May 12th, 2011


My Reserve Credo, Or, How Awesome Is Jack Vance?

I already have a credo. It's a terrific credo:

"Every day my eye grows keener, my good right arm stronger, and my silly enemies more futile."
-- Ignatz Mouse

But if I were in the market for a new credo, this would be it:

"Then there are those who, like the author, ensconce themselves on a thunderous crag of omniscience, and with protestations of humility which are either unconvincing or totally absent, assume the obligation of appraisal, commendation, derogation or denunciation of their contemporaries. Still, by and large it is an easier job than digging a ditch."
--Preface to Men of the Oikumene, Jan Holbert Vaenz LXII
-- as quoted by Jack Vance, in The Star King

I hadn't read the "Demon Princes" novels somehow. (I know, I know.) But in London, rattling around with jholloway, I ran across a comics shop with a small but perfectly formed used-SF section in the basement (Orbital Comics), and among the used SF I found books two and four of the Demon Princes series, The Killing Machine and The Face. I read them both in the various airports between Orbital Comics and my couch, where I Z-shopped up the final three.

Now, I love Jack Vance. More than that, his prose is the closest thing to actual fireworks I've ever read. And fireworks, wonderful as they are, tend to spray all over the darn place. Reading a whole lot of Vance in a row, for me, is always just a little tiny bit tiring, as I chase the lines all over the sky. I assume it's a little bit like the reaction many other folks have to Lovecraft, although I only get tired out by Lovecraft's prose at Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath lengths. (Mandatory disclaimer: Dream-Quest is not actually characteristic of Lovecraft's prose construction.)

The parallel I draw is to Robert Altman, whom I'm not nearly so fond of as I am of Jack Vance, but whose loose, divagatory style and looping dialogue and relentless fascination with the idiosyncratic remind me of my mental sketch of Jack Vance. Gosford Park is, for me, generally superior (or at least more parseable) Altman, because Altman is forced to actually stay inside the lines of the country-house mystery. It's still an Altman movie, but things can only wander so far off course. Thus, in the Demon Princes novels, no matter what tangent Vance trellises toward, he eventually still has to get Kirth Gersen off the dime and aimed at another Demon Prince.

And whaddya know? That was indeed, by and large, an easier job than digging a ditch.