28 March 2007

Locus Reviews Jack Vance

by Russell Letson from Locus Magazine, March 2007

The Jack Vance Treasury, Terry Dowling & Jonathan Strahan, eds. (Subterranean Press 1-596-06077-8, $38.00, 633 pp, hc) January 2007. Cover by Tom Kidd.

It's long past time to rediscover Jack Vance — again. Actually, I find it hard to understand why Vance needs periodic rediscovering. He is an SFWA-certified Grand Master whose career stretches back more than six decades; responsible for a number of Hugo and Nebula winners; and a name to conjure with among the likes of Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolfe, George R.R. Martin, Dan Simmons, and Harlan Ellison, to name a few. Vance has been the subject of two publishing projects outside the commercial mainstream. Underwood-Miller reprinted (among other things) all of Vance's shorter work in seven very-well-produced hardcover editions between 1979 and 1992; and the 44 volumes of the privately-produced, subscription-only Vance Integral Edition (aka the VIE), which undertook not only to print every story and novel that Vance wished to preserve, but also to restore the texts to reflect the author's original intention or preferred state.

Nevertheless, all but a small portion of his work is unobtainable outside of used- or rare-book venues (the handful of English-language editions available on Amazon are from the UK). Now another small-press project aims to rectify at least part of that situation with The Jack Vance Treasury, a fat gathering of 18 short stories, novelettes, and novellas dating from the mid-1940s through 1977. The selection showcases most of Vance's characteristic modes and moods: out-and-out fantasies, science-fantasy, relatively hard science fiction, and that hard-to-categorize variety of fantastic tale that can only be called "Vancean." Actually, there's enough good stuff left over to fill another volume or two just as fat, so this Treasury's title might better begin with "A" than "The".

In their Introduction, editors Terry Dowling & Jonathan Strahan write that "it is our intention that this be a book for the stranger as much as for the aficionado," and there is plenty here for the whole range of readers. The appreciative Preface by George R.R. Martin and the editors' Introduction provide any Vance newbie with background, orientation, and a starter kit of qualities to appreciate, while the authorial Afterwords to each story (drawn from a range of sources covering more than a half-century) give a taste of the writer speaking in his own non-fictional voice about his work — not something he has done very often or at any length. The final item is perhaps the longest personal-information piece Vance has ever offered, the "Autobiographical Sketch & Other Facts", originally written for A.E. Cunningham's British Library festschrift Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography (2000).

One set of questions facing the assemblers of a big retrospective collection like this is practical: Which of the 80-some less-than-novel-length stories to include? The famous, frequently reprinted prize-winners and favorites, or obscure and overlooked gems? And given the range of quality (even Vance had an apprentice period), should space be given to items that might not have aged as gracefully as others? When the book was in the planning stages, the editors took the unusual step of posting a tentative table of contents on the Web and soliciting suggestions from Vance enthusiasts, a number of whom replied with their preferences (some in exhaustive detail) on Jonathan Strahan's blog. The ensuing discussion is a sort of after-the-fact parlor game (what are your favorites?) but also is an interesting window on the editorial process. (You can read the whole give-and-take at jonathanstrahan.com.au/wp/category/the-jack-vance-treasury.)

In the final cut the weight seems to be on the fantasy and the science fiction that maintains a fantasy flavor ("The Miracle Workers", "The Moon Moth", "The Last Castle", "The Dragon Masters"). Fully a third of the stories are drawn from the three Dying Earth cycles (The Dying Earth, the Cugel the Clever stories, and Rhialto the Marvellous). The earliest is "Liane the Wayfarer", published in 1950 in the original collection but written at least five years earlier, while Vance was serving in the merchant marine. It is one of the bleakest tales Vance has ever produced, with the cruelty of the Dying Earth world and the sociopathic Liane (an entirely unfunny version of the bungling Cugel) not at all concealed by the distanced, fairytale prose. This bleakness is almost balanced by "Guyal of Sfere" (the closing story in the original Dying Earth volume), which presents another prototypical Vance hero, the practical, clear-eyed adventurer who is brave and resourceful enough to set things right, at least in his immediate neighborhood. Later Dying Earth tales, featuring the less repellent (but just as conscience-free) Cugel ("The Overworld", "The Sorcerer Pharesm", "The Bagful of Dreams") and the slick magician Rhialto ("Morreion"), take some of the edge off the direness of this beautiful but melancholy milieu with witty portraits of tricksters tricked and biters bit, but the danger is never farther away than the next silver-tongued robber, anthropophagous monster, or tetchy wizard.

Five of the Treasury selections also appeared in one of Vance's early collections, Eight Fantasms and Magics (1969), which presented both SF and fantasy. I would certainly call "Noise" (1952) a phantasm, a moody piece, all atmosphere and setting and contemplation of the limitations of human perceptions, as a marooned spaceman may or may not be seeing an elusive fairyland under multicolored suns. It also announces clearly a thematic idea that recurs explicitly and implicitly throughout Vance's work: "[T]he word intelligence may not even enter the picture; is not our brain a peculiarly anthropoid characteristic, and is not intelligence a function of our peculiarly anthropoid brain?" A few years later, a similar notion became the driving force behind "The Men Return" (1957), in which the Earth's transit through a "pocket of non-causality" results in the reduction of the rational population to a few Relicts, while the insane Organisms thrive: "Logic was the special environment; the brain was the special tool....[A]ll the ordered tensions of cause-effect dissolved. The special tool was useless; it had no purchase on reality." Of course, even non-causality can be a temporary condition, as the Organisms discover when the rules of nature come back into force.

