Actually, I expatiated on the topic of edges, and also voids, and Vance's predilection for world's of the "ancient future" in Extant 19. I rather think this is one of my better essays on JV's writings. I really think I have struck upon a couple of leading motifs in Vance's SF. Here's the whole 2,278 words:

Jack Vance's Lost Worlds and Ancient Futures

David B. Williams

In Cosmopolis 49, I wrote about the dire beasts and ghastly fiends that populate many of Jack Vance's fantasy and SF works. These aren't the only recurring signatures in Vance's writing. One need only consider his perfect addiction to heroines of petit, even boyish figure, his preference for calling periodicals "journals" instead of magazines, and his habitual use of the nautical term "saloon". But these are trifles. Other, possibly more substantial motifs have engaged my attention: Vance's predilection for edges and voids in his galactic cosmography, the related topic of lost or isolated worlds, and his practice of setting stories in what I call the "ancient future".

Edges and Voids

You will seldom find Jack Vance or his imagined worlds in the middle of a cozy crowd. Vance is attracted to edges and empty places. Indeed, he often manages to combine both edges and voids:

"Halfway along the Perseid Arm a capricious swirl of galactic gravitation has caught up ten thousand stars and sent them streaming away at an angle, with a curl and a flourish at the end. This is Mircea's Wisp. To the side of the curl, at seeming risk of wandering away into the void, is the Purple Rose System."

-- Araminta Station

The Alastor Cluster also is near an edge and surrounded by a void:

"Out toward the rim of the galaxy hangs Alastor Cluster, a whorl of 30,000 live stars in an irregular volume twenty to thirty light years in diameter. The surrounding region is dark and, except for a few hermit stars, unoccupied."

-- Trullion, Alastor 2262

But even in the star-spangled volume of Alastor Cluster, you can rely on Vance to situate his planet of interest at an edge:

"Chamber 2262 along the Ring of the Worlds pertains to Trullion, the lone planet of a small white star, one spark in a spray curling out toward the Cluster's edge."

-- Trullion, Alastor 2262

Like Big Planet, one void has received a brutally descriptive name:

"The eastern fringe of the Gaean Reach is bounded by a remarkable pocket of emptiness: the Great Hole. The region is virtually untraveled: spacemen find no inducement to enter, while beyond hangs Zangwill Reef, a flowing band of stars with a baleful reputation. The Great Hole, therefore, is a lonely place. At the very center of the Great Hole hangs the star Mora."

-- Maske: Thaery

Then there is the ultimate edge and the greatest void of all:

"The Distilcord, leaving Yellow Rose astern, set a course away from the glimmer of the galaxy and out into the void. Far ahead glittered Night Lamp, a vagabond star which had broken free of galactic gravity to wander alone, without orbit or destination."

-- Night Lamp

It's probably no accident that Vance has resided for 90 years within a few miles of the California coast, at the edge of the vast American continent. It is impossible to imagine him living at ease in Nebraska, or Ohio.

Lost Worlds

There is another kind of edge or void - the edge of knowledge, the void of the forgotten - and here Vance has located his many lost or isolated worlds. Thamber, for example, is known only through fairy tales and nursery rhymes and (no surprise) is also found at an edge:

"It's a fact," said Gersen. "We're at the edge of the galaxy: the 'verge extreme.' Somewhere, dead ahead, should be 'Thamber's gleam.'"

-- The Killing Machine

Sharing Thamber's edginess, another isolated world is at least recorded in the standard reference works:

"According to the authoritative Handbook of the Planets, Nilo-May had been located originally by the legendary Wilbur Wailey. The star Yellow Rose, along with Nilo-May, wandered across an empty gulf near the edge of the galaxy, in a region almost forgotten by the rest of the Reach."

-- Night Lamp

Isolation is, of course, often a symmetrical condition, and the inhabitants of lost worlds may not be aware that they are forgotten:

"The world Durdane lies beyond that shimmering wall of stars known as the Schiafarilla Cluster. The inhabitants of Durdane have long lost contact with the Earth worlds and are only dimly aware that other human places exist."

