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L. Neil Smith's
Number 726, June 23, 2013

Governments are worse than anything they pretend
to protect us from. They are worse, in fact, far
worse, than anything you can imagine.

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The Vancean Reach—A Look at the Works of Jack Vance
by Rex May

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

Jack Vance Obituaries of science-fiction writers are usually easy to begin. I knew just what I wanted to say about Ray Bradbury, and if I'd been called upon to write obituaries for Heinlein or Asimov, I think they would've been easy to start also. But Jack Vance is too complicated and subtle for an easy start. I can't even tell you what book of his I first encountered because I don't remember. So here's my best try:

Jack Vance was to anthropology as H. P. Lovecraft was to biology. How's that? I mean real anthropology here, not the anthropology of advocacy, which I'm sure Vance regarded as idiotic and academically unethical. Now, a great many SF writers deal with human institutions, hence the 'science' in their science-fiction is sociology or anthropology. But for the most part, they only scratch the surface, or write dystopias or other cautionary tales. Many just move a society in time or space to make philosophical points, as Orwell reprised Stalinist Russia in Airstrip One. Asimov retold the history of the fall of Rome in his Foundation books. Heinlein placed a primitive nomadic culture of space traders in his Citizen of the Galaxy. Poul Anderson retold the development of Western Civilization, more or less, in his series that led from Van Rijn to Flandry.

Vance went deeper. He knew that humanity was capable of infinite variation, so he didn't limit himself to historical forms repeating themselves, or to writing dystopias, though he may have written the absolute best and most understated dystopia ever in Wyst: Alastor 1716, a book I recommend to libertarians and conservatives as the most masterful discrediting of collectivism since Atlas Shrugged, and a lot more fun to read. It's an excellent book to ambush your liberal SF-fan friends with.

But that novel is probably his least subtle commentary on humanity. Usually you don't notice what he's telling you at first. His magnificent trilogy, The Cadwal Chronicles, may be his version of Brothers Karamazov, in that it's a deeply conservative, realistic, and somewhat pessimistic view of humanity and the uses of tradition and custom to fend off the darkness of human depravity, the whole thing disguised as a detective story.

And lest you think Vance was always so didactic, sometimes he wrote thrilling tales of adventure that read more like Don Quixote or Lord of the Rings. His impressive Demon Princes set of novels are a long, gripping tale of revenge that will remind you of so many Japanese tales of the mistreated orphans who grow up to destroy their parents' murderers. But unlike those stories, they have a nuts-and-bolt air of realism, as we learn just what such a life dedicated to vengeance entails.

But from all this, Vance must sound like a pretty sober and serious fellow, right? Well, as is the case with many profound philosopher/writers, Vance was screamingly funny when he wanted to be. And his humor varies from pretty subtle (that word again!) irony to Wodehousian slapstick. (Aunts much like Bertie's show up now and then.) His descriptions of the comeuppance of various rogues of varying lovability are reminiscent of similar narratives in writers as disparate as Twain, Gogol, and Dickens. Some of his humor is bittersweet, when the protagonist realizes that a bad situation is in fact the best that can be hoped for, and that efforts to impose justice only result in more misery. This is when he seems at his most conservative, when he shakes his head and smiles sadly at the immutability of the human condition.

He's at his most libertarian when he writes of the Alastor Cluster (I've already mentioned Wyst: Alastor 1716). The Cluster is ruled by an absolute despot called the "Connatic," whose motto is, "When in doubt, do nothing," and whose domains are therefore allowed to do as they please, and the Connatic only steps in when absolutely necessary. And such laissez-faire of course results in collectivism when people decide that they want it, which makes Vance a realistic libertarian rather than a naive one. When the people's desires lead them to create political abominations, the Connatic intervenes to reset everything when all else fails. Usually by means of carefully chosen assassinations.

And I haven't even said anything about his style. It was uniquely ornate, and he used delightfully obscure and unexpected vocabulary and phraseology to great effect. This is evident in all his work, but maybe most so in his Dying Earth series, set in the remotely far future, when "...infinite night was close at hand, when the red sun should finally flicker and go black". How's that for far future? Reminds me of Wells or Stapledon. The protagonists of the series—actually a loosely connected set of stories—are generally wizards (the world is old enough that magic has come to exist, so to speak, and is credible), and one of the rogues I mentioned above, called Cugel, whose adventures are both grim and risible. See, just thinking about Vance makes me write like him.

And I've left out entire series of books, such as the Durdane series, the Tschai novels, and the Lyonesse series, set in a mythical Celtic-like past. Many of these involve aliens, which are as well-realized as any writer's are, especially so in his classic Dragon Masters and the bizarre Nopalgarth. And when he wasn't busy with all that, Vance also wrote some mysteries, including some Ellery Queen novels, several stand-alone SF novels, and an autobiography, This Is Me, Jack Vance. Read him if you haven't. My own personal favorite is Araminta Station, but you can start anywhere. You'll be glad.

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