Likes, Loves and Influences: Jack Vance

Today’s post will be the first one in a series I plan to devote to the authors who have inspired and influenced me the most throughout my life so far. It’s been a bit hard to decide who to start with, but in the end it had to be Jack Vance.

I’ll say this right off the bat: it may not be my smartest choice to start with him. I’m sure lots of people reading this will never even have heard of him, but he has been one of my favourites since I was a teenager. I’m sure he was pretty popular in the Netherlands at that time, and I was quite surprised to find that most of my English fantasy-loving friends had no clue who he was.

So, basics. Jack Vance writes science-fiction, though it isn’t hard sci-fi. I’ve seen people use the term science-fantasy to describe his writing, which simply means that whilst the action takes place on different planets and people zoom around in space-ships, there is little to no science given as to how it all works; it’s simply the setting he uses. He has also written a number of fantasy novels.

His style will probably not suit everyone. The best way I can describe it is detached – you don’t get much of an insight into what goes on in the characters’ heads, yet you still get a good idea of what they’re like. They have little quirks that make them instantly likeable or hateful, even though Vance uses few words to describe them. In addition to that, Vance is a master at describing an entire culture in no more than one or two paragraphs, yet emphasising all the little things that make them completely unique.

Another aspect of his writing is the use of unusual, often rather obscure words. I originally read a lot of his work in Dutch, and when I came to the English versions I found that I needed to have a dictionary at hand to either explain or translate all the unknown words I came across, which often happened at a rate of two to three words per page. This will probably annoy some people, but to my linguistic soul it was like manna from heaven. Vance’s language is elaborate, flowery, totally unique and I adore his work.

My favourite book will have to be Planet of Adventure. In essence it is a quadrilogy, consisting of City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir and The Pnume. The first volume was published in 1968, and I believe that due to the fact that these days the word Wankh makes people snigger a lot, they have been renamed to Wannek in more recent editions of the book. I’m not certain of this, however, and to me they’ll always remain the Wankh.

Anyway, the protagonist of the book is Adam Reith, a scout on a spaceship which has been sent to a planet 212 lightyears away from earth after receiving a distress signal from this planet. Once they have arrived, Reith and a fellow scout descend towards the planet in a small scout-ship, but they have only just moved away from the mothership when it is destroyed by a missile from the planet’s surface. The shuttle crash-lands and Reith, entangled in a tree with his parachute, watches as his comrade is caught and murdered by savage-looking locals. Reith is now alone and stuck without transport on a planet which he knows nothing about.

In essence the book recounts how Reith tries to get himself a new spaceship to return to earth, and all the things that happen to him on the way. He discovers that the planet is called Tschai, and is inhabited by one indigenous species, The Pnume, and three extraterrestrial species, the Chasch, Dirdir and Wankh. However, at some point in the distant past one of these races took some humans from earth, and these have multiplied on Tschai and developed into many different sub-cultures, including four cultures subservient to the four alien races.

Planet of Adventure is a Space Opera of epic proportions, and I love the outsider slant Reith brings to all these cultures, causing massive upheaval in his wake.

My second favourite series is the Cadwal Chronicles; a trilogy consisting of Araminta Station, Ecce and Old Earth and Throy. Cadwal is a planet which was discovered by a member of the Naturalist Society. It is so beautiful and unique that, upon its discovery, it was immediately declared a nature reserve in perpetuity, all of which was noted down in a Charter. Settlement on Cadwal is limited to Araminta Station, home to the small number of people whose job it is to preserve the stipulations of the Charter. The six men who founded Araminta Station tended to hire all their personnel from within their own families, and after many centuries these six families now each live in their own unique, sprawling House and look after their own administrative bureau. Personnel is limited to forty people per House, and people born into each family are given a Status Index number based on internal hierarchy. The lower your SI, the better your chances at remaining on Cadwal. People whose SI is too high upon reaching maturity are required to leave Cadwal and seek their fortune elsewhere.

At the start of the book, the Naturalist Society has been in decline for a long time, and the Conservancy is barely adhered to. Ownership of Cadwal depends on having the original Charter, but it has been missing for many decades. There are those on Cadwal who wish to do away with the Charter and open up the planet to exploitation, but they are opposed by the Conservationists, who want to preserve this pristine world.

I will honestly say that there are parts in this series which are boring, but ultimately it is again the mix of different cultures, different places and unexpected events that make me reread it time and again. It has villains you can really hate with a passion, and a very likeable protagonist in Glawen Clattuc.

The third series I’d like to highlight is the Demon Princes. This consists of five books: The Star King, The Killing Machine, The Palace of Love, The Face and The Book of Dreams.

The overarching title is a little misleading: the demon princes are neither demons nor princes, but five arch-criminals who have all committed countless unspeakable acts. They are hunted by Kirth Gersen, a young man who saw his entire village massacred by the five demon princes and has since sworn to hunt them down and kill them, even if it is the last thing he does.

Those three series have always been my favourites, and I will always return to them. He has written many other books as well – I am currently reading his Lyonesse epic, which is a hardback book big enough to knock someone unconscious with. It will take time to finish, but I know it will be worth it.

If you’ve never heard of Jack Vance but are willing to try someone with a unique, very distinctive style, give him a go. He may not be your cup of tea, but if he is you certainly won’t regret it.


6 thoughts on “Likes, Loves and Influences: Jack Vance

  1. Joachim Boaz

    I enjoyed City of the Chasch but never got around to procuring the others in the sequence — I thought The Showboat World was a highly underrated novel of his… And the Alastor Cluster sequence of three novels was downright amazing…

    1. Erica Dakin Post author

      Man, I’ve never even heard of those two! That’s the problem with someone like Vance, most of his stuff is pretty hard to get hold of these days. =/

  2. MatthewGraybosch

    Hi, Erica I know Jack Vance from his Dying Earth novels, and because the rules of magic used therein made their way into gaming. If you like Vance, you might also enjoy M. John Harrison’s Viriconium novels, starting with The Pastel City and A Storm of Wings.


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