-- The Brave Free Men, synopsis of part one, F&SF, August 1972

Sometimes history, rather than time and neglect, has isolated remote planets:

"Sixteen hundred years before, with war raging through space, a group of space captains, their home bases destroyed, had taken refuge on Pangborn. To protect themselves against vengeful enemies, they built great forts armed with weapons from the dismantled spaceships."

-- "The Miracle Workers"

"The Miracle Workers", published in 1958, is the first of three eerily similar stories, which clearly reflect a mode of isolation that appealed to Vance. In "The Dragon Masters" (1962) interstellar war again casts a remnant human population onto an isolated, rugged planet:

"You know the legends as well as I, perhaps better. Our people came to Aerlith as exiles during the War of the Ten Stars. The Nightmare Coalition apparently had defeated the Old Rule, but how the war ended" - he threw up his hands - "who can say?"

-- Ervis Carcolo to Joaz Banbeck, "The Dragon Masters"

In "The Last Castle" (1966), Vance converts Earth itself into a lost world. The gentlemen of Castle Hagedorn speak of their spaceships as "our link with the Home Worlds." The spaceships are maintained but never used, so this link is notional only.

"Looking down, Xanten reflected that though the human stock was native to this soil, and though his immediate ancestors had maintained their holdings for seven hundred years, Earth still seemed an alien world. The reason of course was by no means mysterious or rooted in paradox. After the Six-Star War, Earth had lain fallow for three thousand years, unpopulated save for a handful of anguished wretches who somehow had survived the cataclysm and who had become semibarbaric Nomads. Then seven hundred years ago certain rich lords of Altair, motivated to some extent by political disaffection, but no less by caprice, had decided to return to Earth."

-- "The Last Castle"

In the vast Gaean Reach, some worlds are lost through mere carelessness, some are isolated by choice - the Mandate of Isolation enforced by the Thariots of Maske, or the similar doctrine of the Roum on Fader:

"In three words: we want to insulate Romarth from the Gaean Reach. Our ancestors traveled as far as they could, out of the galaxy, across the void to the star Night Lamp. Isolation was the guiding principle then, at the dawn of our history, as it is now in the sad glory of our sunset."

--Bariano to Maihac, Night Lamp

Vance's penchant for planets isolated in space or time may be ascribable to his psychic makeup. It has been observed that no man is an island, but Vance is in some ways an insular man, "a friendly but not public person" as Jack Rawlins described him. He has acquired many friends over the years, he enjoys and has often hosted social gatherings. But he admits that he is not group-minded by nature. And as a writer he stands apart, he does not care to be connected to the mainland of SF.

Ancient futures

Unlike many SF authors, Jack Vance doesn't write about first contacts, pioneer societies, the discovery and colonization of new worlds. He favors worlds with long histories of human occupancy. Among Jack Vance's chosen settings, Araminta Station on Cadwal is a raw frontier settlement, its history stretching back a mere thousand years. Vance chooses to set his stories in an ancient future.

The Demon Princes novels, begun in the early 1960s, are set in the Oikumene, a mere 1,500 years in the future, when new planets are being discovered and the vocation of locator is a common calling. But, judging by later works, Vance found this time span too cramped for the kinds of human evolution, physical and especially social, he wished to examine.

In the Demon Princes novels he fondly notes the thousand-year-old structures of the Old Quarter of Patris on Krokinole and New Wexford on Aloysius, but these buildings thrust their foundations into virgin soil. It strains the reader's credulity to think that the Krokinole Imps or the vegetarians of New Concept, Marhab Six, could have evolved so far from the human mainstream in only a dozen centuries.

In the Tschai novels, composed in the late 1960s, Vance allowed himself more temporal scope. Adam Reith boasts to Traz that human history on Earth goes back 10,000 years. But Traz laughs: "Once, before I carried Onmale, the tribe entered the ruins of old Carcegus and there captured a Pnumekin. The magicians tortured him to gain knowledge, but he spoke only to curse each minute of the fifty-two thousand years that men had lived on Tschai . . . Fifty-two thousand years against your ten thousand years. It is all very strange."

