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Vance, Jack

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author.

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Working name of US author John Holbrook Vance (1916-2013), who was educated at the University of California first as a mining engineer, then as a physics major and finally in journalism, though without taking a degree. During World War Two he served in the Merchant Navy, being twice torpedoed and writing his first story, "The World-Thinker", which he published with Thrilling Wonder Stories, Summer 1945. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Vance contributed a variety of short stories (one time using the pseudonym John Holbrook) and novels to the Pulp magazines, primarily Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Most of these tales were assembled in late, mainly retrospective collections including Lost Moons (coll 1982), The Narrow Land (coll 1982), The Dark Side of the Moon: Stories of the Future (coll 1985), The Augmented Agent, and Other Stories (coll 1986), Chateau D'If, and Other Stories (coll 1990), When the Five Moons Rise (coll 1992) and Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance (coll 2010) – earlier collections, like Future Tense (coll 1964), focused more on mature work. His early Magnus Ridolph sequence, chronicling the adventures of a roguish interstellar troubleshooter, was separately assembled as The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph (coll 1966 dos; exp 1980; further exp vt The Complete Magnus Ridolph 1984).

In the meantime, Vance was beginning to compose the kind of story that would eventually make him one of the most deeply influential authors in the sf and fantasy genres after World War Two, an impact greater than that generated by fellow inventors of the modern (post-Edgar Rice Burroughs) Planetary Romance like Leigh Brackett, C L Moore or Clark Ashton Smith. The depth and duration of this influence may have something to do with Vance's long prime as a creative figure, for he was writing work of high quality nearly half a century after he came into his own voice, creating an oeuvre whose surface flamboyance never obscured an underlying seriousness. Authors clearly (and often explicitly) influenced by Vance include such widely divergent figures as Jack L Chalker, Avram Davidson, Terry Dowling, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K Le Guin (though the influences here were almost certainly governed by a mutual concern with Anthropology), George R R Martin, Michael Moorcock, Dan Simmons and Gene Wolfe. There are many others: though their points of view are radically dissimilar, it seems clear, for instance, that the adrift protagonists-in-bondage and the peneplainal venues characteristic of early J G Ballard give off a Vancian aura.

Within the broad remit of the Planetary Romance, Vance created two subgenres, the first being the Dying Earth story that takes its name from his first book, The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950). It comprises six previously unpublished tales set on Earth in the Far Future at a time, long after the wasting away of science, when Magic has become the operating principle; after millions of years, the hugely congested tapestry of human civilization – transfigured through Genetic Engineering and by the drawn-out torsions of Evolution – has become an iridescent, deadly maze for its inhabitants. To survive within this Dying Earth, and others written under its long influence, requires constant knowing negotiation (it is not adventitious that the Game-like system of magic in this volume served as the inspiration for the use of "coupon" magic in the Role Playing Game Dungeons & Dragons). Appropriately, Vance's protagonists tend to make their way through these worlds as an anthropologist might: notating the Meme-dense behaviours typical of the exemplary cultures that fill his large oeuvre, and managing in that fashion to survive. This is how immigrants avoid despair or death: by deciphering the signals and warning signs given off by an alien world.

Vance's only real failure in The Dying Earth – it would dog him throughout his career – lay in his inability to conceive narrative structures capable of sustaining individual iterations of his central anthropological/exilic vision for longer than a novella's span, so that some of his books lessen the impact of the exile's or scholar's shock of recognition by repeating it too often. The later full-length Dying Earth volumes are all made up from shorter units; they include The Eyes of the Overworld (coll of linked stories 1966), Morreion: A Tale of the Dying Earth (in Flashing Swords #1, anth 1973, ed Lin Carter; 1979), The Bagful of Dreams (1979 chap), The Seventeen Virgins (October 1974 F&SF; 1979 chap), Cugel's Saga (coll of linked stories 1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (coll of linked stories 1984). (This last is not to be confused with Rhialto the Marvellous [anth 1985], a Shared-World Anthology containing also "Basileus" by C J Cherryh and Janet E Morris. Before that, in A Quest for Simbilis [1974], Michael Shea wrote a direct sequel to The Eyes of the Overworld, territory later covered in conflicting terms by Cugel's Saga.) The influence of Vance's articulation of the tone and venue, and of the heuristic challenges to the eternal visitor, of the Dying Earth venue was widespread, affecting both fantasy and sf writers, helping authors such as Michael Moorcock to define the characteristic ambience of Science Fantasy. It would not be until The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) by Gene Wolfe – who amply acknowledged Vance's central influence – that a new paradigm for the Dying-Earth tale would appear, one more tightly tied to narrative revelation, and even more heavily foregrounding decipherment as a plot device, but no more entrancing than its model.

