Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Jack Vance

Jack Vance is one of my all-time favorite authors. He is brilliance on the page. Here are reviews of three of his novels.


756976Ghyl Tarvok is the son of a kindly but distracted woodworker on Halma - a planet that is ruled by an aristocracy, tightly managed by its public welfare department (which incorrectly calls its governmental system a "Welfare State"), and exhibits traits of a dogmatic but not entirely authoritarian theocracy as well. 'Emphyrio' is a legend out of time: a heroic young man who calmly challenged invaders and who ushered in a period of peace for his people. young Ghyl dreams of many things: owning a 'space-yacht', traveling to far worlds, discovering the truth behind the legend of Emphyrio, making his home a better place. the novel Emphyrio is about Ghyl gradually understanding the mysteries in his life - his own dreams & desires, his father, the true history & rulers of his world. it is not a fast-paced tale of adventure (although there is a little of that)... its structure is more of a gently-paced Coming of Age tale.

I connected with this novel in a couple ways. who doesn't dream of leaving their mundane environs to see the world(s) beyond? what kid hasn't looked around and wondered if there were mysteries and wonders that they could somehow experience eventually, if only, if this happens, if they could do that, if only it were like this, etc? who hasn't had those stabs of jealous anger at the idea that many people are fully financial capable of casually jetting off to see whatever they want to see, while everyone else is stuck scrimping and saving just to have a one-week excursion to some banal place that everyone else is going to anyway? being inside Ghyl's curious and envious head was like being inside my own head, at different points in my life.

I also connected with Ghyl's quietly contemptuous, eventually seething reactions to all of the petty political, fiscal, and religious bullshit that ties people down into living their lives like mice in a maze, led by this bit of cheese, constrained by walls, forced to move in certain directions. innoculated against difference and individualism and thinking outside of all of our carefully constructed boxes. Vance's depiction of Halma's organized religion was a particularly ingenious and sardonic invention. all the hypocrisy, all the passive-aggresiveness, all the public shaming... placed adroitly within a faith that is concerned with literally Leaping onto various squares symbolizing Right Behavior and avoiding those Bad Squares. it was all so mordantly comic - and also frustrating, depressing, and sickeningly hollow. but amusing!

over half of the novel simply shows Ghyl growing up in this stifling but not exactly horrendous environment. besides a certain wizened puppetmaster, characters are not portrayed as hideously evil or malevolent. the biggest jerks are the rule-minders, the businessmen, and the aristocrats... and also the rule-breakers, the folks who reject society, who want to get away with rejecting that society but still live off of it. Vance has an even hand when it comes to disdain and critique.

the remaining part of the novel is the actual "adventure". here also Vance does not indulge the reader in wish-fulfillment. hijacking a space yacht can get truly ugly. exotic locations are not always pleasant. the answers to lifelong questions can be disappointing. sometimes trickery is the only way to get what you want, even if you are a person who prides himself on his honesty.

fortunately, and here's a kinda SPOILER... this is not a nihilistic book. there is a happy ending, although one that has its share of blood-soaked slaughter (or at least a couple sentences worth).

in Emphyrio, Vance strips down his often ornate writing style to fit his goals. he is writing about the banally prosaic nature of most lives and so lushness of language is understandably absent, for the most part. but this is still Jack Vance, so even when he streamlines his more baroque tendencies, the reader is still able to enjoy his expert turns of phrase, his constant irony, his wry characterization, and his supreme ability to distill the ethos of a certain tradition or city or culture or planet into a few carefully chosen and beautifully constructed sentences. will there ever be a genre wordsmith as accomplished and as stylish as this author?


The Gray Prince – the novel – is reserved, dry, sly, a streamlined adventure, a mystery box full of more mystery boxes, a meditation on manifest destiny, a critical contemplation on colonialism that left me a little disturbed. The Gray Prince – the character – is a fool, a clown, an object of exploitation, an embittered revolutionary, a supporting character of more importance as an objective of critical contemplation than as an actual supporting character. I don’t know why the book is titled “The Gray Prince”. I think it should be called “Might Is Right”. It is a very enjoyable novel with some unnerving things to say about who can take what and why. Because it is written by the masterful Jack Vance, these ideas are slowly, sardonically unspooled with wit, subtlety, and a quiet, slowly building forcefulness. I don’t agree with the points he is making but damn he knows how to drive a point home.
1902250"Except for a few special cases, title to every parcel of real property derives from an act of violence, more or less remote, and ownership is only as valid as the strength and will required to maintain it. This is the lesson of history, whether you like or not.”

