When I was young, boys still read books, though not the kind our parents or
teachers wanted. We read for fun, which meant science fiction, adventure, fantasy,
humor, or horror. Few of the books we liked best were found in the children’s
section of the library. We prowled the adult shelves, but even there the pickings
were slim. The horror “section” of the large Hawthorne, California library
consisted of one book, August Derleth’s
Who Knocks? Worse yet, it was always
checked out. We searched for new titles on the drugstore racks. We haunted used
bookstores and thrift shops. And we swapped titles.

We also swapped opinions. We described the stories we
were reading. The ability to present a gripping plot
summary was a recognized social grace on my parochial
school playground. (At St. Joseph’s the “playground” was
a public street chained off from traffic for the half hour of
our recess.)  We discoursed upon the relative merits of
books and authors. We generated our canon—Edgar Rice
Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Isaac Asimov,
H. G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle. We also speculated
about legendary, out-of-print authors, such as H. P.
Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon. What information we
could glean in those pre-internet days came from louche
sources such as
Famous Monsters of Filmland. T. S. Eliot
had Ezra Pound for an advisor. We had Forrest J. Ackerman.
Both of them liked to wear capes, though Pound never
wore vampire fangs.

I date my own beginnings as a literary critic to those boyish conversations and arguments
fueled by our shared pleasure, curiosity, and passion. As we six young misfits huddled at the
curb talking about novels, comic books, and movies, I learned the hypnotic power of story
and style. I also first encountered the mysterious truth that between the same covers each
reader finds a slightly different book. I’ve never belonged to a better literary community.

Our reading naturally developed. By fifteen we were reading Aldous Huxley, George Orwell,
and Hermann Hesse. By sixteen we had discovered Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, and
Jorge Luis Borges. It never occurred to me that I might be a writer, but obviously the Muse
had already registered me for her draft. When I went away to college, I became a man and
put away childish things. I never felt obliged, however, to disown science fiction. Although
the English professors, like the town librarian, considered it
infra dignitatem, we students
knew Sci-Fi was one of the great contemporary genres, the modern manifestation of
romantic mode.

Young people today would find it nearly impossible to imagine this vanished boys’ book
culture. Our reading had an urgent vitality in those pre-digital days because it provided
pleasures not easily available elsewhere. It didn’t just nourish our independence from
authority. Our reading was often a clandestine operation since our tastes lay outside the
sympathy of most adults. Many times a librarian would refuse to check out a book because
the cover looked too violent or lurid for a young reader. My best friend had to hide his books
from his father who would tear up such offensive titles as
A Princess of Mars or The Time
. Decades later when I read those virtue-laden adventures to my young sons, I
searched in vain for their moral depravity.

Just as my friends and I started high school, I remember buying a new Ace paperback called
The Dragon Masters by an unfamiliar writer named Jack Vance. This short novel became
an immediate sensation in our juvenile cenacle. We thrilled to the story and its ingenious
premise, but those were the ordinary pleasures of Sci-Fi. What took us by surprise was the
sheer exuberance of Vance’s imagination and his masterful style.

Youth is particularly susceptible to the magic of words,
and adolescents respond to verbal vigor and panache,
especially in a familiar genre. One friend memorized
the types of alien dragons and recited them with the
glee others reserve for poetry—Juggers, Termagants,
Blue Horrors, Long-horned Murderers, and Fiends. We
read what other Vance titles we could find. That took work
since paperback originals came briefly into print and then
often vanished entirely. Lodged so early in my pleasure
receptors, Vance became an author I have read and reread
across the years.

The Languages of Pao (1958) is not one of Vance’s best
novels, but it is an important transitional one. In this relatively
early work the author explores the narrative style and
strategy that will characterize his later masterpieces,
The Dragon Masters, “The Moon Moth,” and “The Last Castle.”
The Languages of Pao promises the generic pleasures of
Space Opera. To quote the back cover copy of one paperback edition: “The Panarch of Pao is
dead and Beran Panasper, his young son and heir, must flee the planet to live and avenge his
father’s death.” Death, danger, and revenge—Giuseppe Verdi and George Lucas would know
how to handle that plot. Genre fiction is about ingeniously fulfilling the expectations of the
form—predictable pleasures delivered in surprising ways. But Vance’s novel isn’t quite what
the genre or the back cover copy promises.

Vance keeps his plot moving, but it never seems to interest him as much as the setting. He
develops the social and cultural context of his story beyond the immediate demands of his
plot. He delights in providing complex and evocative detail to dramatize the alien qualities of
his imaginary planet—its strange aristocratic and bureaucratic titles, its political protocol and
academic curricula, its dynastic structures and genealogical complications, its linguistic
customs and vocabulary. And, of course, he chronicles its resonant place names.

