An interview devised and carried out by Paul RHOADS and Damien DHONDT
for Slash magazine 14th September 1998. Published in Slash #17 0ctober 1998.
(Translated from the
French by Patrick Dusoulier 8th August 2002)
If any Science Fiction masters deserve to
be hailed internationally for their literary imaginative creations, Jack Vance
is definitely one of them. You can then imagine how excited we were when Slash
saw an opportunity to interview such a “living god”. We’d like to give special
thanks to France Ruault, without whose help this interview could never have
taken place under such conditions. Thanks also to Damien, a real professional,
who reread the whole of Vance’s oeuvre and studied the author late into the
night, when the moon and stars begin to merge. And thanks to Paul Rhoads, a
friend of Jack Vance, who put the final touch to this interview, and
incorporated some of his considerable knowledge.
Paul Rhoads had made arrangements with
Jack to ask the questions in a phone meeting. Jack Vance gaily replied over the
phone: “Here I am!” He seemed to take a childish pleasure at the thought of
being interviewed, and launched the conversation himself, as if it were a foot
race or a game. “Are you ready?” Jack has a tenor voice, soft and lilting. Born
in California, he shortens certain words in the local speech mode (for
instance, he says “’um” instead of “them”). He laughs a lot, and often switches
to a different mood according to his overflowing spirit. He made me think of
one of his famous Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong (The Book of Dreams),
with his multiple voices. With an altogether soft and dreamy expression, he
suddenly assumes a feigned pomposity, barely hiding his laughter, to tell a
joke; almost immediately afterwards, he’ll imitate a voice or ask a clever
question in a deceptively innocent tone.
Paul Rhoads: I’m ready. Shall we begin?
Jack Vance: Let’s go!
You’re a great traveler and your books show a high
sensitivity to the specificity of different locations. What do you think are
the most striking differences between Europe and the United States?
There is a sense of continuity
in Europe: Europe extends into the past. On top of that, there are large
differences between the European countries. That’s what I like in Europe, just
move a measly 120 miles and you may find yourself in a radically different
culture. There’s more homogeneity in the States. But that’s not to speak
against the United States: it’s a wonderful place, and we mustn’t forget it has
its own regional differences, although they’re not as strong as in Europe. But
I love America… Admittedly, its regional differences are gradually fading, year
by year; the same applies to Europe now with the increasing move towards the
European Union. But I love the feeling of crossing a border and finding myself
in a different culture, say, like between Italy and France; I just love it!
What is your opinion about French science fiction?
I don’t know anything about it… I don’t
consider Jules Vernes as a science fiction writer. He’s more of an engineer
with a very down-to-earth writing style, with no fantasy at all. As a child, I
read several times “The Mysterious Island”. I was really keen on it!
And Italian science
I know nothing about it… Except that Italo
Calvino is really boring!
And Stanislaw Lem?
I don’t know who he is.
Garcia Marquez?He wrote what is called “Magical
Who? I really don’t know anything about all
this kind of chic, avant-garde stuff.
Who’s your favorite 20th
almost always take place in the future. Still, compared with other science
fiction writers, you don’t care much about futurist technology. And you also
write about contemporary issues such as environmental concerns. In what way
would you say your stories deal with the future, and do they really deserve to
be called “science fiction”?
I never think of it. I don’t like to talk about
robots or extraterrestrial beings. That’s just like cheating at chess. If you
want a robot that runs fast, you just crank the handle and it runs fast. If you
want a hyper-intelligent extraterrestrial alien, hey presto! it’s
hyper-intelligent. I’m not interested in all that. My stories deal with the
development of humanity in various environments. I don’t like the word “science
fiction”. I like stories about people finding themselves in varied
circumstances, and how those circumstances modify their ideas. I also try to
make my characters understandable for my readers, who do not live in the year
25 million AD or BC ! I must create a character they can identify with, so that
their reactions to this or that situation can correspond to my character’s own
reactions. Take a sculptor, for instance: if the Art Academy asks him to make a
statue of a man, and if he makes something that looks like a huge pile of
earthworms, how can you expect the people who look at the statue to identify
with it? When I write about humanity, I look for a link between my readers and
In the 1950’s, science fiction writers
gave the impression that Man would soon colonize other planets. Still, so far,
this hasn’t happened. Do you have an opinion on this?
