Tim Stretton lives in West Sussex and blogs about his reading and writing experiences at Acquired Taste. He is a writer of fantasy whose first novel, The Dog of the North, was published by Macmillan New Writing in 2008. A graduate of English and American Literature from the University of Kent, Tim cites influences as diverse as Jane Austen, Patrick O'Brian and Raymond Chandler - and, as he outlines below, the prolific Jack Vance.
Tim Stretton on the The Book of Dreams by Jack Vance
The writer of speculative fiction is regrettably aware of the 'pecking order of literature'. Literary fiction sits at the top of the dung-heap, with genre fiction - especially fantasy - confined to its own ghetto, usually at the back of the shop on the top floor (to mix several metaphors). As a genre writer you recognize this early, and either embrace your status as a literary pariah or move on to better-regarded pursuits.
The unwillingness of the literary establishment to engage with speculative fiction means that writers who would be household names in any other field become - at best - cult successes. No one illustrates the point better than Jack Vance who, after a career of 60 years in science fiction and fantasy, finally earned an appreciation in the New York Times in 2009.
Many New York Times readers - and possibly habitués of the normblog too - may be unfamiliar with Vance's prolific output and wonder where to start. His most accomplished work is perhaps his Lyonesse trilogy (Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl and Madouc). An Arthurian saga, combining ruthless medieval realpolitik with fantastical outgrowths, it brings together all Vance's gifts: extravagance of imagination, effortless evocation of location and atmosphere, cool detachment, and most of all a prose style at once precise, spare and ironic.
Nonetheless, I'm going to recommend the final volume of Vance's 'Demon Princes' series, The Book of Dreams. A saga which owes something to The Count of Monte Cristo, it takes us through Kirth Gersen's pursuit of Howard Alan Treesong, an intergalactic crime-lord who many years before wiped out Gersen's family. You might think that you can imagine the tone of this dark scenario: you'd almost certainly be wrong. Vance is as interested in a travelogue around the planets he has created as he is in the revenge itself. One of Vance's greatest influences is P.G. Wodehouse, a debt that's obvious in his many dialogues between the hero and assorted functionaries - as in this exchange at the prestigious Penwipers Hotel:
The porters moved swiftly around the room, adjusting the placement of furniture, wiping surfaces with their scented cloths, then departed, swiftly and quietly, as if they had merged into the shadows. The chief porter said: "Sir, the valet will attend you at once to assist with your wardrobe. The water is already drawn for your bath." He bowed and prepared to leave.
"One moment," said Gersen. "Is there a key to the door?"
The chief porter smiled benignly. "Sir, you need not fear intrusion at Penwipers."
"Possibly not. But, for instance, suppose I were a jewel merchant carrying a parcel of gems, and a thief wished to rob me. He need merely saunter to my room, open the door and divest me of my wealth."
The chief porter, still smiling, shook his head. "Sir, such a terrible thing could never happen here. It would simply not be tolerated. Your valuables are quite safe."
"I don't carry any valuables," said Gersen. "I merely suggested a possibility."
"The inconceivable, sir, is rarely possible."
"I am totally reassured," said Gersen.
"Thank you, sir."
He drew back as Gersen extended his hand. "The staff is adequately paid, sir. We prefer to accept no gratuities." He inclined his head crisply and departed.
It is in this distance between the cool, assured authorial voice and the feverish demands of the plot that much of Vance's appeal lies. He realizes that piling effect upon effect, adjective upon adjective, rapidly cloys. Instead, he pares down, doesn't editorialize, and trusts the reader to realize without underlining that shocking events are indeed shocking.
There are writers we return to again and again. For me, Vance is foremost among these. We revisit them not for plot (entertaining as Vance's are), or even for insights into the human condition (if they are that profound and compelling, they're unlikely to need reinforcement). What tempts me back, time and again, is the writer's voice. This explains why I can return without fatigue to Austen and Dickens. Three years studying for an English Literature degree might have been calculated to educate my palate away from a mere genre writer; but nothing I learned from studying the literary canon persuaded me that Vance too didn't belong there.
If you don't normally read fantasy or science fiction, and you've never read Jack Vance, why not give him a try? You might be pleasantly surprised.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]