Friday, April 8, 2011

Jack Vance and Greek Tragedy (part 2)

A short follow-on to my previous post about how Jack Vance's fiction is a close mirror to the cultural attitudes of the ancient Athenians (particularly after the fall of the Athenian Empire). The quick note I'm going to make here, though, applies to pretty much the full sweep of the Athenian cultural height.

Which is that Athenian tragedy portrays the character's doom as inevitable from a certain early point in the narrative, and it is based in a character flaw (okay, sometimes it is based on hereditary guilt from an ancestor's character flaw, but usually a character flaw of the protagonist). The actual play simply documents how the character moves closer and closer toward the consequence -- now inevitable -- of the moment in which the character flaw caused the character to take an action that tips over the first domino.

It is all contained at the beginning, the tension of a bent bow, waiting for the release.

That's Greek tragedy, so now a couple of notes about Jack Vance that are relevant to this:
1) Vance villains never get the benefit of coincidences. The protagonists get the occasional lucky break as well as bad luck. But the villains move through the story with their options slowly being whittled down, even though they don't realize it. Vance seldom relies on big coincidences to resolves stories, but in some cases there is a series of small coincidences that appear to be slowly nudging the hero toward victory, and removing options for the villain. Very similar to Greek tragedy.
2) The moral nature of people in Jack Vance stories don't change. Some authors show people having a change of heart, reforming, or whatever. Vance characters might change strategies, or might regret failures of their past strategies, but their moral nature doesn't change. Not in any story I can recall. Again, this is similar to Greek tragedy, although it's maybe just a necessary part of telling a story of this kind, so it was used both by the classical tragedians as well as Vance as a necessary story element.
3) This all might sound a bit contrived - am I just inventing this description of Vance? The seeds of retribution contained at the beginning of the story? A movement toward an inevitable conclusion?

Remove original text:
My answer is this: What's the name of the magician Cugel pisses off at the very beginning of Eyes of the Overworld?

His name is Chun the Unavoidable.

If you miss the significance of that name, you might read the Eyes of the Overworld as a purely picaresque novel that ends badly. It's not - it appears to be a picaresque story only to the protagonist. From the very beginning of the story, Cugel is a buried man who just isn't under the ground yet.

It was Iucounu the Laughing Magician, not Chun, from Liane the Wayfarer. Thanks for pointing this out, Dave!


  1. Chun the Unavoidable is in the story "Liane the Wayfarer" (another hubristic trickster who meets a bad end).

    Cugel is punished, in a nice touch, by Iucounu the Laughing Magician.

  2. Are you just talking "Dying Earth" stories? I've only read one, maybe two of those, but I've read the four books of the Planet of Adventure series and also The Languages of Pao, and there is moral change in those.

  3. Talysman - it's been a looong time since I read either the Planet of Adventure series or the Languages of Pao; I might indeed be missing something from either of those.

    I'm mainly thinking of the Dying Earth stories and also the Lyonesse series, plus the Grey Prince and the Dragonmasters.