Remembering Jack Vance

Jack VanceJack Vance, master-story teller, is dead. He died aged 96, with a huge body of work and a wide but subtle influence as part of his legacy.

In his eponymous story, Mazirian the Magician encompasses spells, forcing them with great effort into his cerebellum then releasing them at moments of narrative convenience. They are gone from his memory as if they never were, like a military-grade hard-drive scrub. Amongst the majority of the fantasy roleplaying community, that is how he is best remembered – via Gary Gygax, as the Vancean spell system. But I’m not knocking Gygax; it was his lengthy bibliography in the Dungeon Master’s Guide which lead me to Vance in the first place. Vecna is Vance, and while Vance was bemused by roleplaying games, he returned the favour with his character Lord Gygax (though perhaps it helped that Gygax is a properly Vancean name).

Vance’s stories are the opposite of Mazirians’s spells. They encompass you, they creep out unexpectedly – when ordering fish off-menu, conversing with a cold caller, or picking out a telling detail for a story. A friend has even snuck some of his choice phrases into Hansard. Vance is no moralist, but it is clear from his writing that he is fascinated by human foibles and the richness of culture: art, music, food and dance. Once his tales have captured you, it’s hard not to view the world through Vance-tinted cusps: not rose exactly, more a novel hue brought into being by his subtle view of the world. He offers cruelty, humour, the great sweep of history; the mighty brought down, and yet with time to pause at a plant and describe vermillion petals and heady scent.

In 2001, I was inspired with Sasha Bilton and Mark Fulford to approach Vance’s agent, a fox-faced vagabond if ever there was one, to acquire a license for the Dying Earth Tales. I shared (and now share again) an office with James Wallis, then of Hogshead Publishing, and it was through him that I contacted Robin Laws and set off on the path to becoming a publisher. We paid over the odds for the license, I know now, but I also know that Jack Vance benefitted, so it was a pleasant lesson. I spoke to Jack Vance, who chuckled gently when he recounted the exploits of Cugel and encouraged us to leave things open, not to pin everything down with numbers and definitions. Without Vance, who knows where I would be. Perhaps I have neglected Vance a little in the headiness of the new, but Vance always subtly reminds you of his presence; and the Gaean Reach will get the push it thoroughly deserves.

Here I am in Spain, looking over a white-washed adobe wall, pale-headed eagles soaring above, surrounded by extravagant viridian blooms, scarlet bottle brush and tiny five-pointed jasmine. In the distance, a dry path winds up through olive scrub, then over a hill and out of sight. Now I raise a glass of Golden Porphirion, sup and spill a little in remembrance of a modest man and a great writer.

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