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News of the death last week of Jack Vance put me in mind of this review, written for another site some years ago.
We all do it when we meet people, don't we? Drop names or references into the conversation, just to see how the other person will react. On those all too rare occasions when I find discussion turning to science fiction, I ask neutrally: "What do you think of Jack Vance?" Generally people respond in one of three ways:
1. If they say "Never really got on with him," I know I'll never really get on with them either.
2. If they say "Who?" I take it as a sign that (i) they don't really know much about SF and (ii) they are giving me an opportunity to display my virtuosity as a bore.
3. If they say "Oh yes, he's great," I know I have found a soulmate and that the ensuing exchange of enthusiasm will run and run and run.
So take your choice now in deciding whether to read on.
What makes Vance special?
1. He is extraordinarily imaginative. More than any other writer in the genre, Vance gives the impression of having chosen science fiction because the familiar world is simply too limited to allow his imagination to range over its full scope. The worlds that fill Vance's universe are predominantly human worlds, but all with their own ecologies, laws (or the lack of them), costumes and languages, wonderfully contrived and logically cohesive.
2. He is extraordinarily original. Many SF writers seem to inhabit the same universes as each other. Vance's is his own, except to the extent that others writers have copied or been influenced by him.
3. He is extraordinarily enthralling. Many of Vance's novels are essentially adventure stories. There are heroes and villains, triumphs and near-disasters. The action is fast and furious, gripping the readers with each twist and turn of the plot.
4. He is extraordinarily readable. Vance's style is crisp and clear, with occasional flashes of vivid description or sardonic humour. One criticism could be that the dialogue is too studied, arguably even stilted, but it is also clever and purposeful. Given that the stories are set in unfamiliar worlds, its occasional awkwardness doesn't jar, and once on Vance's wavelength the reader will find it easy to recognise the underlying wit. I find Vance a very funny as well as an exciting read.
5. He is extraordinarily prolific. Having just printed off a bibliography from the web (isfdb.tamu.edu/ea.cgi?Jack _Vance), I count more than 40 SF novels, plus short stories, essays and mystery fiction, in which he also works. Once started on Vance, you won't run short of reading matter in a hurry.
Given that I can't attempt to review all 40+ here, I've picked out the Quintet of SF novels known as The Demon Princes to serve as an exemplar of Vance's work. It would certainly serve as an ideal introduction to Vance for anyone who wanted to sample him.
The five Demon Princes books are unashamed adventure stories, and, more specifically, stories of revenge. The protagonist is a young man called Kirth Gersen. As a boy Gersen has been one of only two survivors when his home world - a pioneering settlement on the fringes of the inhabited universe - is ransacked by five intergalactic criminals who have ganged up for the purpose. The other survivor is his grandfather, who devotes the rest of his life to preparing Gersen to wreak vengeance on those who have killed his family and despoiled his home.
Each of the books relates how he tracks down and destroys a particular villain. Since all of them are concealed behind ostensibly respectable fronts in different quarters of the universe, this is no easy task, and the pursuit affords plenty of opportunity for thrills, spills, intrigue, reverses and romance.
So far, you may be thinking, so conventional. What sets The Demon Princes apart is the inventiveness that Vance brings both to the scene-setting for Gersen's quest and to its execution.
The series is set some 1500 years or so into the future. Easy intergalactic travel is a given. Vance does not concern himself with the "science" of science fiction; such technological advances as are necessary for the enactment of the plot are assumed rather than described; there is little if any techno-wizardry for its own sake. The universe is roughly divided into the Oikumene - more or less civilised, with numerous worlds, each with its own politics and customs, associated in a loose confederacy - and Beyond (infinitely varied, anarchic and barely explored).
The action takes place in both the Oikumene and Beyond. Alien life-forms, both animal and vegetable, abound and their nature is often important to the plot, but the active characters are mostly human, with the notable exception of one of the villains, that in the first novel, Star King.
Star King finds Gersen on the track of Attel Malagate, whose thirst for new worlds to exploit and enslave is the fatal weakness that ultimately undoes him. Having come into possession of the details of an apparently idyllic planet recently discovered, Gersen uses it as bait to lure three possible suspects on a journey of discovery into Beyond. Trickery, bluff and counter-bluff all play their part as the story unfolds. Gersen suffers setbacks, but having outmanoeuvred Malagate's accomplices (the scene in which he turns the tables on the would-be assassin from the poisoners' planet of Sarkovy is particularly memorable), he is eventually able to use a logical sequence of deductions to identify his quarry, and the unique ecology of the planet to despatch him. As in each of the books, the manner of the villain's demise is as ironic as it is ingenious.
Unlike Malagate, Kokor Hekkus, villain of the second book The Killing Machine, is human, though of a particular type known as a hormagaunt, only found on the quasi-mythical planet of Thamber. What exactly is a hormagaunt? I think I must leave you to read the book to discover, or I shall give too much away. In The Killing Machine we are also introduced to the institution of Interchange, an intergalactic clearing-house where kidnap victims and the like are held until their ransoms are paid. Hekkus is flushed from cover by his desire to possess a certain princess of Thamber who has taken refuge at Interchange by "kidnapping herself" and setting a vast ransom on her own head. By devious means, Gersen raises the ransom before Hekkus can do so and the chase is on, to arrive at its inevitable conclusion only after myriad intricate and imaginative adventures.
