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This is Me, Jack Vance!
Jack Vance
Subterranean Press, 208 pages

This is Me, 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: 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 93 years old and has retired from writing. But this book represents one last gift to his admirers. Vance has been fairly reticent about his personal life and also about his writing. This is Me, Jack Vance! fills us in on his life story, though it has little to say about his fiction -- which Vance has long preferred to stand on its own.

This memoir is a very engaging piece of writing. Vance tells his life story in a fairly linear fashion, taking us more or less to the present. Vance calls it "more of a landscape than a self-portrait -- or at least a ramble across the landscape that has been my life." Perhaps this refers to the impressive amount of travelling Vance has done in his life, which is quite interestingly recorded in this volume.

Vance was born in San Francisco, the middle child of 5 -- he had three brothers and a sister. After a few years there, he moved with his mother and siblings to his maternal grandfather's ranch in the delta region of central California, near Sacramento. His father stayed in San Francisco -- Vance blames his paternal aunt, who also apparently connived to keep money due Vance's mother. Vance's parents only divorced years later, but were apparently de facto separated from about when Vance turned five. Despite this -- it seems clearly to have bothered young Jack -- he portrays a mostly happy childhood. Nonetheless, by his teens his family was quite poor. Then came the depression, which made things worse. So Vance looked for work and some of the most entertaining bits concern his various jobs. After a brief stint as a bellhop in San Francisco, Vance spent some time as a surveyor and a common laborer in the Sierra Nevadas, mostly working in copper and silver mines. In the late 30s, Vance also went to the University of California at Berkeley, as both a Physics and English major. Perhaps more importantly, he worked at the university newspaper, and took a creative writing class. Vance here mentions some early forays into writing like a P.G. Wodehouse pastiche, some poetry and science fiction which he showed to Stanton Coblentz, the old pulp SF writer (and also a poet), who was an acquaintance of Vance's aunt. (Coblentz was not impressed.) Vance also wrote an SF story for his creative writing class -- again, the Professor was not impressed, calling it "an almost incomprehensible example of what I believe is known as science fiction."

Vance dropped out of the University and, on what seems almost a whim, headed down to Pearl Harbor to work for the Navy as an electrician. An auspicious time for such a move! Given a miserable job there, he quit -- about a week before the Japanese attack. Back in the San Francisco area, he went to work building ships for the war effort. One critical offshoot of this adventure was a class taken in Japanese. Later on during the war, his experience with boats proved sufficient that he became a seaman, and spent the rest of the war on merchant ships -- though the cargo included, for example, soldiers bound for Australia, hence this too was part of the war effort. This phase of Vance's life is fairly well-known, as it was during the idle periods onboard (of which there are many, apparently) that he wrote his first successful stories, including those that became The Dying Earth.

Tired of the ocean, Vance took a job as a carpenter -- apparently as he was also starting to sell his stories. Having little to do on one job, he noticed a pretty girl in the neighboring house -- this was Norma, who was to become his wife. And before long -- partly with Norma's help, as Vance makes clear throughout the book how enthusiastically she supported his career, and how hard she worked -- he was selling stories regularly. From then on, writing was his only job.

He says little about his writing in the book, though occasionally he mentions the genesis or writing circumstances of one story or another. For example, he wrote "The Last Castle" for Fred Pohl at Galaxy because his agent had fouled up and sold a story twice, once to Pohl and then to another market. Vance remarks laconically "["The Last Castle"] turned out to be a pretty good story." He had a couple of ventures into other media -- he was paid fairly lavishly for a treatment and screenplay based on his early story "Hard Luck Diggings," which quickly came to naught when the producer involved was fired. And he spent some time working on the television series Captain Video.

After a time the Vances's life became peripatetic. They traveled widely, for long stretches of time, in Europe, in the Pacific, and elsewhere. Vance did plenty of writing on these trips. Then they would return to their home base in Northern California -- spending some time on a homebuilt houseboat. The wanderlust would strike again (or sufficient money would accumulate), and off they'd go. It seems a very fruitful sort of life for a writer, and explains much about the varieties of landscape and culture so central to Vance's fiction.

This is an easy-going narrative, generous throughout in its depiction of the people and places Vance encounters. Vance's life seems to have been mostly a good one, and he seems to take the hard times -- the early poverty, for example, or the more recent deafness -- quite in stride. Thus the book is pleasant throughout. A selection of photographs is included, and even finally a very brief chapter devoted to what little Vance cares to say about his writing career. It's a story that, as a fan of Jack Vance's writing, I am delighted to have finally been given the chance to read.

Copyright © 2009 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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