Adam Roberts celebrates the life of Jack Vance, “the Severed Phung-Head of 20th-century Literature”.
John Holbrook Vance
28 August 1916 – 26 May 2013
The four novels that make up the Planet of Adventure series - City of the Chasch (1968), Servants of the Wankh (1969), The Dirdir (1969) and The Pnume (1970) - tell the story of Adam Reith, the sole (human) survivor of a crashed spaceship who must travel across the planet of Tschai, populated by various strange and alarming alien species. ‘Against a backdrop,’ says the blurb on the back-cover of my Tom Doherty one-volume compendium edition, ‘of baroque cities and haunted wastelands, sumptuous palaces and riotous inns, Reith will encounter deadly wastrels and murderous aliens, dastardly villains and conniving scoundrels. And always the random beauty in need of rescue!’ It’s not that this summary is inaccurate, as far as it goes, although it makes the work sound both less original and rather cheesier than it is. But by relating Reith’s adventures (on the level of content) to the traditions of romance plotting, it misses what is crucially estranging and beautiful about the novels.
I’ll give one example, from many; this one chosen because of the whumphing impact it had on my own juvenile sensibility when I first read it. Early in the (to British ears) infelicitously titled Servants of the Wankh, Reith is travelling by raft across a wasteland with a varied group of travellers when they see an approaching alien army.
’The Green Chasch,’ said Traz. ‘They know we’re here.’
The Green Chasch on their leap-horses were visible now to the naked eye: dark motes hopping and bounding in bone-jarring leaps.
Ylin-Ylan drew her breath. ‘Are they coming for us?’
‘I imagine so.’
‘Can we fight them off? What of our weapons?’
‘We have sandblasts on the raft. If they climbed the cliffs after dark they might do some damage. During daylight we don’t need to worry.’
Reith thought that they showed no great zest for the business of scaling the wall. Setting up camp, they tethered their leap-horses, thrust chunks of a dark sticky substance into the pale maws. They built three fires, over which they boiled chunks of the same substance they had fed the leap-horses, and at last hulking down into toad-shaped mounds, joylessly devoured the contents of their cauldrons. The sun dimmed behind the western haze and disappeared. Umber twilight fell over the steppe. Anacho came away from the raft and peered down at the Green Chasch. ‘Lesser Zants,’ he pronounced. ‘Notice the protuberances to each side of the head? They are thus distinguished from the Great Zants and other hordes. These are of no great consequence.’
‘They look consequential enough to me,’ said Reith.
So far, so planetary-romantic. But it’s at this point in the story that Vance introduces us to a Phung.
Traz made a sudden motion, pointed. In one of the crevices, between two vanes of rock, stood a tall dark shadow. ‘Phung!’
Reith looked through the scanscope and saw the shadow to be a Phung indeed. From where it had come he could not guess.
It was over eight feet in height, in its soft black hat and black cloak, like a giant grasshopper in magisterial vestments.
Reith studied the face, watching the slow working of chitinous plates around the blunt lower section of the face. It watched the Green Chasch with brooding detachment, though they crouched over their pots not ten yards away.
‘A mad thing,’ whispered Traz, his eyes glittering. ‘Look, now it plays tricks!’
The Phung reached down its long thin arms, raised a small boulder which it heaved high into the air. The rock dropped among the Chasch, falling squarely upon a hulking back.
The Green Chasch sprang up, to glare toward the top of the butte. The Phung stood quietly, lost among the shadows. The Chasch which had been struck lay flat on its face, making convulsive swimming motions with arms and legs.
The Phung craftily lifted another great rock, once more heaved it high, but this time the Chasch saw the movement. Venting squeals of fury they seized their swords and flung themselves forward. The Phung took a stately step aside, then leaping in a great flutter of cloak snatched a sword, which it wielded as if it were a toothpick, hacking, dancing, whirling, cutting wildly, apparently without aim or direction. The Chasch scattered; some lay on the ground, and the Phung jumped here and there, slashing and slicing, without discrimination, the Green Chasch, the fire, the air, like a mechanical toy running out of control.
Crouching and shifting, the Green Chasch hulked forward. They chopped, cut; the Phung threw away the sword as if it were hot, and was hacked into pieces. The head spun off the torso, landed on the ground ten feet from one of the fires, with the soft black hat still in place. Reith watched it through the scanscope. The head seemed conscious, untroubled. The eyes watched the fire; the mouth parts worked slowly.
