Nov 13, 2016

Classics of Science Fiction

All Hail Jack Vance, My Life Would Suck Without You!


by İnci German

It has become a kind of tradition that once a year we try to publish an article in which we review, pay tribute to, praise or pray to Jack Vance in our newsletter (subscribe here). After the OBC on Friday, during yet another conversation on the greatness of Jack Vance, I shockingly realized that 2016 is almost over and we haven’t written anything about him yet! Unfortunately not enough time to write a new review that’s worthy of him, so I’ve decided to republish some of our previous reviews, including last year’s Jack Vance-Special. And as a special treat you’ll find great and funny quotes from The Tales of the Dying Earth at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!

Inci reviews Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance

published November 2013

Here’s a book for you that has it all!
In the far future, Earth is nearing its end. The sun is gradually growing cold and might go out any time, thus flickering from time to time. It’s cold and dim. Human life is dominated by magic mostly, although the difference between science and magic is blurry, and it’s indeed implied that the roots of this magic reach back to mathematics. Strange creatures linger around, deodands, gauns, twk-men, all of them possibly created by a mighty wizard. Civilizations as we know them have collapsed, and people have fallen into a highly fatalistic state of mind, mingled with a strong tendency to decadence. This is the setting where Vance's four outermost heterogeneous novels Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous take place.

Starting with six ultra-modern, interlinked fairy tales that orbit around various wondrous characters of the Dying Earth, the collection offers in the next two books The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel's Saga the marvellous adventures of Cugel: my personal favorite character and the anti-est hero ever. On his quest of taking revenge from Iucounu the Laughing Magician for teleporting him across the world, Cugel the Clever, a lying, cheating, stealing, greedy, selfish and cowardly quack, teaches the reader about all facets of human nature. His pretentious schemes that are bound to fail from the beginning mostly ruin the ones he interacts with. Although he’s not the only fool in these stories, he seems to be coping with it best. Not only Cugel, but also the great assembly of magicians in Rhialto the Marvellous prove to be highly dubious and self-serving.

As for Vance's unique, ironic, rich and at times disturbing style, his strange and brilliant dialogues and his more than dry sense of humor: I could write pages and pages on it – but in the end, you’ll have to read Tales of the Dying Earth for yourself! All who consider themselves avid readers of fantasy and/or science fiction should read it; and those who have read it should do so again and pass it on to the next generations - our dying world needs it!

The great Jack Vance special by Simon and Inci!

published May 2015

Simon Weinert

It is with great pleasure that I observe the demand for classics like Asimov or P. K. Dick. Every couple of days we have to backorder books by these authors, and that’s just great! But there are, alas, books by one classic SF author that we hardly sell at all. I am, of course, referring to Jack Vance. This fact is quite disturbing, because Vance has a lot of devoted fans, but the fans that visit our shop seem to already have read everything by this author.
So what the world needs are new Jack Vance readers!
But why should anyone want to read a book by this extremely productive author whose writing career spanned over sixty years (from 1945-2009)? Because of the utterly fascinating worlds to which Vance’s books abduct the reader! You won’t find clever hard SF gimmicks in his works, nor the cyberpunky coolness and identity swapping games of P. K. Dickensian SF. But what you are in for are tales of adventure, beauty and mystery delivered in the sometimes baroque and always so very tasteful Vancian language that makes the cruelest things sound galant at times. Vance’s inventiveness knows no limit when it comes to depicting alien planets and societies. The conflicts in those worlds are often straightforward even if the stories are not. The heroes are not so much idealistic or “good” in the general sense but often purely ambitious, driven or “thrown”. But certainly Vance has a fondness for clever characters rather than for the mighty ones.

His writing is brilliant, honed, playful and witty with quite some humor sometimes, but there are also moments where, between the lines, it gets absolutely heartwarming. And overall there is a whole lot of sense of wonder in Vance’s novels and short stories. Planets that really feel alien, even if they are populated only by humans. Magicians shrinking their rivals in order to put them in a box and make them wrestle against tiny dragons. A most beautiful artificial woman who was created with a flaw in her brain that makes her see everything beautiful as ugly and who falls in love with a hideous man. A scientist who intends to invigorate the society of a languid planet by creating and installing three different new languages. A wizard who wields a spell called the Excellent Prismatic Spray (yes, all you D&D nerds, your favorite game was massively influenced by Vance’s Dying Earth books).

When other SF and fantasy writers write about magic, Vance just does magic. So go, fetch one of his novels or story collections and get yourself enchanted! 

Inci German

Hooray! It’s the second year in a row that we get to praise good old Jack in this very newsletter, so it's welcome back to the section that is soon to be renamed as “All hail Jack Vance, my life would suck without you!”.

