Grand Old Man

At age 96 it wasn't unexpected, and he'd stopped writing fiction since his 2004 novel Lurulu, but it was still terribly sad to lose Jack Vance this year. Newspapers gave him good long obituaries, so I'll spare you the statistics (three Hugos, one Nebula, SFWA and World Fantasy grandmaster honours...)

One thing that made Vance so special – and highly influential – was his fondness for ornate language dripping with irony. A famous quote from The Dying Earth explains the tariff of prophecy:

"I respond to three questions," stated the augur. "For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue."

Even angry characters curse in measured tones: "Low-grade assassins will drown you in cattle excrement! Twenty pariahs will drub your corpse! A cur will drag your head along the street by the tongue!" Not an unknown tongue.

Settlers on a watery planet in The Blue World are divided into social castes that reveal what kind of transport ship crashed there long ago: Hoodwinks, Swindlers, Malpractors, Larceners, Bezzlers ... the last being the priests. Vance loved satirizing religion. The solemn rituals of the Temple of Finuka in Emphyrio are, when you think about them, suspiciously like hopscotch; the ultra-pure Chilites in The Anome shun women and their contaminating touch, and instead get their jollies from drug-induced "spasms" which – but this is a family magazine.

Vancian space operas usually have simple plots, often driven by obsessive revenge, but glowingly exotic settings and digressions. Marune: Alastor 933 revels in ever-changing shades of light on a world with multiple, different-coloured suns: "the four stars dance a fine saraband down the Fontinella Wisp". On Sarkovy, home of the poisoners' guild, the death penalty (by poison) awaits anyone who throws sour milk over his grandmother. Travel-guide extracts and footnotes – Vance was a major footnoter long before Terry Pratchett – conjure up bizarre, quirky, sometimes demented worlds and societies, especially in the Demon Princes quintet opening with Star King. Tourists should beware the food, steamed centipedes, "parboiled night-fish, fresh from the bogs", or worse:

"The chatowsies are fetid, but the ahagaree is ferocious. The pourrain is merely vile. And the lady seems to have washed her dog in the beer ..."

Music appears frequently; Vance's title Space Opera means what it says. In the mask-wearing society of "The Moon Moth", conversation must be accompanied by appropriate music from one (and it has to be the right one) of several small, hard-to-master instruments; getting it wrong means social and even literal death. Night Lamp introduces the difficult froghorn, combining a foot-pumped bagpipe, a nose-played "screedle flute" and a brass horn generating "an unctuous disreputable gurgle". Sensation at the Proms!

Another artistic surprise is the punchline of The Face, whose megalomaniac villain has been busy throughout the action with a vast revenge scheme, eventually revealed as explosively reshaping the local moon into a monstrous likeness of ... but that's a spoiler.

Above all, Vance relished words. Dying Earth monsters include erbs, hoons, bazils, grues, gids and (look it up) deodands. He raided our language for euphonious names, and once called a planet Camberwell: well, why not? The horrified UK blurb-writer, feeling this wasn't science-fictional enough, unilaterally renamed it Kammerwelt.

Few SF authors are the subject of books published by the British Library, but here's Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography (2000), of which I'm inordinately fond because (coughs immodestly) it includes an essay by me.

96 years; more than 60 books, including award-winning crime fiction; too many neatly barbed phrases and polished ironies to count. A great career. Thank you, Jack Vance.

David Langford is trying to steer clear of Chun the Unavoidable.