When I was a boy, growing as a reader and immersing myself in the worlds of Middle Earth, Krynn, Prydain, and Narnia, I loved to sit and browse through the books on my father’s bookshelf. I read the titles, looked at the cover pictures, sometimes opened a book and read a few pages. I don’t remember what held me back, but I never dove into those books until I was about 12 years old. Before then, they held a sense of awe for me. Maybe it was the older style of cover art and printing style characteristic of the 60s and 70s that made me feel like these books were just too big for me yet, relics of an older generation. They were my father’s books, and I wasn’t ready for them yet.
One name struck me, though, for the fact that it was on many of the books, for its memorable ring, and for the fact that 9 times out of 10 my dad was carrying one of his around – Jack Vance. So when at age 12 I decided I was going to choose a book from my dad’s shelf and try it out, Jack Vance was the name I chose. I think it’s appropriate that I chose The Dying Earth, a favorite for many. I was entranced by the atmosphere painted in those stories, even though at that age I hardly understood the deep struggle of T’sais and her inability to recognize beauty. I did, however, relate well to Guyal of Sfere and his unquenchable desire to know everything.
I eagerly continued on to the Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga, delighting in cheering for the rascal because I knew that he would also be getting his comeuppance. I loved Vance’s use of language, his clever turns of phrase and his ability to find just the right word. Even as a pre-teen I had an appreciation for the high level of wordsmithing involved in his writing.
Through high school, while tackling other authors like Jordan, Card, and Brooks, I kept returning to Vance’s worlds. I explored the Planet of Adventure, I visited the Alastor cluster, I journeyed on the Big Planet and I watched Kirth Gersen take down the Demon Princes. I probably read each of those – and others – a few times through during high school, and it seemed like every time I visited a used book store with my dad there was another Vance book I had never known about, which he would buy and I would read. Somewhere in those years I started forming my own Vance collection.
When I was 18 I nearly killed myself in a car accident. For the 2.5 weeks I spent in the hospital with a broken vertebrae, my father came and read Showboat World to me to help me sleep. About a year later I remember distinctly the surprise and delight on my father’s face when I showed him my recently acquired copy of Galactic Effectuator. He thought it was simply an alternate title for The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph, but was happy to learn that it was, in fact, a separate collection of stories altogether. He had never heard of Miro Hetzel.
I now have a shelf devoted solely to Vance’s books. Every time I decide to pick one up to read through it again, it feels like coming home. I have a person rule (one inherited from my father), which is that if I see a copy of a Vance book in a used bookstore, I buy it. (I’ve only broken this rule with the trade paperback edition of Suldrun’s Garden, the green one with the word “Lyonesse” in large print across the front so that you don’t even know it is part of a series – my mother-in-law, bless her heart, has gifted me this one so many times I can’t justify buying another copy). Someday it is my hope that I’ll be able to hand my sons copies of Jack Vance books for their very own.
That’s one of the wonderful things about Jack Vance’s writings for me – they aren’t just a personal love. They are a part of my family. My brothers and sister, my mom, and someday my kids, we all share a love for his writing. We laugh together reminiscing about specific passages from his books. We share the stories with others and introduce more people to his writing. Even my wife, whose hunger for Science Fiction and Fantasy is limited, thoroughly enjoyed reading The Cadwal Chronicles.
As an amateur author just beginning to tread into the world of professional writing, I find I have even more reasons to be thankful for Jack Vance and his work. His writing has inspired my own in so many ways. I learned from him the concept of marrying the mundane and the bizarre, even before I knew that such a principle existed. I learned that some of the most fascinating stories come from taking a very relatable character and placing him in the most unfamiliar circumstances. I learned that all too often, no matter how far flung from our world in space and time, basic human nature doesn’t really change, and this is a driving force behind many great stories.
Now Jack Vance is gone, but his works are still with us. And after all, he showed us that death is a reality as well, no matter how great the person. Sometimes even our heroes die. But we do well to remember them. Here’s to Jack Vance. May he rest in peace.