[Update:] This autobiography won the HUGO AWARD for Best Related Work 2010.
For anyone new to Jack Vance, this is the interesting lifestory of a prolific author of celebrated imagination and originality, containing a good measure on his globetrotting treks and oft ex-pat lifestyle, written with Vance's renown fluidity and style, easily holding the reader's interest steadily throughout. The book features an annex of 65 photos. It is a respectable feat for Vance to write this from the summit of age 93 (being effectively blind as well), commanding a writing career spanning some 66 years, and it is wonderful to relish whatever rare star-born crystal "IOUN stones" he generously chooses to share. (We should all hope to reach such venerable age, much less write a coherent, well-written book.)
But for ardent Vance-fans there perhaps is an unlooked for tact taken by Vance, for he eschews to "talk shop" (p.7) or relate much about specific novels and works, nor supply revelatory depth about his preeminent writing career. However this must NOT be construed as anything UNexpected, for as evidenced by every interview Jack Vance ever did, he has consistently been disinclined to discuss his works at length, but would rather that they stand on their own. (In the preface to The Best of Jack Vance he declares he does not like "to discuss, let along analyze" his stories. Likewise he has been notoriously reticent [in comparison to peers] to embark on self-promoting campaigns.) Such admirable integrity, as it were, he has carried characteristically into his autobiography, albeit to yowls of his steadfast fans (myself included).
Yet there is PLENTY in this 'bibliographically quiescent' lifestory for any fan comfortably familiar with Vance's marvelous corpus. Out of what he does relate about his life, one can now, with this autobiography in-hand, cull & glean the many influences, antecedents and inspirations to his fantastic stories. THAT, exactly, is what makes this book worth buying. That is exciting.
Following is a recapitulation of these influences, antecedents and inspirations to his writings. It's rather comprehensive, in order to demonstrate just how many there are. However, readers are welcome to skip over all this to the last four paragraphs, below.
In Chapter 1 ("Ch.1"), the rural locale of the Green Lodge Ranch is clearly the founding inspiration to the 'Californiana' of his Joe Bain mysteries (The Fox Valley Murders; The Pleasant Grove Murders; and [in unfinished draft] The Genesee Slough Murders). From Ch.2, the inlets, "sloughs", marinas and numerous islands are utterly evocative of The Fens environs of his book Trullion: Alastor 2262 (Hugo Award nominated). In Ch.3, his fascination with Japanese language, where he digresses a tad to "explain the intricacies of the Japanese system" (p.59), is an obvious progenitor to his book The Languages Of Pao, with its thesis that language precedes conceptualization. Out of Ch.4, his memoir on seamanship as a merchant marine solidly establishes his `sea legs' for such novels as Showboat World and Cugel's Saga (Gilgames Award winner, Best Fantasy Novel 1987), and his anecdotes on portages brings to mind his book Space Opera, plus his duology Ports Of Call and Lurulu. Similarly his talk of ship crews is prototypal to all these plus the first chapter of Big Planet; and ship-life he relates surely yields his credible shipboard depictions in such stories as "The Gift of Gab" (Chateau D'If And Other Stories). Real life Captain Reisendorf, "portentous and grim" whereby Jack came to "admire and even revere this doughty captain" (p.71), is surely archetypal to Henry Belt in one of Jack's own favorite stories, "Sail 25" (Future Tense). Leeriness about being cast overboard and adrift at sea (p.74) finds later realization in his mystery-suspense The Dark Ocean.
In Ch.5, Vance relates about his eventual assay into fine carpentry, which was "interesting and often delicate work, at times requiring the skill of a surgeon"(p.85), certainly an underpinning for his reverent woodworking appreciations in his excellent novel Emphyrio. Also from Ch.5, Vance's involvement with pottery and his "Ceramic Center" project is the antecedent background for "The Potters Of Firsk" (Lost Moons), and for a key element in his mystery The View From Chickweed's Window. (And tantalizing by virtue of being written in rare 1st-person, his protagonist in Strange Notions articulates a notion to take up ceramics.) Ch.6 recounts about travel to Morocco (late 1950's) and the diverse peoples of North Africa, precursory for the setting and characters of The Man In The Cage, winner of the Edgar [Allen Poe] Award for Best First Mystery Novel in 1960. Within Ch.7, description of an anthropologist becoming stuck in an 'L' turn inside a cave discloses a claustrophobia that is explicated years later in quite similar terms in The Killing Machine. His penchant for boats (see Ch.11) inspires invention in many stories, be they sea or space, (the salesroom of assorted space yachts from novel Maske:Thaery jumps to mind); his houseboat (Ch.7) evokes Mad Poet Navarth's abode from The Palace Of Love. The Vance's many ocean-cruises, to include their Panama transit, clearly bear influence on The Dark Ocean as well as some of the Tschai series. Vance's lifetime appreciation for the Oz books (both Ch.1 & Afterward) finds fanciful outlet in his mystery, The Madman Theory, via a model railroad layout that re-creatively transverses an otherwise faithful depiction of the Land of Oz. Likewise, his hobby interest in chess finds expression in the mystery A Room To Die In. All of these are strong and telling correlations.
