Since I first read ‘Araminta Station’ over 20 years ago, Jack Vance has been one of my favourite authors. I’ve read just about every SF book he wrote and over the past couple of years I’ve been getting hold of the last few older and more obscure books on my to-read list. Subterranean Press have brought out several Vance volumes and this latest includes 5 novellas/short novels, including two that I haven’t before read, and some released as novels.
First up is ‘The Rapparee’ aka ‘Five Gold Bands’ aka ‘The Space Pirate’, which I first read last year after buying a copy at WorldCon in London. This is one of Jack Vance’s earliest novels, first published in 1950, and the style is more reminiscent of other standard 1950s SF than of his own, later panache. It lacks the usual theatrical language, florid dialogue and fabulous architectural and sartorial detail that became synonymous with the name of Jack Vance.
Some of the common ingredients that tie many of his ‘Gaean Reach’ and related books together are here: mutated human races inhabiting different planets, descended from early human colonists. As in some of the other earlier books, these races are almost unidentifiable as human, though in this case the heads of each of the five races are referred to as the Five Sons of Langtry, all descended from a common ancestor. The five gold bands, each belonging to one of these five races, hold the secret to interstellar travel and the novel opens with Paddy Blackthorn stealing them to take the secrets back to Earth. Paddy Blackthorn is not a very Vancian name. The two main characters, roguish Blackthorn and his companion Fay Bursill, seem to be from different eras. Fay, surprisingly for the time, can pilot the spaceship and look after herself quite nicely. Blackthorn, on the other hand, conforms mostly to sexist 50s stereotypes and constantly makes remarks about her figure. She gives as good as she gets, for the most part.
They head from one adventure to the next with little thought for anyone unfortunate enough to get in their way in a story that’s entertaining enough, though rather flat when you’re expecting to settle down for a wonderful Jack Vance tale.
‘Crusade To Maxus’, also known as ‘Overlords of Maxus’, starts off surprisingly bleak and depressing as hero Dyle Travec (a much more Vancian name) arrives on Maxus, desperately hoping to retrieve his family from the clutches of the slaver who kidnapped them. Maxus is a technological powerhouse of a planet, driven by a massive slave class who are controlled by pain-inducing implants. Slaves are never freed, in order to prevent the escape of trade secrets and this same monopoly on technology produces a tolerant attitude from other planets who want to carry on trade. Only a few pages in, we meet the High Commissioner. whose clothing is described thus: ‘…a glossy cinnamon-coloured sheath with a rather foppish collar of watered green silk.’
At this point, I knew that Jack Vance proper had finally arrived, confirmed several pages later by the use of the word ‘imbroglio’. As usual, our hero takes up with an attractive and mysterious female companion and carries on the usual kind of ambivalent relationship that runs through many of his novels. It feels a little rushed towards the end and, at only 60 pages, it could easily have stood some expansion, but this still is my favourite of the five stories in this collection.
The third story, ‘Gold And Iron’, is also known as ‘Slaves Of The Klau’ and has a similar background to ‘Maxus’. The Klau maintain several heavily industrialised slave-powered worlds that ensure their domination of the sector. Unlike those in ‘Maxus’, the Klau get away with it because none of the other races have the power to stand up to them. Earth has been newly discovered by the Lekthwan, one of these other races, whose air of superiority Roy Barch finds very annoying. He works for the Lekthwan Commissioner and is simultaneously captivated and exasperated by the Commisioner’s daughter, Komeitk Lelianr. Their fates are intertwined when the Klau begin slaving raids on Earth and they end up on the Klau slave world Magarak.
This story is bleaker than ‘Crusade To Maxus’ and portrays a much more desperate situation than Jack Vance’s heroes normally encounter. Perhaps this is because the opponents are not the usual well-spoken villains but are rarely seen or encountered by Barch. He is thrust into slavery with no chance to fight back initially and ends up among members of a dozen other humanoid races resigned to their fate, with the enigmatic Lelianr as his only tenuous link to home. It’s a desperate situation and the escape plan is tortuous and long with unexpected and shocking twists. It’s a gripping story that is not entirely typical of Jack Vance but still demonstrates his flair for developing unearthly societies.
‘The Houses Of Iszm’ has an unusual protagonist in the form of Aile Farr, ostensibly a tourist to the planet Iszm, who spend much of the story having no idea what’s going on around him, unlike most Vancian heroes who are on a definite quest. The Iszm authorities suspect him of being a spy and trying to smuggle off-planet in a seed of one of their valuable house-trees. Iszm has a monopoly on these cultured homes, exporting only inferior quality varieties to Earth.
Part tour-guide SF, part-espionage thriller, this is burgeoning Jack Vance, almost making it into classic Vance territory. Even though it doesn’t match up to later stories, it takes a clever idea and expands it dramatically to create the backdrop for the story. I originally read ‘The Houses Of Iszm’ as part of an Ace Double with ‘Son Of The Tree’ which, as the title suggests, is another tree-related story. In that book, an entire planet’s culture revolves around a single huge tree full of numerous habitations. It seemed to me that the two sprang from the same core idea and the author allowed both to grow in different directions, both demonstrating Jack Vance’s love of taking a society to extremes to see where a particular belief, technology or environment would ultimately lead its people.
The final entry ‘Space Opera’ is, to be honest, based on the flimsiest of conceits, but then who could resist the temptation to write a space opera about taking opera into space? Oddly, by the time the operatic society launches from Earth, the politics and patronage behind the mission are convincing enough to leave your doubts about the whole foundation of the story behind on terra firma and relax to enjoy the trip.
In some ways, the setting harks forward to Jack Vance’s final pair of stories, ‘Ports Of Call’ and ‘Lurulu’, in which the young protagonist sets off on a grand tour in his great aunt’s space yacht. Those books have very little plot other than, it seemed to me, a chance to visit all of the random and varied planets and cultures that the author had not managed to fit into any of his previous books. ‘Space Opera’ similarly has little plot other than the slender reason to take operatic culture to foreign worlds. There are, of course, some of Jack Vance’s familiar and satisfying ingredients: an enigmatic young woman, a spot of intrigue and a brilliantly enigmatic alien race. It’s a book that should make you groan at the whole ‘written just so he could use that title’ air of it but, as with the vast majority of his books, Jack Vance pulls it off with style.
It’s a depressingly bleak future to look forward to after this, with no more new Vance to read. Maybe I’ll go back to ‘Araminta Station’ and start again…
Gareth A. Jones
(pub: Subterranean Press, 2014. 747 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-710-3)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com