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RIP: Jack Vance, 96, sci-fi master craftsman

Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reading an early Jack Vance galactic potboiler.
Off-Ramp commentator Marc Haefele reading an early Jack Vance galactic potboiler.
John Rabe

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70 years ago, a young merchant seaman looked up at the stars sprawling across the heavens about the Pacific Ocean and decided to write stories about them. Thus began a spectacular voyage of the mind that ended May 26, with the death of Jack Vance at the age of 96.

Vance, nearly the last of a great generation of American sci-fi and fantasy writers, had untold millions of fans, and wrote so many books that their exact number seems uncertain. There were over 50 science fiction or fantasy titles  (the categories overlapped in his work); at least 11 mysteries and several less categorizable books, including a very late autobiography. Say, 70 in all. That’s more than one book for every year of his working life.   He saw himself not as a “capital W” Writer, but as a craftsman building books the way a master shipwright might have turned out beautiful yachts. Indeed, for most of his life, sailing was one of his favorite pastimes.

He was influenced by a few writers—1920s favorites like James Branch Cabell and PG Wodehouse and early Weird Tales contributors like Clark Ashton Smith and HP Lovecraft.  He influenced multitudes in and out of the genres he flourished in.

One of these was fantasy great Neill Gaiman, who said Vance "was elegant, intelligent; each word felt like it knew what it was doing ... funny but never, even once nudges you in the ribs.” Bestselling writer Michael Chabon told the New York Times, in a 2009 profile,  that  Vance compiled: “a blend of European refinement with brawling, two-fisted frontier spirit.”

To those of us who discovered him nearly 60 years ago, he introduced a droll, ornate, highly literate style so elaborate that one Vance devotee compiled a Jack Vance dictionary: “From Ahulf to Zipangote.”  Terms of his own invention were interspersed with gloriously obscure usages like Calligynics, clevenger, cresset, squalm, insidiator, and fuscous. Plus for good measure, recycled words like deodand,  an obsolete legal term which in Vance describes a lethal hybrid of human and wolverine.

All of Vance’s words knew what they were doing, describing human activities in planets and societies ranging from thousands to hundreds of millions of years into the future.  Yet the human activities described were thoroughly down to Earth—mostly those of picaresque vagabond rogues significantly less smart than they think they are. With names like Magnus Ridolph and Cugal the Clever, they undertake droll and frequently fraudulent quests like those of the trickster characters of world folklore.

Vance wrote several cycles of  imaginative fiction over his 67 productive years.  Some of his individual interstellar works—Big Planet and Emphyrio in particular--contain some of his finest sociological and anthropological insights. But the cycle that preoccupied him from the wartime beginning to nearly the end was his Tales of the Dying Earth, set when the sun is about to fade to black.  At the very end of time, Vance implants the primal joker of picaresque humanity.

The result is a vaunting feat of imagination that also has a truly nasty sense of fun.

(Commentator Marc Haefele covers literature, art, politics and more for Off-Ramp. In his glorious past, he edited Jack Vance's Emphyrio, and several books by Philip K. Dick.)