‘It will live for days, until it dries out,’ said Traz huskily. ‘Gradually it will go stiff.’
The Chasch paid the creature no further heed, but at once made ready their leap-horses. They loaded their gear and five minutes later had trooped off into the darkness. The head of the Phung mused upon the play of the flames.
I remember how powerfully this brief interlude in the larger narrative affected me when I first read it as a teenager. There is something that resists comprehension, without being merely random or surreal, about the Phung’s apparently capricious disregard for its own life. An eight-foot high grasshopper dressed like an eighteenth-century traveller; its decapitated head, slowly drying out, yet still philosophically observing the motion of the flames. Rarely does fantastic writing, or any kind of writing, generate an image of such power.
In the novel, Traz and Anacho start an argument regarding the nature of the Phung (‘Traz declared them to be products of unnatural union between Pnumekin and the corpses of Pnume…. “Sheer idiocy, lad!” said Anacho with easy condescension … [Traz] lowered his lip in a sneer. “No! They go singly, too mad to breed!” Anacho made a finger-fluttering gesture of fastidious didacticism.’) The fact of this disagreement, and its elegantly mannered expression, matters much more than the content of it. A mad thing! It plays tricks. But tricks are the point in Vance’s writing. ‘Consider the human mind!’ advises Apollon Zamo in Showboat World (1975). ‘It is capable of amazing feats when used properly. Conversely, without exercise it atrophies to a lump of gray-yellow fat.’ Vance’s writing shows us a human mind in proper motion. Even when severed and sitting on the ground, the Vancean head imagines things more elegantly (that black felt hat! The cloak!), more meditatively and with more antic marvel, than any other writer I know.
Vance died at the end of May, three and a half years shy of 100-years-old. His age means that his death cannot be considered a shock, exactly; but the news is grievous, nonetheless. A prolific writer of a unique, intensely atmospheric and beautifully mannered sort of science-fantasy, Vance influenced creative figures as diverse as Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe and Gary Gygax; but although I do not write fantasy, and have little (least of all their major reputation) in common with those three individuals, Vance has influenced me too, and profoundly. A love of Vance is so closely twined around my own creative imagination that it’s hard to separate it out, and look dispassionately at what Vance achieved.
Christopher Priest, in his Guardian obituary, recalls meeting Vance in 1981, when
he was guest of honour at a science fiction convention in Rotterdam. He was at that time the best-loved and highest-selling SF writer in the Netherlands. His fans were eager to meet him. A genial but private man, he appeared on the platform bearing a ukulele and a kazoo. He said he would answer one question only – from the floor someone asked if he ever used personal experience in his books. He replied “I am not an egotist!” and started strumming.
Disinclination to discuss his own artistic practice was characteristic of the man. ‘The master chef slaughters no chickens in the dining room,’ was how he put it, adding (it’s a subtly different point); ‘the doctor writes prescriptions in Latin; the magician hides his hinges, mirrors, and trapdoors with the utmost care.’ There must have been connections between Vance’s private life and his art, but it is not possible to say with certitude what they might be. In his youth he worked at many different low-paid jobs, and served for years in the merchant navy; and in later life he was fond of travelling to exotic places. This informs a body of novels, each of which (more often than not) takes a young, slightly morally-opaque young man on a series of peripatetic adventures through strange, usually dangerous, always marvellous locales. His villains often are, precisely, egotists; his heroes tend to demonstrate the Odyssean virtues of endurance, ingenuity and courage. One Homeric epithet in particular, ‘nimble-witted’, captures Vance’s book to a t.
It is often claimed that what is distinctive about Vance is his style. A half-truth, though with enough of an oyster-grit of veracity in it to, perhaps, roll-up into a pearl. Certainly, there is something elegantly distinctive about Vance’s use of language: refined, witty, sometimes orotund and rococo, often genuinely funny, always alive to irony. Indeed, it is as an ironist that Vance has, perhaps, the greatest claim upon our attention - an ironist in the Richard Rorty sense of the word (give me more space and time, and I’d dilate upon that; but as it is, we must hurry on). Vance’s novels tend to be set in hierarchical, intricate worlds, not because he valorises hierarchy or fetishes complexity, but because these sorts of worlds give his fertile imagination room to explore the tension between the rigidities of convention and the fluidities of endeavour. ‘Freedom, privileges, options, must constantly be exercised, even at the risk of inconvenience,’ notes a character in one of Vance’s best books, Emphyrio (1969). ‘Otherwise they fall into desuetude and become unfashionable, unorthodox - finally irregulationary.’ The sentiment gains much from its sweetly archaic mode of expression: a sense of the larger structures within which its call to restless action must be construed. A formal courtesy of manner against which the often violent self-interest of Vancean characters pulls.
