Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Jack Vance RIP

Jack Vance died a couple of months ago. This is my little homage to him, one of fantasy's greats and an important influence on my own writing. I first became aware of Jack Vance when I was about 14 years old, when my brother brought home The Eyes of Overworld from the local book exchange. There was something about this book that fired my enthusiasm, not in the same way that The Lord of the Rings did, for that was a totally immersive experience at 14. No, it was something else. Jack Vance had style.

His characters spoke with polite, elliptical yet crisp mannerisms, that on the surface said one thing, yet nakedly revealed the speaker's real message. The opening pages of Eyes of the Overworld demonstrate Vance's economical style at its best:

On the third day of the fair Cugel had disposed of only four periapts, at prices barely above the cost of the lead itself, while Fianosther was hard put to serve all his customers. Hoarse from bawling futile inducements, Cugel closed down his booth and approached Fianosther's place of trade in order to inspect the mode of construction and the fastenings at the door.

Fianosther, observing, beckoned him to approach. 'Enter, my friend, enter. How goes your trade?'

'In all candor, not too well,' said Cugel. 'I am both perplexed and disappointed, for my talismans are not obviously useless.'

'I can resolve your perplexity,' said Fianosther. 'Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.'

His neologisms and names were fascinating. The monsters: erbs, grues, simes and bazils - barely described, if at all - were evocative of an entirely different sort of world. A place occupied by such fantastic personalities as Phandaal, Magnatz, Pharesm and the dismal Lodermulch and Nolde Hruska. I found his inventiveness and sense of the apposite in the creation of his names and places to be dazzling, and I have never fallen out of love with his use of language. While I dearly loved Cugel and his two books (why, Jack? Why no more?), I think he really hit his fantasy stride with the Lyonesse series. And yet they, despite fully demonstrating his wonderful skills, also fell prey to what I think is his weakness.

Jack Vance often seemed to have less interest in the story than in creating fantastic situations, cunningly, magically revealed. He seemed to be a fan of the simple solution, often wrapping a story up with almost peremptory haste, which could make the plot suddenly seem thin and not entirely satisfying. Three volumes of Lyonesse, full of inventive Vance at his best, each book possibly better than the last, and then at the end everything is pushed along with an unnecessary haste, and a resolution that seemed implausible in human terms: a quick war, the baddies killed, all set to rights. The end was not important to Jack, I feel. The spectacle along the way, the amazement of magic, strange worlds, that was what his stories were about, and that is how his stories should be read. They are an exotic buffet of fruits and flavours never before savoured, but rounded out at the end with bread and butter pudding and a glass of warm milk.

Alas, so there was a limit to his genius. He could not pull and push his creatures to be loved and loathed, but only to be one or the other. My favourite fantasy author he remains, despite this weakness, for his works are the best of comfort food. Just pull out any one of those beloved volumes, reach into it anywhere, and savour every word.