The latest installment in an occasional series on speculative fiction by guest poster patrickg:
Distant Suns: Nuncupatory questions.
Any other writer with Jack Vance’s bibliography (well over fifty novels), and his years of activity, would be a legend in the SF/F field. But Vance, whilst certainly hailed by many as a great writer, is not the kind of writer whose influence is easy to trace. His books are not wildly popular, his advocates live in the periphery of genre and his fans – though devout – are small in number. Why should an erstwhile reader, keen for a richer picture of the f/sf genre delve into this author? Never really ground-breaking, somewhat publicity shy, and curiously unique, Vance is almost an island apart from the continents of mainstream science fiction and fantasy.
This said, it’s an island that can be a nice place to visit, as typified by his Lyonesse trilogy, a kind of Arthurian fantasy he wrote in the eighties. Lyonesse bears many of the trappings from conventional ‘high fantasy’: fairies, trolls, knights both virtuous and dastardly, scheming kings and mysterious wizards. And yet, the treatment of these staples is quite different – especially compared to what was being published at the time. Lyonesse seems both more simple, and more ornate.
For starters, it’s unusual for fantasy of that time to be concerned purely with kingdoms. Usually, of course, the kingdom is at stake, but events typically have a greater world-ending significance (see Eddings, David). Not here: the concerns of the Lyonesse trilogy are thoroughly domestic. Pure Evil is replaced by venality, and Vance also eschews that favourite of world-ending fantasies, the messianic stable boy (see also, Eddings, David). His protagonists are usually kings or queens, wizards or fairies.
You might think that this is Vance’s area of influence. Modern high fantasy is, after all, very much concerned with affairs of the state; your Martins, Hobbs, Abrahams, etc. But the difference here is that whilst it is a focus, it’s not a strong one. Vance doesn’t really seem to care all that much about these empire building events except insofar as they provide interesting opportunities for his characters.
Indeed it’s these opportunities that Vance seems to most relish, deploying his situational chapters with a deft, professional hand, and flavouring them with inimitable dialogue. This is where the ornate comes from; Vance dialogue is an anachronistic, eloquent treat. Even his non-messianic stable boys possess a handy turn of phrase, and he’s not afraid to let the banter flow with an almost theatrical generosity. Vance’s characters speak in a very mannered, yet surprisingly charming way that brings to mind P.G Wodehouse, or even Trollope. A sample:
“Your methods are incorrect. Since I entered the chamber first, you should have dealt first with my affairs.”
The clerk blinked. “The idea, I must say, has an innocent simplicity in its favor.”
It’s unusual to read fantasy or sf where the characters seem to have wandered in from a Wilde stage play. Vance’s fans (a small but very devoted group) would apply that level of praise to his writing as a whole. I do think they’re a shade myopic in doing so. Vance’s writing, make no mistake, is enjoyable. It’s competent, easy to read, descriptive when it needs to be, and curt when not. But these qualities are predominantly in abeyance in fantasy as a genre. Readers with a more inclusive palate will appreciate his qualities with general prose, but I wouldn’t expect to be transported by delight.
A similar observation can be made in regards to Vance’s characters. They are all archetypical, and very straightforward with regards to their motivations and fears. Change is unusual – if someone starts out “good”, they’re likely to stay that way and the reverse holds equally true (in most of his books). It’s not a bad thing, per se – a good meal can be a simple one – but you do get the sense that Vance is utilitarian with his characters and has little interest in surprising the reader, or fleshing out the subtleties. In Lyonesse, Vance also includes a number of very young protagonists. It’s strange – no, I should say, it’s quite retro – to be reading about fourteen year olds talking (like courtesans!) having adventures, falling in love etc. in what is clearly an adult book.
So you’re left with an Arthurian, strangely inconsequential story, almost a romp, with a mannered style of dialogue and young protagonists, filled with fairies, magical objects and enchanted forests. This certainly doesn’t bring to mind other Arthurian-styled fantasy, so heavy it could be considered the emo of fantasy. What it does remind me of, is fairy tales. Particularly the wonderfully told stories of Andrew Lang, best found in the coloured fairy books.
Lyonesse is like a fairy tale on steroids, or perhaps the oaked and matured version of the blunt stuff we drunk in our youth. Reading it was both an exercise in nostalgia and a re-invigoration – Vance is so at-ease with his prose and knowing with his deployment of fairy-tale tropes, it functions successfully both as homage and pastiche. I don’t know how much you would like these books if you don’t like fairy-tales, or prefer a more… sententious kind of a read.
This said, I tend to prioritise narrative over other qualities in writing, and I found myself willingly swept up in this story. I’ve read a few other Vance books and didn’t find them as quite enjoyable as Lyonesse (but with >50 novels to his name, it’s a bit of a crapshoot). I do find myself wondering, though, as I read his books, that here’s a guy with an output only rivalled by Moorcock or McAffrey – both tremendously influential. Why isn’t Vance considered a cornerstone of the genre, as opposed to a diverting by-way?
Looking at his (published) champions, I begin to get a sense why. Dan Simmons, Michael Chabon, and Gene Wolfe are all on record as ardent fans. Like Vance, these are writers that inhabit the peripheries of the genre – fossickers mining whatever stories happen to catch their eyes and unsatisfied being pegged as ‘fantasy’, or ‘science fiction’, or any number of labels.
With his workman-like dedication to writing with little regard for trends or genre mores, maybe Vance’s influence is more widespread than it initially seems. It is, perhaps an influence that appeals to the misfits; those with an eclectic, and ardent taste to their writing. Not just Simmons, Wolfe and Chabon, but Tim Powers, Kage Baker, Jonathon Carrol and even Connie Willis. Steven Brust also shows flashes of Vancian dialogue in his works. These are all prolific authors with a wide spectrum of books to their names, and I think in some regards it’s too easy to ignore them. Their stories are rarely the ones that race up the bestseller lists like Donaldson, Eddings, etc. Their tales might be epic, but they’re frequently contained in a single book. And they’re hard to pin down. It’s difficult to know exactly what kind story you’re going to get when you pick up a book by these authors, save for its quality.
So whilst Vance might seem a one-off in the canon, I think you could argue he is more representative of the field – the trade – of writing for fantasy and science fiction (or more broadly, the trade of writing full stop). You write what you have to sometimes, what you want more frequently, but more important than a lightning bolt of genius is a regular, affectionate toil that hones your craft which each sentence and, hopefully, sparkles with something unique. Without Vance, we would still have the titans of the field, but would we have the field?