“The mourning of defeated peoples, while pathetic and tragic, is usually futile,” said Kelse.
Well, okay then.
Schaine Madduc returns to the world of Koryphon after a stay abroad. She’s the child of a maverick ranching family – one of many such families on the planet – whose ancestors seized their land on the continent Uaia from the nomadic human-offshoot s who once held it. She’s lightly liberal and hates the idea that others may suffer from her family’s actions; she also really loves her land and has no interest in leaving it. The Gray Prince is madly in love with her. Surprisingly, she is not the protagonist. Erris Sammatzen is a decent man and gentle progressive from the cosmopolitan continent of Szintarre, which also functions as the de facto capital of Koryphon. He is an activist for the independence of the colonized natives; despite this, he is falling in love with the land-owner Schaine.  Following her back to Uaia, he gets tossed into adventure after adventure; each time he rises to the occasion and each time his progressive viewpoint gets shaken a wee bit more. Surprisingly, he is not the protagonist. Gerd Jemasze has many mysteries to solve… Who are the true – and sentient - citizens of Koryphon? What are their plans for the human and human off-shoots who hold their planet? Who killed Schaine’s father? And what was that last ‘joke’ that so impressed that taciturn land baron? Gerd is smart and sardonic, a quietly humane man of few words who doesn’t think much on ideological matters and who is excellent under pressure and in a fight. He is a classic Vance protagonist. Surprisingly, he is not the protagonist of this novel.
The diversity of perspective is one of the many pleasing things about this novel. The brisk and deadpan tone, the high adventure done with a minimum of fuss, the elegant prose and the expert word choice and sentence structure, the overall humorous intelligence on display, the ingenious ability to define multiple cultures and species, the lingering ambiguity, the tart and cynical commentary on human nature… all Vance trademarks and all fully present. This is a lot of fun, definitely, but it is also a rather deflating experience as well. Vance doesn’t truck in wish fulfillment. But this one was a bit more deflating than usual. Why you wanna punch me in the gut, Vance.

Erris Sammatzen approached Jemasze.

“And this is Uther Madduc’s ‘wonderful joke’?”

“So I believe.”

“But what’s so funny?”

“The magnificent ability of the human race to delude itself.”

“That’s bathos, not humor,” said Sammatzen shortly.
quintessential Jack Vance adventure novel. swiftly-paced, drily witty, deeply ironic, byzantine in its layers of back-story and multiple displays of world-building yet happily trim and stripped-down in its actual verbiage, featuring a sardonic young hero, his icy love interest and various mysteries that he is only slightly interested in solving.
3729202Jubal Droad is a high-caste Glint in the land of Thaery, on the planet Maske, on the outskirts of the Gaean Reach. unfortunately being a noble son of Glint means practically nothing in the big city of Wysrod, where his homeland of Glentlin is an embarrassing country cousin to more sophisticated family members. Jubal is instantly identified as redneck. he gets offended. Jubal gets offended quite a lot; he chafes frequently at any sign of snobbery or high-handedness. fortunately for Jubal, he is a lad with both connections and some very dear secrets, and he is quickly given a job as an "Inn Inspector". which is code for glamorous, jet-setting spy. Jubal barely cares. it's just another job and his main goals are making lots of cash, getting his revenge on with a noble who offended him, and then, well, he doesn't know. doing something. he'll figure it out. whatever. and so the Grand Adventure begins! ha.
that 'whatever' is one of the wonderful qualities of this novel. this may be a novel featuring a spy tracking down a nefarious villain across three worlds, while getting embroiled in the affairs of the aristocracy and dealing with a violent regime change back home, but the tone of the whole thing is so charmingly nonchalant. Jubal may be seething with fury and resentment in general, gnashing his teeth with frustration at the cold treatment he receives from a lady who turns him on with that cold treatment, and forever haggling with his boss over money... but he is also so nonchalant about it. most characters in Vance novels are this way: oh so sardonic. I love the elegant and stylishly low-key way that all the characters converse with each other. this may be a pulp novel of sorts, but it is also pure style. Jack Vance, as ever, has a skilled and delightful way with words. I read this all in one long afternoon in the park and it was pure enjoyment.
Masque: Thaery has a real economy of words and yet the various science fantasy ideas on display are well thought-out, wide-ranging, just brimming over with creativity. there is enough imaginative awesomeness in this book to fill a whole mega-series of science fantasy, and yet the novel clocks in at a slim 216 pages.
I found two things to be particularly enjoyable.
first HEY THIS WHOLE PARAGRAPH HAS A BIG SPOILER. at one point, Vance spends several pages detailing various luxury tours that are available on a vacation planet. the tours described are wonderful flights of the imagination and I loved reading about them. but I did wonder - why spend so much time on something that has nothing to do with the plot? and then I forgot that, and continued to enjoy the narrative. but at the end - with the surprise reveal of the villain's surprisingly banal motives being based on mercenary exploitation of natural places for luxury tourism - the lengthy descriptions of luxury tours elsewhere made quick sense. I reread them again and noticed the subtle things that had escaped me at first: native animals being exploited; natural places being transformed and prettified for tourist eyes; sex tourism; the drug trade; exploitation of natural resources; etc. I appreciated the subtlety of the foreshadowing, and I appreciated even more the secretly furious perspective of the author on such things. who would have guessed that Vance would be such an ardent progressive when it comes to environmentalism? the heinous and gruesome ending for the villain illustrates exactly how Vance feels about raping natural places. plus some fairly brutal irony in the actual mode of (slow, slow) death.
the second thing: a lot of odd footnotes and a really random glossary. here's one entry from the glossary, describing points an employer must consider when using the services of the human-ish Djan:
One Djan performs aimlessly unless supervised.
Two Djan become intense; they either quarrel or fondle each other.
Three Djan create a disequilibrium; they work with agitation and resentful energy.
Four Djan form a stable system. They respond equably to orders but exert themselves only moderately and indulge themselves in comfort.
Five Djan form an unstable and dangerous combination. Four will presently form a group; the fifth, ejected, becomes resentful and bitter. He may go "solitary."
Six Djan yield one stable set and a pair of defiant lovers.
Seven Djan create an unpredictable flux of shifting conditions and a turmoil of emotions.
Eight Djan, after considerable shifting, conniving, testing, plotting, backbiting, yield two stable groups.

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