a human brain can only recall a limited number at any one time.
Thinking of Vance’ characters here’s what occurs to me … Kirth Gersen, Cugel the Clever, the Mad Poet Navarth, Shimrod the Magician, Aila Woudiver, Madouc, Suldrun, Wayness Tamm, Magnus Ridolph, Rhialto the Marvellous, Viole Falushe, Lens Larque, Traz Onmale, Ankhe at afram Anacho, Iuconnu the Laughing Magician, King Casmir of Lyonesse, Hildemar Dasce. In my mind is a picture of every one of these – should I meet any one of them I feel I know what they will say.
Any Vance reader can rattle off a similar list of names and I daresay can visualize their favorites just as I can mine. This is because as effortlessly as he envisages new worlds, Vance creates memorable characters, each invested with style, substance and feeling. Vance brings these people to life with actions, as when the boy Traz Onmale first saves Adam Reith – at the cost of his place as tribal leader – in The City of the Chasch; and with words, like these from The Palace of Love:
Gersen interrupted one of Navarth’s dissertations. "Is it here we can expect Viole Falushe?"
"Where else but here?" demanded the mad poet, now somewhat drunk. "Where the heart of Earth beats the thickest blood! Thick, purple, smelling of must: like crocodile blood, the blood of dead lions. Never fear! You will see your man! … What was I discussing? My youth, my squandered youth! At one time I worked for Tellur Transit, investigating the contents of lost suitcases. Here, perhaps, I gained my deepest insight into the structure of the human soul … "
Vance does get criticized for his female characters. It is true he has no real female protagonists, but there’s no law that says a male writer must do so. And the female characters he has created should not be discounted. In fact it is female characters who lead all the action in the Lyonesse Trilogy: Glyneth, Madouc, Twisk, Tatzel, Melancthe/Desmei and, tragically, Suldrun; in a certain sense Aillas, Shimrod and Dhrun, the male leads, are errand boys following the paths set for them by the women. Then there is Wayness Tamm, who has at least half the action in Ecce and Old Earth, where she takes the role of detective tracking down lost documents across a future Europe and South America.
Reviewers and critics often cite Vance as a “stylist”, by which they mean he uses long sentences and a lot of uncommon words. Indeed, reading Vance you will find words like “opprobrium”, “encomium”, “inveigle”, “bathos”, “nuncupatory”, “tremulous” (one of his favorites), and “cachectic”.
Vance is also famous for the words he has invented: grue (an unknown, darkness-loving monster of dire potency), strakh (the currency of prestige in the Moon Moth), rachepol (an outcast with cropped ears), the whelm (name for a miltary force), or deedle, gruff and wobbly (kinds of bulk-processed food, terms adopted for regular use in the Salazar household).
Yet, Vance is more complicated than all this. Take the spareness of Raymond Chandler, the whimsy of Wodehouse, the other-worldliness of Dunsany, the fantasy of L. Frank Baum, the settings and action of Hemingway, the sense of macabre of Clark Ashton Smith, and you will approach Vance’ style as a writer. Which is not to say he is derivative – not more than any successful writer. His synthesis is unique.
To me one of the best examples of Vance style is this, from Suldrun’s Garden:
In the garden the first day went by slowly, instant after hesitant instant, each approaching diffidently, as if on tiptoe, to hurry across the plane of the present and lose itself among the glooms and shadows of the past.
The second day was hazy, less breathless, but the air hung heavy with portent.
The third day, still hazy, seemed sluggish and drained of sensibility, yet somehow innocent and sweet, as if ready for renewal. On this day Suldrun went slowly about the garden, pausing at times to touch the trunk of a tree, or the face of a stone. With head bent she walked the length of her beach, and only once paused to look to sea. Then she climbed the path, to sit among the ruins.
The afternoon passed: a golden dreaming time, and the stone cliffs encompassed the whole of the universe.
The sun sank softly and quietly. Suldrun nodded pensively, as if here were elucidation of an uncertainty, though tears coursed down her cheeks.
The stars appeared. Suldrun descended to the old lime tree and, in the dim light of the stars, she hanged herself. The moon, rising over the ridge, shone on a limp form and a sad sweet face, already preoccupied with her new knowledge.
Isaac Bashevis Singer famously said that the purpose of literature was “to entertain, and to instruct”. The professor and great writer always put the two criteria in that order and when citing this dictum never failed to pause significantly between entertain … and instruct. Yet for something to be literature, the two always go together.
For me, Vance in all his works never fails this test. At his core he was a pulp writer, and I’m entertained by everything he did – from the mannered techno-comedy of Magnus Ridolph to the raw adventure of Tschai to the epic scope of Lyonnesse. But Vance’ works stay with you because there is something more there, something beyond the images, the excitement, the invention. His stories always have, in the broad, original sense, a moral.
The morals in Vance’ stories I am talking about are not always good things, or even terribly deep things. They are ideas like: Liberty is better than bondage, Equity is better than duplicity, Self-reliance is better than dependence, Justice is better than cynicism. As I said, not terribly deep, but still important … and they are there, which is more than I can say for most genre fiction today, which strives only to be shocking or superficially unique in its conceptions. In The Durdane Trilogy, Gastel Etzwane strives to overthrow the oppressive rule of the alien Asutra, who act through though their puppet, the Anome. In The Domains of Koryphon (published as The Grey Prince) and also The Cadwal Chronicles, the key question is, who is entitled to land, those who maintain and protect it, or an undifferentiated, unproductive invading populace? Even in The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga there is a message – what goes around, come around.
Now, Vance I’m sure would disclaim any such significances – he was famous for denying any meaning in his works. But he also said a piece should stand on its own and it is up to reader to discern these messages. I discern in his stories a sentiment that comes from the best of America – for all Vance is loved in Europe he is truly an American writer – Strength, Fortitude in adversity, Adaptability, Exploration of the new, and Compassion for the weak. All mid-century values and maybe a bit paternalistic, but to be valued nonetheless.
With his death there are many appreciations of Vance coming onto the web. Some useful ones are here:
Also if your interest is piqued you should look at Foreverness and Cosmopolis, websites devoted to Vance. A particularly affecting piece is Cosmopolis #41 which contains an article by Norma Vance, Jack’s wife of 62 years who passed away in 2008.
I have rambled on long enough, probably to little purpose – not very Vance-ian of me. I wish I could end things cleanly, like Vance himself ended his Demon Princes series in The Book of Dreams. The hero, Kirth Gerson, has spent his entire life from childhood on pursuing and dispatching 5 master criminals – the “Demon Princes” – who destroyed his home. The Book of Dreams sees the demise of the last and most idiosyncratic of the Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong. Vance ends the greatest of his space-operas quickly and cleanly, like so:
Alice put her hands on his shoulder. “And now, what of you?”
“What of me, how?”
“You’re so quiet and subdued! You worry me. Are you well?”
“Quite well. Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done.”
Done indeed. Till next time …