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Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance
edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan
Subterranean Press, 296 pages

Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance
Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in 1916. Over a career spanning many decades, he has garnered many honours. They include the Edgar Award in 1960, the Hugo Award in 1963 and 1967, the Nebula Award in 1966, the Jupiter Award in 1975, the Achievement Award in 1984, the GilgamXs Award in 1988, the World Fantasy Award in 1990, and the Grand Master Award in 1997. He has used many pseudonyms including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John Holbrook and John van See. Jack Vance's original manuscripts for several of his books are kept at Boston University's main library in the manuscripts department.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: This is Me, Jack Vance!
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Reader
SF Site Review: Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Treasury
SF Site Review: Lurulu
SF Site Review: The Dragon Masters
SF Site Review: Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl and Madouc
SF Site Review: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden
SF Site Review: Night Lamp
SF Site Review: Tales of the Dying Earth
SF Site Review: Big Planet
SF Site Review: Emphyrio
SF Site Review: Ports of Call

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Jack Vance is a familiar name to most SF/Fantasy readers. Now, as his writing career seems to have drawn to a close, he is getting a welcome new shot of recognition, driven by a memoir, a tribute antholology, and some interesting new collections of his work. Hard-Luck Diggings is the latest collection, and it is different from the others in not really selecting a representative group of his stories, nor a themed set, nor the best. It is instead a choice of some of the more interesting works from his first decade or so of publishing.

Such a collection has particular interest, I think, to readers fairly familiar with Vance. For one thing, it is probably more likely to feature stories even a Vance aficionado may not have seen. (For example, I have read a very great deal of Vance's work indeed, included any number of stories tracked down in old pulp magazines -- I'll happily cop to being an aficionado -- but this book includes two stories I'd not previously encountered.) Secondly, a writer's early work can be useful in showing the roots of his later (perhaps more successful) work, in showing him working towards his true voice. Vance is an interesting beast in this sense, for heavy hints of his later, well-known, voice were very evident in his first book, The Dying Earth, but as Hard-Luck Diggings shows, he often suppressed that voice in his early work, striving instead to hew to commercial expectations. For all that, the voice would burst through, and so would the ironic attitude so central to much of Vance's work, and some of his ideas and obsessions.

I've confessed to being a Vance aficionado, and so I feel driven to suggest a few early stories I think the editors ought to have included! Perhaps a few of these were left out mainly because they are already well-known. Certainly that explains the absence of any of the Dying Earth stories, and probably it also might be why such very fine early stories as "The Potters of Firsk," "The Gift of Gab," "The Men Return," and "The New Prime" do not appear here. Other than those I'm left with one story I'd have liked to have seen, an early novella that I quite enjoyed that seems very little known: "Chateau D'If" (aka "New Bodies for Old").

Such quibbling aside, this is a very enjoyable book. As more or less promised, it's not by any means Vance at his best. But Vance was ever a writer determined to entertain, and entertain he does. The book does include a couple of fairly prominent stories. "DP!" is one of his harder-hitting pieces, about the sudden appearance and distressing mistreatment of "trogs," early humans who had been driven underground millennia before. "Dodkin's Job," the latest story here, and the only one from Astounding (which also printed "The Potters of Firsk" and "The Gift of Gab"), is amusing social SF about a perfectly Organized society, and a man who, from the position of Class D Flunky, manages to subvert the system. The other somewhat better-known story here is the longest, "Abercrombie Station," notable for featuring an early prototype of the women in many later Vance stories: Jean Parlier, an orphan who murders her abusive foster father and ends up agreeing to marry a rich misfit on the title space station, a haven for obese people. Even though that story appeared in an earlier Best of Jack Vance collection, it has never been a favorite of mine, though as noted it does interestingly prefigure a certain type of Vance character.

As noted, a couple of the stories were new to me, one because it first appeared in an obscure mystery magazine. Vance of course wrote quite a few mystery novels, some outstanding, including an Edgar winner. "The Absent-Minded Professor" is a lesser work, but amusing, about murderous academic rivalry in a university astronomy department. The other new story is also sort of a crime story, "The Phantom Milkman," about a woman who comes to a remote cabin to escape her abusive husband, only to be confused by the mysterious milk that keeps being delivered, all the while concerned about her husband's attempts to find her. It's a definite departure for Vance, a good example of an early experiment for him.

The book also includes nine further stories, including the title piece, which is the first Magnus Ridolph story, "Hard-Luck Diggings," and hence introduces his first series character; and also such interesting work as "Where Hesperus Falls," "Shape-Up," and "The Masquerade on Dicantropus." As implied, little here besides "Dodkin's Job" and "DP!" is close to top-shelf Jack Vance, but the book is still quite worth the time of anyone who enjoys this master's work.

Copyright © 2010 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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