On May 26th, Damon Knight Science Fiction Grandmaster Jack Vance passed away at the age of 96 in Oakland, Calif. Influencing numerous authors in a career that spanned over six decades, Vance was a major figure in the post-war genre field, who was known for his excellently drawn worlds and command of language.
John Holbrook Vance was born on August 28th, 1916 in the Pacific Heights of San Francisco, one of five children to a well off-family. At the age of five, the Vances moved to a property acquired by his grandfather, known as Green Lodge Ranch, where a young Jack Vance was introduced to a library filled with speculative works: “Among these books were fantasy novels by Robert W. Chambers, such as Tracer of Lost Persons, The King in Yellow, Maker of the Moons. There were also works by Edgar Rice Burroughs.” His mother had collected many of Burroughs’ works alongside the Oz novels by L. Frank Baum and the boys’ adventure stories churned out by Edward Statemeyer’s publishing company. It was during this same summer that Vance found himself enamored of the science fiction magazines found at the local drug store: Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, featuring stories by H.P. Lovecraft and C.L. Moore. Together, they provided a firm foundation for the stories which he would later write.
The family’s fortunes declined with the divorce of Vance’s parents and the death of his maternal grandfather, who had supported the family monetarily. Vance left junior college and, along with his mother, entered the working world, holding a wide variety of jobs over the next couple of years: picking fruit, working at a gold mine and as a bellhop at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. He was miserable, and turned idly to writing between jobs. By 1937, he enrolled at the University of California in Berkley, where he began studying physics, before switching to English and Journalism. He began writing more science fiction, even as one of his professors publically trashed a story in a creative writing course.
In 1939, Vance took a job as an electrician for the Navy and was stationed at the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, where he worked until 1941. In November, he resigned and returned to California, a week before the Japanese Navy launched an attack against the base. Drifting through another variety of jobs—welding, ship rigging and studying Japanese for the US Army—he ended up working for the Merchant Marines throughout much of World War II, coming under fire twice while at sea.
Time aboard a ship left Vance with hours of spare time and he once again turned to writing; he began submitting his stories for the first time. His first published story, “The World-Thinker,” appeared in the August 1945 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories, and was followed in 1946 by “Planet of the Black Dust” in the July issue of Startling Stories and “Phalid's Fate” in the December issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Throughout the rest of the 1940s, he would continue to publish short fiction in such magazines as Thrilling Wonder Stories and Astounding Science Fiction. In 1946, he married Norma Ingold, and together they traveled across Europe, Asia and Africa.
In 1950, Vance published his first book: The Dying Earth, a “fix-up” novel consisting of six original, interlocking stories: "Turjan of Miir," "Mazirian the Magician," "T'sais," "Liane the Wayfarer," "Ulan Dhor" and "Guyal of Sfere." Set in a diminished Earth’s distant future, knowledge and science have declined to a mystical status and the line between science and magic has blurred for the people living among humanity’s ruins. The result was an early example of science fantasy, which would influence authors such as Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe in the years that followed. Adam Robert describes the novel in his The History of Science Fiction as “an absolutely intoxicating book, and had a deep impact on the continuing development of ‘Last Man’ fictions.”
Vance’s other major contributions to the genre came with further sophistication of the Planetary Romance subgenre, following the publication of his story “Big Planet,” which appeared in the September 1952 issue of Startling Stories and re-released in 1957. Moving away from the roots that had been prefigured by the works and worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Vance set his novel apart from the rest of the Planetary Romance subgenre as he followed a crashed investigator from Earth after being tasked with bringing some form of order to the planet.
In 1952, Vance turned to work in the television industry, along with fellow SF authors Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Cyril Kornsbluth, Walter Miller Jr., Robert Sheckley and several other authors. They had been hired to improve a science fiction television show, Captain Video and his Video Rangers, which had been steadily declining in quality. Vance began writing scripts for the program, providing him and his family with a steady income. Through his work with the television show, he was contacted by a local newspaper reporter, Frank Herbert, of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, who himself would go on to publish the landmark novel Dune. The pair, along with fellow author Poul Anderson, would become close friends, and often traveled to Mexico with their families to write.
Throughout the rest of the 1950s, Vance’s output increased as he published dozens of short stories for various science fiction magazines. His stories, which featured vividly sketched worlds, were likely influenced by his own far-ranging background and travels around the globe; frequently, critical studies note the anthropological elements to his stories, set on hundreds of worlds with their own histories and cultures. By the 1960s, his short fiction would largely fall away, replaced by a steady output of longer novels. Over the coming decades, he maintained an incredible output of novels, writing numerous tracks of fiction, including his Dying Earth, Gaean Reach, Big Planet, Durdane, and Planet of Adventure series, among others, along with some stand-alone works. He also refused to remain confined to a single genre, writing and publishing a number of mystery novels under various pen names, and earning the Edgar Award for his 1961 novel The Man in the Cage. Declared legally blind in 1980, his progress slowed but failed to stop, and he continued to publish long and short stories throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s.
His efforts were recognized by the larger science fiction community, receiving numerous awards for his work. He was awarded his first Hugo Award for Short Story in 1963 for his novella The Dragon Masters, and in the 1967 Best Novelette Award for The Last Castle (which also netted him the 1966 Nebula Award for best Novella). A third Hugo came in 2010 for his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance!, which won Best Related Work. Additionally, Vance was honored with the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1984. In 1997, he was named a Science Fiction Grandmaster and in 2001, he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Vance was notable for his influential style and numerous stories, netting him many fans over his 61-year career. His wife, Norma Vance, passed away in 2008. His last novel was published in 2004, Lurulu, one final entry in his Gaean Reach world. Many of the authors who were influenced by his stories would be influential in their own right, from Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, George R.R. Martin and Gene Wolfe, and he will undoubtedly continue to influence authors for years to come.