I’ve written occasional reviews over the years, mostly for Keith Brooke’s Infinity Plus website, and latterly for the Guardian newspaper (those reviews don’t appear here).
The Game-Players of Titan, by Philip K. Dick, HarperCollins, Voyager Classic, 223pp, 2001.
Philip K. Dick published this novel in 1963, between the Hugo-award winning The Man in the High Castle, and the excellent Martian Time-Slip. He was the archetypal erratic writer, producing novels of variable quality (and often novels which varied in quality from chapter to chapter, page to page, and paragraph to paragraph – okay, even line to line, too) one after the other. The Game-Players of Titan is not classic Dick.
The setting is a post-apocalyptic Earth, the Red Chinese having dosed the planet, themselves included, with Hinkel Radiation. This has had the effect of vastly reducing the Earth’s population and rendering the majority of the survivors infertile. Around the same time, the secret of extended longevity was discovered, so that most of the characters are in their mid-hundreds. Also, many humans have psi-talents, telepathy, precognition, telekinesis. And there exist among the humans a privileged minority called Bindmen, who own vast tracts of depopulated land. Added to which, aliens now run the show: the vugs from Titan, slug-like creatures addicted to gambling, who have imposed upon the Bindmen the game of Bluff. Teams of Bindmen play the card game for stakes of land and sexual partners. Ostensibly the vugs imposed the gaming upon the humans to maximise the chances of permutating fertile couples, but, of course, in the novels of Philip K. Dick, reality is never that straightforward.
This book has all the essential ingredients of a good Dick novel, but falls a long way short of being even mediocre. The writing is perfunctory. The characterisation is sketched: protagonist Pete Garden is neither fully-realised nor sympathetic – unusual for a Dickian central character. The plot suffers longuers of inaction followed by spurts of under-realised drama. The denouement is rushed and unsatisfactory. In short, this is very minor Dick – but, coming as it did between two of the genre’s classics, perhaps he can be forgiven.
Harder to forgive is the publisher’s cynical packaging of this novel. It’s presented in the Voyager Classic series, along with some genuinely good books: Brave New World, The Martian Chronicles, The Time Ships. The publication of this novel in this format commits a triple disservice. It gives the reader new to Dick the impression they’re getting good Philip K. Dick; it gives the reader new to SF the idea that they’re getting good SF, and it tends to devalue the good books put out under this imprint.
If you haven’t read PKD before, try The Man in the High Castle, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and Flow my Tears the Policeman Said, as a start.
The Game-Players of Titan is for completists only.
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The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus, by Harry Harrison, Gollancz, 269pp, £16.99.
Slippery Jim DiGriz, aka The Stainless Steel Rat, is the hero of a series of long-running adventure stories by this popular and prolific author. The first Stainless Steel Rat novel was published in 1961, and they’ve been appearing at intervals over the past thirty-nine years. This is the latest escapade featuring the criminal-turned-law-enforcer turned-(in this book)-criminal again.
While engaged in a little computer hacking on the world of Usti nad Labam, Slippery Jim and his wife Angelina are hired by Imperitrix Von Kaiser-Czarski, multi billionaire banking tycoon, and the richest man in the galaxy, to apprehend the criminal behind a series of daring bank raids. With the (rather convenient) aid of Jim’s son, James, a computer expert, they discover that in every town where a bank has been robbed, a circus was performing at the time of each raid. Slippery Jim decides to infiltrate the circus in the guise of a magician, and hires retired dipsomaniac the Great Grissini to teach him the tricks of the trade (the same tricks, oddly enough, as are extant in the twenty-first century). There follows a series of fast-paced, improbable and mad-cap adventures as the Stainless Steel Rat is double-crossed, duped, imprisoned, framed, threatened with death (and forced to commit crimes against his will) and much besides, before outwitting the evil-doers and emerging triumphant.
Judging by the cover and the content of this book, it’s aimed at the juvenile market. The level of writing, the speedy story, and the undeveloped characterisation might satisfy unsophisticated readers, but for those wanting a little more than a fast-pace narrative and bad jokes, I would recommend Harrison’s novels Make Room, Make Room (filmed as Soylent Green) Captive Universe, the Eden series, and the fine stories collected in Two Tales and Eight Tomorrows.
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The Best of Philip E. High, Edited by Philip Harbottle, Cosmos Books, 197 pages, US$15.99.
