On this day, ninety-nine years ago, John Holbrook ‘Jack’ Vance was born in San Francisco, California. Winner of three Hugos, a Nebula and a World Fantasy Award, he was given the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1984, named a SFWA Grand Master in 1997 and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001.
Trying to list all of the authors Jack Vance has influenced would be a fool’s errand – he’s been published since 1945 and has had an effect on countless writers – but we can perhaps single out two for special mention:
A clear line can be drawn between Gene Wolfe‘s epic Book of the New Sun and Vance’s marvellous Dying Earth stories. Although given a very different treatment and written in very different styles, Wolfe’s magnum opus – which was voted one of the Top Ten books from Gollancz’s 50 Years of SF publishing, two years ago – owes a huge debt to Vance in terms of atmosphere and setting. And where would Robert Silverberg‘s Majipoor be without the big planet trope first developed on Jack Vance‘s … er … Big Planet?
Within the broad remit of the Planetary Romance, Vance created two subgenres, the first being the Dying Earth . . . tales set on Earth in the Far Future at a time, long after the wasting away of science, when Magic has become the operating principle . . . Before 1950 and The Dying Earth, the planetary romance had been generally restricted either to tales which replicated, palely, the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs or to Pulp-magazine sf adventures set on worlds which might be colourful but which were at the same time conceived with a fatal thinness. What was lacking was a properly conceived venue sufficient to the needs of romance. In Big Planet Vance provided an sf model for the planetary romance which has been of significant use for forty years. The planet of this novel is a huge though Earthlike world, with enough landmass to provide realistic venues in which a wide range of social systems can operate, and is significantly low in heavy-metal resources (a fact that both explains its relatively low gravity and requires the wide range of societies that flourish to be low-tech).
You can read Robert Silverberg‘s appreciation of Jack Vance, written not long after Vance passed away in May 2013, elsewhere on this blog. It’s very much worth reading for one great writer’s perspective on another’s life and career.
You can read more about Jack Vance at his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.