An interview with Jack Vance

The other day I found an old radio interview of SFF grandmaster Jack Vance from 1976 and did a little bit of tweeting as I gave it a listen.

In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Jack Vance was listed in D&D’s Appendix N and played a singular role in inspiring the game’s magic system. Though he’s probably best known for his Dying Earth stories, which are quite impressive, Vance was a prolific writer who churned out a large amount of both SFF and mystery/thrillers. Since plunging into the world of obscurified greats, he’s become one of my favorite authors.

Learning more about him has raised my estimation of the man. Like so many other writers and creatives, he comes across as kind of an odd bird. He was certainly an interesting character, at any rate.

I’m not quite sure why Vance decided to do this interview. He was of the mind that authors shouldn’t overexpose themselves; that they should let their works stand on their own and not bring their own personalities (or perhaps politics) into potential conflict or overshadowing of their stories.

Here are some notes from this interview, in case you don’t care to listen but would like a little bit of a glimpse into Vance’s life and mind. Keep in mind this is all from the 1976 interview, so it’s possible that some of his thoughts and opinions may have changed over the years.

On writing and the industry:

– When asked what he thinks about the scifi field, Vance says he doesn’t know what to think because he doesn’t read scifi!

– When asked why he doesn’t read scifi, Vance pauses for a moment and then replies with a “no comment.”

– He later expands upon this, saying that he doesn’t know and doesn’t care where the SFF industry is going because he’s too occupied with his own work to concern himself with other people.

– Vance talks a lot about money. To me, this suggests that he may have been doing a bit of publicity work because of financial concerns.

– He seems to resent that some writers have gotten breaks (with Hollywood deals, for example) without earning their stripes.

– Asked about a deal Lin Carter had made with Hollywood to produce a Throngor movie, Vance comments that “Carter’s a hard worker” and “has paid his dues.” Despite approving, Vance can’t comment on Carter’s books because he hasn’t read them. Incidentally, the Throngor movie was later cancelled.

– A caller asks him if the Demon Princes series will continue, and Vance tells the caller that it’s all plotted out, but that financial/logistical concerns are tying his hands for the moment. This sheds a little light on the complications of working out deals with publishers.princes

– Vance muses that science fiction is not mainstream literature, just as jazz is not classical music. He later laments that both “science fiction” and “jazz” are bad names for two beautiful genres.

– On writing, he says that he wishes he was more disciplined. He starts writing in the morning and always decides that he’s going to buckle down and start doing a set number of words per day, but never does.

– On story plotting, he says sometimes he will plot out before writing. But sometimes he discovers new ideas as he is writing and the stories change.

– Vance mentions that often about 2/3 through a book he will experience writer’s block. Once he was hung up working on a 6-8k word story for about two months.

– Talking with a caller, he comments that he usually doesn’t write about societies with super advanced technology because it then becomes difficult to craft conflicts of man vs nature, because then mankind is too powerful for nature to contend with.

– On writers conveying worldviews or biases in their stories, Vance says to an extent it can’t be helped. Personally he values traditions and customs and doesn’t want to see the old ways of things disappear.

– Vance also wrote mystery books under the name “John Holbrook.” He tells the interviewer that he probably won’t be doing any more murder-mystery stories because he’s got too many scifi projects he’s working on. He also says he makes more money with scifi than mystery.

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– He comments that he’s not very pleased with his earlier works but chalks it up to learning.

On culture

– On his personal valuing of traditions, he says they add a positive complexity to the world, giving baseball vs soccer as an example. He enjoys baseball because the rules are arbitrary and that makes it interesting. Soccer, on the other hand, is very structured and straightforward and boring.

– Vance seems dismissive of Star Trek.

– On hippies and nonconformists, he comments that “nonconformists flourish when they’re economically able to.” Says “If you’re broke or if you’re a peasant, you can’t afford to be a nonconformist.” He points out that countries like China probably have very few nonconformists.

On Cugel the Clever

– It’s pronounced with a hard “c” and a hard “g” – like “Koogle”!!

