Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Vance, Jack

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Working name of US writer John Holbrook Vance (1916-2013), whose contributions to sf are extensive (> SFE) and who early in his career established the Dying-Earth subgenre of Far-Future fantasy with The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950). The remote setting owes something to Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique stories; JV's achievement was stylistic, with an ironic narrative tone appropriate to an exhausted world of melancholy and dying falls, haunted by strange Monsters (erbs, gids, deodands), where the dimmed Sun wobbled precariously through a dark-blue sky and might at any moment go out. The generally amoral characters' barbed formality of Diction, distantly reminiscent of Ernest Bramah, is expertly turned to dramatic or comic effect; in a famous passage an augur (> Prophecy) states his fees: "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." Though Magic is omnipresent and the implied underlying science forgotten, even the known Spells are far fewer than of yore (> Thinning). The episodes are flimsily plotted but replete with striking incidents and images: Wizards create flawed life or shrink rivals to manikin size (> Great and Small) to imprison them in a minimalist Labyrinth with a miniature Dragon; the Beauty and the Beast theme is effectively reworked; a cruel freebooter over-fond of torture attempts a theft in defiance of all warnings and finds that his private Portal to an Otherworld offers no escape from the dread guardian "Chun the Unavoidable"; a City is divided into colour-coded (> Colour-Coding) factions with Greys unable to see wearers of Green and vice versa; a Quest for knowledge leads to the ancient Museum of Man, where the defeat of an invading Demon leaves the protagonist's yearning unsatisfied in a Library containing all knowledge but no index.

Further Dying Earth volumes, though still fragmentary, are more robustly Picaresque, with Trickster protagonists – notably Cugel the Clever. In The Eyes of the Overworld (coll of linked stories 1966) Cugel swaggers and bluffs his way through adventures involving the eponymous lenses (which provide all-senses Illusion so that mud huts become palaces and rags exquisite garb), a demon-controlling Amulet, an awesome lake-dwelling Giant, a wizard's binding conjuration of the entire Universe into a jellylike mass which Cugel hungrily eats, Time Travel, and numerous deceptions; repeatedly Cugel overreaches and comes to grief. His story continues in The Bagful of Dreams (1979 chap) and The Seventeen Virgins (1974 F&SF; 1979 chap), both incorporated into Cugel's Saga (fixup 1983). Michael Shea's A Quest for Simbilis * (1974) is an "alternative" Cugel sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld, written with JV's permission. Rhialto the Marvelous (coll of linked stories 1984) stars Rhialto, one of several squabbling magicians whose power derives from unreliable imps called sandestins; they are threatened by a Witch unfairly employing transsexuality spells and by a betrayed comrade retrieved from a dead Star at, literally, the edge of the Universe; there is a fine journey in a magically powered spacegoing palace. (This story appeared as Morreion: A Tale of the Dying Earth in Flashing Swords #1 anth 1973 ed Lin Carter; 1979 chap.) A sense of Time Abyss is well conveyed when a precious object falls into the sea and Rhialto proceeds to a future aeon in which the seabed will be dry.

Uncommonly for fantasy, JV's coolly exotic style is distinctive enough to Parody – as in "The Star Sneak" (1974 F&SF) by Larry Tritten. His gift for appropriate character-and place-Names is remarkable, as is his ability to weave unusual words into seamless prose; "deodand", an object forfeited to the crown for having caused a human death, is a wittily apt name for a murderous Monster. JV applied this increasingly polished style to sf as well as fantasy, which, coupled with his interest in constrained or obsessed societies (> Anthropology) rather than hard-sf trappings, tends to blur the genre lines. Thus Big Planet (1952 Startling Stories; cut 1957; further cut 1958; text restored 1978) updated Planetary Romance from the naiveties of Edgar Rice Burroughs to sf respectability without loss of wonder; but Big Planet is also the setting of Showboat World (1975; vt The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII South, Big Planet 1983), whose picaresque adventures and quarrels of captains on a great River have a flavour of fantasy and of Cugel. A fine but notionally sf example of JV's anthropological creativeness is "The Moon Moth" (1961), where etiquette requires wearing the correct Mask and accompanying one's conversation with Music. In The Dragon Masters (1963 dos) – a Hugo Award winner – the feudal society is post-technological, with Dragons and Giants the products of genetic engineering; The Last Castle (1967 dos), which won JV another Hugo and a Nebula, uses lords, castles and feudalism to emphasize Decadence in a story whose underlying rationale is again sf. Green Magic (1936 F&SF; 1979 chap) contains a memorable Technofantasy device as an earthy Golem with a tv camera eye is sent to explore the elfin otherworld of the eponymous magic – whose secrets, eventually learned by the human wizard, may well be Things Bought at Too High a Cost.

A late fantasy trilogy is Lyonesse, set two generations before the time of Arthur (and featuring a supposed Underlier of the Round Table) in the 10 kingdoms of the "Elder Isles" west of France and the English Channel's mouth – now sunken lands. The component books are Suldrun's Garden (1983; rev 1983; vt Lyonesse: Book 1: Suldrun's Garden 1984 UK), Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl (1985; rev vt The Green Pearl 1986) and Lyonesse III: Madouc (1989; vt Madouc 1990); this last won a World Fantasy Award. Against a background of appealing political intrigue and slightly unsatisfactory war (JV seems to lack enthusiasm for battle scenes), Lyonesse features fine episodes of magic, casual cruelty, vengeance, whimsy and gorgeous landscape in a yet more polished version of the Dying Earth manner. Further fantastic elements include Fairies (one character's age is anomalous owing to a fairy-mound visit; > Time in Faerie), fairy Curses of bad luck, prophecies from a magic Mirror, a Changeling, visits to magic and demonic otherworlds, journeys hedged about with Conditions and Prohibitions, spells that meddle with Time, Shapeshifting and transformations, a three-headed Giant, the Grail, and an offstage Malign Sleeper undersea, whose ultimate brief wakening drowns the legendary city of Ys.

JV's current projected works are reportedly sf, but his influence on fantasy has been immense, enduring and gratefully acknowledged – by, for example, Gene Wolfe, whose The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983) is the most significant re-articulation to date of the Dying-Earth theme. JV received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1984. [DRL]

other works: Eight Fantasms and Magics (coll 1969; with 2 stories cut vt Fantasms and Magics 1978 UK); Green Magic: The Fantasy Realms of Jack Vance (coll 1979); Rhialto the Marvelous * (coll 1984; with one story by another hand added anth 1985).

John Holbrook Vance


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.