Wednesday, April 16, 2008

One Hundred Words of Genius

I have never made any secret of my admiration for--or my debt to--the works of Jack Vance. I've been commissioned with the pleasurable task of writing a magazine article on Vance, the Vance Integral Edition, and Vance's influence on my own writing. The only downside to this egocentric enterprise is that I'm limited to 800 words. I'll blog more about the article later, but one thing I wanted to do was to give the unitiated a flavour of Vance's work in a short space; I decided to include a hunderd or so words of Vance's prose. The question immediately arose: which hundred?

I now have very many excerpts, most of which I can't use in the article, but which deserve exposure to a wider audience. Hence the latest thread, 'One Hundred Words of Genius': over the next few weeks I'll be posting some of my favourite hundred-word quotations, illustrating some aspect of Vance's art. And to prove that Vance is not my obsession alone, I'll start with some suggestions made by other aficionados.

Today's 'Hundred Words' are submitted by Patrick Dusoulier, the pre-eminent translator of Vance into French. It's an appropriate passage to begin with, because it's the start of the first work Vance ever published:

Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet. Such was Mazirian's garden--three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations. Certain plants swam with changing iridescences; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow. Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal--copper, silver, blue tantalum, bronze, green iridium.

--The Dying Earth (variant title: Mazirian the Magician), 1950

By the 1960s Vance had eschewed this lush, evocative style in preference for the leaner, more allusive approach which marked his maturity. Such richness would cloy if used to excess, but in this passage Vance conveys, with some economy, the visual extravagance and sheer otherworldliness of Mazirian's garden (for Mazirian is a magician first, and horticulturalist second). The beauty of this introduction has a sinister undertone, the plants imbued with sentience by Vance's verb choice: bowed, followed, swam, pulsing. It's a striking place, with its scents, its movement, transparent trees and metallic leaves: but it's not a garden for relaxing in.

In his first hundred words, Vance has set the tone for the entire 'Dying Earth' cycle to follow: beautiful, startling, cruel. It does not surprise the reader to learn soon after of Mazirian's character: callous, avaricious, vengeful.

Next time in 'One Hundred Words of Genius' I'll look at another element of Vance's art.


David Isaak said...

"The Dying Earth" books are marvelous. Most writers deliver ironic detachment through minimalism or coldness. In Dying Earth, Vance does the opposite--you can almost see him winking at you from behind the overornate language.

And Dungeons & Dragons players owe those books a massive debt for the well spell-casting is described--and for the outrageous names of spells.

I'm looking forward to the rest of this sequence of posts.

Tim Stretton said...

Vance's stylistic development is fascinating. He revised "Guyal of Sfere", one of the Dying Earth stories, for inclusion in a 1966 collection, and pruned it with the utter ruthlessness which came from his sparser mature style.

The result wasn't a better or worse story, but one with a somewhat different tone. It was impossible to use this revised version in the Vance Integral Edition because it was at such variance with the style of the other five stories.

By the time he's writing The Eyes of the Overworld in the 1960s he's sacrificed some of that elaboration for a much more pointed effect--and one of great comic fantasies.

Rob Gerrand said...

Hi Tim
Patrick has chosen an evocative piece to illustrate Vance at his best. However, it is not Jack's first published story - that, I believe, is The World Thinker from 1945.
Best wishes

Tim Stretton said...

Quite right, Rob. I was imprecise in my phrasing - The Dying Earth is the first full length work, but The World Thinker was published in the pulps five years earlier.