– Regarding Michael Shea’s Quest for Simbilis story, he says Shea wrote to him and asked if he could do a Cugel sequel. He wanted to send Vance his story to see if he approved. Vance says he had no idea who Shea was and didn’t want to read his story, but he told him “Sure, go ahead. If it’s good enough to publish, good on you.” He told Shea to do anything he wanted except for killing off Cugel.

On Vance himself

Jack-at-the-Helm

– Asked about his fears, Vance says that he is claustrophobic.

– On travel, he says “I’m tormented by wanderlust when I’m home and I’m homesick when I’m away. So I can’t win.”

– Vance mentions at one point that he has many projects going on, not just writing.

On John Campbell, Martin Gardener, Isaac Asimov

– Vance is asked about John Campbell, who was an influential scifi editor often credited with shaping the “Golden Age” of science fiction. Vance says that he didn’t know Campbell very well though they only lived a few blocks apart!

– He says Campbell used to host poker games, but Vance was never a big fan of playing poker.

– Asked about other writers, he says “Some of my best friends are writers. I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one, but.”

– Vance says he isn’t interested in writers’ circles or conventions. He finds them artificial and boring.

– He says when he was young he thought he might want to be a mathematician. Asked about mathematician and writer Martin Gardener – “I don’t like him personally.” And “I think he’s smug.”

– He says that Gardener is closed-minded. “Campbell was an open-minded man. Gardener has a closed mind.” […] “Although Gardener is a much more valuable, clever man than Campbell.” […] “But Campbell was a much deeper man than Gardener could ever pretend to be.”

– Vance on Gardener: “It irritates me to read him.” He throws Asimov in with Gardener here. He continues to say that he can understand Gardener being the way he is, being white collar and working at a “fannish” New York magazine.

– But “Asimov oughta know better!” he says. Perhaps Asimov adopted Campbell’s dogmatism, he muses.

-Bushi

bushi

Military Life Story, or What White Privilege, Pt 1

In February of 2009, I was informed I would be sent to Iraq for a year, starting mid-July of the same year.  That gave me some time to prepare, including curtailing my children’s summer visitation and arranging permission for my wife to return to China. Her English wasn’t developed well enough at that time for her to remain in the US for an entire year alone.

That meant putting all our household goods in storage.  I contacted the proper military office 30 days prior to the date we needed to get everything packed up.  It was originally scheduled for 7 and 8 July.  I would then take my wife and kids to the airport on the 9th, then fly out myself on the 10th.

Note that I say “originally scheduled”.  That means there was a change, right?  Right. But not by me.

I was working a little bit late on Thursday, 2 July, to finish things up before departure. See, in the military, we often get a 4-day weekend for Independence Day. Since the 4th of July fell on Saturday that year, that meant pretty much the entire Air Force base had Friday and Monday off.  And most functions were shut down early so people could leave around noon-ish on Thursday.

So at 4pm I get a call from the office in charge of household goods moving and storage. The company they had contracted to pack my household goods and move them into storage had received an offer for a job that paid more, and exercised their clause to cancel my appointment.

I had a choice: I could reschedule for the following week, or I could do it myself.

Rescheduling for the following week was a non-starter.  My wife and I would both be gone. We would have to trust a co-worker to watch over the movers.  We hadn’t had horrible experiences with movers to that point, but even when people are watching over their own items being packed up, there are always items lost/stolen, damaged, or packaged inappropriately.

“Packed inappropriately” includes things packing up garbage and letting it rot in a box with household goods. In our case, my wife was still upset that the movers from the previous had packaged bathroom/toilet and cleaning supplies in the same box as kitchen utensils and plates.  So she didn’t trust the ability of disinterested co-workers to keep a close eye on how the hypothetical next round of packers put things away.

That left doing it ourselves.  My second step was to arrange to rent a truck for the 7th and 8th, and purchasing a metric butt-load of packing supplies, to begin packing up the whole house ourselves on the evening of the 2nd.

That’s the sort of thing you want as many people to come help as possible. So after making the decision, my first step was to immediately began calling all my co-workers…

…it was 5:30pm on the last workday of the week before the Independence Day holiday, and those of you paying attention already know what happened: I got no answer.  From anyone.

