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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.

Science Fiction - A Review of Speculative Fiction - Vol. 4 No. 2 1982
(Cover Nick Stathopoulos)

Science Fiction - A Review of Speculative Fiction - Vol. 4 No. 2 1982


Jack Vance, I was told in Japan, is a very hard author to translate. Some of us get by with a minimal vocabulary but Jack has a command of the English language all too rare in these days. The average modern writer, in any field, reminds one rather of Rolf Harris doing his thing with a paint-brush on TV. A picture emerges - but one that owes almost as much to the imagination of the viewer as to the (undoubted) skill of the artist. Jack, however, weaves a rich and intricate tapestry with words.

Jack is not afraid to hold currently unpopular opinions and to air them. Some of you may recall when, quite a few years ago, the boss cockies of the Science Fiction Writers of America saw fit to put full-page advertisements in Galaxy magazine, complete with the illustrious names of all members in agreement deploring the United States’ presence and actions in Vietnam. After this gesture quite a few S.F.W.A. members, Jack among them, paid for a full-page counter-advertisement, the sentiment of which was All The Way L.B.J.

I suppose that Jack represents Middle America. Middle America has become rather a term of opprobrium over the past few years. This is unfortunate, as Middle America has its very real virtues - honesty, the recognition of moral values, the appreciation of a job well done. It is unfortunate that Middle America has its lunatic fringe. It seems to be getting to the stage where the lunatic fringes of just about everything are taking charge.

I’d been a great admirer of Jack’s work for quite some time before I had the pleasure of meeting him. It was when he, with wife Norma and son Johnnie, spent a few weeks in Sydney some years ago. Unluckily his stay not coincide with one of my periods of leave (I was still at sea at the time). Nonetheless, Susan and I saw quite a lot of the Vances. I recall a dinner that the four of us enjoyed at a rather posh eatery in Jersey Road, Paddington. I forget its name but I remember the meal and the conversation. (The duck with cherries was quite good.) At the next table to ours were four members of the blue rinse set lingering over their coffee.

At our table we were discussing the recently published Birthday Honours List, the one in which the Beatles received their awards - M.B.E.s, if I remember rightly. Jack was sympathizing with those who, as an act of protest, had returned their own C.B.E.s, O.B.E.s, M.b.E.s, etc. to Her Majesty. Declaimed he, in a very American accent, “If your Queen had ever seen fit to honour me, and then if I saw those hairy insects getting the same decoration, I’d turn in me button!” (Ears began to flap at the next table.) Said I, deliberately putting on a very Orstrylian accent, “Well, Jack, I didn’t notice Sir Douglas Fairbanks Junior turning in his button.” Said Susan, in her too, too County voice, “It all goes to show the absurdity of the Honours system, doesn’t it?”

The ladies at the next table hurriedly finished their coffee, cast dirty looks in our direction, paid their bills and left.

For quite a while alter the Vances’ return to California we kept up a regular correspondence, mainly on the subject of multi-hulled sailing craft. It was then Jack’s ambition to build his own trimaran and to sail around the world. At that time catamarans end trimarans were still considered to be the safest things afloat. (Over the years they seen to have lost what, after all, was a somewhat spurious glamour.) Jack never quite converted me. I told him the story of a small catamaran that was built by the chief engineer of one of the Union Steam Ship Company’s New Zealand Coastwise colliers. When he had the thing finished we were discharging our cargo of coal in Portland, New Zealand. The chief, accompanied by the second mate, was going to take the thing out on its trial run. The master, Captain Desmond Champion, who was quite notorious for his insistence on Safety First, told the two intrepid catamariners that they must wear lifejackets. The chief told him that it was utterly impossible to capsize a catamaran. The Old Man ordered him and the second mate to wear lifejackets. Sulking hard, they did so.

They contrived to capsize their craft. As chief officer I had to take a lifeboat away to rescue then.

When Last I met Jack, in 1979, his pride and joy was a large, conventional yacht. Unfortunately I was spending only a very short time in Oakland before returning to Sydney and so missed out on taking a trip in the vessel. Had I done so I should have been very much the passenger. Unlike me Jack was at sea only for a relatively short time but I am sure that he has all the seaman-like virtues. He is also a most competent carpenter - although, perhaps, his carpentry is not in the same class as his writing. If it were he would have achieved fame as a cabinet maker. (But if he hadn’t gotten into the writing racket he might well have done so.)

Twice I have been a guest at the Vance home in Oakland. It is a big house, its interior comfortably untidy. As far as a guest is concerned it is Liberty Hall; you can spit on the mat and call the cat a bastard. The Vances Love good food and conversation and are not averse to imbibing the occasional beer. But yet they tend to avoid many social activities, such as big conventions and the annual S.F.W.A. banquet. Jack has an undeserved reputation for having no time for fans — although he has never gone to the extremes that Harlan Ellison is alleged to have done.

In Jack’s case, I am sure, this apparent stand-offishness is due to shyness, to the humility exhibited only by the truly great. He is essentially a very good - in the true sense of the word - person. Although he does not enjoy the big get-togethers, which too often tend to get out of hand, he likes the smaller occasions at which he can meet everybody. He is, perhaps, a better listener than a talker, one who knows that he does not know everything and who is always ready and willing to add to his knowledge. And yet, with friends around him and his banjo in his hands he can, in his own quiet way, exercise very real control over a party.

Re is a master craftsman - of whatever craft to which he turns his hand.

His standards, in all things, are high.