I have fond memories of the novels of Philip E. High. I recall finding an Ace Double edition of The Mad Metropolis in a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne when I was in my teens, and being swept away by its heady rush of ideas and action adventure. Months later I tracked down Prodigal Sun and, my favourite, The Time Mercenaries – this last about the crew of a submarine plucked to a future age to fight on behalf of an evolved, effete human race against alien invaders. Over the course of the next few years I read every book-length work by High (with the exception of Fugitive from Time, still a hard book to locate) and enjoyed them all. It has been said that High is a pessimistic writer, a Dystopian, and to an extent this is true; but it has also being said that he begins his novels (and it’s often true of his short stories, too) from a ‘worse-case-scenario’ standpoint, after which things get increasingly better – an effective dynamic for the propulsion of an exciting storyline.
Two stories in this collection (High’s first, published some twenty-five year after his last novel) employ the same method. “To See Ourselves” has a series of volunteers descend to an alien planet, and to almost certain death, in the spirit of exploration; yet what the explorers discover there will effect a dramatic change on humanity for the better. “Psycho-Land” starts with the premise of an entire village sent mad when a psychiatric experiment goes wrong: the malaise spreads, threatening to engulf the entire land, until a man of integrity is sent in to solve the problem – with an epiphinal effect.
Other stories fuse a pessimistic scenario with possible solutions. High often pin-points humankind’s failings, and then offers a grain of hope: In “A Schoolroom for the Teacher” human expansion is commented upon: “I hate to think,” said Lange, “what they thought of Federation history. The number of worlds we have – er – acquired, during our expansion, the number of life forms pushed into reservations…” But it is humankind which is taught a lesson when a vegetable hive-mind hitches a ride aboard the returning exploration vessel. In “Fallen Angel” a vile human city is used, with consent, as a testing ground for the probity of a superior alien race – again with optimistic consequences.
The best stories in this volume are each quite different. “The Collaborator” falls into the ‘hope from despair’ category: humanity is depicted as corrupt and cynical, though one good man’s collaboration with the alien ‘invaders’ suggests hope for the future. It’s a spare, economical, incredibly fast-paced story, without a wasted word, a pastiche of the American hard-boiled school of detective fiction, and excellently done.
“Risk Economy” posits a fascinating premise: a lone star-traveller returns to Earth after nine hundred years to find a new form of economy holding sway. Humankind is immortal, and in an effort to curb the population growth, citizens earn credits in return for risks taken: there are enough ideas in this story alone to furnish a complete novel.
“Routine Exercise” is my personal favourite. The crew of a Royal Navy submarine falls through a hole in time and finds itself in the distant past, there to encounter an alien visitors to Earth. The detail of life aboard the submarine is utterly convincing, and the dark, dank mood of the past is well conjured. The story closes with an interesting twist, an effect High handles well in a number of stories.
In “The Jackson Killer” – High’s personal favourite of all the stories in this volume – an assassin is sent to a colony planet to execute a ‘Jackson’ a man deemed to be a threat to the stability of society: it’s an intriguing, fast-paced tale with another twist-in-the-tale denouement.
These stories, edited with an interesting introduction by Philip Harbottle, were published between 1956 and 1970, most of them in the late fifties and early sixties. They are very much of their time, an era in the SF genre when pace and ideas were valued above such literary considerations as style and characterisation, and if a cavil were to be levelled at the stories it would be on this count: but it would be churlish to criticise High for not doing something he never intended in the first place! What he does do, and does well, is to present often interesting ideas in fast-paced, exciting and entertaining stories typical of the best of the Golden Age of science fiction.
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Open the Box, by Andrew Humphrey, Elastic Press, £5.00, 163pp.
One of the greatest services of fiction is to allow the reader access into realities other than their own; to demonstrate the workings of other minds, to illustrate psychologies that might otherwise remain hidden to us in our locked-in view of the world. The best art and literature does this. At the same time as showing different states, good fiction should also connect with the reader, giving us glimpses of the familiar, the particular, in the universal.
The strength of Andrew Humphrey’s unclassifiable, and often quite brilliant, short stories, is that he shows us a world we would often rather not see, and does so with an unflinchingly honest eye for the seedier, cynical aspects of individual lives wrecked by misfortune and apathy and personal inability to effect circumstance.
Open the Box is a collection of thirteen short stories reprinted from magazines such as The Third Alternative, Crime Wave, and Roadworks. Eleven stories are mainstream, slice-of-life, gritty realism (Norwich nihilism, I thought to myself halfway through the book), while the two remaining stories are steeped with the same pessimistic, scalpel-sharp view of contemporary society, but filtered through a vision of the fantastic: “Less and Less” is about a psychologically disturbed young man convinced that he is vanishing; “Time Bleeds” features a central character bequeathed portents of the future from casual strangers. The strength of Humphrey’s writing is the searingly honest portrayals – which ring absolutely true – of individuals tortured by the same self-doubt, insecurity and angst that touch us all from time to time. While his vision is bleak (a word that crops up again and again in this book) and hopeless – and not one all of us would subscribe to – one receives the impression that it is a vision arrived at not merely as a fashionable pose, but as a fully-thought out, or felt, response to the world as perceived by the writer.
