Jack Vance, who died aged 96, was a highly prolific and successful writer of pulp fiction during what fans later identified as the Golden Age of science fiction, and was described, by the New York Times magazine, as “one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices”.
As with others who took their first steps in popular magazines devoted to “scientific romance” – from HP Lovecraft to Philip K Dick – not all of Vance’s prodigious output could serve as an exemplar of the finer points of literary style, nor even of basic competence in plotting; and since he regarded himself above all as a jobbing writer satisfying an audience, he never claimed more.
In fact, Vance was a much more capable artist than most of his contemporaries, and had an enormous influence, particularly in the nebulous area where science fiction and fantasy collide. The “Dying Earth” sequence, which began with a short story in 1950 and expanded into a huge series in which technology collapses as the Sun dies and magic becomes more significant, blurred the lines between the two, while attracting adherents of both traditions.
He was arguably the first post-war writer to rival HG Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs in influence; notable authors inspired by his work include Ursula K Le Guin, Michael Moorcock and George RR Martin. The last, whose series A Song of Ice and Fire (currently being televised as Game of Thrones) owes an obvious debt to Vance’s synthesis of science fictional world-building and sword-and-sorcery romance, said: “Dying Earth ranks with [Robert E] Howard’s Hyborian Age and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth as one of the all-time great fantasy settings.”
John Holbrook Vance was born on August 28 1916 in San Francisco, the middle child of five in a well-to-do family. But his father decamped to Mexico when his son was about five, and the family was taken in by Jack’s maternal grandfather, who had a ranch near Oakley, on the delta of the Sacramento River.
In his memoirs, published in 2009, Vance wondered if this rural exile had been “a licence to be taught to read”. If it had, he took full advantage, becoming especially devoted to the work of Jeffrey Farnol, whose baroque style had an influence on Vance’s own prose. He also developed an obsession with Dixieland jazz, and later took up the ukulele and harmonica with great enthusiasm.
But while he was at junior college his grandfather died, and Jack was obliged to take a series of jobs, first as a bellhop and then working at a cannery and operating a gold dredge (the huge machines which sifted silt from small particles of gold).
He eventually returned to university, at Berkeley, but found it hard to settle, studying Mining Engineering, Physics, English Literature and journalism before leaving to enrol in the US Navy. He quit his job as an electrician at Pearl Harbor a month before the Japanese attack on the base, and graduated in 1942.
Vance’s poor eyesight meant that he was ineligible for active service, but, after abortive spells as a rigger in shipyards and vainly trying to learn Japanese for the OSS, he memorised an optician’s chart and found employment in the Merchant Navy, where he was twice torpedoed, and wrote his first story, published by Thrilling Wonder Stories.
After the war he married Norma Ingold and began submitting work to pulp magazines. For several years (as John Holbrook) he concentrated on mystery stories, and was eventually commissioned to write three serials under the portmanteau pseudonym Ellery Queen. But he also produced stories featuring Magnus Ridolph, an interstellar adventurer , which produced his first lucrative sale when they were optioned by Twentieth Century Fox. The studio also took him on as a scriptwriter for the Captain Video television series.
For much of the 1950s and 1960s, Vance ploughed away for the pulp market without significant recognition . But when his stories set on a far-future Earth, in which science has been replaced by magic, were brought together in (often garishly illustrated) book form, he began to win an audience for his brand of science fantasy.
The Dying Earth (1950) was followed by several other books set in the same universe and featuring Cugel the Clever, including The Eyes of the Overworld (1966), Morreion (1979), Cugel’s Saga (1983) and Rhialto the Marvellous (1984). They influenced not only the blend of science fiction and fantasy produced by authors such as Moorcock and Gene Wolfe, but also the structure of the Dungeons and Dragons games.
Vance also produced, in Big Planet (first published in the 1950s, but in book form in 1978) what the critic John Clute has described as a distinct model for “planetary romance”, in which the appeal rested on world-building and a sophisticated approach.
He won three Hugo awards; the first for his short novel The Dragon Masters (1963) and the last for his memoir This is Me, Jack Vance! (or More Properly, This is “I”) (2009). The Last Castle (1966) managed the rare trick of also winning the Nebula Award. He received a World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement in 1984 and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001.
His wife, whom he always credited as a major contributor to his work, died in 2008.
Jack Vance, born August 28 1916, died May 26 2013