Science fiction writers were already old hands at naming imaginary settings—Barsoom,
Klendathu, Laputa, Terminus, or (if one goes back far enough) a fantasy island called
California. It is the task of writers “to give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”—
even when the locales are in another galaxy. But traditionally those fictive settings existed
mostly to generate a particular plot or provide satirical observations about the quotidian

The Languages of Pao Vance invents detail that bears no obvious relation to the storyline,
and he shows little interest in Swiftian moral satire or Wellsian social commentary. Vance is
too busy elaborating a new world to worry much about the everyday one. His impulse seems
mostly poetic. He wants to cast a verbal spell to make the reader feel an alien reality—even if
it must come prepackaged in the conventions of pulp fiction.

Vance had an ear for poetry or, more precisely, the music of austerely heightened prose. In
The Languages of Pao, his was still a clumsy ear, but he began to craft his paragraphs more
formally than did any of his mid-century peers in the genre, except the bookish Ray
Bradbury. Developing this gift, Vance gave his narrative voice an understated but sonorous
authority. His style doesn’t summon the trombones and tympani; it cues a brooding oboe
and the cellos. No one reads science fiction for its prose, but in Vance’s best work one could.

In most other respects,
The Languages of Pao is a period paperback potboiler. The plot is
inflated and improvisatory, the characterizations mostly mechanical, and the narrative pacing
uncertain. Vance avoids the trouble of exposition with a perfunctory opening chapter of “factual
data” about Pao. Judged by the standards of mid-century Space Opera, The Languages of Pao
is solid but unexceptional.

Perhaps one reason that the novel feels so fact-heavy and emotionally light is that it lacks
Vance’s distinctive melancholy. There is an immense amount of descriptive detail but very
little atmosphere. The narrative tone is uncharacteristically clinical and detached. The novel
is all text with none of the brooding subtext that animates works like
The Dying Earth or
“The Last Castle.” In
The Languages of Pao, complex planetary problems, including class
divisions and language barriers, are expeditiously solved, though not without much
intrigue, several murders, one war, and a little romance. Melancholy didn’t fit the
essential optimistic energy of early Space Opera, which is probably why Vance never
excelled at this popular subgenre. It is surely not coincidental that his novel
Space Opera
(1965) doesn’t concern interplanetary warfare but an interstellar touring opera company.

The Languages of Pao Vance surreptitiously wrote an experimental novel underneath
the extraterrestrial adventure his readers thought they were buying. (Philip K. Dick made
a career out of such creative subterfuge.) Vance doesn’t care much about the plight of his
characters. What fascinates him is the process of elaborating an imaginary world. Most of
the fictive detail doesn’t yet cohere. He generates more detail than he can at this point
artistically assimilate. Vance’s novel has none of the sociological and cultural sophistication
one sees later in Ursula K. Le Guin, who had the advantage of being raised by an

Vance must have sensed that he was on to something interesting in
The Languages of Pao
—the complex aesthetic pleasures of exploring a fully realized fictional environment. In
1958, this was a radically original idea for science fiction, though one beyond the reach of a
single short novel. As J. R. R. Tolkien had demonstrated in fantasy, the enterprise required
a vast canvas. Our culture now takes such elaborate imaginary worlds for granted not only
in novel cycles such Frank Herbert’s
Dune books but in countless videogames, graphic
novel series, television shows, and film franchises. Vance’s book was a failed but joyful
experiment in a new style of fiction. His visionary approach, however, eventually proved
decisive in both his later career and the history of the genre.

Dana Gioia is an award-winning poet, essayist, translator and librettist. He previously served as
chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest book is
99 Poems: New and Selected.

Publication Date: February 13, 2016
Jack Vance (1916-2013)  

This year marks the centenary of Jack Vance's
birth. In honor of the occasion, we are publishing
a series of essays on Vance's works. The
complete edition of Vance's works spans 45
volumes and encompasses science fiction,
fantasy and mysteries. His writings earned
numerous awards including three Hugo Awards,
the Nebula Award, the Jupiter Awards, the
World Fantasy Award and the Edgar. In this
essay, Dana Gioia writes about Vance's novel
The Languages of Pao.
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Essay by Dana Gioia
Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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Related Articles:
The Dragon Masters
When Science Fiction Grew Up
The Languages of Pao
by Jack Vance
The Jack Vance Centenary
The Ace paperback edition of
The Languages of Pao
The Languages of Pao
(1958 first edition)