Recently, for the second time, the screen on my ebook reader crapped out on me. I may have been careless. The first time it crapped out was because I stepped on it, having absent-mindedly let my bag carrying it fall to my bedroom floor. I liked the thing, so I replaced it. Then, as time passed, I started to get tired of having to recharge my book. I disliked having to turn my book on and off. I regretted that I could actually break my book. So when it ended up breaking, I didn’t replace it, and I figured I’d just chalk up the relatively small number of books I’d purchased as a loss and, once again, make the library my major source of reading.
One of the things I’d bought, though, was an anthology of Jack Vance‘s short stories, The Jack Vance Treasury. I had originally approached Vance’s work because of his influence on Dungeons & Dragons. Sort of to my surprise, as I worked my was through the anthology, I found myself enjoying Vance’s science fiction more than his fantasy. In point of fact, one of more interesting and appealing things about his work as I found it was that it tended more often than not to straddle the two categories, entirely appropriate as categories generally are arbitrary constructs. His stuff straddles the two but definitely tends to lean in one direction or the other. The “Dying Earth” series is basically fantasy, with sci-fi elements, for example.
All this is a long way of explaining that when my ebook screen broke and I decided not to replace it, I went to the library to see if they had the anthology I’d read two-thirds of. They didn’t, of course, so I grabbed this collection of the first three Demon Princes novels off the shelf. Maybe at some point I’ll finish the anthology.
Briefly put, these three books, The Star King, The Killing Machine, and The Palace of Love, are as good as pulp sci-fi gets. It would be very possible to approach these books from, for lack of a better term, an art-fiction perspective and find them flawed but generally satisfying. On a level with any writer, Vance has real strengths. His prose is, as they always say of Pushkin‘s, terse in the best of senses. While on the one hand one could say that this is a cardinal virtue of any pulp fiction and, given the commercial aim of any such writing, it would do Vance a disservice. He is concise not simply to conform to an editorial requirement, but really because he is someone who is genuinely in command of his language.
Once I got fairly deep into the first of the three books–five in the series, the last two in a second volume which I’ve already checked out from the library–I bopped around the internet to examine the general take on the series. To be certain, anything Vance wrote gets high marks, but I was looking for what people tended to look at as the flaws in the series. I wanted to find relatively negative reviews. One sentiment that popped up in a few places was the critique that, for sci-fi, these books spent a fairly small amount of time on the scientific aspects of whatever world Vance described. The science is by no means absent, but what Vance does not give us are long, multi-page descriptions of imaginary future technology.
This lack of lengthy description of science–indeed, Vance is more likely, as more than one observer has noted, to spend more time describing architecture than technology–points to one of Vance’s chief virtues as a writer. Descriptions of the empirical conditions of the worlds in the books are plentiful, but not lengthy. What Vance does, as well any anyone I’ve ever read, is use quick detail to believably suggest unfathomable depth. Contrast this with a Tolkein or Frank Herbert. Tolkein and Herbert–either or both–are held up as exemplars of “world-building,” the term that gets tossed about on the various discussion threads in sci-fi/fantasy forums I browsed. I get the impression that, like there is a sizeable audience that measures the quality of rock guitarists through things like the speed and accuracy of hammer-ons, there is a sizeable audience that measures the quality of a sci-fi/fantasy writer by the number of words spent describing the “world” or “universe” in coherent detail. Quantitative measures are taken to be qualitative.
I’d propose another measure, which will get us to George R.R. Martin. The quality of a sci-fi/fantasy writer generally, or maybe we will go for the sake of argument just in terms of “world-building,” is how few words he or she uses in convincing that the “world” at hand is unfathomably detailed. Taken on this measure, qualitative posing as quantitative, Vance has few equals.
I will tangentially report, then, that I picked up at the library an anthology of stories set in Vance’s Dying Earth. I can’t remember the precise name of the book but George R.R. Martin edited it if I’m correct and to be certain he contributed both a story and, more to my point, an introductory essay. In it he, much to my surprise, pointed to Vance as his favorite writer of genre fiction and primary influence, to the point of having consciously attempted early on his career to write in Vance’s style.
At this point I will report that having begun Martin’s series enthusiastically, and having had that enthusiasm sustained thoroughly through the third of the books, that I began to feel somewhat bogged down in the fourth and that, to get to my point, I made it through a mere (!!!) 250 pages of A Dance With Dragons before putting the book down in disgust, swearing I would read no more, forever. More than a year has passed and I have had no serious brushes with a desire to finish either the book or the series, if Martin manages to finish it. I am done with it, absolutely. I can’t imagine that anything Martin could do in the next two books would make me want to read them. If he follows all the logical threads he’s pulled to their ends in a similar level of detail to what he’s done so far, it will continue to be a horrible slog of a read and run to ten volumes. If he cuts down the detail from the level he’s currently at, it will feel like he’s rushing to finish it for he sake of finishing it, even if it reads better. If he ditches plot threads and focuses on the main plot, he’s got a ton of loose ends. If he completely changes the trajectory to make it interesting again, he might as well start another series. In short, there is no hope for Martin’s series and little hope, it seems, for Martin as a writer generally. I am sure the sixth and seventh books of the series will be published at some point and in some form, and I am equally sure they will be too long and fairly predictable in the broad strokes.
If only Martin had a tiny measure of Vance’s concision, he would be in much better shape. There are two types of bad writing important here. One is writing which, lacking detail, is simply vague. The other is writing that gives an excess of detail and leaves nothing to the imagination. Vance, like any really capable writer, is of a third type–not a middle position–who provides a relatively small amount of compelling detail which encourages the reader to actively imagine something broader than explicitly on the page. That’s a beautiful thing, and that type of detail, concise and suggestive, is the cardinal virtue of great pulp fiction of any genre.
To be certain, Vance is not without flaws. Women, in his work as far as I’ve encountered it, are props. The autochthonous inhabitants of the various planets at times are thinly veiled colonialist fantasies of “the natives.” Really, the books, which–I realize I haven’t mentioned a single thing about any of the novels’ plots–follow Kirth Gersen’s quest for revenge against the five “Demon Princes” who presided over the enslavement and destruction of his people, feel, in the outlines of their plots somewhat like conventional, though interesting, murder mysteries, mutatis mutandis. A pulp writer cranks things out, to be sure, and the plots such as they are are familiar, at least.
The test of a pulp novel, though, is in the reading of it. How does the book read? Reading quick is not in and of itself the goal, but a good pulp novel will read smoothly and be hard to put down. The book should challenge but not tax the intellect. There should be pleasures, but not guilty ones. The plot should carry one along, but the the book should not be narrowly plot-driven. I could go on, and as Miles Davis famously suggested to John Coltrane, I should at this point take the horn out of my mouth. The point here is that writing great–not merely good–pulp fiction strikes me as an enormously skilled endeavor and a genuinely difficult balancing act, with a relatively small number of top-notch practitioners. Vance was one of those genuine greats.