Friday, October 25, 2013

“Capturing Vance” by Barry Malzberg (intro to The Best of Jack Vance)

I recently purchased at a used book store the 1976 collection of six Jack Vance stories entitled The Best of Jack Vance, put out by Pocket in their Timescape line.  The great SF writer, critic, and historian Barry Malzberg wrote a two page introduction to the book which is remarkable for several reasons: in fact, this intro is quite like a Malzberg story, weird and certainly worth reading.

1) Malzberg claims to have a theory that the title of a SF author’s first sale is symbolic of his entire career.  Bizarre and funny, and reminiscent of the scenes in Proust in which young Marcel tries to guess what a town is like based on its name on the train schedule.  Malzberg gives examples, such as Heinlein, Silverberg, and, of course, Vance.

2) Malzberg, in a footnote, admits that he has made a mistake, that his analysis of Vance’s career is based on the title of Vance’s fourth published story, not his first, but dismisses any notion that this invalidates his theory or his analysis.

3) Malzberg tells us interesting things about Vance’s career, and why Vance is so great.  Malzberg also highly praises Silverberg, but in a mysterious sort of way that left me wondering what it is exactly that Malzberg admires about Silverberg: “If you look at the genre [SF] as being necessarily one kind of thing close-up, then Robert Silverberg is probably the best the field has ever had.…”  What does this mean?  It is like our pal Barry left out a sentence or phrase just to tease us, or present us with a challenge.  Malzberg goes on to say if you look at SF from a different and equally viable point of view, then Vance is the best.  What Vance does so well, says Malzberg, is present alienness, how the people in a SF world will have totally different attitudes and values than we do.  Does this mean that Malzberg feels that Silverberg’s strength is that he writes about our own 20th century Earth values and attitudes in a SF context?  Looking at Silverberg’s body of work, this seems plausible.

4) Malzberg compares Vance to a James Schmitz, saying that Vance is Schmitz’s logical successor, and that only Schmitz can even touch Vance.  I have never even heard of Schmitz before (my education is plagued with embarrassing lacunae) but, based on Malzberg’s praise, I will soon be hunting down free e-texts of Schmitz’s short stories.
Do people give stars to the intros of collections?  Malzberg’s “Capturing Vance” deserves 5 out of 5: Best introduction of all time.


My copy of The Best of Jack Vance presents many mysteries.  The very last page is an advertisement for the Pocket line of “Best of” collections.  A previous owner has marked the Vance volume, and two others, with “X”s, presumably because he has purchased them.  Two other collections are left unmarked, and two more have an “O” in the appropriate space.  What does the “O” mean?  That he was making a point to avoid those authors?  Or are the “X”s and “O”s thumbs up and thumbs down reviews?  Here is a mystery that I will never solve.     

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