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Creator / Jack Vance

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"Then let's visit the Jiraldra, where we can discuss Wellas and Nai the Hever and what lies beyond Zangwill Reef, and I'll describe the music of Eiselbar."

"An idea of great merit! While we are alive we should sit among colored lights and taste good wines, and discuss our adventures in far places; when we are dead, the opportunity is past."

John Holbrook "Jack" Vance (August 28, 1916 May 26, 2013) was a Science Fiction and Fantasy author who also wrote some mystery novels under his full name, John Holbrook Vance. He had been writing, continuously, since the 1950s. He passed away in 2013. Arguably, he is most well-known for the Dying Earth series, set in the last days of Earth when technology has become a kind of magic; this system of magic was a huge influence on Dungeons & Dragons. However, he has also written a massive amount of incredibly diverse science fiction and fantasy, making his work fairly hard to categorize.

Many of his science fiction works share a common, very broad setting called the Gaean Reach, a huge area with many, many settled stars. The area is so large that the works actually have little in common, except some details of shared culture.

Vancian Magic is named after Jack Vance, as was Vecna, the infamous wizard-king turned lich turned god of secrets and dark magic and transplant donor of Dungeons & Dragons.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, there is a Riverlands House called Vance, named after him.

Some of his better known works include:

Tropes extant within the works penned by this fine author; let the reader not assay overmuch