Vance's second original sophistication of the Planetary Romance, the big planet story, again takes its name from his first novel to exemplify it: Big Planet (September 1952 Startling; cut 1957; full text restored 1978), to which Showboat World (1975; vt The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII South, Big Planet 1983) forms a retroactively conceived sequel. Before 1950 and The Dying Earth, the planetary romance had been generally restricted either to tales which replicated, palely, the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs or to Pulp-magazine sf adventures set on worlds which might be colourful but which were at the same time conceived with a fatal thinness. What was lacking was a properly conceived venue sufficient to the needs of romance. In Big Planet Vance provided an sf model for the planetary romance which has been of significant use for forty years. The planet of this novel is a huge though Earthlike world, with enough landmass to provide realistic venues in which a wide range of social systems can operate, and is significantly low in heavy-metal resources (a fact that both explains its relatively low gravity and requires the wide range of societies that flourish to be low-tech). As usual with Vance, these societies are all of distant human origin, though they have become exceedingly variegated in ways open to description in the ethnographical style he further developed to tell this tale, and which would dominate his work for the rest of his active career (see again Anthropology; Life on Other Worlds; Sociology). The world of the Vance planetary romance might occasionally be linked notionally to Earth by conventional sf trappings (generally of little actual relevance), but the tacitly shared background of most of these tales – a vast Archipelago of star systems known as the Gaean Reach, which provides Lebensraum for numerous affiliated and/or contrasting civilizations – is perhaps too loose, and any historical provenance too deeply sunk in Time Abyss, for this interstellar expanse to be amenable to the narrative conventions of the Future History. As noted above, Vance's protagonists, even the more simple-minded of them, are scholars of the worlds they live in. Vance's best work is almost always about how humans learn how to come to terms with the splendours and miseries of human cultures, a task that sometimes seems beyond the compass of the naive young protagonists he tended to prefer, many of whom seem too immersed in the revenge plots typical of much of his work to explore the world with the proper dispassionate intensity.

Other titles from Vance's early prime include Son of the Tree (June 1951 Thrilling Wonder; 1964 dos), Slaves of the Klau (December 1952 Space Stories as "Planet of the Damned"; cut 1958 dos; text restored, vt Gold and Iron: (Slaves of the Klau) 1982) and The Houses of Iszm (Spring 1954 Startling; 1964 dos). None of these were particularly well organized books – nor for that matter are The Dying Earth and Big Planet – but in To Live Forever (1956) the development of Immortality themes in a far-future Dystopian setting is narratively sustained (see Identity Transfer); and The Languages of Pao (December 1957 Satellite; 1958; rev 1979) interestingly espouses the Whorfian hypothesis (see Linguistics) that language creates Perception, rather than the reverse. The main thrust of Vance's work, however, as in such stories as "The Miracle-Workers" (July 1958 Astounding), continued to lie in increasingly ambitious explorations of the planetary-romance theme of Life on Other Worlds. The Dragon Masters (August 1962 Galaxy; 1963 dos), a short novel which won Vance his first Hugo, clearly illustrates this tendency. Set on a distant world in the far future, it is a story grounded in Genetic Engineering, but the science is so far advanced that it could equally be considered magic.

As Vance's created worlds became richer and more complex, so too did his style. Always tending towards the baroque, it had developed by the time of The Dragon Masters into an effective high-mannered diction, somewhat pedantic, and almost always saturated with a rich but distanced irony. Vance's talent for naming the people and places in his stories (a mixture of exotic invented terms and obscure or commonplace words with the right resonance) increasingly generated a sense that dream ethnographies were being carved, almost as a gardener would create topiary. Three novels, similar in structure, show these talents at their fullest stretch: The Blue World (July 1964 Fantastic as "The Kragen"; exp 1966), Emphyrio (July-August 1969 Fantastic; 1969) and The Anome (February-March 1971 F&SF as "The Faceless Man"; 1973; vt The Faceless Man 1978) – it is the first volume of the Durdane trilogy (see below) – each follow the life of a boy born into and growing up in a static, stratified society, with which he comes into conflict, being driven eventually into rebellion. The invented world in each is particularly carefully thought-out. Both Emphyrio and The Anome additionally feature some piercing Satire of Religion, while in The Blue World – set in a planetary colony developed from what was evidently a Spaceship of criminal transportees – the founders' forgotten crimes survive as caste names, with the (manipulative and villainous) priests known as Bezzlers. Incidental Technology is worked out in fascinating detail, as with the intricate system of "hoodwinking" light-signal Communications towers in The Blue World (extrapolated perhaps from the Aldis lamp), or the continental "balloon-ways" of The Anome which mingle Balloon and railroad Transportation.

