SF/Fantasy writer Jack Vance's novel "The Gray Prince" is kind of off putting - SPOILERS!

I’ve been getting into Jack Vance lately and after “The Cadwal Chronicles”, read “Tales of the Dying Earth” which I quite enjoyed and then took up “The Gray Prince”.

Vance always seems to be making some kind of tangential political point but in this novel it was front and center and the usual tropes got turned on their head. The (human) land barons conquerors who stole the land by force from long term settlers who had gone nativist are the morally superior good guys with their vast plantation style ranches. The aboriginal, serf like (human) natives who were conquered by the more technologically advanced barons are third class citizens and portrayed variously as violent and duplicitous or faithful and subservient vassals. It’s basically making a positive argument for apartheid.

The parallels to US and the Indian history and US slavery were a bit too close to ignore with “might makes right” is reality so suck it liberals" taking center stage. Not a very subtle context from an author I was growing to admire.

Agreed. It’s an uncomfortable story. The moral lessons do not echo well to us today.

The same is true for the laboring class in the Cadwal Chronicles, who are essentially illegal immigrants who have grown too numerous to be deported. That series, too, embraces a kind of apartheid message.

The same is true for “The Last Castle,” which pretty much made Vance’s reputation and was at least arguably his first true masterpiece. The “Meks” are enslaved, and rise up in revolt…but Vance’s sympathies are more against them than for them (although he shows at least a hesitant ambiguity in his condemnation.)

Allow me to recommend (before Your Great Darsh Face beats me to it, the five “Demon Prince” novels: “Star King,” “The Killing Machine,” “The Palace of Love,” “The Face” and “The Book of Dreams.”

These (along with the four Tschai books) are, in my opinion, the apex, the apogee, the ultimate triumph of Vance’s skill as a writer. They are saucy, clever, witty, inventive, insightful, deep, and…FUN!

(The quotes that open the chapters are, by themselves, better than many novelists’ entire works!)

Vance is also cruelly anti-religious, and makes mock of faith and theology in coarse and vulgar ways. (Even the Demon Prince novels suffer from his japes at the expense of religious faith.) He was a brilliant writer, and few, if any, challenge his mastery of language. But he indulged his political and social views in his writing – not as blatantly as Heinlein or Asimov, but without stinting himself.

As with many other outspoken writers – Mark Twain comes to mind! – you have to make allowances in your reading if you are to enjoy his work. I hope you will continue to explore Vance, for there are true treasures to be found.

Vance definitely has an anti-government, anti-authority, pro-individual streak running through most of his work, and would be considered very politically incorrect if he were on the radar of the mainstream media. It’s one of the reasons I love his writing so much. I’m sure he himself would have ranked high in “The Institute” if he were to inhabit his own universe.

If you want to see him really skewer the Powers That Be, check out The Languages of Pao.

I’ve been on a Vance kick lately and discovered that while he’s a master of creating decadent societies with fascinating characters, his plots are weak. * The Killing Machine*, for instance has a plot twist that makes nonsense of everything that goes before.

The villain plots to do something he’s already achieved

Other books seem to have rushed endings, as though he was getting up to his word limit so he had to wrap it up.

Despite this, I still want to read more of his work.

I agree that plotting wasn’t Vance’s strong suit, but it’s that inimitable Vance style that keeps you reading. Also he’d sometimes tire of a series halfway through. I remember we had to wait years for Kirth Gersen to get round to the last two Demon Princes, Lens Larque and Howard Alan Treesong, and most Vanceans had given up on the Master ever writing them.

My favorite Vance character of all is Cugel the Clever, of Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga. I really miss waiting for the next new Vance to appear and that rush of pure pleasure when seeing it appear in the bookstore.

Also “Emphyrio,” where he wrecks an entire planetary civilization. (As it was based on fundamental injustice, it is not an unreasonable thing to do. But, oy vey, what a crash!)

These two are examples of Vance in his “rising star” phase. A brilliant and accomplished master, but not yet at the ultimate pinnacle of his skill.

