Thoughtful Thursday: Thank you, Jack Vance

Jack Vance

Jack Vance

Jack Vance passed away on May 26, 2013. He has been a major influence on science fiction and fantasy since he published The Dying Earth in 1950. We’d like to thank author Matthew Hughes for sharing what Jack Vance meant to him. 

Jack Vance: An Appreciation by Matthew Hughes

When you’re young and on the upward curve of your life, you’re in the business of doing things for the first time. Most of those things — your first kiss, your first date, your first car — you look forward to. Some of them — your first job interview, your first “we need to talk” talk — not so much.

And then there are the firsts that you don’t even recognize as significant until you look back across the years and think, “Oh, yeah, that was where that all started.” One of those happened to me in the summer of 1962, when I came across my eldest brother’s copy of “Galaxy Magazine” and read a long story called “The Dragon Masters” by Jack Vance.

I was just turned thirteen and ready to become an avid reader of science fiction, although I didn’t have much access to books; we were a working-poor family living in a rented farmhouse a long way from the nearest library. A few weeks later, I started riding the school bus to the high school in the city, which had a pretty good little library, and I discovered Heinlein, Asimov, Norton, Pohl, Kornbluth, and all the usual suspects of 1950s SF.

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes

I read a lot of books and liked almost all of them. Some of them evoked that sensawunda that often makes for a lifelong SF fan. But none of them had the effect on me that “The Dragon Masters” did. It rang some kind of bell in me that echoed on and on. To this day, I still don’t know quite how to describe it. It was like hearing music played on a different scale, or following the stairs in an Escher drawing. Vance’s writing, from the first, hit me the way no other author has.

The high school library had no Vance. I probably didn’t see another of his works until I was fifteen and living in another city half a continent away. I was able to make some money by then, and I spent a lot of it on second-hand paperbacks. I would comb through the racks, and if I found a Vance I hadn’t read I would take it home and curl up and get myself another dose of that cool-minded strangeness that always settled over me when I was reading him.

Later, when I had adult money, I would buy Vance books new, at first in paperback and eventually in hardcover. By the time Lurulu, the last Vance novel appeared, I was able to review it for The SF Site. Along the way, I’d had a few writing-related firsts: written my first novel, made my first novel sale (not the same one), seen my own name on the cover of an SF magazine.

The Dying Earth by Jack VanceOver that time, it had become obvious to me and to anyone who read both of us that Vance had been a major influence on the way I wrote fiction. Some thought I was merely doing copy-cat pastiches of his style; most saw that I was standing on the shoulder of a giant while trying to reach as far as my own grasp would allow.

The congruences between my work and Vance’s were never consciously intended. I’m one of the breed that I call unconscious writers: I don’t outline; I usually don’t know, when I start a story, how it’s going to end. I’m at the end of a funnel that connects to the guy in the back of my head, and I take whatever he sends and reshape it a little.

Now that I have a slew of books and stories behind me, I can get some perspective. I think one of the things I’ve been trying to do is to generate that same weird and wonderful energy field that wrapped around me when I was thirteen and encountered for the first time the unique combination of minimalist description and baroquely tangential dialogue that is Vance.

Now I’m on the downward curve of life, the part where you look back and say, “Well, I guess I’ve done that for the last time. Oh, yeah, and that, too. And I’ll probably never do such-and-such again.” There’s no point kicking against the flow of it all, and there’s ultimately that one last thing that we all have to do for the first time, and then… well, who knows?

I haven’t read SF for decades now, except for Jack Vance. I can still pick up one of his books that I read way back along the curve, open to page one, and slide right in. The effect is not as strong as it was in 1962 — even the most powerful spells fade with age — but I still feel that same enveloping mist of otherness. After writing millions of words, I still can’t quite describe it.

But I treasure it. And even though he’s gone now, the magic lingers on.

~Matthew Hughes

Readers, would you like to say something about Jack Vance? Or is there another author who you want to thank for inspiring you? If so, write a thank you note in the comment section. One commenter from the U.S. will receive the audiobook version of one of Jack Vance’s DYING EARTH books, either The Eyes of the Overworld or Rhialto the Marvellous, (or you may choose a book from our stacks.)


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23 comments

  1. Melanie Goldmund /

    I had never heard of Jack Vance until I came across his story “The Moon Moth” over on the podcast Starship Sofa. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised, and it made me want to experience more from him.

  2. As everyone around here knows, I adore Jack Vance. He’s my favorite author. Fortunately, through his wonderful stories, he will always be with us.

  3. Dave Thompson /

    Sad news, and thanks for sharing. I didn’t discover Jack Vance until recently – but his influence on the stuff I’d been reading for years was already immeasurable – particularly the Dying Earth genre.

  4. I think I mentioned this in one of our reviews of Vance, but in fourth grade I read his The Last Castle in one of my dad’s Nebula Award anthologies. I’d read some of my dad’s sci-fi before, and certainly was a fan, but I’d never read anything like that story. I read it, and read it again, and continued rereading it for years, including just about a year or so ago. As Kat says, the nice thing about authors, when we miss ‘em, we just go get ‘em again off the shelf and say hi once more.

  5. Fironzelle /

    The news broke late for me, but I urge you who want to read Jack’s work to go to jackvance.com where all of his work is available for download.

  6. Brad Hawley /

    It’s appropriate that I learn about his passing on this site just now. I owe Kat for introducing me to his work only last year as I came on board here at fanlit. And I’ve certainly been enjoying his writing. I’ve read more books by Vance than anybody else this year, and I didn’t set out to do it on purpose. I just want to pick up another one as soon as I’m done turning the page of a current Vance novel. I always have one of his books loaded on my phone, even. Vance is now an author I never go anywhere without. Thank you Kat and all the other reviewers on this site who mention him frequently–even when he’s not the author who is the primary focus of a review or a discussion. That kind of positive energy will make ANY true book lover eventually check out an author. So, thank you Fanlit.