The Magnus Ridolph story "The Kokod Warriors" (1952) offers a more practical application of this sort of philosophical questioning. Earlier stories featuring the raffish, middle-aged detective/troubleshooter are good examples of that apprenticeship stage mentioned earlier, but at this point Vance was starting to hit his stride, and the story carries now-familiar thematic characteristics: depiction of a culture with thoroughly alien values and attitudes; skepticism about the applicability of human moral standards outside the human world; and a not-quite-contradictorily favorable view of Ridolph's interference in a nasty situation. "The Mitr" (1953) is SF, but its moral universe feels a bit like that of "Liane": a lone human woman, apparently the last of her people on a planet with an obscure and mysterious past, is assaulted by wandering space thugs. It is as if one of the nastier Dying Earth episodes were told from the viewpoint of the victim rather than the perpetrator — but without a Chun the Unavoidable to mete out a poetic punishment.

By the mid-1950s, Vance is fully Vance, and the stories regularly hit their targets. "The Gift of Gab" (1955) and "The Miracle Workers" (1958) both appeared in John Campbell's Astounding. The former is straight puzzle SF (though again with Vance's usual insistence on the alienness of aliens), while the latter inverts notions of rationality and pragmatism as the "magical" powers of human jinxmen confront the very material biotechnology of the psychologically alien First Folk. Vance chose "Sail 25" (1962) for inclusion in his Best collection back in 1976, despite the fact that it was written to match an Alex Schomberg cover painting for Amazing Stories and had to be tweaked to fit the prepurchased image. What might have been a routine man-against-space story is transformed by Vance's portrait of the enigmatic, perhaps-drunken training officer Henry Belt, as uncompromising an antihero as you could want.

The 1960s were a remarkable period in which Vance produced more than a dozen volumes of first-rate SF, fantasies, and mysteries. Three career-defining high points from this decade are included here. "The Moon Moth" is one of those Vancean exercises in which the story part of the story — the events — is subordinated to the setting and atmosphere, in this case, that of the hermetic, prestige-obsessed, and wildly unlikely culture of Sirene, where masks are essential to the dress code and all conversations, no matter how trivial, are sung. The official setting is the Oikumene of the Demon Princes books, but it could as easily be transported to some aeon of the Dying Earth with minimal changes. "The Dragon Masters" and "The Last Castle", with their neo-medieval settings, aristocratic protagonists, and elegant writing, are generally considered to be companion pieces — and indeed, they first appeared in paperback as halves of an Ace Double edition. Underneath the fantasy-world decorations, however, lurk significant differences. "The Dragon Masters" is one of Vance's parables of liberation, as an isolated, technologically weak human community struggles to hold off the invading aliens who would enslave and selectively breed them (while they enslave and selectively breed the aliens). The exploiter-exploited roles are somewhat simpler in "The Last Castle", with humans keeping a variety of alien species as involuntary retainers in a pseudo-feudal society of elegance and ease. Here the pragmatic hero's job is to recognize the fundamental instability of the elaborately mystified, slave-based Castle culture ("as artificial, extravagant, and intricate as life could be") and find a way of life more fitting (and less dangerous) for a free being. What the two stories share (beyond the fairytale atmosphere) is a relentlessly ironic sensibility that will not let any resolution rest peacefully.

Despite the Treasury's compendious size, there are Vance motifs that are a bit underrepresented, notably that of stagnant or decadent urbanism and cultural overrefinement."The Last Castle" and "Guyal of Sfere" only hint at the extent (and sourness) of Vance's explorations of this theme in "Ullward's Retreat", "Dodkin's Job", "Rumfuddle", or "Assault on a City" (let alone in the novels, notably Wyst: Alastor 1716). Similarly, we see little of the vengeful and/or obsessive villain theme that dominates so many of the novels (e.g., the Demon Princes and Maske: Thaery) — "Freitztke's Turn" (from Galactic Effectuator) would give a taste of that crucial motif as well as a rare short-form glimpse of the Gaean Reach milieu that has dominated his late work.

That is why I wasn't kidding earlier about this being A rather than The Jack Vance Treasury — even without digging down to Vance's learning-period work, there's enough left to fill another reasonably hefty volume. Then we could start to pester for US editions of the novels, starting with reissues of the omnibus editions of the Demon Princes, Tschai, and Alastor Cluster novels and working through the rest of the catalogue, yea, even unto The Brains of Earth and Slaves of the Klau (I have a childish fondness for the pulpy Ace title of Gold and Iron). Meanwhile, seek out this treasure of a book and discover or rediscover one of the strongest and most unmistakable voices and visions the field has produced.

Read more! This is one of over forty reviews from the March 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated. Anonymous comments will not be posted.


Post a Comment

<< Home