Yes, time was short and the Gateway Omnibus edition of Big Planet&The Blue World&The Dragon Masters is a thick book. Since I tend to soak in every word Vance has written and laugh about each and every one of his cleverly funny dialogues for a minute or two, I couldn’t finish it. Thus I will focus on Dragon Masters.
Only Jack Vance can write about humans breeding alien-dragons as warriors and alien-dragons reciprocally breeding humans without sounding bad or silly.
The bred dragons vary in size and shape, from the rusty-red Termagants, who can use weapons up to the colossal Juggers who can tear the enemy apart. The bred humans range from Heavy Troopers to Giants who can carry the big energy projectors.
Every few years the aliens, called Basics or Grephs, descend on the planet Aerlith to collect humans. Joaz Banbeck, charismatic descendant of the Banbeck dynasty, believes he has found a connection between the brightness of the star Coralyn and the coming of the Grephs and realizes that the time they will come again is soon. He tries to warn his neighbor Ervis Carcolo who sees him as a rival in dragon breeding and is constantly trying to plot against him, which so often has a comical outcome.
On Aerlith also live the Sacerdotes – humans who have long hair, silken skin and who walk around naked except for golden torcs around their necks. Although they are shy and non-communicative, a certain Sacerdote was caught twice spying in Joaz's private quarters.
So Banbeck will try not only to save the humans on Aerlith but also to unveil the secrets of these mysterious beings.

The Dragon Masters is a novella of about 130 pages. But don’t be fooled by numbers – Vance manages to fill those pages with perfectly well accomplished characters, a much detailed background setting and a complete overall description of a fictional planet (and it’s not our dying Earth), a conflict situation which will lead to war and finally many of those brilliant dialogues you just have to love.

Special Treat: Great Quotes from The Tales of Dying Earth

In no particular order.

“Are you ready for unorthodox procedures?”

“So then: onward to Lumarth, and let meticulous discretion be the slogan!”

“What are your fees?" inquired Guyal cautiously. "I respond to three questions," stated the augur. 
 "For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.”

“My interest was cursory.”

“You have taken too much to drink; in consequence you are drunk.”

“I become drunk as circumstances dictate.”

“I can resolve your perplexity.”

“I can resolve your bewilderment.”

“Cugel strode down a sweep of circular stairs into a great hall. He stood enthralled, paying Iucounu the tribute of unstinted wonder. But his time was limited; he must rob swiftly and be on his way. Out came his sack; he roved the hall, fastidiously selecting those objects of small bulk and great value: a small pot with antlers, which emitted clouds of remarkable gasses when the prongs were tweaked; an ivory horn through which sounded voices from the past; a small stage where costumed imps stood ready to perform comic antics; an object like a cluster of crystal grapes, each affording a blurred view into one of the demon-worlds; a baton sprouting sweetmeats of assorted flavour; an ancient ring engraved with runes; a black stone surrounded by nine zones of impalpable color. He passed by hundreds of jars of powders and liquids, likewise forebore from the vessels containing preserved heads.”

“Notice this rent in my garment; I am at a loss to explain its presence! I am even more puzzled by the existence of the universe.”

“I am not Cugel the Clever for nothing!”

"Iucounu's grin nearly split his great soft head."

“It is thus because it has always been thus. Is not this reason enough?”

“The creature displayed the qualities reminiscent of both coelenterate and echinoderm. A terrene nudibranch? A mollusc deprived of its shell? More importantly, was the creature edible?

“Since like subsumes like, the variates and intercongeles create a superpullulation of all areas, qualities and intervals into a chrystorrhoid whorl, eventually exciting the ponentiation of a pro-ubietal chute; the 'creature,' as you called it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice, you devoured it.”

“What is all this commotion? Gookin, why do you lie among the cheeses?”

“Gid: hybrid of man, gargoyle, whorl, leaping insect.”

“I am forced to believe you guilty of impertinence, impiety, disregard and impudicity.”

“These are the tales of the 21st Aeon, when Earth is old and the sun is about to go out. In Ascolais and Almery, lands to the west of the Falling Wall, live a group of magicians who have formed an association to better protect their interests.”

“Teutch, who seldom speaks with his mouth but uses an unusual sleight to flick words from his fingertips. As an Elder of the Hub, he has been allowed the control of his private infinity.”

“In this mood of abstraction, his perceptions remained strangely sensitive. An insect settled upon the leaf of a nearby aspen tree; Rhialto took careful note of the angle at which it crooked its legs and the myriad red glints in its bulging eyes. Interesting and significant, thought Rhialto.”

“I categorically declare first my absolute innocence, second my lack of criminal intent, and third my effusive apologies.”

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