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."


Jack Vance (1916-2013) was a Science Fiction and Fantasy author, who wrote, continuously, since the 1950s. 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 and Dragons. However, he also wrote 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.

Some of his better-known works include:

Tropes extant within the works penned by this fine author; let the reader not assay overmuch
  • 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.
  • Artificial Human -- T'sais and T'sain
  • Awesome McCoolname -- Jack Vance. Seriously.
  • Badass Bookworm -- The Curator, Guyal of Sfere
  • Big Words -- Very common in his writing and often used by jerkass characters. Reading Vance is a great way to expand your vocabulary.
    • One reviewer commented that part of the charm of Vance's work is the incongruity of "dull, stupid, ignorant" people who from time to time use implausibly erudite turns of phrase.
  • Blue and Orange Morality -- A constant theme in his works. No two settings have the same prevailing moral code.
  • 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
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.).
    • Several reviewers are quoted making very hostile comments about the Baron. One, though, expresses the desire to give Baron Bodissey a severe thrashing — and then buy him a drink.
  • 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.
  • Happy Place -- The Overworld
  • Hypocritical Humor -- In Maske: Thaery, Nai the Hever signs Jubal Droad up in his intelligence agency -- with a contract that fades away within a day or so to leave blank paper, giving Nai Plausible Deniability. Until Jubal produces the copy he made and had notarized before the original faded. Nai calls Jubal "an unscrupulous man." (Takes one to know one, doesn't it?) The young Droad may do quite well in Nai the Hever's employ.
  • Jerkass -- Cugel the Clever, who was downright evil for the first book he was in.
  • Jerkass Genie -- The sandestin in the Dying Earth stories.
  • Just Before the End -- The Dying Earth, of course.
  • Lost Technology -- Plenty of it.
  • Lotus Eater Machine -- The Eyes of the Overworld.
  • Made of Evil -- Blikdak, who is literally unravelled to death
  • A Man Is Not a Virgin -- The hero of Emphyrio.
  • Moral Myopia / It's All About Me -- Vance loves this trope. Common in his minor, short-term villains.
  • 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.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero / Nice Job Fixing It, Villain -- Characters often screw themselves up this way.
    • "The Miracle Workers" is set on a planet where human colonists made Hollywood Voodoo work to replace their aging technological weapons. When the planet's natives finally decide to attack the humans, one of the "jinxmen" notices that dying natives spew a purple foam. Deciding this foam must be associated in the aliens' minds with death, he uses his powers to project the image of purple foam into the minds of a large group. Another jinxman explains, "Then he learned that purple foam means not death--purple foam means fear for the safety of the community, purple foam means desperate rage." So he tries to intimidate them with an effect that turns them into Determinators. Oops.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 and Dragons -- there were no spell levels of any kind, and it was possible for anyone to attempt to memorize and cast it given enough practice. In addition, extremely powerful spells that could kill people instantly were apparently quite common. Of course, without sufficient practice, Hilarity Ensues
  • Wild Card -- Cugel the Clever,
  • You Didn't Ask -- In the Planet of Adventure series. Anacho has spent the first two books assuming that Adam Reith is crazy because he claims to have come from some other planet called "Earth". Until Traz mentions that he saw Reith's space boat.