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The Influence of Jack Vance

As almost everyone reading this already knows, Jack Vance passed away on the 26th of May. Given how little of his work I've actually read (The Green Pearl and most of The Dying Earth), it may be presumptuous to maintain - as I do - that his work has greatly affected mine. On the other hand, if this isn't your first time reading this blog, you know that I write about magic a lot, and I write about D&D a lot. You can hardly be unaware that D&D's approach to magic is called Vancian because Gygax lifted so very shamelessly from the system that The Dying Earth and other works described in such detail.

Like I said, though, I haven't yet read all that much of his work, though now that he's gone I am reminded that I should really rectify that. I can mainly point to his influence on others: D&D as mentioned, and also a Story Hour known as Sepulchrave's Tales of Wyre on the EN World forums. The things I really want to highlight are the style of magic itself, the use of language, and the culture of wizards in the world.

The Style of Magic

A good while back, I wrote about three different literary approaches to magic. I direct your attention back to this post because Jack Vance described a style of magic in which wizards memorized a single casting of each of a tiny number of spells; I seem to recall that holding four spells in memory at the same time is regarded as an extraordinary feat. Each of these, when cast, is wiped from the wizard's memory and must be memorized from scratch once more, which is why wizards have spellbooks. For Vance, a wizard can fully comprehend magic in defined, discrete ways. Magic is strange but those who wield it can penetrate that mystery. If The Dying Earth had not become the name of a subgenre all its own, it would not be any great stretch to call it weird fiction, and much of its weirdness comes from the magic and the wizards themselves.

I don't know if he was the first to treat spells as finite conceptual objects, but it's hard to overstate how useful that approach is in game design. This has allowed games to offer a large number of individually-simple choices; in this way video games can allow magic to be something more than a reskin of a gun without getting bogged down in a high-granularity decision-making process. To put that another way: the excellent prismatic spray has pre-defined parameters and outcomes, so in a single declaration (including targeting information) the player communicates to the DM or the video game most of the necessary information. The other way of doing this, more in keeping with non-Vancian fiction, might declare something like, "I'm channeling magic in the form of light. I want to divide the light into each of its visible component colors. I think that those colors should deal some damage (how much?), have a chance to petrify a target, have a chance to drive the target mad, have a chance to banish a target, and so on." Now, there's an argument to be made that the latter player is more creative and invested in game, assuming the DM agrees that the setting's magic works in such a way that any of that makes sense... but video games can't negotiate with players. Then you have video games with spell creation systems, so that the player can make all of the complex choices up-front, but such systems are notoriously prone to abuse.

The weird and wonderful names of Vance's spells certainly influenced ritualism in Dust to Dust; I didn't (that is, haven't yet) fully pursue the tongue-twisting, lightless-depths-of-the-OED style found in Vance's spells, but then the tone of Dust to Dust is one of dread and power in contrast to Vance's worlds of weirdness and charm. A wizard in the Dying Earth or DtD might possess almost any combination of spells, researched in ancient tomes or stolen from a rival wizard - but that's all part of the culture of wizards, and I'm getting ahead of myself. Spells in Dust to Dust are not memorized, per se, but wizards absolutely must have the ritual open in front of them in order to cast it, and once cast a spell is certainly erased from the caster's focus. Same overall effect, different explanation. One major difference between Vance's style and DtD's is that Vance imagines a fixed number of spells in existence, a point from which esoteric knowledge can only be lost from the earth; in DtD spell research is equally likely to mean "new invention" or "rediscovery of lost things."

The things that Vance's spells actually accomplish are deeply weird as well. They're the sorts of spells that don't concern themselves with practicality or whether something was the easiest way, mystically speaking, to accomplish that goal - which is fine in a novel but becomes a little more awkward over the course of a campaign, especially when we're talking about players with an end goal in mind. Even so, I like the sense that there must be some reason that the arcane is as arcane as it is, but instead of making the final effect of each spell bizarre and complicated, I stored the complex stuff in the spell-preparation step. Where other fantasy writers and magic systems go for loosely-defined systems that produce relatively straightforward effects (blasts of fire, shields of force, whatever), Vance goes for highly-defined systems that produce weird effects.

The Use of Language

Other writers have commented more deeply than I could on Vance's love of baroque language; it would be overwrought from any other author (saving only Paarfi of Roundwood), but for Vance it is the game he has come to play. I cannot point to specific passages of my own writing or thought that display Vance's influence, though Sepulchrave (as linked above) assuredly can. I hope to find, or introduce, some traces of that rhythmic, nuanced voice in my own work, and to use every word and phrasing to communicate my settings as he does: with invented words revealed only by context, he evokes unfathomable yet charming mysteries.

Neil Gaiman and George R. R. Martin have publicly cited Vance as a major influence on their writing, and the above quotes page is a damned strong supporting argument for Wikipedia listing Jack Vance as influencing Terry Pratchett. Vance's humor, like Pratchett's and sometimes Gaiman's, would be justly described as witheringly dry. In a related note, it's time for me to pick up some P.G. Wodehouse. A name appears that often in the influences on one's favorite authors, and one might begin to feel behooved.

The Culture of Wizards

The most important influence Jack Vance has had on me and my view of fantasy, though, is the presentation of wizards themselves, particularly Murgen and Shimrod. Wizards constantly quarrel and strive for dominance over one another, and even more so over control of rare and precious spellbooks. Most of their encounters aren't cataclysmic spell-duels, though. I mean, you never really know what kind of spells your enemy might have memorized today, right? Instead, they sharpen their rapier wit upon one another and test each other for signs of weakness. Friendlier encounters, while rare, tend toward contemplative discourse delivered in impossibly flowery verbiage. What I like about these encounters is that the stakes are immediate and compelling, while the risks are as deceptive and unknowable as the wizards themselves. I especially love Murgen's heavy-handed injunction against political entanglement, in the way it holds wizards apart from the rest of society.

It is this same competitive, often cutthroat spirit (but without a lot of open bloodshed) that I have hoped to invest into cabal politics in Dust to Dust. The wizards compete to master spells of the widest variety and greatest potency, carefully keeping their full strength secret and jockeying for both power and status. The major change in the process of translation is going from individual wizards to cabals. Even more interesting to me, the wizards have kept much of their competition subtle, so that a non-wizard might go along entirely unaware of the undercurrent. Dust to Dust is hardly the first of my settings in which wizards are the most interesting characters and the most developed area of society. Sometimes these societies are more organized, as in my Six Elements setting (where every caster belonged to one of the Eight Orders), and sometimes less, as in DtD.

In connection with the nature of spells I described above, Vance's wizards pursue spells and rumors of spells to the ends of the earth. Especially in games, it's incredibly convenient for a character to have a permanent source of motivation for quests. Wizards in other settings have magic more innate to their nature, and typically stand to gain nothing from going out into the world and undertaking quests that might include allies. (Not that there's anything wrong with a mystical inward journey... it's just tough to bring your companions along.) Vance's wizards are power-hungry, but aware that they did not make it this far in life by rushing in unprepared or alone. I think it's fair to say that DtD wizards and any classic D&D wizard shares this unquenchable thirst for any new spell.

My works are hardly a 1:1 translation, and the comparison would be a lot more convincing if I had read more of Vance's works, but I feel that I owe a deep creative debt to Jack Vance. For his presentation of wizards as clever, none-too-enlightened, but always compelling people; for prose that is to writing what origami is to paper; and for making magic esoteric without being incomprehensible to the reader - thank you, sir, and may the books of your enemies be remaindered.

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