That said, and as many commentators have noted, there is a same-y quality to Vance’s plotting, most of which spins restless variants on what academics call ‘Romance’ conventions: quests, journeys, separated lovers, concealed identities, knights overcoming monsters, wily magicians and marvellous devices. I prefer to see this as fidelity to a particular narrative form, rather than any paucity of imagination—after all, Vance, in his style, events and images, showed enough imagination for forty ordinary writers.
The plots work their energies out: revenge, quest, coming-of-age, the attempt to return home; because (Vance says) the world keeps throwing the same stuff at us. We must keep our wits nimble to counter these constantly shifting variations on the same encroaching threats. Only a fool trusts that what was the case yesterday will be true tomorrow. This applies to our lived-experience, but also to our literary or generic expectations as readers. I’ll give you an example. In Lyonesse, the wizard Shimrod is in love with the beautiful Melancthe. She persuades him to embark upon a quest into a strange alien dimension called Irerly to retrieve thirteen jewels, promising to give herself to him if he achieves this. Shrimrod, after the logic of these kinds of quest narratives, is given a series of magical props to aid him on his journey: a sheath to protect his skin, two insect-like robots called Hither and Thither to guide him in and out, and a pair of viewing disks or twinned monocles (Vance has a particular fascination for magic eyeglasses) to enable his organs of perception to work in the alien environment. We may not know exactly what will happen to the wizard on his journeys, but we expect them to pan out according to a certain set of generic conventions. Following the elaborate set-up, in which Shimrod receives all these items, we expect the wizard to use them, one by one, to navigate through the dangers of his quest. But as soon as we enter the perilous dimension, Vance knight’s-moves our expectations:
In Irerly conditions were less easy than Shimrod had hoped. The sheath of sandestin-stuff lacked consistency and allowed sound and two other Irerlish sentiments, toice and gliry, to chafe against his flesh. The iron insects, both Hither and Thither, at once shriveled into mounds of ash. Further the disks intended to assist perception were out of proper adjustment and Shrimrod experienced a startling set of dislocations: a sound that reached him as a jet of ill-smelling liquid; other scents were red cones and yellow triangles which, upon adjustment of the disks, disappeared completely. Vision expressed itself as taut lines striking across space, dripping fire.
Quite apart from its beguiling, synaesthetic strangeness (in what ways, I wonder, do toice and gliry add to our mundane five senses?), this seems to me to capture something important about the world. We are all born into a world that is, in ways, as bizarre as Irerly. We must all make sense of perceptions and circumstances as disorienting. The universe is governed by a set of apparently arbitrary rules which we must learn and must obey on pain of disproportionate punishment. Like the ancient mariner, whose crime (killing a seabird) seems massively out of whack with his and his crew’s extended, nightmarish punishment; or like the many fairy tales (a tradition to which, in the largest sense, Vance’s own writing belongs) predicated upon precise attention to near-incomprehensible magical rules, Vance’s writing captures something true about the world that is, speaking generally, better understood by kids than adults. The ruling deities operate according to a whim of iron. Your best bet, Vance says, is to be canny, observant, polite, but always ready to act decisively. That seems to me very good advice.
In 2010 I wrote an afterword for a new edition of Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy. Afterwards, I received an email from Tim Sherburn, that said:
This last Saturday I was in the Oakland area and was able to have a visit with Jack Vance at his home. He wasn’t really aware of the new Lyonesse book being issued by Gollancz and he had me read him the afterword you wrote. He was very gratified and almost embarrassed by your praise for the books. Anyway, he asked if I would send you an e-mail thanking you for your kind words.
Few things in my career as a writer or critic have given me as much pleasure as this email.
Read Adam Roberts’s Three Surprising Theories of Science Fiction in Arc 1.1: The Future Always Wins, out now for tablets, phones and screens.