Jack Vance died the other day at age 96. He was the most influential science fiction writer that only those within the field knew about.
Vance wrote a great many books but no "great" books. With the exception of The Dying Earth and its successors, which took Clark Ashton Smith's vision of Zothique, the last continent on a far-future and dying Earth, and infused it with wit and energy and zest, and then passed that vision on to Gene Wolfe and his Book of the New Sun sequence, it's Vance's oeuvre, rather than its individual components, that is important.
Typically, Vance's heroes were little men caught up in big events. His sympathies were always with the hoi polloi, and his novels always had the time to pause to take in the opinions of an innkeeper or the crackpot theories of a small businessman. This is a lot harder to make work than it sounds, and it's one of the reasons why, almost secretly, Vance was so influential. His fiction taught lessons to aspirant writers that other novels could not.
Jack Vance loved boats, avoided fans, and lived a good long life. Though physical problems kept him housebound in his last years, a mutual friend told me a year ago that his mind was still clear. He kept writing later into his old age than all but a very few can manage.
A typical Vancean detail in I forget which novel was that on summer evenings on one particular world, it was the custom to picnic on the grassy hills outside of town and then, lying back on blankets, point to specific stars one had visited and talk about what the people on the planets orbiting them were like. Tonight, I will go out and do the same: "See that star? Jack Vance wrote about the people there. They never go out in public without a mask and those masks reflect their public prestige. One day, he said, there came a stranger to that world..."
There will be formal obituaries and the weeping and rending of garments soon. In the meantime, you can read the Locus Online item here.
Above: The Maestro. The story about the people with masks is called "The Moon Moth," and if you haven't read it, you are encouraged to do so. It's a classic.