BOOK REVIEW: The Compact Vance Integral Edition

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

Despite the fact that I've recently started to enjoy ebooks and ereaders, I’ve been a fanatical reader and collector of regular, “analog” books my entire life. I have a massive collection of science fiction and fantasy that fills most of two rooms, including two closets stuffed full of pulp magazines. Today I'd like to discuss the complete works collection of Jack Vance that was especially created for the devoted (crazed?) bibliophile.
Jack Vance is one of my favorite authors, and I have collected nearly everything he's written on an overflowing double-sided shelf of dog-eared paperbacks, trades, and a few hardbacks, with multiple editions of many books.
A few years ago Paul Rhoads, a painter and rabid Vance fan came up with the idea of "a classic, complete and archival edition [of Vance’s work], produced by volunteer work organized on the internet" (for a full description of the project see http://www.vanceintegral.com). The Integral Edition reflected authorial intent with Vance’s preferred titles and text and ran to 45 beautiful illustrated volumes, providing scholars and readers of Vance with accurate texts to read and giving Vance the sort of collected edition rarely afforded genre writers.
The only way to make the edition commercially viable was to rely exclusively on volunteers, and some 250 proofread the 44 volumes. The project exemplifies the hobbies and activities of SF fandom, the amateur volunteerism that allows conventions to be organized and fanzines to be published. This communal activity shapes modern science fiction’s megatext of ideas as well as its vibrant community.
The VIE website tells us that Rhoads and the early volunteers underestimated the amount of proofreading and editing work. Much of Vance's work was out of print and only available in crumbling, textually inaccurate paperbacks, with only a few of the manuscripts available from the Vance family.
Many of Vance's editors did not take his work seriously since he was "only" a science fiction writer, a genre one step up from pornography in some editors’ eyes. The VIE website gives numerous examples of how Vance was poorly served by editors. The story "Gold and Iron" had a happy ending tacked on that Vance disavowed. The 1st published edition of the novel Emphyrio, one of Vance's best novels, was riddled with textual errors and changes. The texts were sometimes edited for length in pulp magazines. The editors often changed the titles; for example, Cugel the Clever became The Eyes of the Overworld; Vance commented for that title to make sense it should be, The Eyes of the Underworld. Cugel: The Skybreak Splatterlight -- a mixup of previously published stories – became Cugel's Saga. The project became an act of "textual restoration" (http://www.vanceintegral.com).
At the time The Vance Integral Edition was released, I didn’t have the cash to purchase the set, which I still regret. Recently a new edition was released, The Compact Vance Integral Edition, which has taken the 44 volumes and squashed them into six mammoth books. This time I was able to subscribe. The total price for the volumes is $1295 plus postage and handling. Each volume contains the equivalent of 10 books, so you're getting about 60 books, which actually is not a bad price (around $21 a book). As of this writing there are still a few subscriptions left, so if you want to take advantage do so soon.
I’m quite pleased by the books: they are sturdy and printed on high quality paper. I feared the large books would be unwieldy to read, but I’ve found them to be lighter than I expected, although I don’t really carry them around with me. These books are built for reading at home or at a desk, not so much on the train or carried around in your laptop bag. The print is comfortable on the eyes, although the double columns of text (like a newspaper) are in a small font.
The book’s illustrations are good, but I would prefer them to be more frequent. I have just begun to dip into these books, so I will give some general observations.
The first novel I started rereading from Volume I was The Magnificant Showboats of the Lower Vissel River, Lune XXIII South, Big Planet, the sequel to Big Planet and titled in the paperback edition Showboat World. Vance's restored title is classier and reflects the baroque and imaginative cultures of the world (although I can understand why the editor felt the original title was too long and complex for a paperback original).
The Magnificent Showboats demonstrates Vance’s ability to create unique and bizarre cultures, which he does more effectively than any other SF writer. Many SF writers cannot create alien or unusual cultures, but in The Magnificent Showboats – as in many other works -- Vance creates a picturesque and unusual culture in nearly every chapter.
Vance’s also creates detailed imaginary worlds. Big Planet, the setting for The Magnificent Showboats, is a vast world, with a diameter much larger than Earth’s, but it has few metals in its crust and is less dense, causing its gravity to be only slightly greater than the terrestrial norm. Big Planet is a libertarian frontier world that exists beyond the civilized galaxy’s ordered law where nonconformists journey to experience the freedom of its sprawling, varied, and anarchic life.
The novel also demonstrates some of the weaknesses of Vance’s writing; plots and narrative structure are not his forte. The Magnificent Showboats, like many of Vance's novels, contains a loose structure because of his interest in a picturesque narrative, and resembles an interconnected short story collection or a series of strung together episodes. Vance enjoys portraying roguish characters careening from one bizarre and detailed culture to another, leaving the plot loose and unfocused.
