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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jack Vance’s Unique Voice

Science Fiction author Jack Vance died recently, at the enviable age of ninety-six.  About his friend, fellow SF luminary Harlan Ellison wrote: “To read Jack Vance was to be ensorcelled by his voice.  He had a savoir-faire with the English language, and pronounceable words or names of alien origin that is unique in my long reading of the literature of the fantastic.”

To honor Vance’s contributions to the genre, I reread The Last Castle.  I’ve always respected his inventiveness, and how his stories drew me into his worlds.  Ellison’s appreciation gave me a new lens through which to view his craft, and within a few pages, Vance demonstrated his signature wordplay.

A character says, “The dogs have stolen our power-wagons, otherwise I’d be tempted to ride out and chivy the rascals home with a whip.”  In a footnote, Vance apologizes for this “approximate translation,” as it “fails to capture the pungency of the language.  Several words have no contemporary equivalents.”  Vance lists several terms that derive from this future culture, with which he did not wish to overburden the text.  These include the words skirkling, volith, and raudlebogs. 

I won’t rob you the joy of reading Vance’s full explanation of each word, but I’ll offer some woefully inadequate summations.  Skirkling involves a frantic flight.  Volith involves toying idly with an idea.  Raudlebogs are semi-intelligent beings with “certain, repulsive habits.”  After explaining the historical and cultural significance of each word, Vance explains the full import of his character’s declaration: “Were power-wagons at hand, I’d volith riding forth with a whip to send the raudlebogs skirkling home.”

In less skillful hands, The Last Castle might leave the reader depressed by epoch-ending events.  Yet by investing it with an interesting history, a rich culture, diverse alien races, and yes, moments of humor, he creates a vastly enjoyable and memorable story.  As Ellison suggests, Vance’s inventive wordplay heightens each of these elements, making the story even more of a joy to read. 

I periodically (and with a heavy heart) peruse my burgeoning bookshelves with the intention of making room for new books.  After rereading The Last Castle, I will not volith the idea of its skirkling away.  Anyone who disputes its worth shall henceforth be labeled a raudlebog.  And yes, that is my solemn declaration. 

Dragon Dave

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