back to article Jack Vance: Science fiction’s master of magic, mischief and sex

I was on holiday in the Mediterranean, finishing the third book in Jack Vance’s Cadwal Chronicles trilogy, when I heard of his death at the age of 96. Vance hadn’t written any major works for a few years, but readers and writers of science fiction will be nonetheless poorer for his passing on 26 May, 2013. The first Vance …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Andrew Moore


    As a serious sci-fi geek as a kid I knew I must have read something of his. So a quick check of the library turns up the 4 Dying Earth books (with Cugel). I still remember the execution scene where the condemned man is put into a box which then slowly shrinks.

    1. slime

      Re: RIP

      My first proper sci-fi book was The Pnume, bought for me by a wonderful grandad who didn't realise it was part of a series. Jack Vance remains a favourite of the genre for me. RIP.

    2. Tony Paulazzo

      Re: RIP

      As a relatively new Kindle reader (rediscovering old faves), I just started rereading the dying Earth series which blew my mind as a young geek - could never really get into the more fantasy orientated stories, but I well remember walking thru the sun engorged magical lands of Cugel and other mad characters in that far flung dying Earth. In my mind it was always dusk.

      Didn't know about the crime books, might have to look out for them.

      RIP dude.

    3. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

      Re: RIP

      I have the Lyonesse books, and others, on my bookshelf, I shall reread them next week in memoriam. RIP indeed.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: RIP

      Yet he doesn't feature in the top 100 sci-fi books?

      Or does he?

  2. graeme leggett Silver badge

    Know the name, sure I most have read something of his

    Perhaps a short story in an Analog or somesuch.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Know the name, sure I most have read something of his

      Yeah, I've had a similar brain-itch... "Why is his name familiar?"

      The article would suggest that he is more fun than James Blish, another author whose books I've stumbled across in charity shops (but neglected in favour of Harry Harrison).

      The video game studio Bungie appear to have drawn influence from The Dying Earth for their upcoming game 'Destiny', just as they stated they read Niven and Banks before making their game 'Halo'.

  3. David Given
    Thumb Up

    The Demon Princes

    I've only read the Lyonesse series once, and it didn't grab me much --- I need to tackle it again. But Kirth Gersen and the Demon Princes quintet are old friends, and I'm currently half-way through them. They're masterpieces of vivid settings, larger than life villains, memorable setpieces, and an oddly diffident hero who isn't really cut out for the revenge quest he thinks he was meant for...

    1. 100113.1537

      Re: The Demon Princes

      I read Star King many years ago (and many times, to be fair), but I never realized it was apart of a series until now. I am very bad at looking up other works by authors I have read and liked, but I instantly recognized Jack Vance so it must have stuck with me somehow.

      I will probably catch up on the rest of this series now - shame that it is only when they die that many authors get recognition.

      1. David Given

        Re: The Demon Princes

        The Star King: Gersen vs Malagate the Woe.

        The Killing Machine: Gersen vs Kokor Hekkus.

        The Palace of Love: Gersen vs Viole Falushe.

        The Face: Gersen vs Lens Larque.

        The Book of Dreams: Gersen vs Howard Alan Treesong.

        I would love to know what happened to Gersen after the last book, particularly given the closing words, but I suspect that it's better I don't know. And, of course, I never will, now.

        1. BlueGreen

          Re: The Demon Princes

          The Face got me; I didn't see it coming.

          I read a great deal of fiction/fantasy and Vance wasn't my favourite author, he did seem to start writing solidly then drift, which frustrated me, but he was many cuts above the rest of that era (and it's been a looong era)


    2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: The Demon Princes

      They're masterpieces of vivid settings, larger than life villains, memorable setpieces, and an oddly diffident hero who isn't really cut out for the revenge quest he thinks he was meant for...

      Yes, and numerous stylistic flourishes that don't impede a cracking fun adventure. My favorite quality of the Demon Princes books are the chapter epigraphs, which are quotations from imaginary books supposedly published in the world of the novels: Baron Bossidy's ponderous philosophical monograph Life, the fantasy Scroll from the Seventh Dimension, etc. There's even a quote from a review of Life. And in the last Demon Prince novel, The Book of Dreams, an especially long epigraph "quotes" the entire ending chapter of Scroll from the Seventh Dimension. Wonderfully inventive.

      His less-known, pulpier SF stands up well too. Nopalgarth is good, for example, even if it's rather reminiscent of the "hidden mind-controlling enemy" genre that was fueled by the culture of paranoia (particularly the Red Scare) - compare Russell's Sinister Barrier, say. But Vance's take has better character development and a nice twist.