    And finally, thank you Jack Vance, who, though he didn’t come to me in my youth, found me in my 40s to remind me that it’s never too late for any of us to “discover” a “new” favorite author!

    Peace.

  7. Severian /

    I read the Lyonesse trilogy about a year ago, and was completely blown away by how great it was. A true forgotten gem in the fantasy genre.

  8. Aaron Singleton /

    My dad moved to the opposite side of the country in 2005, just a few months after I’d discovered Jack Vance by way of The City of the Chasch. Flash forward to 2009; my father passed away, and I hadn’t seen him since the move. My favorite memory is seeing him reading his SF paperbacks. Although Vance wasn’t in his collection, I think my dad would have loved him, too. After losing my father, I guess I thought if Vance as a kind-of father figure. He became a huge hero of mine, and to hell with anyone who thinks adults shouldn’t have heroes. Now I’ve lost Jack, too, but my son is just now becoming interested in SF/Fantasy. So here’s to you, Jack, and a new generation of readers. Long live Vance. Rest in Peace.

  9. Faucelme /

    A wonderful tribute, Matt. Many of us have enjoyed, even loved, Vance’s work for decades, and for a few his work has been a major touchstone of our lives. I will never forget finding a copy of “The Eyes of the Overworld” in my high school library at age 14.

    And in the last couple of decades, ever since “Ports of Call” or even “Madouc”, his work itself expressed most poignantly the sense of descending down the slope and looking backwards at all the things no longer to be done for the first time. What rich wisdom and appreciation of the beauty of life he expressed in his oblique, wry manner especially in his later works.

    Numerous times the thought has occurred to me that one day I will wake up to read the inevitable news of his passing. What a wonderful life he lived, full of deeds and words. Although I cannot aspire to his achievements, Jack Vance’s life will remain as a reminder that this universe is not indeed absurd, and his books will always remain close at hand.

  10. April /

    Odd man out here I guess. I’ve never read any of Jack Vance’s works but I will say that I have considered doing so after seeing so much of his work discussed here. I think I’ll have to add him to my TBR list, especially after all of the wonderful tributes above.

  11. I discovered Jack Vance in my 30s, having been led to his Dying Earth stories by the knowledge that they had inspired Gene Wolfe’s excellent Book of the New Sun. Little did I know what wonders awaited me! The moods and images conjured in those pages made me an instant fan. As I progressed through the Big Planet books, Tchai, Demon Princes, Cadwal and Lyonesse, I couldn’t believe I’d only just discovered such a grand writer. Vance’s wit, charm and unique sensibilities–not to mention the sheer joy of his prose–evoke something in me that is particularly fine, and particularly difficult to describe. Hard times, illness and grief have been made less cruel by my enjoyment of Vance’s work, and happier times made more resplendent. Thanks, Jack.

  12. Matthew Hughes’s reaction to THE DRAGON MASTERS parallels my own. Jack Vance’s baroque style and unique perspective made his writings original. When you picked up a Jack Vance novel, you knew right away you were in for a special experience. Jack Vance wrote 60 books, but his prolific output had great quality control. He was one of the best writers of the 20th Century.

  13. Thank you so much for this moving tribute… you have captured, by saying how it can’t be captured, how the Legion of Jack Vance’s fans feels about him and his work.

    And, as I’ve said elsewhere, you are the only writer who can legitimately lay a claim to being the successor of Jack Vance. (Is it heresy to say your detective stories are better? Oh my!)

    Longtime readers knew Lurulu was the last, and it was valedictory, for sure, but Jack Vance left us a treasure trove, that bears re-reading better than most literature of any genre and any time.

  14. Murray MacLachlan /

    Hi Matt

    thank you for your words. Two months back I re-read “Songs of the Dying Earth” and it remains an excellent read, for its stories and for each writer’s thoughts and memories of Jack Vance. It truly is an excellent tribute collection, with just one dud story among its twenty-three tales.

    You know I enjoy and respect your work greatly, and the Vanceian vein is just one element of the many that make your work a pleasure to read and re-read. For those who suggest that no other writers can work in this vein can I encourage them to track down ‘Songs of the Dying Earth’ and also the work of Terry Dowling. The scarce “Wormwood” is a delight.

  15. Jon Mitchell /

    it is interesting to me how other commenters’ first experience with Jack Vance’s works are similar to my own – passed down to me from a parent; addictive, strange, and wonderful.

    Jack- we’ll miss you

  16. Leland Eaves /

    His mark on Sf and f can’t be measured. It was definitely enormous. Memories of roleplaying with friends wouldn’t be the same without all the influence he had on D and D alone. Prismatic Spray anyone?

  17. Aaron Singleton, if you live in the USA, you win either Jack Vance book listed abive, or a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

  18. Aaron Singleton, if you live in the USA, you win either Jack Vance book listed above, or a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

    • Aaron Singleton /

      Thanks for the good news. I’ve sent you my info.

  19. Mike Reynolds /

    In the 1950s, it seemed like most SF was for kids. Then, when I was 16, I came across ‘To Live Forever.’ It was like someone had switched on an unimaginably bright light bulb. Sci-fi for grownups! Thank you so much for everything, Mr. Vance.

    • In case anyone is interested, To Live Forever, under its original title, Clarges, has been reissued as an e-book (also available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble) by Spatterlight press…. along with now all the novels.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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