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Friday 10 October 2003

"For Ages 8 to 80":
Jack Vance's Enduring Excellence

  • The Dragon Masters [and The Last Castle], by Jack Vance
    (ibooks, September 2003)

  • Reviewed by Lawrence Person

Despite a career stretching back over half a century, Jack Vance seems to have avoided catching that dreaded affliction, Old Science Fiction Writer's Disease. As seen among both Grandmasters and lesser mortals, Old Science Fiction Writer's Disease manifests itself most acutely in two obvious syndromes: monologus infinitus and imprudenus linkus. In monologus infinitus, formerly great masters write books in which the characters sit around and expound at great detail while nothing much seems to happen, while imprudenus linkus features those same masters linking their disparate universes into lumpy, unappealing aggregates. Asimov's later output suffered (as did his readers) from severe cases of both, while Heinlein exhibited symptoms to a lesser degree. (While a third syndrome, sequelitus infinitus, is frequently present in these cases, this syndrome has reached such epidemic proportions among all age groups that it can no longer be considered a definitive indicator of Old Science Fiction Writer's Disease.)

Thankfully, Jack Vance seems to have a natural immunity to this ailment, and his recent output has remained far more interesting than those so afflicted. One need only compare, for example, Vance's Night Lamp with Asimov's Foundation's Edge to see the difference. The latter, Hugo notwithstanding, showed the ravages of time on Asimov's plotting all too clearly, while Night Lamp could have been dropped into Vance's prodigious 1960s output with nary a ripple.

The virtues of Vance's work are also the same qualities that make it seem timeless. The focus on elaborate alien and human cultures, a swift-moving plot, competent and sympathetic protagonists, and his arch, mock-archaic authorial voice all wear better than the later work of many of his contemporaries from the 1940s and 50s. This is not to say that Vance's work is modern. For better or worse, everything from New Wave to Cyberpunk has blithely passed him by, leaving his planetary romances essentially unchanged. More than half a century after E. E. "Doc" Smith cheerfully blew up entire galaxies, Vance's characters were still going after each other with swords. The only "cutting edge" Vance's work hones these days is stylistic excellence, but when you're as good as Vance is, that's more than enough.

A case in point of how well Vance's work holds up is this reissue of The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle. The Dragon Masters in particular was a specific favorite of mine during the Golden Age of science fiction (in my case, 12), when I read it in the Science Fiction Book Club omnibus of Asimov's first two Hugo Winners volumes. What better to excite a boy's imagination than armies of monsters clashing in battle? Like Mark Twain, Jack Vance's work richly rewards rereading every decade or so. The swift action is still there, but what most impresses is the cleverness of the setup, the way in which Vance has crafted ever-widening circles of mirror-imaged antagonists, like a yin-yang symbol which turns out to be the eye of larger yin-yang symbol, which, in turn, is the eye of a still larger one.

In the first circle is Joaz Banbeck, one of Vance's many cool, honorable, and level-headed protagonists, and the leader of Banbeck Vale, the preeminent human settlement on mountainous Aerlith. Opposing him is the vainglorious Ervis Carcolo, ruler of the misnamed, and far less prosperous, Happy Valley. Nursing an ancestral grudge against Banbeck, Carcolo seeks to lead his genetically engineered "dragons" in battle against Banbeck's own. However, stepping up into the wider circle, one step removed from the Banbeck/Carcolo conflict, are the sacerdotes, mysterious, cavern-dwelling ascetics, apparently human but standing apart from common humanity, keepers of strange technology and incapable of lying. They are willing to trade with Banbeck, and offer information if asked properly, but no more.

But these mysteries are overwhelmed by a still wider circle of conflict, that between all of human Aerlith and the alien "Basics," whose periodic slaving raids coincide with proximity of the star Coralyne, which once again waxes as the action opens. It is in this widest conflict that the sheer cleverness of Vance's mirror image construction is most apparent. For the dragons of the title are none other than those same alien Basics, captured by humanity during a previous raid, whose forms have been radically altered and specialized by genetic engineering to breed ever more fearsome warriors: Termagants, Blue Horrors, Striding Murderers, Fiends. It is these dragons that humans unleash not only on each other, but also upon their Basic kindred on their return, only to discover an even more ironic twist: while humans were breeding Basics for war, Basics were doing the same with humans…

The Last Castle, Vance's other Hugo-winning novella from the 1960s, provides a natural mirror-image of The Dragon Masters. Here it is not the aliens whose society has rendered them incapable of rational interaction with other races, but the humans. A decadent, aristocratic, castle-dwelling human elite are horrified to learn that their alien Mek servants have left their posts and revolted against their human masters, destroying one seemingly impregnable castle after another, until only Hagedorn remains. This revolt is inexplicable to the castle elites: moreover, it leaves them in dire straits, since Meks tended all the machines upon which castle-life is predicated. As the Meks close in on Hagedorn, a few among its ossified ruling council attempt to force their fellow aristocrats (still caught up in their rarified pleasures and rituals, and wholly unwilling to soil their hands) to face up to the hard facts of the situation, before it's too late…

For all his aristocratic heritage, protagonist Xanten is Robert A. Heinlein's classic "Man Who Learned Better." He starts out only slightly less convinced than his peers that castle society must continue as before, but the more he examines the problem, the more convinced he becomes that castle life is finished, and that they must give up their rarified way lifestyle to fight the Meks, or else perish. In this he is opposed by Garr, a temperamental traditionalist who demands adherence to the old ways, no matter how outdated or impractical. Though Garr's intelligent, articulate and sophisticated personality is the polar opposite of the crude and corpulent Ervis Carcolo, they both share a deadly penchant for self-delusion, for seeing the world not as it is, but as they wish it were. Jack Vance's protagonists are not always smarter than their opponents (though frequently they are), but they always seem to see the world more clearly, peering past the veils of taboo and custom to the heart of the matter. It is this clarity, both rational and moral, that allows them to triumph over long odds.

Fashions come and go in science fiction, but Vance's prose has stood the test of time. For younger readers, the action may be a notch or two less stirring than, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs. But reading Burroughs at 38 requires making an effort to ignore all the flaws invisible to a 12 year old, and the battles lose some of their suspense when you already know John Carter isn't going to be eaten by that fearsome white ape. Vance's work has a depth, richness and sophistication that can be enjoyed long after you know how the story ends.

A sign of just how many people feel Vance is well worth revisiting is the Vance Integral Edition, a volunteer project dedicated to reprinting all of Vance's work in a uniform edition of 44 hardback books, with all the text corrected to match Vance's original manuscripts. Several hundred fanatical Vance fans (myself included) have already ponied up well over $1000 for the set, the first 22 volumes of which have already been produced and delivered.

Complete, uniform hardback editions of an author's work is an accolade rarely granted to a living SF author. (Discounting White Wolf's incremental and still incomplete Ellison and Moorcock omnibuses, the last one I am aware of is H. G. Wells in 1926-7.) All of which underscores the fact that Vance, not withstanding the impressive achievements of Arthur C. Clarke and Jack Williamson, is science fiction's greatest living Grandmaster. For those unwilling to spend $1500 for the Vance Integral Edition, The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle provide ample evidence of his greatness. And if perchance you know of a 12-year old boy who hasn't yet been hooked on science fiction, have I got a book for you...

Lawrence Person's short fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Fear!, and the anthologies Alternate Presidents and Horrors! 365 Scary Stories. He edits the Hugo-nominated critical magazine Nova Express.

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