Mr. Vance is at least self-aware enough to put “Or more properly, hospital This is I!” on the title page, sale so I feel better about the book and him as a person. Apparently he’s really well-known and has been publishing books and short stories for about sixty years; despite his prolific output, occasional convention appearances, and friendships with other major writers (Poul Anderson, Frank Herbert), his personal life is apparently rather unknown. However, he has written in three major genres (science fiction, fantasy, and mystery) and has won two Hugos, a Nebula, a Jupiter Award, an Edgar (mystery equivalent of a Hugo), and two World Fantasy awards. In addition to that, he’s a SFWA Grandmaster.
This isn’t a novel, actually — it’s an autobiography. It’s 208 pages of Jack Vance being relatively candid and actually talking about his entire life. It will be published by Subterranean Press later this year. He had the fortune to live during a very interesting time — he was born in 1916 — and has traveled to an insane amount of places. In some ways, the book is sort of a travelogue. It’s relatively chronological — it starts at the beginning and ends with him describing his current situation — but doesn’t necessarily follow every event in order. He rambles a bit, and digresses often, but it’s probably the only source for so much of the information one might want to know about Mr. Vance.
As I said, he was born in 1916, to a family with money who was in the high society of San Francisco at the time. However, things happened, and by the time the Great Depression hit, the family was destitute. His mother ended up working at various jobs, especially after his parents divorced, to support herself and the five children (of which Jack was in the middle). Jack himself put off starting any sort of college for years because he couldn’t afford it, and he needed to work to send money to his mother. However, he did attend community college briefly in Porterville, CA (where, incidentally, my mother-in-law got her associate’s degree in dental assisting) and then, some years later, spent a year or two at the University of California, Berkeley.
After a stint in the Navy — actually, I think one in the Navy and one in the merchant marines — he met and married his wife, Norma, who was eleven years his junior. He kept working at odd jobs, but eventually started publishing enough fiction that he could live off that money. She was apparently enormously helpful in this pursuit, and not only could they live off the money, but they could afford, every five years or so, to travel around the world and stay for months at a time. (I think Mr. Vance is one of the more well-off science fiction writers.) They set up semi-permanent residence in Oakland, and built a house there — it took something like 30 years to be completed to their specifications.
I feel like I’m writing a report on Mr. Vance, but it’s a ninety-something-year-old man chatting about his life. What else can I do? He’s a very engaging memoir-ist, I’ll give him that, and he’s definitely had a varied and full life. His list of Weird Writer Jobs probably tops most people — he tried to pass himself off as a welder once, he worked as a carpenter for a while, and he worked in a ketchup-making plant. He’s spent some time in nearly every country I can think of (except Timbuktu), and at one point he was in possession of a VW Bug with a butterfly painted on its rear end. While this isn’t exactly a volume that I think everyone must snap up and read, it’s quite enjoyable and if one’s a big fan of Mr. Vance’s works, I’d say it’s worth a Sunday afternoon. 4/5 stars