I never give a thought about it. I must point
out that I don’t like being called a “science fiction writer”! I am totally
indifferent to all that stuff! I am outside all trends and fashions of any
kind. Maybe there were some people who really thought they would soon go to
Mars and live there, but personally, I’ve never believed it. It doesn’t make
sense. To discover planets orbiting around other stars, you need to travel
there at light-speed, which is impossible for Man to achieve. As for the
planets of our own solar system, they’re uninhabitable. You’d need a staggering
deployment of resources to build a settlement there, but you’d need a very
strong reason to go to such an expense. All this doesn’t make sense. You need
light-speed for those stories. You also have to assume that all the issues
around different biologies will have been solved so that people won’t just drop
dead every time they’ll land on one of those planets. Those are just
You often write about childhood. You use
children as protagonists, and your heroes and villains have lived through
tragic childhoods. Does this relate to your own life, or if not, what is the
significance of this theme for you?
I don’t know… Everybody’s life began with
childhood… It’s impossible to set somebody apart from his childhood. I never
asked myself this question in those terms. It definitely has nothing to do with
autobiography. I use childhood events to explain the evolution of my heroes. I
allow their past and their surroundings to influence them.
Among your most fascinating characters,
we find your criminals. They’re often artists, or they’re motivated by artistic
impulses. Does this mean that evil is a source of creativity, or that
creativity is a source of evil?
No… Evil people are interesting because… Do I
know really evil people myself? I don’t think so! A couple, maybe. It’s easy to
write about evil people, nobody knows any! What about you, do you know any?
… Yes, my neighbor.
Ha! They exist, of course! Stalin, the marquis
de Sade, Gilles de Rais, the emperor Tiberius; they can all lead the parade in
the foremost ranks of the Legion of Evil! What is evil? It’s the essence of
egotism, raging out to the extreme, paying no heed to other people’s feelings.
How can you enjoy torturing others? I simply shudder at the thought! When I
think of what Ivan the Terrible could do… It’s too dreadful, it can’t be
grasped. On the other hand, creativity is an all-devouring passion. It may well
be that the best aspects of life stem from it. But maybe the people who are so
inspired by it tend to ignore other people’s feelings.
You often deal with politically
sensitive, controversial subjects. WYST shows a criticism of egalitarianism,
while TRULLION seems to approve of a permissive society. In CADWAL, you offer
the remedy of deportation to solve the very acute problem of immigration,
although your books clearly condemn slavery. How do you position yourself: left
wing or right wing?
Neither one nor the other, I’m just myself. I’m
definitely not left wing. And I’m not religious. I’m against egalitarianism,
but I hope that every born human being will have a chance to live a happy life.
I’m against idleness, cheating, stealing from your best friend, and all those
sordid things people do! Equality is a disease of current society. Same for
religion… But the Catholic Church has nothing to do with egalitarianism, it has
as much hierarchy as you can possibly get. What I don’t like is ideas that aim
at making everybody jump and walk to the same tune. Everybody must sing his own
song… Sometimes, you need to say: “Hey! What’s that old song you keep
hollering! I just can’t stand it!”
Is it true that the French colonial history in Algeria
inspired THE GRAY PRINCE? (1)
No, that was an abstract idea. I simply
realized that the legal ownership of any piece of land, however small — except
in the extreme northern regions or in utterly inhospitable places — results
from an initial act of violence. All you need to do is go far enough back into
the past. The American Indians complain about having been expelled from their
land, but they did the same thing previously to other tribes, and so on, going
back to the first settlers who came through the Bering Strait.
And…those first settlers expelled the animals?
That’s right. All the saber-tooth tigers
died! But this book isn’t one of my favorites. It’s not bad in places, but it’s
not properly led to its conclusion.
THE GRAY PRINCE and CADWAL seem to approve of colonialism.
Is this correct?
I don’t know what colonialism is. Is it simply
that more advanced societies impose their rule upon the weaker? In CADWAL,
there are people who find a virgin world and who want to preserve it intact.
