First Star I See Tonight

Short history of a short story

1954, Jack Vance wrote his first detective (short) story First Star I see Tonight, under the pseudonym John Van See. The story will change its name and pseudonym three times (see list of publications at the end).

« There is a story which I used another pseudonym for, and which I’ve always rather liked. It appeared in a magazine called MALCOLM’S MAGAZINE not many people are aware of this story. It was called, I think, « First Star I See Tonight ». I have forgotten the pseudonym I used, but it was a mystery story, dealing with astronomers who became annoyed with each other. In, my opinion, it’s a pretty good story.   » (1977 Interview Peter Close)

Jack Vance 1954 (photo

Vance was already a writer with some experience, but only in SF and Fantasy: since The World Thinker in 1945 or I’ll Build your Dream Castle in 1947 and what long short stories (novella) as New Bodies for Old, not to mention collections as The Dying Earth and three SF novels. But he loves the detective genre, as an adult he no longer reads SF, and he will enjoy detective novels all his life. His first foray into this genre he explains in an interview in 1977:

«  I wanted to see if I could make any money in suspense, murder so I started writing these things. I stopped because I make more money with science fiction and fantasy. »

Indeed he will write until 1985 a total of 14 novels in the detective genre (for 44 in SF & F) of which three for Ellery Queen, in 1961 he receives the Edgar prize for : The Man in the Cage.

First Star I See Tonight as a short story was only published in magazines or anthologies of Jack Vance’s SF stories – perhaps a result of the title – although it had nothing to do with « SF ».
The story, described in part in the first person – which is unusual for Vance – puts us in the shoes of an astronomer and is set in an observatory in the 1950s (he probably took Anthony Chabot’s Oakland Observatory as his model, which he must have known, if not frequented, as an astronomy enthusiast). The main protagonist, a scientist, is logical, thoughtful and plans a sophisticated and – if one may say so – tasteless crime. This professor under his « normal » exterior is gradually revealed as an unhealthy, egocentric and hypocritical being.
A second character appears: the sheriff, a debonair and cunning man who smells a scam and tries to prove the « murder » and its petty motive. The outcome is unexpected and casts a shadow over the rest as well as over « scientists » in general.
The instruments of the murder are amazing: astronomy and kites. It is not surprising that these are the two childhood passions of Jack Vance, who takes advantage of the opportunity to make a declaration of love to the starry sky:

« The night was glorious beyond description. Stars, stars, stars—magnificent flowers of heaven, spurting pips of various lights down from their appointed places…/….Ah, the stars! Poetry the poor day-dweller never dreams of! Poetry in the star names: Alpheta, Achernar, Alpheratz; Canopus, Antares, Markab; Sirius, Rigel, Bellatrix; Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Fomalhaut; Alphard, Spica, Procyon; Deneb Kaitos, Alpha Centauri: rolling magnificent sounds, each king of a myriad worlds »

In this very short story, there is already a part of his future detective novels: the sociopath (Bad Ronald), the affable Sheriff (Joe Bain).
This first detective story of Jack Vance was a success, he was quite proud of it himself and it allowed him to persist in the genre with fourteen detective novels in the thirty years that followed.

List of publications (world)

1954 : First Star I See Tonight in Malcom’s Mystery magazine  04-1954 signed by John Van See.
1955 : republished with same pseudonym in The Australian Journal .
1964 : title changed : Murder Observed in Chase signed under his real name John Holbrook Vance.
1985 : First Star I See Tonight in the collection Jack VanceLight from a Lone Star
1986 :  First Star I See Tonight included in collection – Jack Vance The Dark Side of the Moon (collection republshed in the UK -1989)
2005 : The VIE  (Vance Integral Edition) with definitive title The Absent Minded Professor in vol.2.
Identical reissues in these collections :
2010 Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance
2012 The World-Thinker and Other Stories : Spatterlight USA
2018 : « De wereldbedenker en andere verhalen » title translated as is :  De verstrooide professor Spatterlight NL
2019 : France dans Jack Vance – Nouvelles 1 title translated as is : « Le Professeur Distrait » –ed. Le Belial’.

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