Jack Vance died a few days ago at the age of 96. He was one of the best writers you’ve probably never heard of, someone who applied a caustic view of humanity, a dry wit, and an extraordinary command of the English language to genre fiction, and to a large extent baffled the audience he reached while escaping the notice of the one that would have appreciated him most. He wasn’t entirely unnoticed: he won an Edgar for an early mystery novel, Hugos for a couple of his best stories, and eventually lifetime achievement awards for his work in Fantasy and Science Fiction. But he was never a Big Name like Asimov, Heinlein, or Bradbury.

No one in the world speaks like a Vance character, but you wish they would. Here’s a fortuneteller, being entirely candid about his art:

“What are your fees?” inquired Guyal cautiously.
“I respond to three questions,” stated the augur. “For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.”

And a religious enthusiast, likewise:

“The folk are peculiar in many ways,” said Erwig. “They preen themselves upon the gentility of their habits, yet they refuse to whitewash their hair, and they are slack in their religious observances. For instance, they make obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand, not on the buttock, but on the abdomen, which we here consider a slipshod practice.

Vance is best known for a few of his series. The Dying Earth is about the far future, where magic is remembered dimly and science not at all. If you’ve played D&D, you’ll be very familiar with the setting, if not with the specific stories he tells. Lyonesse is a somewhat Arthurian high fantasy trilogy, full of heroes, villains, and more equivocal characters, all speaking in Vancian dialog. The Demon Princes is quite different, a series of Monte Cristo-like thrillers in which a young man whose home was destroyed by a consortium of master criminals travels across the galaxy, tracking them down one by one. In none of these are the plots or settings out of the ordinary; it’s Vance’s prose and especially his dialog that makes them special.

As a taste, here’s the story Liane the Wayfarer, from Vance’s very first book, Mazirian the Magician (the first book of the Dying Earth series, sometimes published as The Dying Earth.) The formatting is dreadful, but don’t let that stop you from reading and enjoying it.

Mike Schilling

Mike has been a software engineer far longer than he would like to admit. He has strong opinions on baseball, software, science fiction, comedy, contract bridge, and European history, any of which he's willing to share with almost no prompting whatsoever.


  1. 🙂 I knew I liked you.

    Excellent remembrance of a classic author.

  2. I have never read Vance, but reading the bit from the fortuneteller makes me want to. What would you recommend as an entry into the world of Vance, keeping in mind that I read very little sci fi or fantasy.

    By very little, I mean the only sci fi or fantasy I’ve read in the last 20 years has been stuff I’ve read with my son for school or because I knew I could get him to read it because it sounded cool (like the Hunger Games trilogy, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of awful).

    • There are two ways to go. For a selection of his work, find a used copy of The best of Jack Vance. The novel I’d recommend starting with is Maske: Thaery, which shows off his mature style and isn’t part of a series.

      • Awesome. Maske: Thaery is now on my e-reader thingy, and the Best of Jack Vance is on my list for my next trip to McKay. Thanks.

        • Also, the Paperwhite that I got for Christmas is the most expensive gift ever.

          In the past, if you had given me that recommendation, I’d have checked out Amazon and thought about it, and then said, “Wait, I can’t buy it from Amazon until I’ve checked the used bookstore near my house,” and then either forgotten to go to the used bookstore or put it off for a while, and then maybe picked it up a month from now or maybe not, or possibly bought it on Amazon at some point when I couldn’t find it in the used bookstore.

          Now? I see that little one click button, and I click it. And I do it a lot. Way too much. “Oh, that book looks interesting.” Click. “Oh, Mike says this book is good, and Mike has good taste.” Click. “Oh, random stranger in a bar says that book is good.” Click.

          • Hmm. I just happen to own an edition of Vance’s collected work. (I helped edit it. Someday, I’ll probably write a post about it.) If you’d like, I could send you an e-mail that has a button you could click.

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