In the ancient future of Tschai, the human servants of the several alien species have partially evolved to approximate the physical types of their masters. The feral humans have spread across the planet and developed a wide variety of distinctive races and cultures.

Beginning in 1973, Vance set his SF novels in the Gaean Reach, perhaps 30,000 years in the Oikumene's future. There do not seem to have been any dramatic technical developments in the intervening millennia, but the elapsed time provides Vance with many more opportunities for lost worlds and divergent cultural, and even genetic, evolution.

As already noted, we learn in Night Lamp that the legendary locator Wilbur Wailey discovered the planet Nilo-May. Legendary indeed, for we are told in a footnote that Wailey was active some 5,000 years before Tawn Maihac and Gaing Neitzbeck visit Nilo-May. It's easy to lose track of a planet over a span of five millennia.

Being a seaman at heart, Vance often speaks of human expansion into the galaxy in terms of waves, surges, and tides. These fluid phenomena are cyclical, allowing planets to be settled and, when the tide turns, forgotten.

"In Handbook to the Inhabited Worlds Glawen learned that Nion had first been explored in the remote past, during the first great surge of men across space. The human tide had slackened and then receded, notably from the far side of the Jingles, leaving Nion in near-isolation for thousands of years."

-- Ecce and Old Earth

Later surges of settlement encounter worlds long inhabited, with highly variegated cultures, creating situations ripe with story potential.

"No one knows how many waves of human migration have crossed the Great Hole to Mora; perhaps no more than two. The most recent arrivals, a fourteen-ship contingent of Credential Renunciators from the world Diosophede, discovered upon Maske and Skay a population of great antiquity, human but considerably diverged from Homo gaea: the Saidanese, of a species which became known as Homo mora."

-- Maske: Thaery

When the human refugees in "The Dragon Masters" arrived on Aerlith, they discovered a human population, the Sacerdotes, already long established. The planet Koryphon also experienced previous waves of human and even nonhuman settlement, a key element in the novel.

By setting his stories in a long-established society, Vance also avoids having to detail the remarkable events that must have occurred to create his incredible social and political arrangements - the torque system of Durdane, for example, or the human hide hunters at Sholo on the planet Terce who supply a flourishing art market.

The Dying Earth, of course, is the most ancient future of all. What could be nearer the edge of history than the 21st Aeon, when the sun is red and blotchy and totters down the sky like a sick animal?

In this remote future, magic has long since replaced technology, but the golden age of Grand Motholam is so far removed that even the fundamentals of magic are nearly forgotten. The magicians rely on a few surviving manuals, which they utilize by rote without profound understanding of the underlying principles.

Again, all is loss - lost aeons, lost knowledge. The Dying Earth stories were Vance's earliest successful fictions. A beginning writer has an unlimited choice of subjects and settings. It may be indicative, then, that Vance chose to place his first tales in a setting at the remote edge of human history, when everything except human passions is wearing away and fading from memory.

In this regard, Vance's psyche may again play a role. "I have a strong sense of loss," he confesses. He enshrined one aspect of this sentiment in his famous phrase, "the sweet fugacity of life."

Vance exercised this sense of loss in high ironic form in the Lyonesse sequence: all the adventures, all the triumphs and tragedies are futile in an ultimate sense, because the reader knows that, regardless of Murgen's striving, the Elder Isles are doomed to sink into the Atlantic Ocean, perhaps in the surviving characters' lifetimes. All the loves and hates, all the magic will be lost, to be recalled only faintly in myth.

It's no surprise that, of the several alien races on the planet Tschai, Vance seems most sympathetic to the Pnume, compilers of a five-million year history of their planet. The Pnume savor the past and carefully preserve its tokens in the dim silence of Foreverness.

Like the Pnume, Jack Vance savors that which is gone, the unremembered aeons, the forgotten lore, the lost planets. For six decades his attraction to the edges of space and time, his piquant sense of the transitory nature of single lives and vast civilizations, has inspired Vance to write stories of forgotten worlds and ancient futures.


Last Edited By: David B Williams Jul 26 08 8:04 AM. Edited 1 time.