Vance's grandfather is believed to have arrived in California from Michigan a decade before the Gold Rush and married a San Francisco girl. Early family records were apparently destroyed in the fire following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Vance's early childhood was spent in San Francisco. With the separation of his parents, Vance's mother moved him and his siblings to their maternal grandfather's California ranch near Oakley in the delta of the Sacramento River. This setting formed Vance's love of the outdoors, and allowed him time to indulge his passion as an avid reader. With the death of his grandfather, the Vance's family fortune nosedived, and Vance was forced to leave junior college and work to support himself, assisting his mother when able. Vance plied many trades for short stretches: as a bellhop (a "miserable year"), in a cannery, and on a gold dredge, before entering the University of California, Berkeley where, over a six-year period, he studied mining engineering, physics, journalism and English. Vance wrote one of his first science fiction stories for an English class assignment; his professor's reaction was "We also have a piece of science fiction" in a scornful tone, Vance's first negative review. He worked for a while as an electrician in the naval shipyards at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—for "56 cents an hour". After working on a degaussing crew for a period, he left about a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Vance graduated in 1942. Weak eyesight prevented military service. He found a job as a rigger at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California, and enrolled in an Army Intelligence program to learn Japanese, but washed out. In 1943, he memorized an eye chart and became an able seaman in the Merchant Marine. In later years, boating remained his favorite recreation; boats and voyages are a frequent motif in his work. He worked as a seaman, a rigger, a surveyor, a ceramicist, and a carpenter before he established himself fully as a writer, which did not occur until the 1970s.
Jack Vance playing the jazz banjo and kazoo in 1979 in San Francisco
From his youth, Vance had been fascinated by Dixieland and traditional jazz. He was an amateur of the cornet and ukulele, often accompanying himself with a kazoo, and was a competent harmonica player. His first published writings were jazz reviews for The Daily Californian, his college paper, and music is an element in many of his works.
In 1946, Vance met and married Norma Genevieve Ingold (died March 25, 2008), another Cal student. Vance continued to live in Oakland, in a house he built and extended with his family over the years, including a hand-carved wooden ceiling from Kashmir. The Vances had extensive travels, including one around-the-world voyage, and often spent several months at a time living in places like Ireland, Tahiti, South Africa, Positano (in Italy) and on a houseboat on Lake Nagin in Kashmir.
Vance began trying to become a professional writer in the late 1940s, as part of the San Francisco Renaissance, a movement of experimentation in literature and the arts. His first lucrative sale was one of the early
Magnus Ridolph stories to Twentieth Century Fox, who also hired him as a screenwriter for the Captain Video television series. The proceeds supported the Vances for a year's travel in Europe. There are various references to the Bay Area Bohemian life in his work.
Science fiction authors Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson were among Vance's closest friends. The three jointly built a houseboat which they sailed in the Sacramento Delta. The Vances and the Herberts lived near Lake Chapala in Mexico together for a period.
Although legally blind since the 1980s, Vance continued to write with the aid of BigEd software, written especially for him by Kim Kokkonen. His final novel was Lurulu. Although Vance had stated Lurulu would be his final book, he subsequently completed an autobiography which was published in July 2009.
Vance died on the morning of May 26, 2013 at the age of 96 in his home in the Oakland Hills. Vance's son John Holbrook Vance II described the cause as the complications of old age, saying, "everything just finally caught up with him." Tributes to Vance were given by various authors, including George R. R. Martin, Michael Moorcock, Neil Gaiman, and Elizabeth Bear. Steven Gould, president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, described Vance as "one of the greatest science fiction and fantasy writers of the 20th century". A memorial site set up by his family to post tributes received hundreds of messages in the days following his death.