Oh, my supervisor was still in, and the Squadron Commander. People in charge work late.  So I explained the situation to both of them. The Commander said the situation was unacceptable.  From my perspective, it was pretty much accepted without a peep. There was nothing she could do to change it.  My supervisor said he’d help, but could only help for about an hour, and he’d see if he could get others to help out.

All I got was my supervisor’s help, for about an hour on Tuesday (loading everything on the truck), and another co-worker’s help for about an hour on Wednesday (unloading everything off the truck and into the storage unit).

So from Thursday night through Tuesday morning, we did nothing but organize stuff and box it up.

Tuesday I started loading, while my wife continued to pack the remaining household items. My supervisor showed up at a good time to help me load a couch, the washer and dryer, and an old-style arcade-style video-game console.  As it got dark, I was still loading stuff up.

Slept.

The next morning, we took it to get weighed and commenced to unloading.  The one co-worker who managed to get some time off from regular duties showed up to help me unload the couch, w/d, and game console.

One event of note: one of the last items loaded onto the truck (it all just *barely* fit) was a reel push-mower.  I had taken off the handle, and just put the body on top of one of the boxes near the top.  I didn’t make allowances for everything shifting as we drove the truck over. So when I opened the back door…

…a box began to fall down.  I stepped up, raised my left hand, and caught it with my flat, upraised palm.  Then I was starting to lower it, I saw the reel mower roll and fall out.

I don’t know how I did it, but I reached out and caught it, as it was falling.

This is what it looked like:

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See that bar there across the front?  That’s what I grabbed. Not, I repeat not, by any of the blades.

That is probably the single-most bad-ass thing I’ve ever done. I felt like Superman.

Anyway, we got it all in storage.  That night, around 10pm, when we were all done, we went to eat at McDs, about the only thing open.  We ordered our food. I was exhausted. I hate a hamburger, then felt nauseous, and didn’t *quite* manage to make it to the toilet before vomiting.

That is the only time in my entire life I vomited from exhaustion.

Also, the tally for weight?  7,700 pounds.  I think it might be fair to say the items I got help with totaled no more than 1400 pounds, so my part would still be at least half of those items.  The rest: all me.

That means that in about a 36 hour-period, I personally lifted, carried, set down, and arranged 14,000 pounds, or 7 tons.  Personally. Myself. With no help.

And I didn’t even hurt my back.

In this, it is quite possible we made some bad choices.  We certainly had choices.  We could have decided that with my unit’s help, my wife could stay in the US by herself.  We could have decided to pack up our stuff a week earlier, and it probably wouldn’t have been cancelled. We could have decided to trust someone to oversee the packing, and just dealt with whatever losses and problems occurred.

But we made the choices we made, and we dealt with the consequences. I didn’t waste energy trying to find evidence of discrimination. I didn’t wallow in self pity. I didn’t waste any time blaming anyone else or trying to avoid the fate.

I just did it.  With hard work, stubborn effort, and persistent consideration of a problem and how I could solve it.

White/Male privilege?  Where?

 

A few thoughts on Jirel

My recent posts over at Castalia House have focused on women in SFF; more specifically the fact that they’re nothing new! Contra one of the sub-bullets of The Narrative, great women writers and characters have been present in fantasy and scifi for ages. My latest example is C.L. Moore, who’s gotten a fair amount of recognition in the OSR/pulp scene all along and has seen a little burst of mentions over the past week or two in particular.

Finding a starting point with a writer as prolific as Burroughs or Brackett or Vance or Moore can prove a challenge. Luckily for me, I had stored away in my mindbox a review of Cirsova’s from last year. Jirel of Joiry just sounded both fascinating and different. For those of us who grew up on endless iterations and derivations of Dragonlance and Gary Stu the Emo Elf and a small, merciful injection of the Hobbit, this stuff continues to be mind-blowing:

A fiery barbarian-woman lordess who journeys to hell and blackens her soul to gain a weapon with which to vanquish her conqueror, only to realize too late her love for him.

Holy crap, that’s a weird tale.

