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.