  • Advancing Wall of Doom: In Emphyrio, criminals are "exiled to Bauredel". This involves using an advancing wall to push them over the border. One inch on the Bauredel side of the border is another, fixed, wall.
  • An Aesop: One of the stories with T'sais is definitely one, some of the other Dying Earth stories could be said to be one also. Arguably, Cugel the Clever learns that backstabbing is bad and trust is good by the end of his second book.
  • Anti-Hero: Liane the Wayfarer. Also Cugel. Also Magnus Ridolph. In fact many of Vance's characters are Anti Heroes.
  • Almighty Janitor: The short story Dodkin's Job, in which the janitor isn't even aware he's basically in charge.
  • Artificial Human: T'sais and T'sain
  • Author Appeal: Boats and small ships feature prominently in many of Vance's works. His science fiction often adds the space-going equivalent, and a number of his characters fantasize about owning space yachts.
  • Badass Bookworm: The Curator, Guyal of Sfere
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: A constant theme in his works. No two settings have the same prevailing moral code.
    • Quite frequently two or more societies on the same planet will have wildly differing moralities. Taken to extremes on Big Planet (of Big Planet and Showboat World) which has been colonized by a bewildering variety of cults, sects, and philosophies, each of which founded its own settlement.
  • Bold Explorer: Ports of Call features Myron Tany, a wannabe bold explorer who lucks out when his great-aunt, Dame Hester, receives a spaceship as part of a legal judgment, and reluctantly agrees to let him use it. Unfortunately for Myron, Dame Hester insists on coming along.
  • Brain in a Jar: Rogol Domedonfors, ruler of Ampridatvir
  • Clarke's Third Law: Ampridatvir
  • Character Development: Cugel the Clever behaves quite differently towards the end of the second book, capable of making friends who he does not plan to backstab later.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Cugel the Clever goes through one and a half books before he is finally cured of this disease.
  • Cloning Gambit / The Ageless: In To Live Forever, the rare citizens who manage to achieve Amaranth status not only have ageless bodies, but are also provided with a five-pack of backup clones, just in case of accident or violence.
  • Crapsack World: Arrabus (Wyst: Alastor 1716) is supposed to be an egalitarian paradise; but when Jantiff Ravensroke moves there for a short stay, it doesn't take long for the gloss to come off.
  • Dating Catwoman: Aillas, protagonist of the Lyonesse trilogy, falls in love with the haughty viking-like maiden Tatzel while being a slave at her father's castle. He escapes, comes back as a warrior king, kidnaps her and undergoes many adventures together with her, saving her life several times. Throughout he acts as the perfect gentleman, not taking advantage of his power over her. At one moment she actually offers him sexual favors in exchange for her liberty - but Aillas, wanting a love she is unwilling and unable to give him, declines the offer and sets her free anyway. Finally, when Aillas brings his army to assault the castle, Tatzel takes up a bow and arrow and dies among the last-ditch defenders. The victorious Aillas sadly refuses to look for "the body of the valiant maiden" among the scorched bodies in the ruins of the castle, and goes on to find another and more rewarding love.
  • Deadly Environment Prison: The stockade on Shattorak in the Cadwal Chronicles.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Skirl Hutsenreiter in Night Lamp fits this fairly well. As do many of Vance's female characters, really. In Planet of Adventure, Adam would perhaps have been smarter to keep Ylin Ylan in the fridge.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: From Ecce and Old Earth - "We are famous for the quickness of our fast speed!"
  • Determinator: Kirth Gersen, from the The Demon Princes series. Kirth is quite aware of his own nature and frets about what happens to Determinators who achieve their goal.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: In the The Demon Princes series, all the villains are essentially this.
  • Did Not Think This Through: Vance is fond of having his characters be Butt Monkeys, and while it's common to see it happen to the heroic protagonists due to poor decision making, it sometimes afflicts the villains as well.
  • Do You Want to Haggle?: Frequently occurs in many of Vance's works, often with Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness and Antiquated Linguistics.
  • Driven to Madness: In "The Dogtown Tourist Agency", the villains attempt this with Dirby, prior to framing him for an assassination. Their aim isn't so much to break his sanity, but for a mind scan to conclude he's delusional.
  • Dwindling Party:
    • The student space-crew of Sail 25 in Dust Of Far Suns, though they're trying to graduate, not just survive. Two of them don't even get off the ground.
    • The aristocratic hostages in Emphyrio.
    • The survivors of the Commision spaceship crash in Big Planet, as they trek through the wilderness. Some of them opt to stick around rather than continuing on.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Pandelume looks like one, to the point that anyone who looks upon him will instantly go insane, but he behaves like a pretty nice guy. Magnatz is a more straightforward example, since he is unambiguously evil.
  • Encyclopedia Exposita: In many of the Gaean Reach novels, Vance quotes at length from the philosophical encyclopedia Life, by Unspiek, Baron Bodissey (who was excommunicated from the human race by the Assemblage of Egalitarians. The Baron's response was to comment, "The point is moot." To this day the most erudite thinkers of the Gaean Reach ponder the significance of the remark.).
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: Chun the Unavoidable, who because of his rather unusual cloak also qualifies as Eye Scream, since it is made out of woven-together human eyeballs.
  • Fantastic Honorifics:
    • In "The Dogtown Tourist Agency", 'Visfer' / 'Visfers' (abbreviated to Vv / Vvs) for 'Mr' / 'Ms'. Vance supplies a fictional etymology:
      (originally Viasvar, an Ordinary of the ancient Legion of Truth, then a landed gentleman, finally the common polite appellative.)
    • In Emphyrio, the general title for the common folk is "Recipient" (Rt.)
  • Fantastic Racism: Happens all the time in numerous works, partly because of the sheer number of human, alien, and/or supernatural cultures in contact with each other. It's often directed at the protagonist. Sometimes justified in the case of thoroughly reprehensible societies.
  • Feudal Future: Several of Vance's stories - notably The Last Castle, The Dragon Masters and The Miracle Workers - are set in future societies that have devolved into medievalism. In the latter two this is because a spaceship crashed and the officers set themselves up as lords of the marooned crews.
  • Fictional Sport: Hussade in Trullion: Alastor 2262. Hadaul in The Face.
  • Footnote Fever: Used to provide much of the background within his novels, and introduce social rules and languages.
  • Happy Place: The Overworld
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: When Ghyl, the protagonist of Emphyrio, confronts Lord Dugald, this is one of the first questions Dugald asks. Much to Dugald's chagrin, Ghyl promptly answers that he has, and therefore killing him wouldn't help in the least.
  • Human Subspecies: In the Gaean Reach stories, some worlds have been colonised for so long that humans have speciated. For example, in The Gray Prince, the world of Koryphon is inhabited by three distinct groups: Outkers are more or less standard humans, while the Wind Runners and the Uldras, having lived on the planet longer, have become more adapted to it.
  • Jackass Genie: The sandestin in the Dying Earth stories.