Another mild flaw in the man’s work: it took him all the way until “Ecce and Old Earth” to manage to write a female protagonist and do it well. Up until then, his women were princesses in need of rescue, or girlygirls, or, by and large, nonentities.

(A strange exception is the team, a man and a woman, in “The Five Gold Bands” The woman has more definition than any other female character Vance wrote, until Wayness Tamm.)

Admittedly his style and use of language are what most Vance fans appreciate the most. But the last page of The Face; Wow, what an ending! I’m sure Your Great Darsh Face, of all people, would agree.

Yes, indeed. I rate Gersen’s last-line “fuck you” to the snobbish neighbour who wouldn’t let him buy a house (or marry his daughter) as one of the great exit lines of all time.

I’ve read very little Vance otherwise. I stumbled across Star King more or less by accident in about 1973, enjoyed it greatly, and spent years thinking “What a great idea! If only he’d written a series”. And then in 1980, blow me down if I don’t find The Killing Machine and The Palace of Love in a bookshop with The Face hard on their heels.

Re: The Killing Machine.
I have a tendency to miss minor subtle plot points but I didn’t notice that at all .

Nor I - and I tend to catch minor subtle plot points, and have reread The Killing Machine within the last year. Spill, please.

I confess to having bought The Palace of Love, solely for the salacious (and excellent!) Gino D’Achille cover art. Never regretted it for a microsecond: utterly brilliant book.

The descriptions of Ambeulles are totally convincing: the place has a reality that transcends time and place. It is a town that ought to exist today…and ought to exist five hundred years from now.

OK. Spoilers ahead:

The main plot involves Alusz Iphegenia Eperje Tokay, a woman who “kidnaps” herself on a planet where kidnap victims are held until the ransom is paid. She has set up a ridiculously high ransom to avoid being forced to marry the villain Kokor Hekkus (I love Vance’s names!). Hekkus is kidnapping people and using the money to ransom her. Alusz hates Hekkus and is already betrothed to Sion Trumble.

But the big twist is Trumble is really Hekkus.

So Hekkus would have gotten what he wanted simply by saying, “Don’t be ridiculous. Why would I want to marry Alusz Iphegenia Eperje Tokay?” and take no further action.

I don’t recall if Alusz could have cancelled her own ransom, but even without that, Hekkus had no reason to say anything about marrying her when he was already engaged to her as his alter ego.

Well … yes and no. while the reveal at the end shows the villain is basically a hideous face and identity swapping vampirish ghoul who renders children for this age defying elixir, having her as evil Hekkus vs the knight hero Trumble is kind of the point of his performance. He’s actually two entirely different people in this scenario and it’s important to (him) stylistically, esthetically, philosophically to have her as evil Hekkus his primary personality vs the hero personality. The fact that he’s kinda-sorta cuckoo for cocoa puffs nuts underlies a lot of his decisions.

Yes. Also, the fact that Kokor Hekkus is able to go “Ten thousand million SVU? Fine, I’ll hold the children of a hundred billionaires to ransom. How’d you like them apples, Princess?” and enjoy her squirming in the corner she’s painted herself into.

Yeah, I agree with **astro **and **YGDF **in never having a problem with that. Also, once she DID ransom herself into Interchange, he couldn’t have her as *either *of his personalities until he raised the ransom.

And indeed Alusz Iphegenia is merely a player in the great drama scripted by Kokor Hekkus - just another cause for a nice war between Hekkus and Trumble in which there get to be lots of exciting bloody battles and so on, while Hekkus is guaranteed to come out on the winning side.

It was probably a crimp in Hekkus’s plans that she got hold of a spaceship and was desperate enough to fly it completely untrained and with only the Operator’s Manual to guide her, but certainly prior to that he’d had no cause to short-circuit the war between his own two factions. Playing Risk with the entire population of Thamber was what Kokor Hekkus did.

G’wan and beat that! I don’t know of anybody who has better character names than Jack Vance!