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Anyway, here are a few thoughts and takeaways from reading the five Jirel stories written exclusively by Moore (there was one additional one penned in collaboration with her husband, which wasn’t included in the collection I read).

1. I mentioned this in my CH post, but it bears repeating – the Jirel stories aren’t primarily fantasy in the way the genre is understood today. This is probably because the genres didn’t used to be so rigid. Sure, Jirel of Joiry has fantasy elements. But it’s a weird tale; it’s horror.

2. Related – Jirel of Joiry is widely considered by critics to be a foundational, if underrated, member of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. This isn’t something I really care enough about to make an impassioned argument over, but I honestly don’t really see it. “Jirel Meets Magic” could fall into that basket, but the other tales contained very little if any physical combat. That is, she cuts up a few unseen horrors in the first tale, and she shanks a guard through a door in the last (which was admitedly pretty cool), but most of her conflicts are overcome by virtue of her spiritual and emotional strength, her prodigious courage, and her indominable will. There is certainly plenty of magic and an abundance of the strange and supernatural, but not a whole lot of “sword” going on at all.

 

3. Howard and Vance are still my favorite writers. What I mean is that Howard’s prose is just beautiful and flowing and demonstrates a clear understanding of economy of words. As Kaiju noted, it’s “lean and mean.” And it’s poetic.

Vance, on the other hand, knew how to both wield and craft words and build worlds like a true grandmaster. Some people may find it befuddling or pretentious, it’s true, but I absolutely love it.

That’s to say nothing of their titantic imaginations.

Well, Brackett impressed me to a similar, though not quite (yet) matching degree. Moore has, as well. I found the writing in “Black God’s Kiss” to be a little uneven in a purely technical sense, but I think that is most likely because it was written early on in her career and was perhaps less polished than her succeeding works.

Like with Howard, there is a poetic flow to Moore’s writing that not many authors achieve. The Jirel stories are lean, well-crafted, and wonderfully creative.

4. Moore would have fit right in if she were included in Appendix N.

Edit: After arguing on Twitter with some nerd-friends, I’m going to revise this statement. Personally, I found the Jirel stories to have much the same feel, in terms of content, setting, imagination, and characters, as some of the other beloved Appendix N authors. Compelling arguments have been put forth as to why Jirel is not “D&D,” and so I will concede that point. But the more important statement I wanted to make still stands – if you like the Appendix N stuff, you will like Moore.

Not only did she associate with and befriend writers like Brackett, Lovecraft, and Howard, but the way they inspired one another is pretty clear when you read their stuff.

That’s it for now. Go find some C.L. Moore to read.

-Bushi

bushi

Hiero’s Loooong Journey

It feels like I was working through this book forever, but I finally finished it. This statement, along with our title here, will probably hint as to my overall impression of the story, so let’s get the rating out of the way first again.

Hiero’s Journey: 2.5/5

Let’s add a qualifier to that, though – if you’re interested in the evolution of SFF or perhaps doing your own read-through of Appendix N, I’d bump it up a half notch to 3/5.

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Ok, let’s back up a step before we proceed. Hiero’s Journey, published in 1973, tells the story of a warrior priest in the distant, post-apocalyptic future. It’s a world that’s been ruined by “the Death” and is now peopled by scattered human societies laboring to rebuild civilization; mutant, often monstrous, animals of various shapes and sizes; and Leemutes – deformed humanoid creatures that often appear to be some sick blend of man and animal. Psionics are heavily featured, which is a cool change-up from and stand-in for magic.

Hiero, our hero, is assigned a perilous and important task by the Abbey – the theocratic unified Church that presides over matters both spiritual and scientific in what used to be Canada.

It’s a good setup and Lanier’s got plenty of cool, far-out ideas and critters to play with. Unfortunately the execution just fell flat for me. Despite packing in plenty of action, the pace felt slow. In between battles and chases, the author spends pages describing forest or swamp travel. I couldn’t help thinking that a master like Robert E Howard would never spend so many words repeatedly talking about a moose chewing cud or insects annoying the protagonist and his companions.

