Wednesday 14 September 2022

Ranking Vance's SF and Fantasy Novels

It is fundamentally pointless and also a category error to rank books, works of art, or pieces of music. But it's fun all the same.

These rankings are given subject to the same proviso as yesterday: I've not been able to get my hands on a copy of The Five Gold Bands, Vandals of the Void, To Live Forever, and The Languages of Pao. My assumption is that these books would be low down the list anyway; Vance definitely underwent a radical improvement beginning in the mid-late 60s, and anything written before that is likely to be pretty standard hard-boiled Ray Bradbury-esque fare. I could of course be wrong. 

The rankings are subject to the additional proviso: this is about Vance's novels, not short story collections.

First, the big question: which is Vance's best series? This will not include the Cugel novels, the 'Big Planet' ones, or Ports of Call/Lurulu; the first and last of these are really best understood as one contiguous story, and the 'Big Planet' books are totally unrelated to each other and are not really to be considered a series at all. 

For my money, the series can be ranked accordingly (best to worst):

1. Lyonesse. The books were written when Vance was at the absolute zenith of his powers, and you won't find a better introduction to his oeuvre. Humour, irony, cruelty, invention, vindictiveness, strange cultures - the Lyonesse books have it all.

2. Planet of Adventure. It is so hard to choose between this series and the Demon Princes, but this wins out just because I love the setting so much - by far and away the most interesting, beautiful and strange that Vance created. I will be forever disappointed that there is already a Tschai-based RPG book, because I would kill for the license. 

3. The Demon Princes. These are the quintessential Gaean Reach books. The charm and wonder of the setting are smeared across them, and while the first in the series is pretty banal, the last three volumes are some of Vance's greatest standalone works.

4. Alastor. The Alastor books are on average so great that it seems crazy to be ranking them fourth. Wyst in particular is a supreme work of genius (it is right up there with my absolute favourite Vance books). But here we come down to sheer caprice; the Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes series' have an ineffable  quality to them that makes me want to rank them higher - I think it may simply come down to having contiguous narratives linking the volumes together. 

5. Cadwal Chronicles. How can I rank Cadwal fifth? Ecce and Old Earth may be the most enjoyable novel I have ever read - I wish it was 1000 pages long - and Araminta Station is great too. Sadly, the last volume in the series feels like an afterthought or contractual requirement, and lets the series down as a whole.

6. Durdane. It has to be said that while the Durdane books have their moments, as a whole they feel lacklustre when set against Vance's other work. There is something interesting going on in all of them, but the prevailing mood is somehow perfunctory. 

Second, which is Vance's best standalone non-series novel? Again, this won't include the two Cugel books or Ports of Call/Lurulu, which are not really standalone books. For me the top 5, in ascending order, are:

5. The Blue World. The plot resolves itself too rapidly but the worldbuilding is exquisite and the whole exercise both wonderfully inventive and thought-provoking. There are some great set-pieces too.

4. Space Opera. A completely frivolous but deeply enjoyable novel; I normally hate comedic fiction and rarely find it funny, but this is at times belly-laugh inducing.

3. Night Lamp. A late-period novel, dark and cruel, with bleak implications about human nature, but utterly absorbing all the same. 

2. The Magnificent Showboats... Another of Vance's great comedies, unlike anything else he wrote and yet very clearly and obviously his own. A blissful shaggy-dog story with lovably roguish protagonists and a genuinely pleasing resolution. A book to put a smile on one's face. 

1. Emphyrio. I wrote about this fabulous book in depth here; suffice to say that, as I put it in my lengthy review, it is at least the equal in terms of quality of a Viriconium or Book of the New Sun, and vastly shorter to boot. 

Third and finally, just for shits and giggles, let's whittle all of Vance's books (whether standalone or part of a series) down to a final top 10. In ascending order:

10. Ports of Call. A book that had me almost squirming with glee from start to finish. Full of brilliantly funny scenes and dialogue - you can sense Vance smiling to himself throughout. 

9. The Green Pearl. It is hard to pick a favourite from the Lyonesse books, but this is probably the one I liked most - Aillas and Tatzel's adventures are a joy to read. 

8. The Book of Dreams. Howard Alan Treesong is one of the great villains of the SF genre, and the way his character is revealed through his childhood exercise books is a feat of sheer prose skill - an utterly convincing portrayal of narcissism and resentment. 

7. Cugel's Saga. Readers will have gathered that, while I like the Dying Earth books, I don't rave about them - there are better examples of all of their best qualities in Vance's back catalogue. With that said, Cugel's Saga is a real treat, and  'The Inn of Blue Lamps' is probably my all-time favourite Vance scene. 

6. The Palace of Love. This book has mystified and compelled me ever since I first read it, and I cannot shake the sense that there is something truly profound at work in its pages. This is a novel that means something. I can't quite get to the bottom of what. 

5. The Magnificent Showboats... See above.

4. Emphyrio. See above. 

3. The Dirdir. Howard Alan Treesong is a great villain, as mentioned previously, but Aila Woudiver might be even better. In the film adaptation of The Dirdir which I will some day direct, he will be played by a resurrected Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he will no doubt receive a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a result. Even setting Woudiver aside, I love the central characters in this book and the way in which they grow to love each other over the course of their adventures - all depicted in the most authentic and understated fashion. A beautiful achievement. 

2. Ecce and Old Earth. I said above that Ecce and Old Earth may be the most enjoyable novel I have ever read, and I still have a hard time thinking of a book that has given me more pleasure. What is all the more remarkable is that the first and last acts are quite superfluous; it is the quality of the central portion alone which elevates Ecce above almost all of the rest of Vance's fiction. It's like drinking vintage tawny port after a great pub lunch in front of a roaring fire in winter.

