Jack Vance: Celebrated author of fantasy and science fiction


Jack Vance was an author of science fiction and fantasy novels who wrote more than 60 books and many short stories during his long career. Vance viewed his task as a writer to be invisible to the reader, as he explained in his autobiography, "…the mark of good writing, in my opinion, is that the reader is not aware that the story has been written; as he reads, the ideas and images flow into his mind as if he were living them. The utmost accolade a writer can receive is that the reader is incognisant of his presence."

He was born John Vance in 1916 in San Francisco, the third of five children of Edith and Charles Vance, a rancher. He grew up in the Sacramento area with his mother and maternal grandfather. As a child he read widely, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jeffery Farnol and Jules Verne. "I waited at the mailbox every month with my tongue hanging out for the latest issue of Weird Tales", he said in a later interview, talking about the pulp magazine filled with fantasy and science-fiction stories. All of these would shape and influence his later writing.

Vance enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to study physics and English. Dropping out soon after, he joined the navy as an electrician, and worked at Pearl Harbour. Disenchanted with military life, he left the navy just a month before the port was bombed by the Japanese. He returned to university and graduated in 1942. His first published writing during this period was in The Daily Californian, the college journal, for which he reviewed jazz concerts, another of his other great loves.

In the latter part of the war he worked on board merchant ships on long-distance journeys, including to Australia; this gave him the time to write some of the stories that would lead to his first published collection, The Dying Earth (1950). In this, as in a number of his other works, Earth is envisaged as "a dim place, ancient beyond knowledge. Once it was a tall world of cloudy mountains and bright rivers, and the sun was a white blazing ball. Ages of rain and wind have beaten and rounded the granite, and the sun is feeble and red. The continents have sunk and risen."

Vance published widely over the next half century in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and mystery and under the names Jack Vance, John Holbrook Vance and Ellery Queen. His novella The Dragon Masters (1963) won a Hugo award for the best short story, an honour which was followed three years later by a Nebula award for the novella The Last Castle.

When his sight began to fail in the 1980s, Vance was helped by his wife, muse and amanuensis, Norma, to continue writing. He said of this time "after my eyes went, my life became much simplified". His book Madouc (1989), the last of the Lyonesse triology, which won the World Fantasy Award in 1990, was written this way, as was the Cadwal Chronicles trilogy (1987-1992). More recently he was able to dictate his work using specialised computer software.

Although a prolific writer and widely read by fans of the genre, he missed out on wider recognition. "Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve", said the writer Michael Chabon. "If The Last Castle or The Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he's Jack Vance and published in Amazing whatever, there's this insurmountable barrier."

His last story, Lurulu, was published in 2004. Publisher's Weekly said of it: "Vance's humorous takes on culture and morality are likely to keep readers entertained to the end of this short, old-fashioned SF novel." This was followed five years later by a volume of autobiography This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009), which he described as "more of a landscape than a self-portrait – or at least a ramble across the landscape that has been my life."

Although he gives a fascinating account of his life, Vance is remarkably reticent about his experience as a writer. His friend Jeremy Cavaterra suggested that this might be because: "Part of it is that he feels like it's the magician telling you how the trick works, and part of it is that he writes by feel and doesn't interrogate it."

Science fiction writer Michael Moorcock said in tribute to Vance: "For me there were two American fantasy writers who stood head and shoulders above the rest. One was Fritz Leiber and the other was Jack Vance… His Dying Earth stories were an enormous influence, not only on me but also on fine writers like M John Harrison and China Miéville. He was a fine writer with an absolute lack of pretension who could have made his mark on any form he chose."

Marcus Williamson

John Holbrook Vance (Jack Vance), writer: born San Francisco 28 August 1916; married 1946 Norma Ingold (died 2008; one son); died Oakland, California, 26 May 2013.

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