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Jack Vance dies at 96; prolific, award-winning author

The San Francisco native penned his first short stories while serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine in the 1940s. Among his best-known works was 'The Dying Earth,' a collection of fantasy stories.

By Rebecca Trounson, Los Angeles Times

10:04 PM EDT, May 30, 2013

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Jack Vance, who penned his first short stories while serving in the U.S. Merchant Marine in the 1940s and became a prolific, award-winning author of elaborate works of science fiction, fantasy and mystery, has died. He was 96.

Vance died Sunday at his home in Oakland of what his son John Holbrook Vance II described as complications of old age. "Everything just finally caught up with him," his son said.

Among his best-known works was "The Dying Earth," a collection of linked fantasy stories first published in 1950 that told of life on the planet in the far distant future, with a weak sun ever in danger of burning out. Complete with heroic quests and magical duels, it is considered to have influenced many more recent fantasy writers, including "Game of Thrones" author George R.R. Martin, and was later expanded into several novels.

Vance's writing was known for its formal, almost courtly style and for colorfully inventive vocabulary, as in this excerpt from "The Green Pearl," published in 1986:

"Throbius wore a crown worked from sceleone, that fragile metal forged from water-reflected gleams of moonlight. Slender cusps surrounding the crown terminated in pale blue sapphires. The robes of Throbius were blue velvet woven from the bloom of willow catkins; they trailed ten feet behind him and were carried by six round-faced skew-eyed implings, smirking sidelong with noses wrinkled."

Vance, who published more than 60 books, collected various honors over his career, including several Hugo awards, a prestigious science fiction and fantasy prize. He won Hugos in 1963 for "The Dragon Masters," in 1967 for "The Last Castle" and in 2010 for his memoir "This is Me, Jack Vance!" Other awards included an Edgar, for mystery writing, for "The Man in the Cage," published in 1961.

But for many of his fans, he never received quite the credit he was due. In 2009, a New York Times magazine profile described him as "one of American literature's most distinctive and undervalued voices" and quoted author Michael Chabon speaking in a similar vein.

"Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don't get the credit they deserve," Chabon said. "If 'The Last Castle' or 'The Dragon Masters' had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he's Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there's this insurmountable barrier."

John Holbrook Vance, known as Jack, was born Aug. 28, 1916, in San Francisco, the son of Charles and Edith Vance. After his family fell on hard times during his early childhood, he grew up mainly on his grandparents' farm near Oakley in Contra Costa County. He attended UC Berkeley, where he studied mining engineering, physics and journalism but left without earning a degree, his son said.

He served in the Merchant Marine during World War II and began writing fiction. His first short story, "The World Thinker," was published in 1945 in a pulp magazine. Other stories soon followed, although he also supported himself with non-writing work — as a carpenter and welder, among other jobs — until the early 1970s.

His wife of 61 years, Norma Ingold Vance, died in 2008. In addition to his son, he is survived by three grandchildren.

An unpretentious man, Vance often dismissed the idea of writing as an art, saying he toiled at his craft simply to make a living.

"I'm motivated by avarice, by greed," he told the Washington Post in 1988. "I'm not motivated by art, for God's sake. If I worried about these things, I'd be a raving maniac."

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com