Further instances can be seen as follows. From Ch.1, Vance's youthful enthrallment with kite-flying (p.16) (no less the later balloon college prank, p.54) very likely provided that seminal spark leading to his sophisticatedly visualized diligence (air-balloon) transport system in the Durdane trilogy (e.g., The Anome). Also Ch.1, a childhood knack at stilt-walking (achieving "the extreme of eight-foot stilts", p.16) possibly percolated into air-walking sandals "stepping as if walking on stilts" from Slaves Of The Klau (original text restored in the re-titled edition Gold And Iron), or anti-gravity webs enmeshed into feet as in The Languages of Pao. Out of Ch.2, his height-defying daring in walking up the cable to the top of the Bay Bridge tower embraces an audacity echoed but amplified to astonishment in "Sjambak". Further from Ch.2, his foray as a young man into mining and gold dredging become expressed with the young prospectors in "Three-Legged Joe" (The Augmented Agent), mining enterprise of "Hard Luck Diggings" (The Complete Magnus Ridolph), fantastic mineralization on a planet in The Five Gold Bands (first published as The Space Pirate), upwelling again with "Sabotage On Sulfur Planet" (Lost Moons), and perhaps influencing the 'hunt' for crystal sequin-clusters (The Dirdir) and tunnel complexes from The Pnume (Hugo Award nominated). A technique from his stint as a rodman in surveying is utilized in "Ultimate Quest" (The Dark Side Of The Moon). Indeed, all his assorted early work-experiences (Ch.2, and also Ch.3 electronics repair in Hawaii) appear to resurface in his protagonist from Son Of The Tree, a young jack-of-all-trades who asserts confidently, "I'm a good mechanic, machinist, dynamist, electrician. I can survey, work out stresses, do various odd jobs. Call myself an engineer."
From Ch.3, Vance's early attraction to astronomy finds expression in much of his writing, some exemplars being "First Star I See Tonight" (Light From A Lone Star), the remarkable star & planetary systems from Star King, stellar navigation as key to the plot in The Killing Machine, and the elaborate multi-sun system of planet Marune (second Alastor Cluster book). Likewise his expertly self-constructed overhead star chart (later, Ch.4) likely flourished within his Alastor series into that widespread pastime of "star-watching" so endemic throughout his inhabited star cluster. From Ch.3, his dip into college newspaper production finds later articulation with the Cosmopolis and the Extant magazines from The Book Of Dreams. The near-campus vicinity of his Alma Mater (UC Berkeley) forms the setting for his mystery The Four Johns (or in the UK as Four Men Called John). (Just as the San Francisco coastal area forms the setting for Bird Isle, [originally published as Isle of Peril].) College gets creatively reformulated in "Assault On A City" (Lost Moons) with the Academy that presents its curriculum via walking conduits, upon which transit is "dictated by assimilative ability". The hair-brained "Thumbwaggers' Club" hitch-hiking excursion is evocative of the misguided, ill-equipped "bonter" foragers from Wyst: Alastor 1716 (third of the Alastor trilogy). From Ch.4, gambling and the Australian "Two-Up" game call to mind the gambling refuge of Maust (The Dirdir), and Jack's initial encounter with skullduggery (p.69) is purely Cugelesque without doubt. His enthrallment in viewing the strikingly sheer Andes Mountains may pose as the inspiration for many of his off-world landscapes, most notably Throy (book 3 of the Cadwal Chronicles).
By Ch.7 the Vance's live for a period (1964) in Tahiti, forerunner for the locale of his mystery The Deadly Isles (1969). The vast Pacific Ocean is clearly the inspirational source for "The Kragen" (1964), later published in book-form as The Blue World (Hugo Award nominated 1966). Travel among South Pacific islands also finds reflection in the story "The Secret" (1966) (Green Magic: The Fantasy Realms of Jack Vance), as well as the salient setting of his Torpeltine island-chain from "Freitzke's Turn" (Galactic Effectuator). In Ch.8, travel through Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains seem redolent of the orogenic realms of Marune: Alastor 933. By Ch.9 in 1974 they were camping in South Africa, which might find certain parallel in the landscapes of "The Domains of Koryphon", later published in book-form as The Gray Prince. From Ch.9, images and landscapes of Africa, Pakistan and India are suggestive of The Seventeen Virgins, published that same year, (Jupiter Award winner, Best Novelette 1974). Passing reference about a haunting (Ch.10, p.164) and the paranormal (Ch.6, p.110) are subjects tapped in an ample number of his novels & stories, just a sampling being "Telek" (telekinesis), "Four Hundred Blackbirds" (telepathy), "Parapsyche" (afterlife aspects), "The Phantom Milkman" (incorporeal entity), "The Brains of Earth" [also published as Nopalgarth, an omnibus] (the "para-cosmos" and our emotive sixth-sense), Ecce And Old Earth [book 2 of the Cadwal Chronicles] (clairvoyance), if not the truly iconic ghost & demon from his incomparable story-cycle, The Dying Earth.