One of Vance’s great themes is that manners and morals change from society to society; he satirizes the beliefs and mores of his invented cultures as a way of exploring the limitations of all human belief systems. An individualist, Vance is skeptical of all absolutes because every society, no matter how democratic or rational places limits on human liberty and choice.
Vance’s dialogue is unrealistic but enjoyable. His characters employ a sophisticated vocabulary, constant irony, banter, and humor.
Take this interaction between two roguish salesmen of possibly fake magical relics:
Fianoster, observing, beckoned him to approach. “Enter, my friend, enter. How goes your trade?”
“In all candor, not too well,” said Cugel. “I am both perplexed and disappointed, for my talisments are not obviously useless.”
“I can resolve your perplexity,” said Fianosther. “Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.”
“No need,” said Cugel. “My interest was cursory.” (Cugel the Clever. The Complete Jack Vance. II. 237).
You can see the sophisticated language, the roguish behavior, the irony, and the humor that pervades Vance’s writing. He rarely describes his monsters; we never know exactly what an erb looks like, the word is enough to imagine a vicious short beast with a mouth lined with teeth.
Vance’s writing displays an extensive vocabulary; when I read his work I find myself constantly looking up the obscure and exotic words that add texture to his worlds. The argument has often been made that SF writers employ a utilitarian or plain style. Vance writes in a baroque, sophisticated style unlike any other genre writer.
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 the 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 . . . . “(Mazirian the Magician. The Complete Jack Vance. III.197).
There’s no doubt that Vance’s writing is set on another world and in another time, his style and description makes that apparent from paragraph to paragraph.
Clarges was an ancient city; structures, monuments, manors, old taverns, docks and warehouses two or even three thousand years old were common. The citizens of the Reach cherished these links with the past, drawing from them an unconscious comfort, a mystical sense of identification with the continuity of the city. The unique variation of the free-enterprise system by which they lived, however, urged them to innovation; as a result Clarges was a curious medley of the hoary and the novel” (Clarges, IV, 575).
Vance writes science fantasy and space opera rather than hard SF for the most part; however, you can find a few works of hard SF in his corpus. In "The Gift of Gab" Vance's engineering background and his comfort zone with hard science extrapolation becomes apparent. Vance wrote science fantasy not because he was incapable of writing hard SF; he just preferred more fantastic types of writing. “The Gift of Gab” appeared originally in a 1955 edition of Astounding, which was the best hard SF magazine of the 50s. The setting is an alien planet on a Bio-Minerals raft that grinds barnacles for tantalum, and pulverizes rhenium-rich sea-slugs as well as coral for rhodium salts. The tantalum is a good example of futuristic extrapolation because tantalum has become more essential for modern civilization since the story was written. Tantulum is used to make capacitors for virtually every digital electronic device. Rhenium is an extremely rare and valuable element that’s used in the turbine blades of fighter jets. Much of the story revolves around the “dekabrach,” which are well-portrayed aliens, seal or human-length creatures that possess a cluster of ten arms like the arms of a starfish with a black patch in the center that may be an eye. The characters have to determine whether the dedabrach have intelligence or not, since they don’t seem to have language or individual personalities.
In a number of tales, Vance created unusual aliens with group minds or a type of consciousness vastly different than humans. In the far future tale The Last Castle, a group of enslaved aliens rebel against the human race and destroy virtually every human community. The aliens hear a human giving a speech advocating the liberation of the aliens from slavery and returning them to their home world. The aliens share a group mind, and have no concept of individualism, so they think that the human speaks for the entire human race. The aliens evolved on a home world so horrific that they would do anything to avoid returning there. They prefer slavery to existence on their home world.
Vance’s work is the production of an individualistic and brilliant writer important to the development of science fiction and fantasy. His work bursts with vivid color, strangeness, and humor as his baroque and elegant writing eschews naturalism in favor of worlds and characters that are theatrical and bizarre. I’ve written more extensively about Vance in the past; see my essay “An Individualist and a World Creator” (http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10107).
I’m going to write more about Vance in the forthcoming months, including an essay about Vance’s libertarian novels, which I think will appeal to readers on this site. But for now, check out the websites of the Vance Integral Edition and the Compact Vance Integral Edition. If you're a rabid Vance reader like myself, consider buying one of the remaining subscriptions.

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Robert Bee is a freelance writer and full-time librarian living in New Jersey.

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