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.
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.
Over 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.
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.)