As his professional career developed, Vance began to initiate various sequences – with mixed results, for he often gave the impression that, once the setting had been fully established, his interest began inexorably to wane. Later books in his series are often inferior to their predecessors, and far more likely to depend for their effects upon plotting routines extracted – none too competently – from the dawn of Pulp, with a slightly undue tendency to treat the tale of revenge, in which a young protagonist evens the score against the world, as inherently innovative. This is the case with the earlier volumes of the Demon Princes series, an interstellar saga of vengeance comprising The Star King (December 1963-February 1964 Galaxy; 1964; vt Star King 1966), The Killing Machine (1964), The Palace of Love (October 1966-February 1967 Galaxy; 1967), The Face (1979) and The Book of Dreams (1981), though the last two titles are of more interest; with the Planet of Adventure series, comprising City of the Chasch (1968; vt Chasch 1986), Servants of the Wankh (1969; vt Wankh 1986), The Dirdir (1969) and The Pnume (1970), all assembled as The Planet of Adventure Omnibus (omni 1985); and with the Durdane trilogy, comprising The Anome (1973) (for details see above), The Brave Free Men (July-August 1972 F&SF; 1973) and The Asutra (June-July F&SF; 1974), all assembled as Durdane (omni 1989). In contrast, the Alastor Cluster sequence – Trullion: Alastor 2262 (March-June 1973 Amazing; 1973), Marune: Alastor 933 (July-September 1975 Amazing; 1975) and Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978), all three assembled as Alastor: Trullion: Alastor 2262; Marune: Alastor 933; Wyst: Alastor 1716 (omni 1995) – arguably improves from beginning to end. Most of these novels are Planetary Romances, and can be read in isolation from their fellows; at the same time (see above), most embody mild hints – for example, the Demon Princes series is set in the far past of the Cadwal Chronicles (see below) – that they belong to the same tenuously knit future Gaean Reach Universe that is most clearly described in the Demon Princes series.

Vance has written comparatively little short fiction. Apart from those stories already mentioned, the best include "Telek" (January 1952 Astounding) (see Telekinesis), "The Moon Moth" (August 1961 Galaxy) and the novella The Last Castle (April 1966 Galaxy; 1967 chap dos), which won Vance a Nebula and his second Hugo. "The Moon Moth", one of Vance's most elaborate short stories, features the use of Music as a secondary form of Communication. Music and other Arts feature in several other Vance stories, including Space Opera (1965), Emphyrio [also see above], The Anome (1973) and Showboat World (1975). Many of Vance's best short stories are in Eight Fantasms and Magics (coll 1969; with 2 stories cut, vt Fantasms and Magics 1978) and The Best of Jack Vance (coll 1976). The latter is also notable for containing informative commentaries on the stories included, as Vance is renowned for his reticence concerning himself and his stories, maintaining such a low profile that a rumour that began in 1950 that he was another Henry Kuttner pseudonym was still being perpetrated in some quarters twenty years later, notwithstanding Kuttner's death in 1958.

The 1980s saw some slackening in Vance's production, though this might not have been evident to the casual observer, as it was now that much of his earlier short fiction was finally brought out in book form. Beyond continuations of earlier series, his most interesting work in this decade was restricted to two new series. One was the Lyonesse sequence of fantasies about Tristan's birthplace off the coast of France, now sunk into the wide funnel of the English Channel: Lyonesse: Book 1: Suldrun's Garden (1983; rev 1983; vt Lyonesse 1984), Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl (1985; rev vt The Green Pearl 1986) and Lyonesse: Madouc (1989; vt Madouc 1990). Of greater sf interest are the Cadwal Chronicles – comprising The Cadwal Chronicles: Book One: Araminta Station (1987), Cadwal II: Ecce and Old Earth (1991) and Cadwal III: Throy (1992) – expanding the planetary-romance idiom (as described above) into very long books with a sophisticated, newly plot-wise leisureliness which almost fully warrants their length. Interestingly, the planet Cadwal – the main character of the sequence, in a fashion typical of Vance – is a nature reserve: a level playing field of preserved Ecology: a Polder [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] within which species may be contemplated. None of Vance's novels are exactly Godgames; but the synoptic intensity of the gaze they focus upon the human condition, in all its obedient lability, constantly evokes some absent guiding father. At the end of his active career, this luxurious expansiveness becomes even more evident: in the remarkably complex Night Lamp (1996), whose young hero is liberated by a Memory Edit to focus on the fascination of his world and heritage; and in the linked Ports of Call (1998) and Lurulu (2004), in which the revenge mission is submerged in a blissfully interminable tour through a vast interstellar template Archipelago of varying societies redolent of the plenitude (see comments on the Gaean Reach above; most tales set in the Reach are not however centred upon actual tours).

