A Lean, Mean, Writing Machine: Jack Vance Was Science Fiction’s Tightest Worldbuilder

I’m a big fan of concise stories. If a writer fills a three-volume science fiction epic with 2000 pages of detailed worldbuilding, intriguing speculative concepts, and captivating character arcs, that’s all well and good, but if that writer can get that down to 300 pages, that’s better. And if a writer goes further and nails it in 150 pages—well then, that writer can only be Jack Vance.

Vance produced well over 70 novels, novellas, and short story collections over the course of his writing career, creating fantasy stories and mysteries as well as science fiction, and even producing a substantial number of doorstoppers that would have impressed George R. R. Martin with their girth. Vance’s extensive oeuvre has its imperfections—especially glaring today is his near-complete lack of interesting female characters—but at their best the books set an excellent standard for the construction of strange new worlds. Three tales in particular, The Languages of Pao (1958), the Hugo Award-winning The Dragon Masters (1962), and The Last Castle (1966), squeeze artfully assembled civilizations into focused, tight paragraphs. Other authors might have used these worlds as settings for bloated trilogies, but Vance quickly builds each society, establishes his characters, delivers the action, and then is off to create something new. I can’t think of any other author who put together so many varied worlds with such efficiency.


The Languages of Pao

Vance opens The Languages of Pao (the longest of these three novels, at 153 pages) with a two-page chapter bringing readers up to speed on the planet of Pao, concluding with a paragraph about the local language. On Pao, the inhabitants don’t use verbs or comparisons, because “[t]he Paonese sentence did not so much describe an act as it presented a picture of a situation.” This static, passive language and the mind-set that evolves from it becomes an obstacle for Beran Panesper, in line to rule the entire planet until things go awry. The young man’s decades-long journey from heir to refugee to conspirator against Pao’s new rulers is the spine of the story, one which plays with the idea that thought can’t outrun language, and thus language makes us who we are.

Beran escapes from Pao to hide from the usurper Bustamonte, but is back within roughly a decade, in league with a ‘wizard’ named Palafox. Palafox’s plan to return Beran to power involves changing the nature of Paonese society by making a collection of new languages for new classes of citizens to speak. This plan requires a lot of time to implement—at least a generation—and in the meantime Beran travels his world, immersing himself in several regions and laying the seeds of a culture that will transform his planet.

While there’s a lot more to say about Beran’s fraught alliance with Palafox, and his realization that he’s changing Pao perhaps for the worse with his complicated scheme to rid the planet of its current tyrants, the most striking thing about the book is its depiction of Pao. For the story to work, readers need to know not just what this place looks like but what its social structures are, how its people think and feel, and how it can change, and Vance covers all of that without ever pausing in Beran’s journey.


The Dragon Masters

One of Vance’s best-known novellas opens with a description of the main character’s dwelling. Joaz Banbeck is a dragon-lord of the planet Aerlith, a place where feudal noblemen keep pens of dangerous creatures collectively known as dragons, used in their warlording activities. There’s more to this place; Aerlith has several fiefdoms, each ruled by a family, and each family has a history, with various prominent ancestors. And we haven’t even gotten to the dragons and where they came from yet (there are several variations and distinct functions). Plus the dragons aren’t even the most remarkable or mysterious thing about Aerlith.

By page 14, chapter 2, we get to the story of Joaz Banbeck’s ancestor fighting an invading alien army known as the Basics, then we get more stories of rivalries among the dragon-lord families. By chapter 3, the social complexity has approached Dune levels. Yet there’s another element of the story that Vance has hinted at—the doings of an enigmatic collective of naked men known as the Sacerdotes. In fact, the story first opens with a sacerdote mysteriously entering and then vanishing from Banbeck’s apartment. Had Vance stretched all of this out, the pieces of this story—the family legacies, the Sacerdotes, the various classifications of dragons—would seem like digressions, but he keeps everything moving at a rapid pace. The book’s only 137 pages long, and there’s no room for fat. The main event of The Dragon Masters, the return of the Basics and their army of modified human slaves, gets started around page 95. The resolution is as swift and memorable as the rest of the story.


The Last Castle

Given how prolific Vance was, it’s not surprising that he reused various story elements in his books. A number of his science fiction stories begin with a galactic troubleshooter of some kind walking down the gangplank of a starship onto the multicolored turf of an alien planet, and there are other echoes and callbacks found throughout his works. The Last Castle seems to borrow some pieces from The Dragon Masters, but it’s very much its own story, and reading one right after the other didn’t feel like a retread at all. Again, Vance presents a society built on a feudal foundation, wherein humans live in fortified cities, and again an army of aliens wreaks havoc on these citadels. A major difference, however, is that unlike the people of Aerlith, the inhabitants of New Earth’s castles may have inadvertently caused the attacks, and they certainly don’t know what to do about them. These major differences require Vance to describe the very specific culture and customs of Earth’s castle-dwellers, which he of course does with expert concision, serving up an elaborate civilization with enviable economy.

The Last Castle begins with an amazing opening line: “Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed.” We go from there to Castle Hagedorn, whose clan leaders and elders meet to figure out how they can withstand the bellicose Meks, once their servants and now the force that’s sweeping across the planet, killing all of the humans who, centuries earlier, returned to their homeworld to set up luxurious palaces for their lives of ease. These humans have gathered alien races and repurposed them as a support staff, with Peasants as general laborers, Birds as transport, Phanes as decorative playthings, and Meks as the ones who keep everything running. By page 19 we’ve met Xanten, a clan chief who sets out to keep the Mek army from seizing the spaceship hangars that the humans haven’t used in ages. The real question of the story, though, isn’t what has caused the Meks to riot. It’s whether or not the humans deserve to survive.

The ‘gentlefolk’ of Castle Hagedorn are so caught up in their time-honored rituals and ceremonies—Vance describes a couple of them, though we’re told there are plenty more—that they can barely focus on the murderous army marching toward them. And the various aliens that play involved parts in this society all get descriptions and backgrounds, but throughout the story rather than all at once (it took me a few chapters before I realized that Birds were not, in fact, birds). As with The Dragon Masters, the story ends with a great conflict, only the sides are not the same as in the earlier tale and the stakes are distinct as well. While Joaz Banbeck was the product of a battle-scarred civilization, cut off from his terrestrial history and adrift in a universe laden with mystery, Xanten comes from a society of leisure and formality, groaning under the weight of its history.


As a coda to this survey of a portion of Vance’s output, around the time he wrote these three science fiction tales, Vance also wrote a short story in which he packed one of his most intricate cultures into a mere 35 pages. “The Moon Moth” (1961) is an extraordinary example of worldbuilding, set within a one-of-a-kind mystery. Edwer Thissell comes as a consulate agent to the planet Sirene, where natives wear masks at all times. Not only that, but speech is musical, with the rhythms, tempos, and melodies varying depending on the statuses of the addresser and addressee. AND speech must be accompanied by one of several small instruments worn on the belt. Failure to follow these Sirenean norms can result in death. All of this (including the names and functions of the various belt-instruments) is not just described with precision, but within the course of the story, which has Thissell receiving a message that he has to detain a criminal newly arrived on Sirene—who of course is wearing a mask, as is everyone else. It’s a feat that many other authors would have stretched into a novel, or filled with paragraphs of clunky exposition, but Vance, as always, breezes past bloat and tedium, depicting a fully-formed world with the fewest possible brush strokes.

Hector DeJean relives the pop-culture highlights of his misspent youth every day in his head. He’s written about television, superheroes, and TV superheroes for the Criminal Element.


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