Throughout the autobiography Vance discusses his interest in music, especially his passion for jazz, but also "strange" yet "intensely beautiful" Balinese gamelan music (p.154). All this finds unmistakable expression in his writing, most eminently in works such as the Durdane trilogy, chiefly book 2 where Etzwane performs with the great "druithine Dystar", but also the poignant story "Noise" (When The Five Moons Rise), and significantly with "The Moon Moth" (The Worlds of Jack Vance), where an adroit musical accompaniment selected from the apt intricate instrument must integrate into every conversation. That milieu is creatively set in contrast with one culture from novel Mask:Theary, where each person wears a "musical adjunct" affixed the to shoulder that continuously plays personalized music "programmed, not by musicians, but by musicologists", and where "the ability to play a musical instrument is so rare as to be considered a freakish eccentricity". (Vance even expands on this culture's theoretical musicology of "personal music" in an annexed Glossary.) But one way or another, as Vance has a character remark in "Assault On A City": '"Out on the station there's always someone with a banjo"'. What Vance additionally relates about jam sessions and parties (e.g., Ch.12) is highly reminiscent of similar episodes from his mysteries The House On Lily Street (where a character enthuses, "Music's a big part of life") and also Take My Face (cited by Vance on p.65 under his preferred title, The Flesh Mask, though he does not explicitly mention its thrice published title). (Generally, his mysteries were published under his real name, John Holbrook Vance.)
A special focus can be given to Vance's keen attentiveness to aristocratic manners, mores, conceits and foibles, related particularly in Ch.5 and his humorous recounting of Mr. Lightbody and "Protocol, Propriety and Politesse". It is no surprise this finds space in his autobiography, for this subject is practically Vance's métier and is thematic in much of his writing. It manifests most crucially in The Last Castle (rare dual-winner of Nebula and Hugo Awards), and in the varied cultures of nobility from his Lyonesse fantasy trilogy, (book 3, Madouc, being World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel 1989), as well as the satirical pretensions found in village Smolod from the first chapter of The Eyes Of The Overworld (Hugo Award nominated), but ranges also from early books as with the stratified society in To Live Forever (1956) to the redoubtable social cliques in Night Lamp (1996, exactly 40 years later), or in such personages as the exalted Dame Isabel (Space Opera, 1965), to the formidable Dame Clytie Vergence (Araminta Station, 1987, first book of the Cadwal trilogy), as well as the imperious Overmen from "Crusade to Maxus" (The Augmented Agent), the naïve nobles from his Hugo Award nominated story "The Miracle Workers" (Eight Fantasms and Magics), and the Eagle-Dukes of Palasedra (Ch.14 from The Brave Free Men, book 2 of the Durdane trilogy) (dually nominated for Nebula and Hugo Awards), not to mention the formalistic conventions of Rhune gentry-life (Marune: Alastor 933), the Iszic aristocratic-caste's aesthetic purism in The Houses of Iszm, the high culture of Settra exemplified by The Flower of Cath from Blue Jade Palace (Servants of the Wankh, book 2 of the Tschai tetralogy), and the supercilious Methlen of privileged Llalarkno (The Face, book 4 of The Demon Prices quintilogy). In Vance's hands this is endlessly entertaining, and it is edifying to see him give it fresh address in this autobiography.
True, none of the foregoing is spoon fed to readers, for like blood from a turnip Vance retains his ingrained reluctance to "talk shop". Rather, Jack Vance inspires the conduct of sleuthing, every bit in conformance to characters universally throughout his science fiction, mysteries, fantasies and suspense (viz., Bad Ronald). Still, Vance does touch upon several works within his autobiography -- beyond the overtly dedicated (but short) discussion from its Final Word.
I echo other reviewer's laments about the dearth of informative dating, and I would suggest if ever this were republished in a second edition that a year-by-year lifetime chronology be annexed, such as the superbly helpful one offered in The Work of Jack Vance (Modern Authors No. 29) (1994). Similarly beneficial would be a year-based Chronological Bibliography, such as appendix L from Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations And A Bibliography (2000).
My further wish would be for more pictures, with most pictures presented larger. Obviously all fans would cherish more text, were Jack ever so inclined to indulge his legions of devoted fans.
It is worth mentioning that while many titles above are available now only as used books, several recent collections contain many of the titles mentioned:
(A) THE JACK VANCE TREASURY (2007) contains Sail 25, The Gift of Gab, The Miracle Workers, Noise, The Overworld, The Secret, The Moon Moth, and The Last Castle (among others).
(B) THE JACK VANCE READER (2008) contains Emphyrio, The Languages Of Pao, and The Domains Of Koryphon.
(C) WILD THYME, GREEN MAGIC (2009) contains Assault On A City, The Augmented Agent, Chateau D'If, The Potters Of Firsk, and The Seventeen Virgins (among others).
(D) HARD-LUCK DIGGINGS, The Early Jack Vance (2010) contains Hard-Luck Diggings, Three-Legged Joe, Sjambak, and The Absent-Minded Professor [aka: First Star I See Tonight], (among others).
(E) DANGEROUS WAYS (2011) contains the mysteries The Man In The Cage, and The Deadly Isles, and the suspense novel Bad Ronald.