  • Jerkass: Cugel the Clever, who was downright evil for the first book he was in.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: In the Galactic Effectuator story "The Dogtown Tourist Agency", security officer Kerch describes an elaborate judicial process should he catch a thief — before explaining that since he acts as investigator, counsel, judge and executioner, the entire process can take no more than five minutes.
  • Just Before the End: The Dying Earth, of course.
  • Kraken and Leviathan: The focus of The Blue World (novel) and The Gift Of Gab (short story). In the latter, they are man-sized squid, but a larger creature with prehensile arm is also present.
  • Legacy Character: In Emphyrio, Ghyl is so inspired by the legend of the eponymous character that he adopts the name at key points, asking himself "what would Emphyrio do?" to guide his actions.
  • Lost Colony: Almost all of the "aliens" in the various Gaean Reach stories are humans from planets that have had thousands of years to develop divergent cultures.
    • Thamber (in The Killing Machine, the second Demon Princes story) has had its location hidden from the rest of human space for so long that each regards the other as legendary.
  • Lost Technology: Plenty of it.
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The Eyes of the Overworld.
  • Made of Evil: Blikdak, who is literally unravelled to death.
  • Moral Event Horizon: Crossed with depressing regularity by many of Vance's villains. The Demon Princes - galactic-level master criminals - are of course in a class of their own, but there are other, more minor characters who are willing to do some quite repulsive things in order to achieve minor goals.
    • In Wyst: Alastor 1716, Jantiff Ravensroke initially tries to organize a change in accommodation which will see him cohabit with a young woman whom he fancies. When one of his acquaintances casually offers to make this possible by whoring her ten-year-old daughter out to a much older man, he wants no part of it.
  • Moral Myopia / It's All About Me: Vance loves this trope. Common in his minor, short-term villains.
  • Names to Run Away From / Offscreen Teleportation: Chun the Unavoidable. Although as hinted by said name, running will do you absolutely no good. The only way to avoid him is not to cross him in the first place.
  • Narrative Filigree: A constant in the works of Jack Vance. World building is an objective in and of itself. In Lyonnesse we learn the exact layout of Suldrun's garden, the names of the plants, how it looks at several times and day and times of year. For the grand plot it would suffice to simply confine Suldrun to her garden. Vance will build up a history, a religion, a race, a river or a plain, never necessarily needing it to advance the core story.
    • Vance will seriously create societies and planets to mention them in passing without any relevance to the nominal story.
  • Nepotism: In Emphyrio, all the Welfare Agents have the surname Cobol. This started when a member of the Cobol family was in charge, and found jobs in the Agency for all his extended family. A few generations down the line, and the Cobol clan is synonymous with the Agency; the few outsiders who join adopt the Cobol surname when they do.
    • In The Cadwal Chronicles, each of the six Agency Bureaus has been dominated by its own administrative family for roughly nine hundred years.
  • Our Nudity Is Different: In "The Moon Moth", everybody keeps their faces covered at all times by stylized masks that show the wearer's current social standing. Not even spouses ever see each other's naked faces.
    • In Marune: Alastor 933, it is considered obscene to watch someone eat, and even spouses will block their faces with a screen during meals.
  • Poor Communication Kills: To the extent that it sometimes kills the wrong people.
    • In Wyst: Alastor 1716, Esteban's failure to explicitly designate his desired target results in ten-year-old Tanzel losing her life instead of the protagonist.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: The Gomaz in "The Dogtown Tourist Agency", an alien race whose culture (and reproductive cycle) is centred on war.
  • Rules Lawyer: In Emphyrio, Ghyl's father is arrested for illegal duplication: printing political posters. He tries to argue that these are explicitly permitted by the city charter and therefore the usual regulations against mechanical copying don't apply. Since the charter's written in an archaic language that almost no-one understands, the authorities dismiss his argument.
  • Run for the Border: In "The Dogtown Tourist Agency", Hetzel brings Dirby to his hotel (which is in Gaean jurisdiction) to avoid being arrested for murders committed in the Triskelion (which is not).
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Very common in his writing and often used by jerkass characters. Reading Vance is a great way to expand your vocabulary.
  • Shout-Out: In Emphyrio, Ghyl expects Earth to be a dying, decadent world with a red sun — in other words, he's expecting it to be The Dying Earth. It isn't anything like that.
    • In Showboat World, several references are made to a tragic dramatic play entitled Emphyrio, which is first mentioned in the Jack Vance book of the same name.
    • Life by Unspiek, Baron Bodissey is essentially the Gaean Reach version of Arnold J. Toynbee's twelve-volume A Study of History.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Vance visits every point on the scale in his many different worlds — being most at home with cynicism. The Dying Earth setting seems like it is an extremely cynical Crapsack World in most respects, but there are often morals that you'd expect to find much further on the Idealistic scale.
  • Solar Sail: Sail 25 in Dust Of Far Suns. The crew are forced to find alternative methods of getting home when they find themselves at escape velocity.
  • Success Through Insanity: His short story "The Men Return" featured a world where causality had basically gone out the window. One character was barely surviving, trying to find patterns where there were none. The ones who were crazy before The Event on the other hand were basically gods.
  • Twist Ending: Most common in the shorter stories and novellas.
  • Vancian Magic: The Trope Namer. Incidentally, the way it was described in the Dying Earth books had little in common with the magic of Dungeons & Dragons — there were no spell levels of any kind, and it was possible for anyone to attempt to memorize and cast any spell given enough practice. In addition, extremely powerful spells that could kill people instantly were apparently quite common. Of course, without sufficient practice, Hilarity Ensues.
  • We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: In Emphyrio, using any kind of mechanical assistance, even a straight-edge guide, in the production of goods on Halma is strictly prohibited, which is intended to artificially maintain high prices on exported goods while providing busywork for the planet-wide dole system. In the Demon Princes novels, the Institute's disapproval of the extremes to which the Gaean Reach could potentially take mechanization and automation of labour is no secret.
  • What Would X Do?: In Emphyrio, Ghyl wonders whether to reveal what he knows, and asks himself: What would Emphyrio do? The answer is obvious: tell the truth.
  • Wild Card: Cugel the Clever,
  • World of Snark: A touchstone of Vance's works is his characters' rapier wit.
  • You Didn't Ask: In the Planet of Adventure series. Anacho spends two books believing that Adam Reith is crazy because he claims to have come from a world where humans rule; until Traz mentions that he saw Reith's space boat.
  • You Killed My Father:
    • At the climax of Emphyrio, Ghyl is told that if he reveals what he knows, he will bring down the government of Halma and cause the collapse of the social order: surely he doesn't want that? He answers that the government killed his father, so he feels no great affection for it.
    • In Kirth Gersen's case, his mother as well. It's the core of his motivation throughout the entire Demon Princes arc.