Another, perhaps related problem I had was with Lanier’s failure to properly modulate the story’s tension. Literally every enemy Hiero encountered was “evil,” “malignant,” “unnatural,” and something that should not be. When you start off your story fighting Lovecraftian-level antagonists, you’ve set a pretty high bar for yourself. Near the end of the book he encountered a whole ‘nother “faction” (if you can call it that) of evil, but the concept had been diminished by that point since everything else he fought was the worst, too.

It’s also very plain that this story is a product of the 70’s. At first I was psyched that the main character was a warrior priest (a “Killman,” actually), but as things progressed it became clear that whatever Christianity had survived in Lanier’s future world wasn’t a version I identify with.

Before getting to spoilers, in summary I’d say that I really appreciated what Lanier was trying to do, and I think he put out some solid and inspirational ideas. He had trouble pulling off a great story, though.

For further reading check out Jeffro’s retrospective at Castalia House and HP’s thoughts at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

*Spoilers*

 

To expound a little bit, I think Jeffro’s remarks about Luchare are dead-on. She starts off as a promising character. The manner in which Hiero encounters her made me think of Howard, actually, for there’s a Solomon Kane story in which the heroic puritan saves a native girl from flying beast-things, if memory serves. And yes, Howard is now my measuring stick for all SFF. But after saving Luchare and some initial awkward courting, she really serves no purpose to the story. Same with Gimp and his sailers, who are conjured up as a vehicle for some minor threads of plot that could have been reworked. When nameless sailors #5 and #6 are killed, we don’t care. They haven’t been fleshed out at all, except for some half-assed explanation about how they were so impressed by Hiero’s duel that they will now follow him anywhere without regard for life or limb.

We’re told many times that Hiero is a great leader, but he never really doesanything to convince me of it. Events kind of sweep him up. Sometimes he gets people killed but they’re just sailor NPCs so, you know. Lolz. The one time he feels bad about it, the sailors’ captain basically just tells him it’s no biggie.

The nature of Hiero’s vocation is also somewhat of a mystery for those who stop to think about it. He’s a Killman, yes – some combination of ranger and warrior (I think we’re told there’s an “assassin” component in there, but that part was never evident). But what is his function as a priest? He says a few prayers, but he never offers mass or gives blessings. Priestly celibacy is not dogmatic, so it’s easy to see how priests would once again be allowed to marry in a fallen, rebuilding society, but Hiero doesn’t marry. He is perfectly content to bang his girlfriend because, hey, they’re as good as married and he’ll get to it when their quest is done. He’s not even conflicted about it! And then Luchare dupes him into playing stud for the strange queen of the plant women, and of course he doesn’t really get pissed or see anything wrong with that. Not very clerical behavior at all.

Then there’s Brother Aldo and the Eleveners. Ugh. Aldo himself is likable enough, though throughout the whole story there’s kind of an undertone of “is he going to sell out the party and humanity to save Gaia?!” He never does, in this book, anyway. But as Jeffro pointed out, Aldo is too powerful. It’s kind of like if Obi-wan had escaped with the group off the Death Star and continued to go on Luke’s adventures. That would have overshadowed Luke’s growing Force abilities.

But the Eleveners and the Brotherhood. Ugh! Basically we’ve got two secret societies lurking in the shadows, infiltrating humanity’s budding outposts and pulling strings. The Brotherhood represents the evil physicists and hard scientists. They’re just so darn evil that they breed orcs and craft lightning guns and stuff. The Eleveners are some kind of next-level ecologist cult that has chosen to eschew technology in favor of oneness with Nature, and indeed will forsake humanity when necessary for the greater good of “Life.”

Thankfully Lanier doesn’t push and push with his Malthusian narrative, but the explanation about how Earth was thrown into chaos and death because of overpopulation, capitalism, and religious fanaticism, and scientific advancement is…well, stupid. So there was at least one big eye-roller.

Was there anything I did like? Well, I was initially partial to Klootz, Hiero’s intelligent mutant moose. But he was quickly overshadowed by Gorm the bear and was mostly relegated to chewing swamp vegetation.

