As far as I know, nobody who ever read Jack Vance was untouched by his writings. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America have made him their 14th Grand Master, ranking him together with writers like Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven and others. Everybody who reads science fiction or fantasy in earnest has heard his name and read at least some of his work. This article is not for you people; it is for the unknowers.
Jack Vance (1916 - 2013) was a miner, student, sailor, jazz-player, traveller and of course writer. Describing his work a bit like explaining zen. As soon as you start to characterise his writing, you create a limited frame that does not honor it. For example, in the first paragraph of this article I labeled him as a science fiction / fantasy writer, but Jack Vance does not fit this category, wide as it is. It is better to say that he has created his own genre, which is characterized by his unique style. Sure, in his stories their is frequent use of spacecraft, aliens and magic, but these never dominate, even when he is weaving a tale around a sci-fi or fantasy theme. Here is a quote from "Morreion", where the two are somewhat merged into one:
Vermoulian bowed to his now uneasy guests. He mounted to the control belvedere, where he cast a spell of buoancy upon the palace; it rose to drift upon the morning breeze like a pinnacled cloud. Vermoulian consulted his Celestial almanac and made note of certain symbols; these he inscribed upon the carnelian mandate-wheel, which he set into rotation; the signs were spun off into the interflux, to elucidate a route across the universe. Vermoulian fired a taper and held it to the speed-incense; the palace departed; ancient Earth and the waning sun were left behind.
Vance is well known for his ability to describe exotic places. He can write down a complete world in one or two pages, something that some other writers fail to accomplish in an entire book. This is done like a master drawer draws a face: not by handling every little detail, but by picking the main features, leaving the rest for to be filled by the imagination of the viewer / reader. The art of course is to pick the right features and to describe them in a way that they come alive, something in which Vance excels. Here is an example of how the Dying Earth appears to a visitor from another world:
The landscape was strange and new. There was a dark blue sky, an ancient sun. She stood in a meadow, encircled by tall gloomy trees. The trees were unlike the calm giants of Embelyon; these were dense and brooding, and the shadows were enigmatic. Nothing in sight, nothing of Earth was raw or harsh - the ground, the trees, the rock ledge protruding from the meadow; all these had been worked upon, smoothed, aged, mellowed. The light from the sun, though dim, was rich, and invested every object of the land, the rocks, the trees, the quiet grasses and flowers, with a sense of lore and ancient recollection.
One quality that makes Vance's worlds so alive is his use of language. His erudition is vast and where he lacks words, he just invents them. But he does this so subtly that it is hard to discern the real ones from the imaginary. Consider this list of shrubs from The Eyes of the Overworld:
A path left the beach, to wind up among bushes and odorous shrubs: dymphian, heliotrope, black quince, olus, beds of long-stemmed stardrops, shade ververica, flowering amanita.
Through Vance's exotic worlds wander many kinds of humans, humanoids, half human monsters, cold but fickle faeries and other creatures. His main characters, and even some supporting ones, are all memorable, especially the villains, who are often more interesting than the heroes. With many writers, villains are just badasses, but with Vance they are often intelligent, colorful, even grotesque. Despite their panache some are still solidly evil and after all turns of the plot they usually die, but not without lamenting their fate defiantly. Others are just mischievous or lazy but lament just as frequently.
Inch by inch, foot by foot, the hole sank into the old seabed, but not a rate to suit Rhialto.
At last he complained to Um-Foad:
"What is wrong with the work-force?
They saunter here and there; they laugh and gossip at the water-barrel; they stare into space for long periods.
That old gaffer yonder, he moves so seldom that twice I have feared for his life."
Um-Foad made an easy response: "Come now, Rhialto! Do not forever be carping and chiding! These men are being paid handsomely by the hour. They are in no hurry to see the end of so noble an enterprise. As for the old man, he is my uncle Yaa-Yimpe, who suffers severe back pains, and is also deaf. Must he be penalized on this account? Let him enjoy the same perquisites as the others!"
Almost hiding in the background of the mesmerizing landscapes and extravagant characters are the themes of the stories. Often Vance tackles cruel, repressive societies, from which the hero has to fight free, sometimes triggering a revolution. Slavery is a recurring theme, as is adventure and the conflict between discipline and decadence. But he is never overtly moralistic, instead weaving the theme into the story as a part, not making it the story itself.
Vance is a master of irony, weaving a subtle humor into his stories. Insults are so elaborate that they become art; religion is ridiculed frequently; haggling and over-ambitious contracts are commonplace and sometimes characters use the story to just pull off a prank.
"There can be no doubt as to the truth of the facts as I have stated them. Orthodoxy derives from its axiomatic foundation, and the two systems are mutually reinforcing: hence each is doubly validated."
Got interested in Jack Vance? His total work numbers about 60 - 90 books, depending how you count them. A good place to start are the Tales of the Dying Earth, which established him in the writer's world, or the Lyonesse trilogy with its unforgettable faeries. If you fancy science fiction more than fantasy, dive into the Demon Princes series, Blue world or Emphyrio. For the really cautious types short stories or novellas are the best introduction. For example read the Moon Moth, The Dragon Masters or Morreion and you should be hooked. Many Vance stories are set in one of two settings: the Dying Earth (fantasy) and the Gaean Reach (science fiction), but others define their own. He also wrote mystery novels and detectives, which have nothing to do with his sci-fi and fantasy, except his style.
"Very well," said Cugel. "I will ride with you to Taun Tassel, but you must accept these three terces in full, exact, final, comprehensive and complete compensation for the ride and every other aspect, adjunct, by-product and consequence, either direct or indirect, of the said ride, renouncing every other claim, now and forever, including all times of the past and future, without exception, and absolving me, in part and in whole, from any and all further obligations."