It’s like someone who has an island and doesn’t want any ruffian to come and
spoil it all. Colonialism is just a name for what all human beings do. The
Indo-Europeans colonized Greece, the Celts colonized France. Those things
happen! A society dominates another, and afterwards there is assimilation.
Generally, when people speak of colonialism, they mean the sort of thing
England and France were doing in the 19th century. I don’t see
anything wrong with that. That’s normal. Sometimes it’s not good, and sometimes
it is. Sometimes, it’s even very beneficial! Take India for instance. When I
travel around India, I keep hearing: “Oh, how better things were with the
English! Ten times better!” It’s not the same in North Africa, but in Dakar and
in Morocco the French are still there! They never really left, although I doubt
that the Foreign Legion is still very popular in the Atlas! Those things are so
complex, they lead to so many ideas and theories, that it’s very hard to judge…
Sometimes it’s no, sometimes it’s yes. I remember the picture of a miserable
little Vietnamese — he looked 5 years old, all scrawny and shriveled — who
carried on his back an enormous Dutchman weighing 300 pounds, to get him across
a river. The Dutchman’s bulky buttocks were completely wrapped around the
Vietnamese’s shoulders!… And then, I imagine that this was also good for the
Vietnamese. The Dutchman must have given him a piastre to buy himself a small
bowl of rice.
THE MURTH seems to be a condemnation of feminism. Is this
a correct impression?
No, not a condemnation, but simply a
satire. I am strongly in favor of equal rights for women. They are entitled to
have equality before the Law. What I don’t like is all those cantankerous
crabby females! But that makes me laugh. Who was that woman? She was a writer…
We were with the Herberts (Frank). Walking past her, I gave her a little pat on
the buttocks with my banjo — I don’t remember what key it was tuned in — but
that was all, no harm intended. Then her lip began to tremble, her eyes began
to flame. She said (Jack takes a deep penetrating voice): “Don’t do that ever
again, Jack!” I said OK! I don’t like it when people get too excited. But women
have a right to make efforts to improve their condition. I was one day with a
group in a public building. Everybody went out before me, and then came a woman
who was not with our group, and I kept the door open for her. So she said to
me: “Don’t keep the doors open for me!” So I stepped outside in front of her,
but still kept the door open, otherwise it would have slammed right into her
face. But she still refused to go through. She kept looking into my eyes, and
her eyes were saying “You bastard!” She turned round and went back into the
French critics claim that Thaery was inspired by the United States. What do you
say to that? (2)
Thaery? What’s that?
don’t know? In MASKE: THAERY, the country divided into counties…
Ah, I see… No, absolutely not.
and tenure are often represented in your works. Is there a link with the
history of the United States?
Absolutely not. This kind of thing comes
from deep down inside human beings. Maybe the Neanderthals kept humans as
slaves, who knows? England abolished slavery in the 18th century, is
that right? (3) In America, this required a war. The Arabs still keep slaves,
even nowadays. It’s the same for sharecroppers, those are just different names
for a person dependent upon another for his living. In Russia, there were
serfs. No, this has nothing to do with America, it’s the human race.
you explain why you were in favor of American intervention in Vietnam?
Of course. At the time, communism had
impetus. The Communists had taken over in China. With the Korea War, we pushed
them back. It seemed to me that they had to be contained on a global scale. I
believed in the domino theory (which states that a communist country will lead
its neighbors into communism). I still think we missed our chance. If we really
wanted to make war, we should have gone right about it and crushed them,
instead of pussyfooting. I still believe this today. Our policy was badly
handled. What was going on in those days was terrible! At the time, we had
those communists that kept going at weak democracies, a real flood of evil over
the world. If we wanted to defend ourselves against that, we had to have the
courage to fight. It’s impossible today not to have a more moderate opinion,
but in those days we saw this as a fight to the death.
Are any of the sea adventures in your books based on your
No, absolutely not.
You seem to have a special interest in
Irish mythology. Are you more attracted to it than to other mythologies?
Yes, rather. But I love Russian myths! They’re
full of caprice, of imagination. Cu Chulainn does not interest me. All those
stories of cattle thieves are boring. I prefer fairies and ghost stories, but
Russian myths are enthralling, such as the house that walks on chicken legs.
What about the Greek myths?
They bore me. They lack this little cachet, this
undercurrent of strangeness and savagery. Except a few, such as the Medusa one.
