Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Passing of the Best: RIP Jack Vance

Via zrm, I have learned that a day I have long dreaded has finally arrived- my absolute favorite author, Jack Vance, died on May 26 at the age of ninety six. A perusal of older blog posts will reveal my love of Jack's work. He was a larger than life figure, a merchant seaman who traveled the globe, wrote for the pulps, and built his own house. A world traveler, but more importantly, a world builder. Jack had a knack for sketching exotic societies in a succinct fashion- he could create several more interesting cultures in a novella than the typical "paper doorstop" author could create in a multi-novel series. The best way to memorialize Jack is to read his work. I have excerpted several of my favorite passages from his novels in previous blog posts, but I feel obligated to re-post one of his hilarious trademark dialogues from The Killing Machine:

...The air of Ard Court smelled richly indeed, with a heavy sweet-sour organic reek that distended the nostrils. Gersen grimaced and went to the shop from which the odors seemed to emanate. Taking a deep breath and bowing his head, he entered. To right and left were wooden tubs, containing pastes, liquids, and submerged solids; overhead hung rows of withered blue-green objects the size of a man's fist. At the rear, behind a counter stacked with limp pink sausages stood a clown-faced youth of twenty, wearing a patterned black and brown smock, a black velvet headkerchief. He leaned upon the counter without spirit or vitality, and without expression watched Gersen sidle past the tubs.

"You're a Sandusker?" asked Gersen.

"What else?" This was spoken in a tone Gersen could not identify, a complex mood of many discords: sad pride, whimsical malice, insolent humility. The youth asked, "You wish to eat?"

Gersen shook his head. "I am not of your religion."

"Ha ho!" said the youth. "You know Sandusk then?"

"Only at second-hand."

The youth smiled. "You must not believe that old foolish story, that we Sanduskers are religious fanatics who eat vile food rather than flagellate ourselves. It is quite incorrect. Come now. Are you a fair man?"

Gersen considered. "Not unusually so."

The youth went to one of the tubs, dipped up a wad of glistening black-crusted maroon paste. "Taste! Judge for yourself! Use your mouth rather than your nose!"

Gersen gave a fatalistic shrug, tasted. The inside of his mouth seemed first to tingle, then expand. His tongue coiled back in his throat.

"Well?" asked the youth.

"If anything," said Gersen at last, "it tastes worse than it smells."

The youth sighed. "Such is the general consensus."

Here is one of Jack Vance's most gloriously "purple" descriptive passages from Jack's first collection, The Dying Earth, written while he was serving with the Merchant Marine in the Pacific Theater during the Second World War:

"This is the Museum," said Guyal in rapt tone. "Here there is no danger ... He who dwells in beauty of this sort may never be other than beneficient ..." He flung wide the door.
The light came from an unknown source, from the air itself, as if leaking from the discrete atoms; every breath was luminous, the room floated full of invigorating glow. A great rug pelted the floor, a monster tabard woven of gold, brown, bronze, two tones of green, fuscous red and smalt blue. Beautiful works of human fashioning ranked the walls. In glorious array hung panels of rich woods, carved, chased, enameled; scenes of olden times painted on woven fiber; formulas of color, designed to convey emotion rather than reality. To one side hung plats of wood laid on with slabs of soapstone, malachite and jade in rectangular patterns, richly varied and subtle, with miniature flecks of cinnabar, rhodocrosite and coral for warmth. Beside was a section given to disks of luminous green, flickering and flourescent with varying blue films and moving dots of scarlet and black. Here were representations of three hundred marvelous flowers, blooms of a forgotten age, no longer extant on waning Earth; there were as many star-burst patterns, rigidly conventionalized in form, but each of subtle distinction. All these and a multitude of other creations, selected from the best of human fervor.

The door thudded softly behind them; staring, every inch of skin a-tingle, the two from Earth's final time moved forward through the hall.

"Somewhere near must be the Curator," whispered Guyal. "There is a sense of careful tending and great effort here in the gallery."


Opposite were two doors, laden with the sense of much use. Guyal strode quickly across the room but was unable to discern the means for opening the door, for it bore no latch, key, handle, knob or bar. He rapped with his knuckles and waited; no sound returned.

