Jack (John Holbrook) Vance (San Francisco, August 28, 1916 - Oakland, May 26, 2013) was an American mystery, fantasy and science fiction author. Most of his work has been published under the name Jack Vance. Vance has published 11 mysteries as John Holbrook Vance and 3 as Ellery Queen. Other pen names (each used only once) included Alan Wade, Peter Held, John van See, and Jay Kavanse.
Among his awards are: Hugo Awards, in 1963 for The Dragon Masters, in 1967 for The Last Castle, and in 2010 for his memoir This is Me, Jack Vance!; a Nebula Award in 1966, also for The Last Castle; the Jupiter Award in 1975; the World Fantasy Award in 1984 for life achievement and in 1990 for Lyonesse: Madouc; an Edgar (the mystery equivalent of the Nebula) for the best first mystery novel in 1961 for The Man in the Cage; in 1992, he was Guest of Honor at the WorldCon in Orlando, Florida; and in 1997 he was named a SFWA Grand Master. A 2009 profile in the New York Times Magazine described Vance as "one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices."
Vance's grandfather supposedly arrived in California from Michigan a decade before the Gold Rush and married a San Francisco girl. (Early family records were apparently destroyed in the fire following the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.) Vance's early childhood was spent in San Francisco. With the early separation of his parents, Vance's mother moved young Vance and his siblings to Vance's maternal grandfather's California ranch near Oakley in the delta of the Sacramento River. This early setting formed Vance's love of the outdoors, and allowed him time to indulge his passion as an avid reader. With the death of his grandfather, the Vance's family fortune nosedived, and Vance was forced to leave junior college and work to support himself, assisting his mother when able. Vance plied many trades for short stretches: a bell-hop (a "miserable year"), in a cannery, and on a gold dredge, before entering the University of California, Berkeley where, over a six-year period, he studied mining engineering, physics, journalism and English. Vance wrote one of his first science fiction stories for an English class assignment; his professor's reaction was “We also have a piece of science fiction” in a scornful tone, Vance’s first negative review. He worked for a while as an electrician in the naval shipyards at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii -- for "56 cents an hour". After working on a degaussing crew for a period, he left about a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Vance graduated in 1942. Weak eyesight prevented military service. He found a job as a rigger at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California, and enrolled in an Army Intelligence program to learn Japanese, but washed out. In 1943, he memorized an eye chart and became an able seaman in the Merchant Marine. In later years, boating remained his favorite recreation; boats and voyages are a frequent theme in his work. He worked as a seaman, a rigger, a surveyor, ceramicist, and carpenter before he established himself fully as a writer, which did not occur until the 1970s.
From his youth, Vance has been fascinated by Dixieland and traditional jazz. He is an amateur of the cornet and ukelele, often accompanying himself with a kazoo, and is a competent harmonica player. His first published writings were jazz reviews for The Daily Californian, his college paper, and music is an element in many of his works.
In 1946, Vance met and married the late Norma Genevieve Ingold (died March 25, 2008), another Cal student. Vance continues to live in Oakland, in a house he built and extended with his family over the years, which includes a hand-carved wooden ceiling from Kashmir. The Vances have had extensive travels, including one around-the-world voyage, and often spent several months at a time living in places like Ireland, Tahiti, South Africa, Positano (in Italy) and on a houseboat on Lake Nagin in Kashmir.
Vance began trying to become a professional writer in the late 1940s, in the period of the San Francisco Renaissance--a movement of experimentation in literature and the arts. His first lucrative sale was one of the early Magnus Ridolph stories to Twentieth Century Fox, who also hired him as a screenwriter for the Captain Video television series. The proceeds supported the Vances for a year's travel in Europe. There are various references to the Bay Area Bohemian life in his work.
Science fiction authors Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson were among Vance's closest friends. The three jointly built a houseboat which they sailed in the Sacramento Delta. The Vances and the Herberts lived near Lake Chapala in Mexico together for a period.
Although legally blind since the 1980s, Vance has continued to write with the aid of BigEd software, written especially for him by Kim Kokkonen. His most recent novel was Lurulu. Although Vance had stated Lurulu would be his final book, he has since completed an autobiography which was published in July 2009.
Since his first published story, "The World-Thinker" (in Thrilling Wonder Stories) in 1945, Vance has written over sixty books. His work has been published in three categories: science fiction, fantasy and mystery.
Among Vance’s earliest published work is a set of fantasy stories written while he served in the merchant marine during the war. They appeared in 1950, several years after Vance had started publishing science fiction in the pulp magazines, under the title The Dying Earth. (Vance’s original title, used for the Vance Integral Edition, is Mazirian the Magician.)
