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Today is Jack Vance’s 104th Birthday

Friday, August 28th, 2020 | Posted by John-Henri Holmberg

Jack Vance-smallToday, just 104 years ago, Jack Vance was born in San Francisco. Or, actually, John Holbrook Vance. He grew up to live on a farm, suddenly become almost destitute and have to leave junior college, work in a cannery, as a bellhop and on a gold dredge. Later, at UC Berkeley, he studied mining engineering, physics, journalism and English, and wrote his first science fiction stories. Still later, he worked as an electrician in the naval yards at Pearl Harbor, but left a month before the Japanese attack. During the war he worked as a rigger and a merchant seaman, after faking his eyesight test. A jazz musician, a carpenter, a surveyor and a ceramicist he was a sailor throughout life, building his own boats and dreaming of vast oceans and rivers on distant planets.

He began publishing science fiction in 1945, had his breakthrough with The Dying Earth in 1950, became a staff writer for the Captain Video TV show in 1952, had further breakthroughs when his first crime novel under his own name, The Man in the Cage, had a 1961 Edgar Award for best first novel, and again when his novellas “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle” won Hugos and Nebulas in 1963 and 1966. But his real and lasting breakthrough was as one of the finest, most bitingly satirical and ironic, most stylistically intransigent and most unforgettably original science fiction (and, by all means, also fantasy) authors of the 20th century.

In 1976 I and Per Insulander, who co-chaired that year’s Swedish national SF convention, invited Jack to be our guest of honor. He accepted, stayed for a week in Stockholm, and called us his friends; I think we were. A year later we sailed with him in San Francisco bay and stayed at his house in Oakland; for many years, I kept in touch with him and continued to publish him in Sweden. When Jack grew almost totally blind in the 1990s, he kept writing. If you haven’t already read his work, you must. It is sui generis; nobody else has written science fiction as Jack did, and you either love it or just can’t see what he was doing. Nobody else has written science fiction that to the same extent bares our souls, satirizes our most cherished idiocies, heckles the hypocrisies and nonsensicalities of our religions, social codes, moral codes and pointless squabbles. Read the five novels in his Demon Princes series; read his wonderful and absurd Tschai novels (published in the US as the Planet of Adventure books); read his subversive Lyonesse fantasy trilogy; read him. Thanks to his son, John Vance, all of Jack’s books are in print. I hope they remain so. Jack Vance was a writer for the ages, and of the enlightenment.

Jack died on May 26, 2013. I mourn him still, but more importantly I still read him. So should you.

21 Comments »

  1. I just did, a few weeks ago – Trullion: Alastor 2262. It was, of course, a dry, baroque delight. Vance was that heavenly combination – delightful and prolific.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - August 29, 2020 1:07 am

  2. Easily one of my top 5 favourite authors.

    Comment by dmont7 - August 29, 2020 9:11 am

  3. And every time he’s mentioned (well, maybe not EVERY time), I feel it incumbent to repost the video of 96 year old Vance playing ukulele and kazoo.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oiOt6eW0pZI&feature=emb_logo

    Comment by Joe H. - August 29, 2020 10:16 am

  4. I need to read a lot more Jack Vance. I know him almost exclusively from his short stories (which are marvelous).

    Comment by John ONeill - August 29, 2020 10:17 am

  5. The Moon Moth is my particular favorite short story of his; and I also think it’s one of those stories that encapsulates everything that makes the author great.

    Comment by Joe H. - August 29, 2020 1:08 pm

  6. @John O’neill

    I recommend the Omnibus versions of The Demon Princes (5 novels) / Planet of Adventure (4 Novels) / Lyonesse trilogy / The Durdane trilogy

    Did I mention what a prolific author jack was? :)

    Comment by dmont7 - August 29, 2020 4:37 pm

  7. If you’re reluctant to commit to a series, Vance wrote many outstanding stand-alones: Big Planet, The Languages of Pao, and The Blue World are three of the best.

    Comment by Thomas Parker - August 29, 2020 4:55 pm

  8. I just started the third Dying Earth book recently.

    Very happy that his whole output is available in print on demand from Spatterlight.

    Comment by Robert Adam Gilmour - August 29, 2020 7:06 pm

  9. Thank you, Mr. Holmberg, for reminding us of one of the great authors of both Fantasy & Science Fiction.

    A toast to Jack Vance!

    Comment by John E. Boyle - August 29, 2020 10:31 pm

  10. The Blue World receives perennial recommendation. I am still hopeful of picking up a copy locally but may have to bite the bullet and stump up for international postage in a copy. Can also reccomend The Dragon Masters as a slim quick read if one doesn’t have time to commit to a bigger volume. Fantasms and Magic is also a relatively easy to obtain collection of assorted stories which I enjoyed. Commented on it before in one if John’s previous Vance related posts

    Comment by Tony Den - August 30, 2020 3:21 am

  11. This post reminded me of unfinished business. I don’t think I ever read the first book in the Demon Princes sequence, and have just spent Sunday afternoon doing precisely that.