Shierl tugged at his arm. "These are private regions. It is best not to venture too rudely."

Guyal turned away and they continued down the gallery. Past the real expression of man's brightest dreamings they walked, until the concentration of so much fire and spirit and creativity put them into awe. "What great minds lie in the dust," said Guyal in a low voice "What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvelous creatures are lost past the remotest memory ... Nevermore will there be the like; now, in the last fleeting moments, humanity festers rich as rotten fruit. Rather than master and overpower our world, our highest aim is to cheat it through sorcery."

Here is the opening to The Miracle Workers, a novella which ranks among Jack's best:

The war party from Faide Keep moved eastward across the downs: a column of a hundred armored knights, five hundred foot soldiers, a train of wagons. In the lead rode Lord Faide, a tall man in his early maturity, spare and catlike, with a sallow dyspeptic face. He sat in the ancestral car of the Faides, a boat-shaped vehicle floating two feet above the moss, and carried, in addition to his sword and dagger, his ancestral side weapons.

An hour before sunset, a pair of scouts came racing back to the column, their club-headed horses loping like dogs. Lord Faide braked the motion of his car. Behind him, the Faide kinsmen, the lesser knights, and the leather-capped foot soldiers halted; to the rear the baggage train and the high-wheeled wagons of the jinxmen creaked to a stop.

This is perhaps Jack's funniest passage, from the unfortunately titled Servants of the Wankh:

That fellow yonder I believe to be an assassin, from the style of his garments."

The man at this moment approached their table. "You are Adam Reith?"


"I regret to say that the Security Assassination Company has accepted a contract made out in your name: the Death of the Twelve Touches. I will now administer the first inoculation. Will you be so good as to bare your arm? I will merely prick you with this splint."

Reith backed away. "I'll do nothing of the sort."

"Depart!" Zarfo Detwiler told the assassin. "This man is worth ten thousand sequins to me alive; dead, nothing."

The assassin ignored Zarfo. To Reith he said, "Please do not make an undignified display. The process then becomes protracted and painful for us all. So then-"

Zarfo roared: "Stand away; have I not warned you?" He snatched up a chair and struck the assassin to the ground. Zarfo was not yet satisfied. He picked up the splint, jabbed it into the back of the man's thigh, through the rust-ocher corduroy of his trousers. "Halt!" wailed the assassin. "That is Inoculation Number One!"

Zarfo seized a handful of splints from the splayed-open wallet. "And here," he roared, "are numbers Two to Twelve!" And with a foot on the man's neck he thrust the handful into the twitching buttocks. "There you are, you knave! Do you want the next episode, Numbers Thirteen to Twenty-four?"

"No, no, let me be; I am a dead man now!"

"If not, you're a cheat as well as an assassin!"

Here's the first part of an interview with Mr Vance from 1976:

And here is the man himself, playing the ukulele and kazoo (his schtick):

Thanks, Jack... thanks for everything.


Smut Clyde said...


the typical "paper doorstop" author could create in a multi-novel series

Game of Thrones SHUT UP SMUT

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I see your Game of Thrones and I'll raise you a Wheel of Time.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

No mention of Bad Ronald I see. Well, there goes your hit count from a well-known Wrangler of Bats.

Say! That sounds like something from a Jack Vance novel!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

"Bad Ronald", for all of its infamy as a TV movie, has been virtually impossible to obtain until very recently (the e-book is available). That being said, The Fox Valley Murders, another hard-to-find title, is a better regarded book.

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

I am leaning toward the scifi work, myself...

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I am leaning toward the scifi work, myself...

Check out "The Moon Moth" for starters. If you like that, Planet of Adventure is a fun read- kinda like the "Barsoom" books written as a collaboration between Clark Ashton Smith and P.G. Wodehouse. It's not deep, but it's entertaining as hell.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Nice, links, B^4, thanks!

zombie rotten mcdonald said...

You may call it a shtick, but the Decemberists and the Lumineers call it a paycheck.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Nice, links, B^4, thanks!

I live to serve!

You may call it a shtick, but the Decemberists and the Lumineers call it a paycheck.

I'd pay to see Colin Melloy play the ukulele and kazoo.