Notebooks

Jack Vance

30 Jun 2013 14:16

American author of science fiction, fantasy and mysteries (the last as either John Holbrook Vance or various pseudonyms). For more than forty years now, Vance has been writing wonderful and remarkable prose, which I can best characterize as "elegantly contrived" --- he fills it with unusual words and elaborate constructions and often enough a slightly ironic tone. It almost flaunts its studied, artificial, utterly uncolloquial character, but it always says exactly what he wants it to, and always says it better than any other construction could have. Irony notwithstanding, he can use it to evoke any emotion he pleases. No one else writes anything quite like it, though Quine has something of the same character of elegance and deliberate artificiality (who was it who said "All art is artifice"?), and some of his humorous passages recall Ernest Bramah --- Mike Berro, who is an aficionado of both, tells me that Vance, in correspondence, recalls reading Bramah at about the time he wrote The Dying Earth.

These qualities of the prose reflect (or are reflected by) his worlds and their inhabitants: he is fond of strange, elaborate cultures with strict internal rules and pride (which, come to think of it, describes most cultures; Vance perhaps just makes this plain...). Some of his characters are given to pragmatism and iconoclasm; most are much closer to the anthropologist's ideal of fidelity to culture; none of them should be even remotely plausible, but they almost always come to life. (This fits nicely with what little politics he displays --- a sort of crudmuggeonly conservativism with strong conservationist leanings.) In a better-ordered republic of letters, he would be recognized as one of the glories of our literature; as it is, he is appreciated by SF fans and the Dutch.

The Vance Integral Edition is an attempt to produce a complete, high-quality edition of all of Vance's works; it looks very nice, and way beyond my price-range.


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