Vance wrote many science fiction short stories in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, which were published in magazines. Of his novels written during this period, a few were science fiction, but most were mysteries. Few were published at the time, but Vance continued to write mysteries into the early 1970s. In total, he wrote 15 novels outside of science fiction and fantasy, including the extended outline, The Telephone was Ringing in the Dark, published only by the VIE, and three books published under the Ellery Queen pseudonym. Some of these are not mysteries, for example Bird Island, and many fit uneasily in the category. These stories are set in and around his native San Francisco, except for one set in Italy and another in Africa. Two begin in San Francisco but take to the sea.
Many themes important to his more famous science fiction novels appeared first in the mysteries. The most obvious is the "book of dreams", which appears in Bad Ronald and The View from Chickweed’s Window, prior to being featured in The Book of Dreams. The revenge theme is also more prominent in certain mysteries than in the science fiction (The View from Chickweed’s Window in particular). Bad Ronald was adapted to a not particularly faithful TV movie aired on ABC in 1974, as well as a French production (Méchant garçon) in 1992; this and Man in the Cage are the only works by Vance ever to be made into film.
Certain of the science fiction stories are also mysteries. In addition to the comic Magnus Ridolph stories, two major stories feature the effectuator ‘Miro Hetzel’, a futuristic detective, and Araminta Station is largely concerned with solving various murders. Vance returned to the "dying earth" setting (a far distant future in which the sun is slowly going out, and magic and technology coexist) to write the picaresque adventures of the ne'er-do-well scoundrel Cugel the Clever, and those of the magician Rhialto the Marvellous. These books were written in 1963, 1978 and 1981. His other major fantasy work, Lyonesse (a trilogy including Suldrun’s Garden, The Green Pearl and Madouc), was completed in 1989 and set on a mythological archipelago off the coast of France in the early Middle Ages.
The mystery and fantasy genres span his entire career.
Vance’s stories written for pulps in the 1940s and 1950s cover many science fiction themes, with a tendency to emphasis on mysterious and biological themes (ESP, genetics, brain parasites, body switching, other dimensions, cultures) rather than technical ones. Robots, for example, are almost entirely absent, (his short story "The Uninhibited Robot" features a computer gone awry). Many of the early stories are comic. By the 1960s, Vance had developed a futuristic setting which he came to call the "Gaean Reach". Thereafter, all his science fiction was, more or less explicitly, set therein. The Gaean Reach is loose and ever expanding. Each planet has its own history, state of development and culture. Within the Reach conditions tend to be peaceable and commerce tends to dominate. At the edges of the Reach, out in the lawless ‘Beyond’, conditions are sometimes, but not always, less secure.
Vance has Influenced many writers in the genre. Most notably, Michael Shea wrote a sequel to Eyes Of The Overworld, featuring Cugel The Clever, before Vance did one himself (called Cugel's Saga). Vance gave permission, and the book by Shea went into print before Vance's. Shea's book, The Quest For Symbilis, is entirely in keeping with the vision of Vance. Cugel is a complete rogue, who is nevertheless worthy of sympathy in always failing to achieve his goals.
When asked about literary influences, Vance most often cites Jeffery Farnol, a writer of adventure books, whose style of 'high' language he mentions (the Farnol title Guyfford of Weare being a typical instance); P.G. Wodehouse, an influence apparent in Vance's taste for overbearing aunts; and L. Frank Baum, fantasy elements in whose work have been directly borrowed by Vance (see 'The Emerald City of Oz'). In the introduction to Dowling and Strahan's The Jack Vance Treasury, Vance mentions that his childhood reading including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Robert W. Chambers, science fiction published by Edward Stratemeyer, the magazines Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, and Lord Dunsany." According to pulp editor Sam Merwin, Vance's earliest magazine submissions in the 1940s were heavily influenced by the style of James Branch Cabell. Fantasy historian Lin Carter has noted several probable lasting influences of Cabell on Vance's work, and suggests that the early "pseudo-Cabell" experiments bore fruit in The Dying Earth (1950).
CHARACTERISTICS AND COMMENTARY
Vance's science fiction runs the gamut from stories written for pulps in the 1940s to multi-volume tales set in the space age. While Vance's stories have a wide variety of temporal settings, a majority of them belong to a period long after humanity has colonized other stars, culminating in the development of the "Gaean Reach". In its early phases (the Oikumene of the Demon Princes series), this expanding, loose and pacific agglomerate has an aura of colonial adventure, commerce and exoticism. In its more established phases, it becomes peace-loving and stolidly middle class.
Vance’s stories are seldom concerned directly with war. The conflicts are rarely direct. Sometimes at the edges of the Reach, or in the lawless "Beyond", a planet is menaced or craftily exploited, though more extensive battles are described in The Dragon Masters, "The Miracle Workers", and the Lyonesse trilogy, in which medieval-style combat abounds. His characters usually become inadvertently enmeshed in low-intensity conflicts between alien cultures; this is the case in Emphyrio, the Tschai series, the Durdane series, or the comic stories in Galactic Effectuator, featuring Miro Hetzel. Personal, cultural, social, or political conflicts are the central concerns. This is most particularly the case in the Cadwal series, though it is equally characteristic of the three Alastor books, Maske: Thaery, and, one way or another, most of the science fiction novels.
