Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Fifth Anniversary of Jack Vance's Death

The reason why I decided to post about beloved Science Fiction and Fantasy author Jack Vance all week is the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his death. Vance was known for his baroque language, his spirited dialogue (often between characters trying to scam each other), and his unparalleled ability to invent weird planets and weirder societies... seriously, Jack Vance could throw up a dozen interesting planets in the course of a single novel. Jack Vance was also one of the major influences on Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons, with Vancian Magic being the preferred model for dweomercrafting, rather than a more traditional sympathetic magic approach. In his 'Dying Earth' story cycle, written while he was serving in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War and published in 1950, the wizards who haunt the moribund Earth are forced to commit discrete spells to memory with no knowledge of the dangers they may be facing. The tale Mazirian the Magician perfectly illustrates the trope:

The Magician climbed the stairs. Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios ... At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch.

Similarly, from the story Turjan of Miir in the same collection:

As he sat gazing across the darkening land, memory took Turjan to a night of years before, when the Sage had stood beside him.

"In ages gone," the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, "a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills. Today, as Earth dies, a hundred spells remain to man's knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books ... But there is one called Pandelume, who knows all the spells, all the incantations, cantraps, runes, and thaumaturgies that have ever wrenched and molded space .. ." He had fallen silent, lost in his thoughts.

"Where is this Pandelume?" Turjan had asked presently.

"He dwells in the land of Embelyon," the Sage had replied, "but where this land lies, no one knows."

"How does one find Pandelume, then?"

The Sage had smiled faintly. "If it were ever necessary, a spell exists to take one there."

Both had been silent a moment; then the Sage had spoken, staring out over the forest

"One may ask anything of Pandelume, and Pandelume will answer—provided that the seeker performs the service Pandelume requires. And Pandelume drives a hard bargain."

Then the Sage had shown Turjan the spell in question, which he had discovered in an ancient portfolio, and kept secret from all the world.

Turjan, remembering this conversation, descended to his study, a long low hall with stone walls and a stone floor deadened by a thick russet rug. The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short blue cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel's Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

While there are no statistics out there, it's probably that reading Jack Vance in high school would add two hundred points to a test taker's SAT verbal score. It's the language which ultimately draws fans to Jack Vance's work- the worlds are beautifully detailed, the dialogue sprightly and droll, the characters (whether noble or despicable, and Vance has written some incredible villains and antiheroes) memorable, even if some of his more competent, heroic protagonists tend to blend together a bit. Vance provided the perfect escapism- his satirical content was applied with a light touch, his plots were often secondary to the sheer wall of glorious purple prose. He's been five years gone, but he'll be a part of my dreamscape for the rest of my life... and for that I will be forever grateful.


Smut Clyde said...

Vance was inimitable, a nonpareil.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Your praise of Jack Vance is nuncupatory.