Friday, October 05, 2007

Why Should I Read...?
Jack Vance, 1982-90

I could have picked just about any of Vance’s books for my list, but the Lyonesse trilogy is Vance at his very best. It answers all of the often lazy criticisms levelled at the author: that his plotting is perfunctory, his narrative structures pedestrian, his female characters weak and his interest prone to wane over the course of a series. Lyonesse is intricately plotted with multiple viewpoints, and at least two compelling female characters. And all that’s on top of Vance’s everyday virtues: a prose style with the coolness and precision of diamond, dialogue at once graven and fluid, and a sense of humour so oblique as to be all but invisible.

Lyonesse shares many of the trappings of Big Commercial Fantasy, without ever approaching the derivative. The trilogy’s protagonist, Aillas, after much struggle becomes king of Troicinet, and the trilogy follows his rivalry with Casmir, King of Lyonesse. Magicians enter the scene on a whim, pursuing their own goals which occasionally intersect with the more conventional feudal intrigues of Aillas and Casmir. The juxtaposition of the everyday and the fantastic—in one scene, Aillas can be reviewing rural militia, and in another dickering with the King of the Faeries—never jars: Vance is a master of tone and, in particular, of place. The Elder Isles he paints, with the sinister and magical Forest of Tantrevalles at their centre, effortlessly accommodate realpolitik and otherworldly.

How does Vance differ from the conventional fantasy with which he shares so many characteristics? The quality I find most readily in Lyonesse is freshness: I never get the sense that I am consuming a reheated Tolkien and that I’m going to turn the page and find another bloody elf or some doughty sodding dwarf…* Instead, I might find the following:

Shimrod sauntered forward. "Why must you beat poor Grofinet?"
"Why does one do anything?" growled the troll. "From a sense of purpose! For the sake of a job well done!"
Grofinet, an absurd furred creature of good nature and amusing vanities, is rescued by Shimrod and enjoys an interlude as comic relief: and then Vance arranges an outcome to make you regret laughing at him. It takes great skill to pull off the two moods: it is one of Vance’s great strengths that he can manage the transition. (Indeed, his tonal range is rarely noted: at one end of the spectrum he can write Wodehousian comedy like Space Opera, at the other a haunting and sombre coming of age story like Emphyrio).

Vance’s greatness is not amenable to capture in the brief twinkling of a blog entry. If you already know his work, you already believe me: if you don’t, log on to Amazon immediately. You will not regret your investment.

How has it influenced me?
I used to say Jack Vance had had more influence on me than any other person I’d never met. Since then, I have met him, so the observation is no longer apposite. But Vance, more than any other author, is the person who made me want to write – and most of all, to “write like that”.
There is a certain cast of fiction: cool, clear-sighted, understated, coupling action and adventure with a distanced style, at once astringent and compelling. It’s not an approach that everyone enjoys, but it’s my own metier. And I found it in Vance first, and I’ve never seen it done better.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
Over-heated events need not be retailed in over-heated prose
Good genre fiction is good fiction, full stop
Humour and drama do mix—usually to the benefit of both
Dialogue does not have to be naturalistic to work
You don’t need to write down to your audience if you’re writing in genre
Action doesn’t have to take place on stage to be powerful
You can write spare, minimalist prose without sacrificing descriptive power

* for David Isaak: a diction-drop


David Isaak said...

"* for David Isaak: a diction-drop"

And a fine one at that.

Mr_Toad said...

Lyonesse is a treasure - a sublime work of art!