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The lonely dreamer became a sorcerer

Jack Vance’s fiction

by Keith Purtell

photo of author Jack Vance
Jack Vance (1916-2013)
©2023 by Robert Sneddon

Astonishment and excitement; my first exposure in 1973 to Jack Vance’s literary style was a dazzling experience for a teenager. On entry into the vault of his imagination, I found a whole series of other-worldly societies, all populated by iridescent and peculiar beings.

Vance's prose is absolutely recognizable within the first few paragraphs; he's an American original with an unmistakable voice.

I was drawn into the undertow created by his prose, into a verisimilitude that provided sensual relief from an often boring everyday life in Oklahoma. Lumped into the science fiction category by book stores and libraries, Vance’s books bear little resemblance to the technology-obsessed material produced by writers found on the same shelf.

Vance obviously worked hard to assemble his ornamented structures. But, there is a sense of delight; mischief in the characters and dialogue. Sometimes there was violence looming behind a pretense of politeness, as if civilization was a articulated veil on a brutish face.

YouTube Bookpilled video on science fiction books

His illusions of alien cultures rely on a use of language patterns derived from baroque idioms. Vance also possesses a talent for inventing convincing character and place-names, and a finely-honed wit.

Despite Vance’s imaginative wandering, there is continuity in many of his themes. One example: His recurring social climbers, religious nuts and narcissists constitute some of the longest-running and most withering satire of human pomposity in contemporary fiction.

Vance actually enjoyed three careers as a writer, since he also wrote successful fantasy (Lyonesse) under the same name and has earned critical acclaim for mysteries (The Fox Valley Murders) penned under the name John Holbrook.

... a writer of science fiction and high epic fantasy whose work was oddly at variance with the journeyman genre in which it first appeared. His proses—detailed, exotic, resonant of feelings, sounds and fragrances—soared well above the requirements of the genre; he described alien landscapes with bizarre and inventive energy in language that was ambitious, wordy, sometimes lurid, always bold." —The Guardian

Vance’s contemporaries — like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin and Gene Wolfe — often garner more praise from critics. The reasons for this have a lot to do with personality types. Vance has a craftsman personality. That puts him a bit at variance with authors whose success in mainstream fiction is mostly due to their ambition to be artists, and definitely at odds with most critics, who seem to be intellectuals.

The story of Jack Vance is the story of the author as individualist. Vance’s willful divergence from accepted tenets also constitutes a refusal to cooperate with the standardization of American “science fiction;” a sameness that remains apparent. That sameness is the main reason I took a 20-year hiatus from reading this genre in which Vance’s writing is often placed.

Is it escapism? On a certain level, yes. The typical Vance hero suffers but always triumphs over hardship, is gifted with confidence, intelligence, useful skills and luck. In real life, many people pour out their energy, only to receive disappointment. Vance’s writing is therefore escapism on the level that such satisfying adventures are often wish fulfillment.

Having said that, if art educates and uplifts, and entertainment distracts and amuses, Vance has navigated a tightrope between the two with supreme grace.

Jack Vance books: “The Dying Earth,” “The Eyes of the Overworld,” “The Dragon Masters,” “The Last Castle,” the four Tschai books (“Planet of Adventure: City of the Chasch, The Wannek (formerly Servants of the Wankh), The Dirdir, The Pnume”), the five Demon Princes books (“Star King,” “The Killing Machine,” “The Palace of Love,” “The Face,” “The Book of Dreams),” “Emphyrio,” and “The Moon Moth” (short story).

Vance Integral Edition
VIE, Readers edition


No description of Vance’s literary status and the allegiance it has inspired in readers would be complete without recognizing the Vance Integral Edition. In 1999, more than 300 volunteers from across the globe began work on the VIE. For six years, they cooperated via the Internet to create a definitive and complete edition of Vance’s work in 44 volumes.

Vance Integral Edition
VIE, Readers edition

The books were published in a “Readers” style with leather spine, and full-leather “Deluxe” version. The price for a Readers subscription started at $1,250, then rose to $1,500. Deluxe subscription was $3,000. Several dozen sets were donated to libraries. It was an amazing accomplishment with one flaw: Most Vance aficionados simply couldn’t afford the cost, and the press run was sadly inadequate at approximately 600 sets.

Update: Spatterlight Press has announced the Signature Series; " integral Jack Vance edition in 62 deluxe paperbacks. Released in the centenary of the author's birth, this handsome new collection is based upon the prestigious Vance Integral Edition." Details at the official Jack Vance website.

