Jack Vance: Portrait of the Artist as a Mad Poet

I know this is an inauspicious way to begin an essay on a favorite author; even so, I wish to express my most profound apologies to Mr Vance for what follows. You see, I am about to indulge in a practice that writers of fiction abhor, but that their readers can not resist. Worse, I am about to do it in public. This heinous practice is called "Looking for the Author in His Characters."

While any authors who may be reading this recover their poise, I'll take a moment to explain to my fellow readers why this practice is so roundly detested by the professional fiction writer. In the course of a long career, a writer will invent countless fictional characters of varying viewpoints. The operative word is "fictional". You wouldn't think that would need much explanation, so it is surprising how often authors are assumed to endorse the views expressed by their characters, no matter how wild or improbable. As they say in Dogpatch, "it ain't necessarily so." On the other hand, however, 'tain't necessarily not so, neither!

The more I consider the matter, the more certain I become that a writer - particularly a writer of novels - could hardly resist at least a cameo role in at least one novel. Jack Vance featured himself, or at least a descendant, as the ethnographer "Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII" (Vance's full name is John Holbrook Vance) in The Star King. Roger Zelazny did the same as a novelist-jailor in The Hand of Oberon. And by the way, isn't that CJ Cherryh's likeness featured on the cover of the first volume of Cyteen, as Arianne Emory?

These examples are, of course, deliberate one-time "winks at the audience". I believe Vance placed himself more seriously and deeply into his stories in the persons of two of his fictional characters. One of these is the savant Baron Bodissey, who never appears in person, but is quoted at length in many of the chapter-headings of the Demon Princes novels, and is also quoted from time to time in The Cadwal Chronicles. Bodissey's observations of the human condition are stated with such eloquence and rationality that I am convinced these are Vance's views as well. Moreover, the Baron's views are also manifest in Vance's treatment of other human cultures throughout the body of his work (my favorite Bodissey quote: "To construct a society based on caste distinctions, a minimum of two persons is both necessary and sufficient.").

The other character resemblance is a far more tenuous and intuitive connection: the mad poet Navarth, from Vance's The Palace of Love, and who, incidentally, is also quoted in The Cadwal Chronicles. Navarth is a restless spirit, a gypsy bohemian, and an artist. He is Vance carried to an extreme, and if you wonder by what authority I make that claim, I refer you to an interview of Vance by Charles Platt (Dream Makers II, 1983, Berkely Books), which I am sure by now he regrets having given! Unlike Baron Bodissey, Navarth is an active and important character in the story in which he appears. Three of Navarth's poems are quoted at chapter headings, and I'll go out on a limb by saying that they seem to me far superior to most of the self-satisfied mush that is being purveyed today. Vance himself may consider them doggerel, but I find them delightful, full of music and rhythm and whimsy, which is sadly no longer considered the province of "serious poetry". If you are interested, I've included one of these poems on my Hokusai pages. I don't maintain that Bodissey and Navarth are copies of their creator in every respect; I do believe that Vance has injected far more of himself into these characters than any others.

In his writing, Jack Vance concentrates on the mutability of human culture. He believes that as humanity moves out into the universe at large, differentiation and isolationism are inevitable. His stories are filled with imaginatively realized adaptations to environments both bizarre and mundane. One of my favorites among his short stories is "The Moon Moth", featuring a culture of individualism so extreme that folk mask themselves to display idealized versions of their particular virtues and accomplishments, and in which a person's status is his or her sole negotiable currency.

Vance's story settings range from the science-fictional to the fantastic. His first book, originally published in 1950, was a fantasy called The Dying Earth, a collection of six stories set in earth's remote future. The stories are as lyrical as anything Dunsany has ever published, and far more richly imagined. Vance wrote these during his term as a sailor in the merchant marine. Since then he has written several other stories in this setting, the best detailing the adventures of an improbable and nearly heartless rogue named Cugel the Clever.

Some of Vance's very best work is contained in a five-book volume known collectively as The Demon Princes. This is a straight-ahead adventure story, an interstellar manhunt in which the survivor of a pirate raid tracks down the five criminals who destroyed his home and family. Each book in the series details the pursuit of one of these "demon princes".

Vance also excels in short fiction. "The Last Castle" chronicles the end of a Golden Age, and the sundry ways in which the various gentlemen and ladies meet the future. "The Dragon Masters" describes the various ways by which the last men in the universe stave off extinction at the hands of an implacable enemy. In both stories the cultures are so greatly different from anything we know now, it is hard to comprehend how Vance is able to tell the tales in anything less than novel length. Suffice to say that he did so well enough to win Hugo Awards for both.

Vance has a definite style of writing that is hard to define, especially with regard to his dialogue, much of which seems at first dry and formal even under the most tense situations, as in this example from The Eyes of the Overworld:

The bravos now turned upon Cugel. "What of you? Do you wish to share the fate of your comrade?"

"By no means!" stated Cugel. "This man was but my servant, carrying my pouch. I am a magician; observe this tube! I will project blue concentrate at the first man to threaten me!"

or this example from Lyonesse:

A voice issued from the mirror..."The characters read thus: 'Suldrun, sweet Suldrun, leave this room before harm arrives upon you!'"

Suldrun looked about her. "What would harm me?"

"Let the bottled imps clamp your hair or your fingers and you will learn the meaning of harm."

The two heads spoke at the same time: "What a wicked remark! We are as faithful as doves." "Oh! It is bitter to be maligned, when we cannot seek redress for the wrong!"

However this may sound out of context, within the fabric of the story it seems right and natural. I can't quite explain it, but I do have a tentative theory, based on a bit of dialogue concerning the drawing of faces in Wyst: Alastor 1716:

Esteban laughed. "Not quite. I see a resemblance, but only because Jantiff draws all his faces with the same expression."

"By no means," said Jantiff. "A face is the symbol - the graphic image - of a personality. Consider! Written characters represent spoken words. Depicted features represent personalities! I depict features still and at rest so as not to confuse their meaning."

"Far, far beyond my reach," sighed Esteban.

"Not at all! Consider once more! I might depict two men laughing at a joke. One is really cantankerous, the other is good-natured. Since both are laughing, you might believe both to be good-natured. When the features are still, the personality is free to reveal itself."

Might this also apply to Vance's treatment of dialogue? That somehow the formality of the language leaves the underlying meaning free to reveal itself, where colloquialisms might distract? In all candor, I'll probably never write and ask. Far easier to argue from ignorance.

Vance's humor is also dry, and a pleasure to read. It is especially evident in The Cadwal Chronicles, a three book series that includes Araminta Station (1988), Ecce and Old Earth (1991), and Throy (1992). This is an adventure series detailing the struggle of a small population charged with maintaining a planet as a conservancy against a very large population of island folk who wish to settle the untouched wilderness of the continents.

Vance is one of the great writers of science fiction and fantasy. I anticipate that certain of his works will be regarded as classics for a long time to come.

Tim Eagen
August, 1998