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - August 30, 2020 3:50 pm

  12. > The Moon Moth is my particular favorite short story of his; and I also think it’s
    > one of those stories that encapsulates everything that makes the author great.

    Hear! Hear! That’s a MAGNIFICENT science fiction tale, filled with wonder and mystery and tension and all the strangeness of a truly alien world with a rich and different civilization. And boy, it has a great ending.

    I don’t understand why it wasn’t nominated for a major award. (Although the Hugos presented in 1962, the year after it appeared, didn’t have the usual categories for BEST NOVELLA, BEST NOVELETTE, etc… they just had a single Short Fiction category, which was won by Brian W. Aldiss’s HOTHOUSE series).

    http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/1962-hugo-awards/

    Comment by John ONeill - August 31, 2020 12:35 am

  13. > I recommend the Omnibus versions of The Demon Princes (5 novels) /
    > Planet of Adventure (4 Novels) / Lyonesse trilogy / The Durdane trilogy

    dmont7,

    Nice choices. I read MADOUC, the third novel in the Lyonesse trilogy and enjoyed it… but I admit I was a little underwhelmed, and in fact was a little cranky that it beat out Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort for the World Fantasy Award in 1990, since I thought that book was brilliant. I should try the whole series.

    The Lyonesse Trilogy

    Comment by John ONeill - August 31, 2020 12:42 am

  14. > If you’re reluctant to commit to a series, Vance wrote many outstanding stand-alones:
    > Big Planet, The Languages of Pao, and The Blue World are three of the best.

    Thomas,

    I’m definitely tempted to start with Big Planet. Six years ago I wrote an article about tracking down early versions of that book, only to discover that they were (very) heavily abridged, and then trying to find the restored ACE edition — which I had and let slip through my fingers (when I mailed it to Howard Andrew Jones, after he mentioned he was looking for a copy).

    https://www.blackgate.com/2014/08/24/vintage-treasures-big-planet-by-jack-vance/

    Big Planet Jack Vance Ace-small Big-Planet-Ace-1978-small Big Planet Tor-small

    Comment by John ONeill - August 31, 2020 12:47 am

  15. > Very happy that his whole output is available in print on demand from Spatterlight.

    Robert,

    Glad someone mentioned the Splatterlight books! (Though John-Henri alludes to them above, when he mentioned “Thanks to his son, John Vance, all of Jack’s books are in print.”) They are terrific, definitive editions of virtually all (62 volumes!) of Jack Vance’s work, in handsome affordable paperbacks.

    I am preparing a short article on the Splatterlight books I’ve purchased so far. They’re well worth the money.

    https://www.jackvance.com/signatureseries/

    Comment by John ONeill - August 31, 2020 12:55 am

  16. > A toast to Jack Vance!

    John,

    I’ll drink to that!

    Comment by John ONeill - August 31, 2020 12:57 am

  17. > Fantasms and Magic is also a relatively easy to obtain collection of assorted stories which I enjoyed.

    Tony,

    I just bought that book! I’m not sure there was ever a US paperback release, but I stumbled on an inexpensive UK paperback on eBay earlier this month and snapped it up for 6 bucks.

    FANTASMS AND MAGICS Jack Vance-small

    Comment by John ONeill - August 31, 2020 1:05 am

  18. > I don’t think I ever read the first book in the Demon Princes sequence, and have
    > just spent Sunday afternoon doing precisely that.

    Aonghus,

    I spent Sunday afternoon in my back yead reading Poul Anderson. We should compare notes. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - August 31, 2020 1:07 am

  19. Oddly enough, I read the other books in the ‘Demon Princes’ sequence, just not the first! I’ve only read one book by Poul Anderson (possibly based on a Black Gate recommendation) – ‘The Broken Sword’, which was excellent, but apparently not representative. I think his stuff is mostly sf? What were you reading?

    Comment by Aonghus Fallon - August 31, 2020 7:09 am

  20. One of my early introductions to Vance was the library’s hardcover copy of Eight Fantasms and Magics, which, yes, when I read it I knew I’d found something special.

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/468117.Eight_Fantasms_and_Magics

    Comment by Joe H. - August 31, 2020 7:33 am

  21. Great stuff! I guess I’d recommend The Eyes of the Overworld or the Alastor series as entry points for Vance. My favorite of the standalones is probably Maske: Thaery or Emphyrio. Big Planet is okay, but I actually prefer the other novel set on that planet, Showboat World.

    Comment by James Enge - August 31, 2020 10:53 am


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