In THE CHASCH, you wrote: “In Pera, no
one may rob or rape but Naga Goho and his Gnashers.” That’s a bit strong, don’t
That’s just a bit of satire. That’s part
of this society’s attributes, in complete harmony with its principles.
The mysterious character appearing in the ALASTOR series,
is that the Connatic?
Yes, I don’t like being too explicit.
He’s a benevolent tyrant, a fly on the wall or Santa Claus. He’s not omnipotent
like God, but he’s there. He travels around in disguise, sits in bar rooms and
gets a better understanding of what’s going on. I know that’s impossible. It’s
hard to believe! I use the idea because I like it. But I know it’s impossible to
rule over 3000 planets by walking from bar to bar! It’s not a thumping idea,
just one that floats around like a wisp of smoke, like a dream: a nice man
going here and there, doing some good, then going away. But if I got a splinter
in my foot, I don’t think the door would suddenly open and president Clinton
would rush in to pull it out!
SERVANTS OF THE WANKH and in other stories, you introduce official assassins
organizations, with a well-recognized
place among society. What do you like about this idea?
Nothing, it’s just for the shock value.
It’s like in Clarges (TO LIVE FOREVER) where it’s a process to control
over-population. It’s a play on words: “Tonight we invite our assassin to
dinner!” Well… It’s just what you could call a pathetic rhetorical trick.
the conclusion of the DURDANE series and the DEMON PRINCES series, your heroes
are struck with melancholy: why?
That’s because I am struck with
melancholy myself, when I finish a series…
of your heroes is your favorite?
I don’t have any favorite… Cugel, maybe.
But he’s not my favorite, it’s just that he surprises me… I think I rather
admire myself for having invented him.
don’t you go on with him?
I don’t think I could do it anymore. I’m
very proud of the two Cugel books… Although I’m not happy with the first
chapter of the first book. I’d like to correct it. I like Navarth very much,
the mad poet. I identify myself with him! And there are some women I love…
Especially the girl in the same book, what’s her name… Flir?
you mean Jheral Tinsy?
No, one of the girls produced from her.
I don’t remember, but Gersen meets her on
the docks when he comes to see Navarth, see what I mean?
that’s Drusilla, Zan Zu from Eridu. She’s wearing a black skirt and a brown
When I think of her, it makes me shiver.
I find her exciting. And then, there’s another girl in ABERCROMBIE STATION. Her
name is Jean Parlier. I admire her.
you like the TV film based on BAD RONALD?
No, I haven’t seen it, but it was described
to me. Maybe I should have seen it… Generally, films and television dilute a
book and reduce it to nothing. I’ve never liked films made from my scribblings.
there any new adaptations to come out?
Maybe a few, but I don’t know. My agent
mentions things, but…
do you use various pen names: Jack Vance, John Holbrook Vance and Ellery Queen?
Because Ellery Queen offered me 3000
dollars per book. That was a lot of money in those days! The contract said that
I was not to reveal that I had written them. So, in theory, I’ve never actually
used the name. Anyway, he used to just take my good prose and then added a lot
of make-up, to make his own little soup. John Holbrook Vance is reserved for my
mystery novels. I used the name of Jack Van See for “First Star I See Tonight”.
The plan was to have lots of names, to do varied stuff, so as to sell more of
it, but it didn’t work out. I couldn’t deliver. That’s an aborted idea.
recent books seem to be a bit different from the previous ones. What do you
I don’t know. I don’t see that… I’m
getting old, that’s normal! I don’t want to do the same thing all over again.
I’ve already done that in HENRY MEETS THE TIGER, so darn it! now I do something
else! Every year there’s something new. But my interests evolve a little… Not
much, though. Now there’s less ‘éclat’. But I don’t know… I feel more relaxed.
In PORTS OF CALL (latest published work) there’s more comic stuff; I quietly
let the comic part of my nature, what there’s of it, speak out.
(1): see Jacques CHAMBON’s preface to “Le Livre d’Or de la Science-Fiction, Jack Vance”
(« Jack Vance, le grand temple de la science-fiction »)
(2): Jacques GOIMARD in the postface to « Un tour
en Thaery »
3): Historical error, this was in the early 19th
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