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Hiero’s Journey pretty clearly had an impact on succeeding SFF. I’ve never played Gamma World, but I hear this book played a big part in inspiring that game. I’d also be surprised if there weren’t threads connecting the Fallout series to Lanier’s tale. At the very least I must give multiple props and a single kudo for that.

-Bushi

bushi

 

 

 

 

PC Koshinbun: A look at the classics

It’s been a while, but it’s time to highlight some cool bits and bobs that I’ve read recently.

 

Dunsany the Critic

At Sacnoth’s Scriptorium, John makes an interesting observation about Lord Dunsany’s conservative taste in poetry.

 

Lewis’ Space Trilogy

Bookstooge took the time to review the third of C.S. Lewis’ Space books, That Hideous Strength. I had completely forgotten that the institute of villains was called NICE in this story. Cool little Easter Egg, perhaps, given that Lewis’s apologetics deride the overvaluation of niceness in society and Christianity.

 

 

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The Art of Carl Lundgren

Over at Castalia House, Morgan drew some attention to artist and frequent SFF illustrator Carl Lundgren. I did a little searching afterwards and the dude has done some pretty awesome Christian paintings, too.

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Barons and Bandits

A while ago I did some musing on how the common depiction of the peasantry seems to vary across cultures and how this may tie into games and stories. Wayne’s post at Semper Initiativus Unum strikes a similar cord, but with a number of solid suggestions for DMs looking to spice up the banditry and nobility (and overlap between the two) in their games.

 

 

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The Maturity of Pulp

Jeffro sure likes to talk about A. Merritt, but that’s not a bad thing. In a piece at Castalia House looking at Burn, Which, Burn, Jeffro points out that despite the misinformed derision of the pulps as shallow and childish, in fact a lot of the stuff was quite mature and “literate.” It wasn’t uncommon to see either explicit references or subtle nods to classical works and authors!

 

 

The Age (or Summer) of Conan

It’s a great thing H.P. is doing at Every Day Should Be Tuesday – dedicating the summer to Howard’s Conan character. Be sure to have a look and follow along!

 

 

Listening to Leigh

Given my new admiration for Leigh Brackett, the Queen of Space Opera, I found Nathan Housley’s look at an old interview of Brackett and her husband Edmond Hamilton to be especially noteworthy.

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-Bushi

bushi

 

 

Quick as a Flash review

Flash Gordon is another one of those old comic series that I’d really love to get into if I could carve out the time and spare the bucks to dig them up. Fortunately, Gordon’s alive™ in other media!

Any nerd or child of the 70’s or 80’s worth his salt is already familiar with (and a huge fan of) the 1980 film featuring the titular character. It’s got Max Von Sydow, Brian Blessed’s most famous line, and a lizard man being disintegrated.

{y:i}Halt, Lizard Man! {y:i}Escape is impossible. Surrender.

What’s not to love?

I also recently discovered an animated incarnation of Flash from 1979-1982. Strangely, there was a feature-length film, the Greatest Adventure of All, that was put together in 1978 or 1979 but not actually aired until the resulting spin-off cartoon was put out to pasture around 1983. Odd.

I haven’t rooted around for the series yet, but the film is up on YouTube. I won’t link it here for fear of bringing the Copyright police down on the channel, but feel free to just search for the Greatest Adventure of All.

I gave it a watch and I was pleased. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s exciting. There’s plenty of action, and if you’re a fan of the live action movie you’ll recognize most of the characters. I can’t speak to how well they resemble their comic book origins, but for the most part they match up pretty well with their film counterparts.

Also, the men are men and the women are women!

zharkov
Zarkov shoots at a dinosaur
Aura
Aura lounges around all sexy-like

I’m also glad they included Thun, the prince of the Lion men. He didn’t make it into the live action film, probably because of how big a pain in the ass it would have been to make a convincing-looking lion man.

Anyway if you’ve got an hour and a half to kill or if you usually spend your lunch breaks staring at your cube wall, look it up and give it a watch!

Bonus fact: If you’re a fan of the old Shee-Ra cartoon, you’ll also recognize the voice of Melendy Britt (who voiced Shee-Ra) as Princess Aura.

-Bushi

bushi