Less is More – Looking at Jack Vance

I love Jack Vance’s stories for their wit and imagination, and for his accomplished use of language. I’m not alone, he’s inspired a devoted readership*, significant critical praise, and some writers mimic his distinctive style.

Vance vividly describes worlds, cities, and dramatic encounters with great economy. Let’s examine one of my favourite examples of this from The Green Pearl, the second book in his brilliant Lyonesse trilogy, where good Prince Ailas fights the undefeated Ska.

“Again Ailas set up his ambush of archers and mounted knights in a copse beside the road. Presently the Ska contingent riding four abreast came into view: seasoned troops, confident but far from reckless. They wore conical black-enamelled steel helmets and shirts of chain mail, as well as greaves. They carried short lances, swords, chain-balls – the so-called ‘morning-stars’ – with bow and arrows in quivers at their saddlebows. As they came placidly along the road, thirty-five Troice knights charged from the copse and galloping downhill with lances levelled, struck into the rear third of the column. To cries of horror and shock the lances drove through chain mail and lifted the riders from their horses, to drop them in the dust beside the road.

Riding up the hill and reforming, they charged once more. From the copse poured arrows, each aimed with careful intent. The commander bawled orders to depart this place of death, and the column started off at full gallop. On the hillside four ropes were cut, allowing a great oak tree to topple across the road, and the Ska troops for a period lost their organization.

Finally, battling desperately, hand to hand, the Ska managed to collect in a small group. Three times Ailas called for surrender before pounding them again with his knights; three times the Ska absorbed the blows and reformed as best they could, and with stern faces hurled themselves upon their enemies.

There was to be no surrender; all would die on the sun-dappled road.”

What has happened here? A careful ambush, two groups of experienced warriors, implacable foes engaged in a brutal fight. In my mind’s eye I see the copse, the hill, the Ska in their armour. I feel the remorseless swing of the battle on the dusty road, the desperation and determination – and so much more.

I remember reading this passage for the first time. I turned the page, stopped reading, and went back and read it again. So much had happened in those four short paragraphs it was hard for me to absorb. The images and emotions he had created were overwhelmingly intense.

Later on I went back and tried to understand how he had done what he had done. What could I learn? Try it now for yourself – re-read the passage, then turn over the scene in your mind. Landscape, drama, and emotion, all you are now thinking about was summoned by just 251 words.

I’m not a great fan of deconstructive criticism. It seems to me you either risk taking the work apart so deeply it turns to smoke and blows away, or you read intent into the process that never existed. Without the author input – and Vance was very reluctant to talk about his works – all you have is opinion and speculation. Even so, with this example you can look at the passage and see what Vance is doing – and not doing ­­– and then think about why he wrote it that way.

These are some of the things I see:

Description: He describes the enemy Ska troops in detail, but not the Troice ambushers. He tells us how very well the enemy are equipped and that they are elite troops and nobody’s fools. On the other hand we know nothing about Ailas’s men’s equipment or quality. Good or bad, we do not know, and yet we are on their side. I can see how this creates additional tension as the ambush opens because we know their mettle has to match that of the Ska, but we don’t know in advance if it will.

Language: He uses very specific words and phrases.  Paired words like copse and hill create landscape. Then there is another crank on tension’s ratchet when ‘came placidly’ is followed by ‘charged’ and then, ‘galloping’. There’s also a great use of the narrative power of three: three times the call to surrender, three times a desperate survival. ‘Battling desperately … a small group’ refuses surrender. Almost now my sympathies have changed towards the doomed but valiant Ska.

Structure: The paragraphs get shorter and shorter and each has a single job. The first sets the scene and unfurls the action. The second demonstrates the effectiveness of the trap. The third compares the doomed courage of the Ska with Ailas’s mercy. And the fourth is the outcome – “all would die on the sun-dappled road.“ Brief, tragic, and quite poetic.

It’s impossible for me to say how much of this was conscious intent or the instinctive skill of a master craftsman and storyteller. But the paragraph structure of this scene feels deliberate, and the selection of nouns, verbs and adverbs is careful and specific. I think this scene is a wonderful example of Vance’s controlled and accurate style, and there’s a great deal to think about and learn from these 251 words.

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* Few writers can have fans prepared to re-issue their entire body of work, edited and restored as originally intended, an ‘author’s cut’ of their books. I count myself fortunate to have the six-volume condensed edition of this Vance Integral Edition, or VIE.

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(This was originally posted in a slightly different form on the Milford SF Writers blog in May 2018.)


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