Friday, January 1, 2010

First Vance Post

I was surprised and delighted when I found, in the July 19 Sunday New York Times Magazine, a short profile of one of my favorite authors, underappreciated fantasist John Holbrook Vance. Like the authors profiled in the Times article, I first encountered Jack Vance while an adolescent, and was hooked from the start. Paradoxically, Vance's prose is simultaneous baroque and sprightly- adjective heavy descriptive passages alternate with acerbic dialogues, roguish scamps connive and steal as they traverse lovingly depicted landscapes, and even churlish peasants speak a mock-Elizabethan stage patois.

As Don Herron noted in his essay "The Double Shadow: The Influence of Clark Ashton Smith", in Underwood and Miller's JACK VANCE (Writers of the 21st Century Series) published in 1980 by Taplinger Publishing Company, CAS is one of Jack Vance's greatest influences, although Vance, as Herron notes, was always more concerned with human experience than Smith.

Much to my chagrin, the Vance Integral Edition project compiled all of Jack Vance's works into a collection of deluxe hardbacks, but (lacking a grand in disposable income at the time) I did not obtain a set. Yes, call me a maundering mooncalf, but those were the hard, sad facts.

Now, I would be remiss to ignore a frustrating tendency in Vance's ouvre- his plots are often simple picaresques (which often read like weird travelogues for many paragraphs), and many of his characters tend to blend together (hypercompetent heroes Adam Reith and Kirth Gersen are virtually indistinguishable, as are a plethora of avaricious innkeepers, merchants, peasants, drovers, tradesmen- need I say more?). In contrast, the societies, landscapes, and cultural artifacts Vance conjures up are drawn in beautiful detail- the background of the tapestry is ornate, the foreground figures are often a tad stereotypical.

Now, enough of my yapping, how about a little Jack Vance? Here's the opening of one of my favorite short stories, the anthropological/xenological mystery The Moon Moth*:

The houseboat had been built to the most exacting standards of Sirenese craftsmanship, which is to say, as close to the absolute as human eye could detect. The planking of waxy dark wood showed no joints, the fastenings were platinum rivets countersunk and polished flat. In style, the boat was massive, broad beamed, steady as the shore itself, without ponderosity or slackness of line. The bow bulged like a swan's breast, the stem rising high, then crooking forward to support an iron lantern. The doors were carved from slabs of a mottled black-green wood; the windows were many sectioned, paned with squares of mica, stained rose, blue, pale green and violet. The bow was given to service facilities and quarters for the slaves; amidships were a pair of sleeping cabins, a dining saloon and a parlor saloon, opening upon an observation deck at the stern.

The Moon Moth
also contains one of my favorite Vancian put-downs, as the protagonist interacts with a functionary who is familiar with the society into which the protagonist is thrown:

Thissell asked, "Does this mask signify any degree of prestige?"

"Not a great deal."

"After all, I'm Consular Representative," said Thissell. "I represent the Home Planets, a hundred billion people."

"If the Home Planets want their representative to wear a Sea Dragon Conqueror mask, they'd better send out a Sea Dragon Conqueror type of man."

*Although I am linking the story, I don't know the copyright status, and will certainly take down the link if there is a problem.


M. Bouffant said...

Ooooh, don't give them any legal legs on which to stand. It's still a free country, enjoy it while it lasts.

Great story. Read it in an anthology just last yr. Uh, I mean, in 2008.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

You're a maundering mooncalf!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Ooooh, don't give them any legal legs on which to stand. It's still a free country, enjoy it while it lasts.

I wouldn't want to rip off my man JV in his old age!

You're a maundering mooncalf!

Thus and so, the mask is torn aside, and ittdgy is revealed as a villain of the deepest dye!

Smut Clyde said...

villain of the deepest dye
Please be more specific. Are we talking about indigo? Whelk purple? Madder?

Vance seems to be an admirer of Lord Dunsany, enough to name his last novel after a minor character from The King of Elfland's Daughter. Don't know if that shows up in his style, though.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Please be more specific. Are we talking about indigo? Whelk purple? Madder?

The dye is derived from a fluke-like arboreal parasite native to a small island off the coast of the main continent of the planet Krokinole, in the Rigel Concourse.

Don't know if that shows up in his style, though.

Dunsany's prose is every bit as purple as Vance's, and I have no doubt that Jack was familiar with his work. The preponderance of weird, whimsical religious cults in the works of both CAS and JV probably had a lot to do with Lord Dunsany's works.

JV is also on record as listing Wodehouse as an influence... BINGO! Dunsany and Wodehouse both listed as influences in author profile.

Smut Clyde said...

I have no doubt that Jack was familiar with his work.
The name 'Lurulu' is a giveaway...
There's a ludic quality to Dunsany's writing... he does not take a stand on the morality of his characters' behaviour, nor is he concerned with their fates, for it is just a game for him. I see a lot of that in Vance's moral relativity about the societies he constructs, which are all bizarre and ethically challenged (but no more so than our own), while the nearest he ever comes to inserting himself in a story as a Mary Sue character would be Baron Bodissey.

Wodehouse listed as influences
Also Ernest Bramah, I suspect:
Kai Lung rose guardedly to his feet, with many gestures of polite assurance and having bowed several times to indicate his pacific nature, he stood in an attitude of deferential admiration. At this display the elder and less attractive of the maidens fled, uttering loud and continuous cries of apprehension in order to conceal the direction of her flight.

Any list of people influenced by Vance should include Barrington Bayley. Make it so.