1. Wyst: Alastor 1716. If there was any justice in the world this book would be mentioned in the same breath as A Brave New World or 1984 - a work of great genius and insight that transcends genre boundaries and should be being read in schools. 

You will no doubt disagree with most, if not all, of this. That is, of course, the point!


  1. You are doing the Lord's work here. Lots to add to the "to read" pile.

  2. I have convinced myself that the protagonist's crew in Ports of Call/Lurulu are several previous Vance characters, being redeemed.

    Captain Maloof seems to me to be a less-misanthropic Magnus Ridolph. He has the same urbanity and carefully-chosen words, and a similar bent to intellectualism.

    Chief Engineer Schwatzendale is a less vile Cugel the Clever. He is similarly egotistical and tends towards con-artistry, but his goals are never malicious or cruel, just mildly opportunistic or serving his sense of justice.

    Supercargo Myron Tany is the later Vance protagonists, like Glawen Clattuc or Jaro Fath, trying to find his way while people he trusts attempt to callously use him in their schemes.

    Chief Steward Wingo gave me pause in my theory, until it hit me -- he's a non-criminal version of Ronald Wilby, or maybe even Howard Alan Treesong, a dreamer who gives more weight to his internal universe than the external one we all share.

    I don't think this theory is exact, but it struck me after reading his last two books that it might have been Vance redeeming characters who had detestable qualities who he felt he might be able to do "better" at the height of his powers.

    1. Interesting idea, although I think it more plausible to say that these are archetypes who appear again and again in Vance's fiction Ports of Call/Lurulu are a kind of farewell to them. My one main criticism of those books, by the way, is that Myron Tany is so bland - there is a lot more to a Glawen Clattuc or Jaro Fath. Myron mostly just seems to be there to get the ball rolling at the start.

  3. I believe that To Live Forever is available from Amazon under the title Clarges.

  4. Really smart and perceptive rankings (is that just another way of saying they're similar to mine?). Swap Durdane and Cadwall. Eyes of the Overworld and Rhialto deserve spots in the mix.

    But I am convinced you are trolling us by ranking Wyst as the #1. It's good, but come on man! Upper mid-tier at best!

    Of the ones you missed I think you would really enjoy To Live Forever.

    1. I can't believe anyone would put Durdane above Cadwal! Eyes of the Overworld is good, but not for me one of Vance's 'greats', and Rhialto is not really a novel per se, so I excluded it on that basis.

      Wyst is a brilliant work. I was blown away by it. It has all the satire of an Animal Farm or Brave New World, but with more excitement and much more emotional heft. Jantiff is one of Vance's best and most sympathetic protagonists. And the worldbuilding itself is fabulous. It deserves to be championed!

  5. Okay okay, your Rhialto exclusion survives on a technicality, haha.

    Agree that Wyst is really good -- and even better on a reread. You're right about Jantiff too, and Arrabus and its environs are truly terrific.

    But for me, it's too easily read as a mid-century partisan tract to be the absolute best. When I hear it brought up it's usually in a fist-pumping "See! Vance hated the left as much as I do!" kind of a way.

    Perhaps I shouldn't judge the work for that, but I can't help but think its propensity for being understood that way diminishes its undoubted excellent qualities.

    But maybe you deserve a couple of blunders for the good work you're doing in getting Showboat World and Ecce out there. ;)

    1. I think Wyst has a continuing relevance, and that the points it makes transcend the Cold War context. But I suppose I would say that.

  6. The show I'm going to do when they put me in charge is a Demon Princes series where he has to fight a different prince each season, pulling content from all across the Gaean Reach books to flesh it out. My pitch will be that it's like Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. Don't see how it could fail.

    It's pretty funny to me that you rate the antisocialist ones highest. Vance is easily at his worst when he's being directly political and having a go at the commies and the welfare state, like he does in Emphyrio and Wyst. Polemic fiction always sucks, it doesn't matter who's writing it or what they believe.

    1. I don't think either Emphyrio or Wyst is polemical - they are good stories in their own right. But I take the implicit point that nobody likes satire unless they agree with the stance taken by the author.

  7. A few years back I read "The Five Gold Bands" in the form of an aged hardback from my local public library. I concur with your guess at its value within the Jack Vance [i]ouevre[/i].

    I'm in your debt for likening early Vance to a sort of "hard boiled" Ray Bradbury. That comparison is excellent, but it had not occurred to me. If Vance reminded me of any author, he struck me as a sort of Fantasy/SF P.G. Wodehouse. Now I see that my favorite incident in "Guyal of Sfere", in which the titular hero meets the dancing girl and her flute playing grandfather, would have fit right in among the yarns found in Bradbury's [i]The Illustrated Man[/i].

    1. Thanks! Yes, PG Wodehouse definitely fits too, and I believe he designed Space Opera as a tribute to Wodehouse.

  8. Vance has been my favorite writers for over 40 years and not a single month passes by without me re reading one of his books.
    My personal favorite remains The Killing Machine (read about 10 times) with Wyst right behind it.

    5 STARS :
    Alastor : Wyst (absolute masterpiece)
    The last 4 Demon Princes novels (His best series, deserving of a 5 season TV show)
    Nopalgarth (The Brains of the Earth)
    The Dirdir and the Pnume
    The 5 Gold Bands
    Ecce and Old Earth
    Cugel Saga
    The New Prime
    New Bodies for Old
    Abercrombie Station & Cholwell's Ch
    King of Thieves & Coup de Grace
    Moon Moth
    Showboat World