Category Archives: Reading

Jack Vance: Big Books

The first Jack Vance I read was his juvenile novel Vandals of the Void, published in 1953 by Winston. I encountered it–some years later–in the library of a school in rural Indiana. I was in the fifth grade, I’d just discovered science fiction, and I was plowing through everything the library had.

Authors’  identities did not yet mean anything to me, so I didn’t associate the name “Jack Vance” with the story I reread several times and remembered long afterward for certain vivid scenes and images: a perilous descent into a lunar crevasse, a mysterious glowing-eyed villain.

I don’t recall just when I realized that the Jack Vance whose work I’d come to seek out, the author of The Dying Earth and “The Last Castle” and “The Dragon Masters,” was also the author of that long-ago story. I do remember that once, not long out of grad school, I wanted to buy a copy of Vandals of the Void and discovered that they were hard to get and too expensive for me. (Just now I saw that the first edition is selling for $200+ online.) So I ordered it from the long-suffering, ever-helpful Interlibrary Loan Department of the Philadelphia Free Library (thanks, Ben Franklin!) and illegally photocopied it. I reread those pages every so often over the years; I have them in a file folder in my office now.

Also in my office are all the various editions of Vance’s works I’ve accumulated over the years. They have survived even the most drastic of the bookshelf purges. Among them are eight battered, fragile issues of F&SF from the early 1970s, when the magazine serialized several Vance novels.

And now two additions to the shelves.

This week I received one-third of the Complete Jack Vance, now being published in six hardcover volumes by Afton House Books. This is a compact version of the famous VIE edition of a few years ago, about which I unaccountably failed to hear at the time. My newly acquired books are too large and heavy to read in bed, lest a broken nose result from an inadvertent dropping-off, but they are sturdy and handsome and meant to last a while. What glee I feel as I contemplate all those pages of wit, style, color, and elegant ferocity.

The VIE editors tried to restore Vance’s texts to something close to the author’s originals or intentions. Big Planet, for example, now contains some passages deleted as too racy by the editor/publisher. It will be a pleasure to read these much-loved works in texts that are, in many small ways, new. And it will be a treat to read those of Vance’s mysteries that I haven’t yet read.

Of course I won’t be getting rid of any of the old Vance editions. I’ll just have to annex more shelf space.

The Andre Norton project

I started reading science fiction in the fifth grade, when I came across a book called Space Cadet, by someone I thought of for years as “Roberta Heinlein.” (I was a fast but often rather careless reader.)

It wasn’t long before I discovered Andre Norton. My school had some kind of book club. You could buy books from a catalog, and a week or so later they would be delivered at school, an occasion for much distraction and excitement. I think I acquired my ancient Ace paperbacks of Daybreak-2250 A.D. and Catseye in that fashion, although they had been published years earlier.

At any rate, I soon read as much Norton as I could get my hands on, and throughout junior high and high school acquired some of her books in paperback. I’ve read a few of them since then–a couple of the Witch World books, and a while back I found Star Guard at a used-book store.

A couple of months ago I looked into one of many boxes of my books that have been packed away for years–at least since I moved to Oregon in 1993–because I have never had enough shelf space for all the books. I was thinking about rotating some books from the storage boxes in the garage onto my shelves, and vice versa. I came across ten very old, yellowed Andre Nortons and have just started rereading them.

Yesterday it was Catseye, originally published in 1961. Today it’s Sargasso of Space (1955). It’s great fun.

I’m struck by how familiar these stories, which I loved as a young person and read over and over, feel to me now. At the same time, I’m seeing  elements to which I was utterly oblivious back then.

And I’m reminded on every page of Norton’s predilection for dashes. Perhaps her dash-intensive style influenced me. Various editors, over the years, have pointed out that my mss. are liberally–perhaps too liberally?–besprinkled with the things.

Writers, maps, and a cool coincidence

Yesterday I started reading Peter Turchi’s Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (2004). It’s been on my radar for a while. I love maps–I’ve written several books about cartography–and was curious about how Turchi would handle the metaphor of the book as map. The immediate catalyst for getting Maps of the Imagination from the library was seeing it cited in Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife.

I am finding it a satisfyingly chewy read. Here’s an early example:

Discussing the idea that a story is unexplored before it is written and thus presents  overwhelming opportunities, Turchi notes, “This explains why it can be so difficult for beginning writers to embrace thorough revision–which is to say, to fully embrace exploration. The desire to cling to that first path through the wilderness is both a celebration of initial discovery and fear of the vast unknown.”

The last thing I did last night was glance at Turchi’s afterword, which describes the genesis of and influences on the book. He mentions “the work of Edward Tufte,” which rang  a bell. I had come across a reference to Tufte quite recently, but where and what?

I looked at the facing page, which is the last past of Turchi’s bibliography, to see if Tufte were cited. When I saw a citation for Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information I remembered that my friend Magda had tweeted last week about finding an online edition of that work.

Then I happened to glance up the page and saw my own name. Turchi included my Young Oxford Guide to Maps and Mapmaking (Oxford University Press, 1995) in his biblio. Made me proud.

Maps and Mapmaking was the longest nonfiction book I’ve written to date, 900+  pages in manuscript, and one of the most challenging, but also one of my favorites. Advances in cartographic technology have rendered out of date the parts of the book that deal with contemporary mapmaking. The sections on the history of cartography and on important maps and mapmakers, though, were near and dear to my heart.

I just ordered a copy of Maps of the Imagination for my shelves. From Powell’s, not Amazon. I had to add a bunch more books to the order to meet the $50 threshold for free shipping, but that, alas for my budget, is never a problem.

Writing, watching, soon reading

Must . . . finish . . . book . . .

Nova Swing is waiting.

After my major work interruption of last June through February, during which I missed a ton of deadlines, I renegotiated all those deadlines with my publisher. The result was a tight but doable schedule that would push me through the overdue mss. and then on to new work. But of course I am already falling behind that optimistic schedule. I had hoped to have finished a ms. on Forensic Anthropology (part of a series for middle-school-age kids) by now. Or by last Thursday or Friday. It’s a wonderful subject with lots of fascinating details and anecdotes, but my work habits are, er, rusty.

But now I am motivated to finish, and that right swiftly. Such as maybe by Tuesday. Not only do Zach and I have plans for later in the week, including a big dinner party for an out-of-town guest on Saturday, but my copy of Nova Swing arrived yesterday. I want to read it but can’t in good (or even mediocre) conscience do so until I have turned in at least one piece of work!

I loved Light but somehow, inexplicably, never got around to reading this follow-up novel. I don’t expect it to have the same impact on me as Light, but I’m expecting a damn fine M. John Harrison read.

On another note, we rashly invested two hours last night in another Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie. When will we learn? By 8 or 10 minutes into Star Runners, Zach and I were competing to call out references/homages/ripoffs. We agreed that despite hints or liberal doses of Resident Evil, Pitch Black, and many more, the most numerous and obvious “echoes” were of Firefly and Serenity. Was this thing seriously intended to come off as being set in a corner of the Firefly universe, one that Joss Whedon and company just never got around to visiting? Whatever. After a day spent writing (me) and doing heavy yard work (Zach) our exhaustion was such that it went down pretty easily, helped along by some Yamhill Valley pinot noir.

Ballard

I just saw on the morning news crawl that J.G. Ballard has died. A sad loss to speculative fiction and to the world of words. I’ve read and liked (or loved, or been baffled by, or been challenged by) many of his works over the years, but what stands out most clearly in memory is the sense of wonder and dread and possibility I felt when first reading books like The Drowned World and Vermilion Sands way, way back in the day.

Thanks and goodbye.