About Norma Vance

Many aspiring writers asked, how did Jack Vance do it? How did he write so eloquently? Many were tantalized that perhaps he had some exotic method. At rare public appearances, Vance played it pretty coy, which only fed the speculation.

Then he released his autobiography "This is Me, Jack Vance!" in 2009. Vance revealed that he and his wife, Norma, were writing partners. Norma typed up and edited his longhand drafts. Their travels around the world and mutual affection fed his creativity. The imagined secret writing formula evaporated, replaced by a healthy marriage.

His 2013 obituary in The Guardian confirmed the Jack and Norma creative partnership: "Vance claimed that Norma worked on his stories and books as hard as he did..."

And yet again in this 2020 interview with Jack and Norma's son, John H. Vance II:

John Grayshaw:
"Was your dad's writing a significant part of your family life? What I mean is, was it talked about, part of dinner table conversation, and so on, or was it regarded as just dad's job?"

John H. Vance, II
John H. Vance

John H. Vance, II:
"Writing took place practically every day, wherever we were. Both parents were involved, the work permeated our lives. The names of other authors were familiar, publishers and agents, fans who went on to become writers and so on; many I never met but familiarity made them all feel part of the family. Talk of correspondence, deals, editing, checks in the mailbox or poste restante, the sound of my mother's typewriter were always in the air. In old photographs I like to search for Dad's clipboard, fountain pens, or inks, which may be found in a surprising number of images."
Science Fiction Book Club; Interview with John Vance II (April 2020)

Recently I came across a long and fascinating essay by David B. Williams, from which I have quoted:

To cap his Worldcon Guest of Honor selection in 1992, Vance's professional colleagues in the Science Fiction Writers of America named him a Grand Master in 1997. He had long expected to be named. “I think it was something I'd been waiting for for many years,” he told an interviewer on the Sci-Fi Channel, “and when it came I was properly, uh, not thankful, or grateful or anything, but I kind of took it for granted. I went to Kansas City, and I was polite; I got up and made a little speech, said thank you, accepted the award, came home and put it somewhere, I don't know where it is.” (Vance couldn't see it, but in 2004 his Grand Master trophy was on display in the central dining/living room of the Oakland hills house beside a World Fantasy Award.)

The fact that Vance long expected to be named a Grand Master indicates that he recognizes his high status in the field; yet typically, he distances himself from the honor, disclaiming gratitude or special satisfaction in the achievement. Paul Rhoads has pondered on this trait: “I am intrigued by Jack's ambiguous relationship to his success/non-success. I think he knows who he is (an exceptionally great artist) but that his life experience and character are such that his natural exuberance and combativeness have become hidden so that he practices a modesty and detachment not fully representative of his deeper character.”

One important element of that life experience was the years Vance spent writing for the cheap, gaudy SF pulp magazines for as little as half a cent per word, followed by many more years as a novelist whose work appeared almost exclusively in paperback editions without serious critical attention.

Nonetheless, son John testifies that his father does derive satisfaction from the creative process: “Growing up, when I was fooling around, running around the house while Dad was writing, occasionally out of nowhere he'd chuckle to himself. It was very clear that he was enjoying what he was doing—that the writer was having a good time.”
Essay at Mike Berro's "Vance Museum".

More information (new windows):

Jack Vance signature

Jack Vance at the helm of his boat on San Francisco Bay; early 1980s (photo by David M. Alexander)
Jack Vance at the helm of his boat on San Francisco Bay; early 1980s
(photo by David M. Alexander)

Norma Vance in New York, working on television scripts c1952-1953 <wbr>(courtesy
Norma Vance in New York, working on television scripts c1952-1953 ​(courtesy

Norma and Jack Vance on the porch at Norma's family home in Grand Terrace, near Colton, California; circa 1947 <wbr>(courtesy
Norma and Jack Vance on the porch at Norma's family home in Grand Terrace, near Colton, California; circa 1947 (courtesy

Party at Jack and Norma Vance's, with Poul & Karen Anderson, Lily & Aladar Szantho. Oakland, California c1954-57
Party at Jack & Norma Vance's, with Poul & Karen Anderson, Lily & Aladar Szantho. Oakland, California c1954-57 (courtesy

Lunch at Las Varas. Jack and Norma with Beverly and Brian Herbert. Chapala, Mexico c.1953  <wbr>(courtesy
Lunch at Las Varas. Jack and Norma with Beverly and Brian Herbert. Chapala, Mexico c.1953 (courtesy

Norma and Jack in a photo booth (courtesy
Norma and Jack in a photo booth (courtesy