Remembering Jack Vance
"Mischief moves somewhere near and I must blast it with my magic!"
- "Turjan of Miir", the first story of Mazirian the Magician (aka The Dying Earth)
Earlier this week the worlds of science fiction and fantasy lost one of its greats, Jack Vance. One of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon, in an article about him in the New York Times Magazine, referring to him as "the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve. If ‘The Last Castle’ or ‘The Dragon Masters’ had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.”
Searching the web will reveal more about him than I could hope to capture in a single blog post. I came to his work relatively late, in my mid twenties shorty after moving to the Boston-area. But in a sense I'd been familiar since I began gaming in the early eighties. The mainstream tributes to him talk of his influence on entire generations of fantasy and science fiction writers but they tend to neglect his influence on fantasy gaming. Obviously there is the superb Dying Earth RPG published by Pelgrane Press. But it is difficult to imagine Dungeons and Dragons without Vance. Of course there is the spell-casting of the Dying Earth novels, where wizards memorize spells that vanish from their memories after casting. One of the biggest controversies in the 4th edition of D&D was its largely abandoning the "Vancian" magic system D&D had used since the 1970s.
His settings and protagonists also clearly influenced RPGs. The Dying Earth is more than a novel or a setting - it went on to define an entire genre of fantasy and science fiction. A world in which empire after empire has risen and fallen, leaving behind ruins, technology, magic, and bizarre creatures, malevolent and benign. His protagonists often bring to mind player characters - out for their own profit, often bumbling their way into and out of trouble but nevertheless possessing a certain style as they do so. This is not just seen in his fantasy but his science fiction as well - for example Ports of Call features a would-be interstellar adventurer who finds himself in a menial position aboard a tramp freighter as it works its way through various bizarre cultures.
Its hard to talk about Vance without referring to his writing style. He had a gift for using twenty words where other writers would use five. I myself am far closer to the terse style of your Isaac Asimov. But those twenty words become an absolute joy to consume. And I think consume is the right word - you took his writing inside you, you tasted it. He made you feel you were viewing alien landscapes yourself, experiencing the sunset of a tired sun which would soon wink out forever, bringing eternal darkness.
I know that Vance's last years were physically challenging - despite being legally blind for his last three decades he continued writing. I hope he had an inkling of how much joy his work brought people and what a large influence he had.