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Monday, February 05, 2007

Is Jack Vance Anti-Christian?

Jack Vance has been an important writer of fantastic fiction for about sixty years. Two of his books, The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle, won Hugo Awards. (He also wrote some other fiction, including some mystery novels.) The most important characteristics of his works are his careful use of an amazing variety of words, his ability to invent and describe new societies (often a dozen or more such in a single book), and the sardonic dialog that his characters engage in. A group of Vance enthusiasts has produced the Vance Integral Edition, a volunteer work, which is a unified printing of all of his writings (so far -- he is still alive), carefully edited.

Here's a sample of Vance, from his The Green Pearl:
“Hmm! It seems an exaggerated response. A sip or two of mead, a taste of honey-cake: where is the harm in this?”
“None whatever!” declared the ex-priest. “I must admit that the issues possibly went a trifle deeper, and I may even found a new brotherhood, devoid of those stringencies which too often make religion a bore. I am restrained only because I do not wish to be branded a heretic. Are you yourself a Christian?”
The young man made a negative sign. “The concepts of religion baffle me.”
“This inscrutability is perhaps not unintentional,” said the ex-priest. “It gives endless employment to dialecticians who otherwise might become public charges or, at very worst, swindlers and tricksters. May I ask whom I have the pleasure of addressing?”
The Green Pearl is the second of a trilogy, set in an imaginary group of islands, near Europe, in the Middle Ages. The sample, in addition to mentioning Christianity, and religion in general, gives a small sample of Vance's use of dialog. He uses it a lot, and his characters are almost all sardonic, and given to using rare words. I have posted previously on Vance, and, in that post, give another short sample of his writing, in this case, without dialog.

In his works set on other worlds, and in the future, Vance is also known for throwing out lots of imaginary cultures. In some books, he seems to put a new one in every valley, radically different from the one in the previous valley. In addition to bizarre clothing, food, and other customs, they often practice bizarre religions, and the religions are never spoken of respectfully. But, it is true that the clothes, the food, and the other customs usually aren't, either. It is as if each culture observed by his protagonists were in some sort of cultural zoo, observed through the bars, with the observer thinking that all of them are strange.

I have a web page summarizing much (not all) of Vance's writing, and emphasizing the different forms of vengeance often taken by his characters.

This page has an index of writings, associated with the Vance Integral Edition project, addressing the religious aspects of Vance's work, in particular whether or not he has been anti-Christian. Perhaps the most important of these is a long article by Paul Rhoads, entitled, as this blog post, "Is Jack Vance Anti-Christian?" Rhoads has an encyclopedic grasp of Vance's writing, which begins on page 15 of a .pdf document. Rhoads concludes that Vance is a neopagan, not a virulent anti-Christian (although some have said so), and that that aspect of his belief has been mostly incidental to his work. He points out that many authors, some undeniably Christian, have used hypocrital, or otherwise deeply flawed characters who claimed (fictionally) to be Christian, just as Vance has. I believe that Rhoads is correct on these points.

A taste for Vance is an acquired taste, but the man had talent, and has acquired a following.

Thanks for reading.

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On June 3, 2012, I modified the next-to-last paragraph. The most significant change was adding the title of the article by Paul Rhoads, which should have been included.


rain78 said...

i started reading jack vance because i read that he writes wonderful prose. but it's very clear that his is another sci-fi/fantasy novel that is clearly anti-Christian, specifically, anti Roman Catholic. from the prologues of the Lyonnese 1, the tone was already insulting. the character Brother Umphred he wrote as unappealing a character as possible, and had given a sorry end.

it's sickening that most of these novels are anti-religion instead of creating a wonderful story that does not offend. and yet two lotr and harry potter (an adaptation of christ's life actually) have been the most successful fantasy sagas in the last hundred years. thank God for that.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, rain78.

It is true that Umphred, the priest, is anything but a sympathetic figure. (Unfortunately, it is also true that, even in the 21st Century, some priests -- and Protestant clergy -- have done some awful things, but Vance seems to have picked on priests, or at least one priest, in this book.) As I said above, Vance attacked a lot of things in his books, religion, food, social customs.

Thanks for your comment.

Aaron said...

I have been a fan of Jack Vance since 2005. I have read nearly all of his published work multiple times. It seems to me that Vance was far more critical of the bureaucracy of religions than the actual beliefs. Reading Vance one cannot fail to see Vance's portrayal of ALL human organizations bear the same view as his view of religious hierarchy. He likes to focus on men who hold church titles and claim to be holy, but who act just as sinfully as any other commoner when they think they are not being watched. His writing is actually very funny. I recommend it heartily.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Aaron.

Perhaps you are right, and he was more critical of the bureaucracy than the beliefs, but I stand with my statement in reply to a comment above, "Vance attacked a lot of things in his books, religion, food, social customs." I don't think he was impressed by the bureaucracy or the beliefs. But, as Rhoads said, he wasn't virulently anti-Christian. I guess a word that summed him up is that he was anti-establishment.

Anonymous said...

"...harry potter (an adaptation of christ's life actually)" Seriously? A shame to dispute Jack Vance's writing, yet proclaim what many, by now, Christians recognize as anti-God and anti-Christian in the Harry Potter writings.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, anonymous.

I didn't say that about the Harry Potter books -- a commenter did. Perhaps I should have responded on that point of the comment, but I didn't.

I don't think that the Harry Potter books are an adaptation of Christ's life, for a great many reasons, such as that Harry gets married, that Harry never prays, and that there are other characters, not Harry, who lay down their lives for other people.

However, by no means everyone, including me, thinks that those books are anti-Christian, either. See here here
and here.