Suggested reading: Jack Vance


There’s no other writer like Jack Vance. A couple of people have tried, but I’ve not encountered another writer whose writing is such a pleasure to read. With Vance, it’s all about the use of language. Sure, the machinations are intricate, the characters outre, but it’s the sheer verbal skill that keeps you coming back for more. I’ll read anything Vance writes, whatever the plot. He’s never let me down, because even when (as in Night Lamp) he doesn’t neatly wrap things up, the words by themselves are worth the price of entry. There’s a website devoted entirely to searching his texts for unusual vocabulary.

Vance is recognized as one of the masters of science fiction, but for some reason is seldom included when people make their best writer lists. One gets the impression that people just don’t know what to make of him.  Maybe that’s why one of his biggest successes,  the Lyonesse series, was actually among his weakest work. But it’s also why he has an almost cult-like following. If you like Vance, you really like him.

I can’t remember how I came to Vance, but I believe it was either the novel Marune: Alastor 933 or a short story collection: Fantasms and Magics.  I do recall that Marune introduced me to concepts I’d never encountered before, and that some of the images from Phantasms stay with me 30 years after reading it. I soon encountered Dying Earth classics such as Rhialto the Marvelous, Cugel the Clever, and Eyes of the Overworld. Vance is probably best known for these Dying Earth works – stories jam packed with esoteric words and neologisms, along with Vance’s trademark amoral but very human characters

There’s no denying that the Dying Earth stories are among his best, but equally eye opening are books like The Languages of Pao and The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII, Big Planet. But really you can open any Vance book at any point and enjoy what you find.

True believers care so much about Vance that eventually they collected all his works in a 45 volume set know as the Vance Integral Edition.  They sold out at over $3,000 per set.  They were so popular one of the team went on to produce a 6 volume Compact VIE set, with all the VIE text (but cheaper and with inexplicable sequencing). I own one of these myself, and I haven’t regretted the cost for a moment. Finally, his works are starting to be released in e-book format.

If you enjoy language, and you haven’t read Jack Vance, you’re missing out. Buy one of his books, go the library, borrow something, but try him out.  You might also read this New York Times article about him.