  4. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

    I only read the Planet of Adventure tetralogy, and quite liked it, but not so much that I dug out more, I must confess. Sad to hear of his passing but he has had a great innings on this planet, just shy of his century.

  5. Sid James
    Thumb Up

    ahh...Araminta Station

    Still one of my favourite books.

  6. David Given

    The Moon Moth

    If anyone wants to see some Vance at his best, there's a rather mangled but complete (there's a chunk of repeated text in the middle) copy of one of his most famous short stories, _The Moon Moth_, here:

    I suggest anyone who is interested stay well clear of the above URL. Reading it would be naughty.

  7. Jedit Silver badge
    Paris Hilton


    You just couldn't resist putting up the cover for Servants of the Wankh, could you?

    (Paris, because she probably has servants for that as well.)

    1. lawndart

      Re: Sigh...

      As a youngster my view of Vance was somewhat blighted by this book. Imagine a ten year old in the seventies trying to renew library books over the phone and having to repeatedly say "But that's what it's called!" to the person on the other end.

      I had no idea what the problem was at the time.

  8. Thomas 4

    A newcomer to Jack Vance

    I've heard his name mentioned on some of the RPG forums I visit and from what I've gleaned from the article, I think I'd enjoy his work. Any recommendations on a title to begin with? =)

    1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      Re: A newcomer to Jack Vance

      Any recommendations on a title to begin with?

      Depends on your preferences - Vance's body of work is quite large and diverse.

      The Demon Princes books are revenge stories, with (as the article noted) a hyper-competent, somewhat detached protagonist. Think Burn Notice in space. As with many Vance works, there's a lot of world-building behind the scenes, which you only get glimpses of; Vance doesn't go in for a lot of unnecessary exposition. The Star King is the first of the five, but they can be read out of order without spoiling the story.

      The Dying Earth books are a combination of short stories and novels. The stories in The Dying Earth will give you the flavor; for a more sustained plot, read the two novels, The Eyes of the Overworld and its sequel Cugel's Saga. The novels feature as anti a hero as one might ask for - Cugel is a lazy, lying, treacherous, not particularly competent thief, whose main skill is getting himself into trouble. But most of the other inhabitants of his world are no better, and the plots are cheerfully amoral. The dialog is terrific: "I would rate him an applicant of fair to good quality, and I urge you to ignore his long spatulate fingers which I last noticed on Larkin the baby-stealer. There is a significant difference between the two: Larkin has been hanged and Cugel has not been hanged."

      The Lyonesse novels, again as the article notes, are high fantasy in a manner that does resemble Game of Thrones more than a bit.1 That is, there's an ensemble cast, a multi-way struggle for political advantage, a rich setting, and you'll invest in characters only to have them perish horribly. I must reread them myself; it's been a long time.

      Used bookstores around here often have some of Vance's pulps - books like Nopalgarth and The Tree - and they tend to be good vacation or bedtime reads: not particularly demanding, but with plenty of action and intrigue and not very long. Popcorn genre fiction, but done well.

      1George R. R. Martin's work is often quite similar to something Vance's. Tuf Voyaging, for example, has similarly artful dialog; the original "Sandkings" (I've never read the fix-up novel) shares Vance's interest in using the trappings of SF to explore the horrors human beings are capable of perpetuating.

  9. Steve Crook

    The Price of Vance

    I went to the Orion gateway and from there to check a couple of the books to see how much I'd be paying for them. Basically £4.99 across all the retailers for the books I looked at. Regardless of the quality of the work, it's a lot to pay when the bulk of the books were first published at least 30 years ago.

    Can't help feeling that I'll be passing on bulking up my collection of Vance's work if that's what they're going to charge. It reinforces my resolve to build a book scanner and set to work converting my library to EPub. At those prices I'd be saving myself several thousand pounds for the sacrifice of some time...

    1. myhandlethat commentsareattributedto

      Re: The Price of Vance

      Read 'Star King' when I was 15 or so and thought it was one of the best I'd read and boy I was reading a lot of SF then. I still have it, um, 40 years on. It's a brill space opera .. as I recall.

      Read a few others but then Sci Fantasy became the fashion which I quickly learnt to avoid.

      RIP - I better re-read Star King

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Price of Vance

      "Basically £4.99 across all the retailers for the books I looked at. Regardless of the quality of the work, it's a lot to pay when the bulk of the books were first published at least 30 years ago."

      What a moronic bit of reasoning. £5 for hours of quality entertainment and all you can whine about is that it's - what? - not about mobile phones or something?