The third book, The Palace of Love, takes us to Old Earth, in pursuit of the hedonistic monomaniac Viole Falushe. In a part-familiar, part-futuristic Netherlands, Gersen unravels the threads of the villain's childhood, and weaves a net for Falushe's entrapment from two loose strands - the poet-mentor Navarth and the much-replicated love-object Jheral Tinzy. The net cannot be cast or reeled in, however, until Falushe has been stalked across the galaxy and tracked down by subterfuge to his "Palace of Love" on the planet Sogdian which he has contrived to subjugate.
Next up - in The Face - is Lens Larque, a grim and ugly native of the grim and ugly planet Dar Sai. This unappealing and almost uninhabitable world is of interest only because of its mineral deposits, over which Larque has cunningly cornered the market. The plot is complicated by relations with the effete and supercilious snobs of the neighbouring world, Methel, with whom Larque is conducting a surreptitious feud. In a delightful denouement, Gersen outwits, unmasks and concludes his business with Larque whilst simultaneously allowing Larque to exact his own prankish revenge on the insufferable Methlen.
Finally, in The Book of Dreams, we are introduced to another intergalactic institution - the part-academic, part-political Institute, and the illicit attempts to dominate it by the elusive fantasist Howard Treesong. With his customary inventive scheming, Gersen uncovers the plot and identifies Treesong by tracking him back to his puritanical homeland on the planet Moudervelt. Here his betrayal of a boyhood friend and his schizoid teenage ramblings in his private Book or Dreams are unearthed, enabling him to be finally trapped in an apotheosis of fitting punishment.
Reading through these brief synopses I see at once that I haven't begun to do justice to Vance's originality. But, short of quoting long passages from all five novels here - which space forbids - I don't know how I can. Compressing the plots inevitably rubs off their complex decoration, the unexpected links and twists that sustain interest, suspend disbelief and intensify involvement.
The books are held together (and the wilder flights of fancy given credibility) by frequent "quotations" from coeval "sources" - allegedly travel guides, newspaper features, memoirs, encyclopaedias, learned treatises. These are often gently humorous, for example, the following excerpt from "The Tourist's Guide to Dar Sai":
"In regard to Darsh food, the less said the better. The traveller must adjust himself to a Darsh meal as he would to a natural catastrophe. It avails nothing to pretend relish; the Darsh themselves know their food is repulsive, and apparently derive a perverse pride in their ability to eat it regularly."
Or from "The Chronicles of Navarth":
"These are faded times. Wisdom and innocence were once allied and noble songs were sung. I recall a couplet, by no means sublime - quaint rather - succinct, yet reverberating a thousand meanings: -
A farting horse will never tire.
A farting man's the man to hire."
Similarly there are numerous footnotes, ostensibly explaining obscure terms, that also add extraneous colour to an already vividly-painted landscape (or should I say spacescape?), e.g.:
"Fust - an odour exuded by Darsh men.
Voitch - a single organism, comparable to a giant lichen, which supports a black mat on tawny or pale grey stalks fifty feet tall. Certain growths are poisonous, others predatory and carnivorous.
Stelt - a decorative building material mined from the surface of burnt-out stars.
Murst - the meaning of this word, like others in The Book of Dreams, can only be conjectured."
The cumulative result of such detail is to give coherence to Vance's bizarre and chaotic universe, and to render the incredible credible, at least for the purposes of enjoying the tales.
Although Vance's output was prodigious, he did not produce in a steady even flow. The first three volumes of The Demon Princes all appeared between 1964 and 1967, but the final two after a gap of about a dozen years, with other works having been produced in the interim.
There is certainly a difference in tone between the first three and the final two. The Face and The Book of Dreams are less hectic, less all-action, more subtle and reflective than the earlier works. As his pursuit nears its conclusion Gersen's obsessive dedication begins to evaporate, leaving him hollow and purposeless. In the final lines to The Book of Dreams Gersen, asked if he is well, replies: "Quite well. Deflated perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. The affair is over. I am done."
It is the nearest the books come to philosophical reflection, perhaps not very near, but to me "I have been deserted by my enemies" put into the mouth of one who has defeated them, will always be a memorable line.
A quick check on Amazon shows me that The Demon Princes series does not seem to be currently in print from any UK publisher. However, numerous copies both new and second-hand can be found through dealers and private sellers. One can only hope that Vance's death may prompt some publisher into reissuing his work.
Jack Vance's prodigious output (he also wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym Ellery Queen) tailed off in his declining years. Nevertheless, he was still writing well into his eighties, and inevitably some of his later work showed signs of losing its vigour and brilliance.
But The Demon Princes quintet was written at the height of his powers. I would urge you to read it - for excitement, for its imagination-stretching ingenuity, for its sheer entertainment value. Even if you are not customarily a fan of science fiction I would urge you to read it, as an introduction to the widely under-rated genre.
And having read it, you will still have his other thirty-something books to look forward to.
© Originally published under the name torr on Ciao UK 2004