Jack Vance's impact on science fiction can't be overestimated. His Dying Earth series alone would be enough to make him one of the genre's most important figures. But he also gave us the Demon Princes series and several others, and he helped revitalize the planetary romance genre with Big Planet. He died over the weekend in Oakland, aged 96.
A science fiction Grand Master, Vance is probably best remembered for his four Dying Earth novels, which take place in a far-future Earth where the sun has dimmed and magic has been reestablished as a dominant force. They feature a brilliant picaresque adventure tone, including the unforgettable thief Cugel the Clever, and they were also celebrated in a recent anthology Songs of the Dying Earth, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. These books contain Vance's characteristic ironic, lightly humorous style, which has influenced generations of science fiction writers.
But he also made a huge impact with his five-book Demon Princes series, in which Kirth Gersen takes his revenge on each of the five monsters who condemned his village to slavery.
His novel The Languages of Pao is a brilliant look at the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis and how language can be used to manipulate people — in this case, how changing people's language can make them more warlike.
And his novel Big Planet remains a masterpiece of sardonic space romance, as SF Site's review explains:
Big Planet was Vance's first major SF novel, his second book of importance after his equally seminal fantasy cycle The Dying Earth (1950); and like The Dying Earth, Big Planet was a triumph of ironic narration. At every turn, Vance was engaging in acute social satire and tricks with perception. His plot centres on a mission by a group of Earthmen to Big Planet, which, vast and metal-poor, is infinitely barbaric, an endless tapestry of backward and predatory societies, and as such deeply problematic for the refined liberal consciences of the people of Earth System, the civilized majority Big Planet's colonists left behind. Big Planet is a sea of inhumanity, and arms smugglers are investing its nastier tyrants, in particular the impishly titled Bajarnum of Beaujolais, with the power to become more brutal yet. Claude Glystra and his team of investigators arrive in Big Planet's solar system determined to make a difference, to end the illegal arms trade and related dealing in slaves, and thus defang the Bajarnum. But Vance's cunning narrative suggests from the start the impossibility of this project: the space travellers are as disparate and in conflict as Big Planet's inhabitants, and their ship is sabotaged, crash landing in Beaujolain territory. Now, instead of intervening from on high, Glystra and his colleagues must escape the Bajarnum's troops and agents, and strive somehow to reach Earth Enclave, which lies on the other side of the planet.
Within larger contexts of idealism radically challenged and the powerful rendered powerless, Vance makes many telling points as his richly dramatic adventure story unfolds.
And Vance's life was colorful as well — he was kept out of World War II due to his poor eyesight, but memorized an eye chart so he could join the Merchant Marine, writing his first science fiction story on board a ship. A lifelong musician, he released a jazz album just two months ago. And in 2009, Vance won another Hugo for his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance!. Around that time, the New York Times released a profile which called Vance "one of American literature’s most distinctive and undervalued voices."
To quote from the Times profile:
Dan Simmons, the best-selling writer of horror and fantasy, described discovering Vance as “a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James. Suddenly you’re in the deep end of the pool. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly turned language. If he’d been born south of the border, he’d be up for a Nobel Prize.” Michael Chabon, whose distinguished literary reputation allows him to employ popular formulas without being labeled a genre writer, told me: “Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If ‘The Last Castle’ or ‘The Dragon Masters’ had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.”
The article mentions Vance receiving fan mail from the young Usula K. Le Guin, the software billionaire Paul Allen, and a young Gary Gygax — but his real influence, on generations of science fiction lovers as well as the culture at large, is incalculable. He'll be missed.