    3. This post has been deleted by its author

  10. ripsnark

    RIP Jack

    I glad to say I was able to meet Jack years ago. I was one of the VIE members and am a happy owner of one of the rare 44-volumn VIE editions. I was there sitting at his dining room table when one of the Brits in our group informed his wife Norma (who was present that day in lieu of Jack) about the "Wankh" title. She was taken aback and later informed Jack, who promptly decided on the change to Wannek.

    I always enjoyed the Dying Earth books, but the Demon Princes is my fave. Check 'em out of you can. The Cadwal and Lyonesse series are probably the most refined of his series, so grab a copy when you get a chance!

  11. Buzzby


    My favourite from Jack Vance was the many worlds of Magnus Ridolf, half of an Ace double book.

  12. Sandpit


    Much of Dungeons and Dragons was based on the Dying Earth world.

    1. Petrea Mitchell

      Re: D&D

      Indeed, I'm sad to see this has been missed by every major obituarist. D&D drew far more from Vance than it ever did from Tolkien.

      And for you Zork fans, The Dying Earth also appears to be the source of the grue.

  13. Aitor 1

    One of my favs.

    And cugel the clever is not to be forgotten!!

  14. G R Goslin


    I'm saddened by Jack Vance's going. The world is diminished by his disappearance from the literary world. One of my favourite authors. I don't think I could count the number of times I'e re-read his Demon Princes Series.

  15. Brunnen-G
    Thumb Up

    Good read

    I will read up on Jack Vance ASAP.

    Thanks! :-)

  16. Walt Leipold

    RIP Jack

    Thanks for the pointers to and sfgateway -- I just bought a bunch of DRM-free books, including the Gaean Reach and Lyonesse novels.

    Jack Vance has always been one of my top-10 favorite authors. I coveted the VIE for years, but couldn't come up with the money, so I've been rereading and re-rereading my old 60s paperbacks. Looking forward to curling up with the eBooks...

  17. John Edwards
    Paris Hilton


    Ok, I'll admit I'm a fan. Vance is up there with Shakespear. But bring your intelligence. If you think Britain's Got Talent is the pinnacle of human endeavour, fuddgeddit. For sheer invention Vance has it. His last book Lurulu, written when he was nearly dead is as excellent as the earlier ones. Paris. Because I always work her in, and because she might not appreciate JV to the full.

  18. nematoad Silver badge

    The best there is.

    Vance is my favourite author bar none and one thing that puzzles me is why his books are so hard to find.

    I have most of his stuff but would still like to fill in the gaps with classics such as "The Moon Moth". Yes I know I could get it on Amazon or Alibris but have you seen the prices? $41 for a paperback!

    There also seems to be a severe shortage at my local library, it's many years since I have been able to find any of his books there.

    So there you are, a wonderful author who delights many people with his language and characters but who is not in fashion and shamefully hard to get.

  19. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    Read the "Legion of Space" series years ago. Was he the last of the "Golden age?"

    I did not realize there was anyone left from the 40s/50s still around.

    And of course now there is one less....

  20. PipodeClown

    The last of the biggies gone

    Way back in the early seventies of the last century i was 11 years old as my father bought Planet of Adventure (Tchai de waanzinnige planeet in Dutch translation) . It sparked my taste for SF and i went on reading Asimov/Heinlein/Herbert/Vance. Later on I started buying the english books (way cheaper than the translated ones, i believe i mentioned i was dutch;) Nevertheless, reading this article i went to my old books and Lo, I found a paperback from 1974 The blue world.

    Typically Vance. A waterworld with monsters and a reluctant hero with an intellectual superior .

    The sad thing is, my son of 15 plays CoD on his Xbox and a zillion dumb games on his i-thingies but can't be bothered to read a book. So this paperback will, like its author, go the way of the dodo eventually.

  21. greatfog

    The craft of fantasy has lost a Master

    <- Sea-Dragon Conqueror Mask

    I first read "The Dying Earth" in the early 60s. Vance's capricious characters, distinctive dialogue, strange settings, and astonishing action enthralled me for decades afterwards. I have found few other writers whose work rewarded repeated reading over such a length of time. While his work always carried an unmistakeable flavor, his invention spanned many people and worlds.

    If there is a heaven for those who do their work well and bring delight to others, he is there.

  22. Sigfried

    One of my all time favourite authors in SF

    Sad to hear that Jack Vance had finally passed on although at 96 he's certainly had a good innings. I'd just add to the above comments and tributes that both food and music were a big part of Vance's appeal. He was unparalleled in his ability to flesh out an alien environment and make it come to life through descriptions of the food (good and bad) and the music, he was I believe an avid Jazz fan and that showed through.

