Saturday, August 28, 2021

Jack the Clever

I honestly can't recall the first time I saw the adjective "Vancian" used to describe the magic system of Dungeons & Dragons. It might have been in the pages of Dragon, but I can't be certain. Wherever it was, I was initially baffled by it, because I didn't read any of Vance's work until after I had started playing RPGs. When I first picked it up, I associated D&D with Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age, Fritz Leiber's Nehwon, and J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth. The influence of any one of these authors on the game seemed so much more obvious to me at the time, but Jack Vance? Who was he?

Fortunately for my literary education, I eventually picked up a copy of The Dying Earth and soon fell in love with its delightful combination of "high" vocabulary, picaresque adventures, and wondrous setting. Vance was an unexpected surprise to me at the time. I'd read several authors whose works contained elements I'd also found in Vance – such as Clark Ashton Smith's penchant for archaisms – but I'd never found them all in those of a single author before. So impressed was I that I immediately sought out its follow-up, The Eyes of the Overworld, which likewise impressed me and sent me on a quest to read everything by Vance I could get my hands on.

I bring all this up because today is the 105th anniversary of the birth of John Holbrook Vance. Born in San Francisco in 1916, Vance led a remarkable life. During the Great Depression, he took up a variety of menial jobs to support himself and his mother, during which time he also attended university, eventually graduating in 1942. During World War II, he joined the Merchant Marine, an experience that led his lifelong love of sailing and the sea. Throughout this time, he made his first efforts at published writing in science fiction and fantasy, genres he had loved since he was a teenager. By the end of the 1940s, Vance started to achieve success as a writer, which encouraged him to devote himself to the craft fulltime. The rest, as they say, is history.

There's a great deal that could be said about Jack Vance and his influence on fantasy, science fiction, and the hobby of roleplaying. Rather than do that at this time, I will instead urge you to read one of his many stories. Whether you choose one of his Dying Earth tales, the Lyonesse trilogy, the Planet of Adventure series, or almost any other with his byline, you'll find joyful stories tinged with melancholy and wild, unpredictable imagination presented through singular prose. Vance is truly one of the Giants of fantasy fiction and he deserves to celebrated by all who appreciate superb writing and creativity. 

Happy Birthday, Mr Vance. 

11 comments:

  1. Indeed. One of the rare authors where I can honestly say I've enjoyed every single thing I've read from him...and barring the discovery of some unfinished manuscript I've finished the entirety of his extensive body of work.

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  2. Please just fix his birth year...(1916)

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  3. I can remember the first time that I heard of Jack Vance's name - White Dwarf 93 and the article "Vance's Evocation of Arcane Delights" which was a description of the spell names and how evocative they were. (Last issue I ever bought).

    Like yourself I felt the need to hunt out this author and started to look for the books. My local library had the Planet of Adventure series but nothing else. I still have all the books I bought in that period.

    I'd like to see something made into a movie, Showboat World would be my personal choice, but worry that it wouldn't do it justice.

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  4. As a 5th grader circa 1981 I struggled with an overdue book report for school. Not having read a book for said report, I just made up a fictional fantasy title and summary based on my D&D experience and then slapped on what I thought was a "made up" name for the author - Jack Vance. Decades later, I checked in with the OSR and saw references to "Vancian Magic." So, I tracked down and read Tales of the Dying Earth by one Jack Vance to understand the roots of D&D spell casting. Along the way a I realized that name I had a "imagined" back in 1981 probably floated in my subconsciousness as a result of seeing it on all those fantasy books I had perused on store shelves. Indeed, I'm a huge fan of Vancian magic.

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  5. My first Vance story was Flutic, in 1984. I've been a fan ever since.

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  6. As part of promoting their upcoming Dying Earth RPG, Goodman Games put out a video interview with John Vance, Jack Vance's son, and with Koen Vyverman, who has helped develop and republish many of Jack Vance's stories and properties. https://youtu.be/kgN6h1PmCoU

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  7. Gygax uses "Vancian" (in quotes) to describe D&D magic in his article "The Dungeons & Dragons Magic System". It was included in Best of Dragon volume 1 (where I read it), but was re-printed from The Strategic Review Vol. 2 No.2 (April 1976).

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  8. I have long had Vance on my list to read, and I decided on the spot to read one of his short stories after I read your post. I read "Sail 25" and loved it. I am now looking forward to reading more of his material. I read the story from "The SFWA Grand Masters - Volume 3" and Frederik Pohl gives a very nice and interesting introduction to Vance. I especially enjoyed a section where Pohl describes a Dutch joint book autographing session with Vance, and in his words "It was a humbling experience".

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  9. It might be worth noting that the most recent editions of The Dying Earth and The Eyes of the Overworld, put out by Splatterlight Press (jackvance.com) using the Vance Integral Edition, are now adorned with Vance’s preferred titles, Mazirian the Magician and Cugel the Clever, respectively.

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  10. Personally find his writing pretty underwhelming. Slogging through Dying Earth now. Find it a cut below the also mediocre Planet of Adventure series. I know we're all expected to worship at the altar of Appendix N, but I've found a lot of the Appendix N authors to be rather overrated. Vance, Saberhagen, Poul Anderson, Moorcock all just so-so. Leiber is boring as Hell. Clark Ashton Smith is a bit better. R.E, Howard has his moments, but is inconsistent. Alright to read them once for the sense of history, but I can't see myself re-reading them like I do with Tolkien or Lovecraft.

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