Vance also wrote mystery novels, mostly during the 1960s – one of the best of them, The Man in the Cage (1960), won an Edgar Award – and scripts for the television series Captain Video. None of this work lacks competence, but none has the haunting retentiveness in the mind's eye of his planetary romances or his Dying Earths. As a landscape artist, a visionary shaper of potential human societies, Vance was central to both sf and Fantasy. For many of his fellow writers, and for a large audience, he was for more than half a century the field's central gardener of worlds. In 1984 he received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement; in 1997 he received the SFWA Grand Master Award. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001. For his late autobiography, This Is Me, Jack Vance! (or, More Properly, This Is "I") (2009), he won a Hugo award. [JC/MJE]

see also: Aliens; Asteroids; Colonization of Other Worlds; Crime and Punishment; Cyborgs; Fantastic Voyages; Galactic Empires; Galaxy Science Fiction; Games and Sports; Gothic SF; Hypnosis; Identity Exchange; Leisure; Longevity in Writers; Matter Transmission; Money; Organlegging; Poisons; Secret Masters; Seiun Award; Space Habitats; Space Opera; Superman; Sword and Sorcery; Taboos; Terraforming; Thought Experiment; Thrilling Wonder Stories; Under the Sea; Villains.

John Holbrook Vance

born San Francisco, California: 28 August 1916

died Oakland, California: 26 May 2013

works (fantastic)

series (titles in the Gaean Reach universe are so indicated within separate series)

Dying Earth

Big Planet

Demon Princes

Planet of Adventure

  • City of the Chasch (New York: Ace Books, 1968) [Planet of Adventure: pb/Jeff Jones]
    • Chasch (New York: Bluejay Books, 1986) [vt of the above: Planet of Adventure: pb/Philip Hagopian]
  • Servants of the Wankh (New York: Ace Books, 1969) [Planet of Adventure: pb/Jeff Jones]
    • Wankh (New York: Bluejay Books, 1986) [vt of the above: Planet of Adventure: pb/Philip Hagopian]
  • The Dirdir (New York: Ace Books, 1969) [Planet of Adventure: pb/Jeff Jones]
  • The Pnume (New York: Ace Books, 1970) [Planet of Adventure: pb/Jeff Jones]
    • The Planet of Adventure Omnibus (London: Grafton Books, 1985) [omni of the above four: Planet of Adventure: pb/Geoff Taylor]
      • Planet of Adventure (New York: Tor, 1993) [omni: vt of the above: Planet of Adventure: hb/Dave Archer]
        • Tschai (Oakland, California: Vance Integral Edition, 2005) [omni: vt of the above: Planet of Adventure: hb/nonpictorial]


  • The Anome (New York: Dell, 1973) [first appeared February-March 1971 F&SF as "The Faceless Man": Durdane: pb/Paul Lehr]
    • The Faceless Man (San Francisco, California: Underwood-Miller, 1978) [vt of the above: Durdane: hb/Dave Meltzer]
  • The Brave Free Men (New York: Dell, 1973) [first appeared July-August 1972 F&SF: Durdane: pb/Paul Lehr]
  • The Asutra (New York: Dell, 1974) [first appeared May-June 1973 F&SF: Durdane: pb/Paul Lehr]
    • Durdane (London: Victor Gollancz, 1989) [omni of the above three: Durdane: pb/Mark Salwowski]

Alastor Cluster


Cadwal Chronicles

Ports of Call

  • Ports of Call (New York: Tor, 1998) [Gaean Reach: Ports of Call: hb/Rick Berry]
  • Lurulu (New York: Tor, 2004) [Gaean Reach: Ports of Call: hb/John Harris]

individual titles

collections and stories


The Early Jack Vance

individual titles

nonfantastic works


about the author


previous versions of this entry

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