The "Joe Bain" stories (The Fox Valley Murders, The Pleasant Grove Murders, and an unfinished outline published by the VIE) are set in an imaginary northern California county; these are the nearest to the classical mystery form, with a rural policeman as protagonist. Bird Island, by contrast, is not a mystery at all, but a Wodehousian idyll (also set near San Francisco), while The Flesh Mask or Strange People… emphasize psychological drama. The theme of both The House on Lily Street and Bad Ronald is solipsistic megalomania, taken up again in the "Demon Princes" cycle of science fiction novels. Bad Ronald was made into a TV-movie, which aired on ABC in 1974.
Three books published under the Ellery Queen pseudonym were written to editorial requirements (and rewritten by the publisher). Four others reflect Vance’s world travels: Strange People, Queer Notions based on his stay in Positano, Italy; The Man in the Cage, based on a trip to Morocco; The Dark Ocean, set on a merchant marine vessel; and The Deadly Isles, based on a stay in Tahiti. (The Vance Integral Edition contains a volume with Vance's original text for the three Ellery Queen novels. Vance had previously refused to acknowledge these books as they were drastically rewritten by the publishers.)
The mystery novels of Vance reveal much about his evolution as a science-fiction and fantasy writer. (He stopped working in the mystery genre in the early 1970s, except for science-fiction mysteries; see below). Bad Ronald is especially noteworthy for its portrayal of a trial-run for Howard Alan Treesong of The Book of Dreams. The Edgar-Award-winning The Man in the Cage is a thriller set in North Africa at around the period of the French-Algerian war. A Room to Die In is a classic 'locked-room' murder mystery featuring a strong-willed young woman as the amateur detective. Bird Isle, a mystery set at a hotel on an island off the California coast, reflects Vance's taste for farce.
Vance's two rural Northern California mysteries featuring Sheriff Joe Bain were well received by the critics. The New York Times said of The Fox Valley Murders: "Mr. Vance has created the county with the same detailed and loving care with which, in the science fiction he writes as Jack Vance, he can create a believable alien planet." And Dorothy B. Hughes, in The Los Angeles Times, wrote that it was "fat with character and scene". As for the second Bain novel, The New York Times said: "I like regionalism in American detective stories, and I enjoy reading about the problems of a rural county sheriff... and I bless John Holbrook Vance for the best job of satisfying these tastes with his wonderful tales of Sheriff Joe Bain..."
Vance has also written mysteries set in his science-fiction universes. An early 1950s short story series features Magnus Ridolph, an interstellar adventurer and amateur detective who is elderly and not prone to knocking anyone down, and whose exploits appear to have been inspired, in part, by those of Jack London's South Seas adventurer, Captain David Grief. The "Galactic Effectuator" novelettes feature Miro Hetzel, a figure who resembles Ridolph in his blending of detecting and troubleshooting (the "effectuating" indicated by the title). A number of the other science fiction novels include mystery, spy thriller, or crime-novel elements: The Houses of Iszm, Son of the Tree, the Alastor books Trullion and Marune, the Cadwal series, and large parts of the Demon Princes series.
For most of his career, Vance's work suffered the vicissitudes common to most writers in his chosen field: ephemeral publication of stories in magazine form, short-lived softcover editions, insensitive editing beyond his control. As he became more widely recognized, conditions improved, and his works became internationally renowned among aficionados. Much of his work has been translated into several languages, including Dutch, French, Spanish, Russian, and Italian. Beginning in the 1960s, Jack Vance's work has also been extensively translated into German. In the large German-language market, his books continue to be widely read.
In 1976, the fantasy/sf small press Underwood-Miller released their first publication, the first hardcover edition of The Dying Earth in a high-quality limited edition of just over 1000 copies. Other titles in the "Dying Earth" cycle also received hardcover treatment from Underwood-Miller shortly thereafter, such as The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga. After these first publications and until the mid-1990s, Underwood-Miller published many of Vance's works, including his mystery fiction, often in limited editions featuring dustjacket artwork by leading fantasy artists. The entire Jack Vance output from Underwood-Miller comes close to a complete collection of Vance's previously published works, many of which had not seen hardcover publication. Also, many of these editions are described as "the author's preferred text", meaning that they have not been drastically edited. In the mid-1990s, Tim Underwood and Charles Miller parted company. However, they have continued to publish Vance titles individually, including such works as Emphyrio and To Live Forever by Miller, and a reprint edition of The Eyes of the Overworld by Underwood. Because of the low print-run on many of these titles, which often could only be found in science fiction bookstores at the time of their release, these books are highly sought after by ardent Vance readers and collectors, and some titles fetch premium prices.