    His characters could be a little samey as the article notes, and the stories, especially the earlier ones, a little thin. He had a penchant for adolescent love stories at times (which could be sweet and poignant like the early part of Araminta Station), but overall the stories were wonderfully alive.

    Everyone has their own favourites, but I find that the most re-read stories are first the Durdane trilogy (The Anome, The Brave Free Men, and the Asutra, and I'd recommend anyone who hasn't read those to at least try them, music, food, settings, Vance at his best), the Planet of Adventure series is excellent (and the Wankh name was always a source of clandestine mirth as a youth), the Demon Princes, with the last three (Palace of Love, The Face, Book of Dreams better than the first two IMHO, with The Face being especially good). I also rate the Alastor series highly, Maske:Thaery, and the three "number" stories (2263, 1716, and I think 933) are also very good. Marune (933) is the pick although each has its own appeal.

    The novellas The Dragon Masters and the Last castle are notable for winning awards and are some of the best of Vance also. Emphyrio is more intense but to me less satisfying the Blue World is amusingly different. The Gray Prince is another stand out, and Showboat World is also one of my favourites.

    The Araminta Station trilogy starts very strongly but meanders a bit in the middle. Lyonesse is always good although the last book has oddly uninteresting bits in the middle relating to Madouc's quest amongst the fairies. Night Lamp is perhaps Vance's last notable book, although I enjoyed Ports of Call. Lurulu sadly has the feel of a book hastily finished to tie up loose ends, but isn't as bad as all that.

    One other story worthy of note is The Languages of Pao, an exercise in part to set language as a key cultural determinant and cleverly done in a very Vancian fashion. The Moon Moth is also a top class short story.

    There are a lot of others, the early books I feel show Vance developing his craft and he can be very laboured. Oddly enough, for me, perhaps the very best short stories Vance ever wrote and complete stand-outs in the genre are the first three Dying Earth stories, with Turjan of Miir, Pandelume, and T'sais. The other trhree are good, but those to me stand out. They would make a superb film or set of three films if well made (Peter Jackson NO THANK YOU). The connected Rhialto stories are also amusing but don't reach the heights of the early stories. The Cugel stories are amusing, but the contrast of the ever bumbling if lucky Cugel doesn't work for me as well as Vance's typically heroic main caharcters. That said, Cugel has Vance's best comedy sections.

    That's it really, there have been several efforts to write into Vance's world, I have the Songs of the Dying Earth series of stories, but sadly none of the authors is a patch on Vance's realisation of the genre.

    RIP Jack Vance, and thanks for wonderful stories and amazing places.

  23. Michael Hoffmann Silver badge

    Another of the Great Old Ones passes

    The Dying Earth was one of my first exposures to the fantasy genre long before LotR, in my earliest teens. Completely sucked me in. Vale, Jack!

  24. emphyrio

    There are a lot of obituaries of Vance all over the internet. This one is by some distance the best, showing a detailed familiarity with the whole body of his work and a sensitive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of his writing. And I say that as a member of the Vance Integral Edition team whose job it was to know all 4.4 million words inside out!

    Jack Vance may be gone, but his work will outlive us all.

  25. Mark Pawelek

    RIP dear Mr Vance

    The Eyes of the Overworld will always be my Vance favorite.

  26. Otto is a bear.

    I've read a lot of Vance

    You don't see a lot of his books on the shelves, outside Masters of SF, and lets face it you certainly won't find him on-line unless you know who he is. His books were easy to find in the 70s and 80s in any good book shop, no matter how poor the SF section was. But other new author have come along to out sell and replace him in all but specialist stores. It's interesting, that although I'm an SF addict, a lot of older authors never appear in my recommendations in Amazon, despite their popularity, and the fact Amazon doesn't know I have them.

    Jack wrote good stories that were easy to read, well put together. They aren't in the modern seemingly preferred style of several different stories all woven together, like Hamilton or Martin.

    I miss his books. RIP Jack

  27. JLV

    RIP, you'll be missed.

    My fave was ever Cugel & The Dying Earth, along with Tschai, Planet of Adventure. From this excellent write up, I think I'll give Lyonesse a try one of these days.

    A very good Vance homage author is Matt Hughes: I highly recommend Template, which also reminded me quite a bit of Ian Banks' early books like Remembering Phlebas, The Player of Games and Against a Dark Background - odd customs and odd cultures. Another one who will be missed.

    GRRM, of Game of Thrones fame, recently curated a Dying Earth anthology. I found it of mixed quality but the better stories were great.

    And GRRM was, imho, also quite influenced by the Dying Earth in his House of the Worm novella.

This topic is closed for new posts.