The best stories in the collection are “Family Game”, “Helen Said”, and “Simply Dead”. They are also the longest stories in the volume, and allow Humphrey the space to fully explore the respective central character’s tortured psyche, and the reasons for this torment. In “Family Game” Humphrey portrays a disintegrating marital relationship against a background of ruptured family history and emotional insecurity. In “Helen Said” we are allowed into the head, the very psyche, of alcoholic Mike, his stultifying daily ritual of drink and despair and his doomed relationship with pathological liar Helen. “Simply Dead” is an appalling glimpse into an underworld we know exists, despite our desire to turn a blind eye. On the surface it’s a story of crime and revenge, but underneath – as ever with this author’s intelligent writing – an examination of the conditions that underpin individual failings and suffering. Humphrey writes in a spare, economical prose style admirably suited to his subject matter, and he has an enviable knack of capturing the seedy side of life in graphic detail and few words.
The only story that didn’t work for me was “Burning Bridges”, which deals with a serious subject in a throwaway style (it would have been better if longer and if the motivations of the central character more rigorously explored). And while I’m quibbling, I might as well record that the book is printed in a Courier or New Courier font, which makes the whole thing appear amateurish.
I can’t bring myself to say that I actually enjoyed the stories in Open the Box – they’re too searingly honest and despairing for that – but I appreciated the glimpse of Humphrey’s vision of reality, and the expert way in which he made believable a cast of characters that will live with me for a long time.
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Think Like a Dinosaur, by James Patrick Kelly, Golden Gryphon Press, USA, August 1997. 275pp. $22.95.
John Kessel provides an excellent introduction to this volume, avoiding the self-aggrandising, Ellison-esque tendency to over-praise. He delivers an essay on Kelly’s strengths and an intelligent dissection of the best stories in the volume. In the course of the introduction, however, he states: ‘In the midst of the cyberpunk-humanist dustup of the mid-eighties, when the conventional terms of the debate held that no writer could be interested in both traditional fiction of character with the gloss of high art and in cutting edge technology with an anti-cultural bent, Kelly was the only writer in the humanist camp to be included in Mirrorshades, the definitive cyberpunk anthology.’ Included in the anthology he might have been, but whether it can be claimed that Kelly is concerned with cutting edge technology (and why should he be?) is another matter. The evidence provided in Think Like a Dinosaur suggests not.
The most traditionally science-fictional story in the book, “Think Like a Dinosaur”, uses two props of the genre, aliens and matter transmitters, to set up the narrator’s moral dilemma. Michael Burr works for the hanen, an alien race resembling dinosaurs: he processes infrequent human star-travellers through the ‘migration’ process. In the course of the transfer, the humans are copied, one of the copies travelling on to their stellar destination, while the other is exterminated before regaining consciousness – the hanen way of thinking (hence the story’s title) allows no sentimentality over the eradication of the copy left behind. When Burr releases a traveller from a malfunctioning device, only to discover that transfer has actually been effected, he must end the life of the copy he can only view as human… In this story, the technology is not cutting edge but a device of artistic licence, which aficionados of Hard SF might deplore – a clever method of achieving an artistic end: the unflinching examination of the human psyche, and Kelly does it brilliantly.
It is a technique he uses more than once in his SF stories: in the novella “Mr Boy”, Kelly employs nanotechnology and genetic engineering to produce an effective, if over long, tongue in cheek satire on Western materialism: the eponymous Mr Boy has been genetically stunted to remain a boy by surgery paid for by his mother, herself altered to resemble a scale model of the Statue of Liberty; his friend is a human being modified to look like a stenonychosaurus. They lead a life of carefree adolescent hedonism – a kind of SF take on Clueless – though even in this light-hearted vein Kelly does not lose sight of the fact that we need to believe and care about the characters, and their motivations, no matter how bizarre they might appear.
“Breakaway, Backdown” is a first person monologue delivered by an ex-spacer to a shop assistant, describing the long term physical effects of life in space and the protagonist’s emotional involvement with the lover she has left behind, rather than suffer debilitation and death in five years, inevitable if she remains in space. The penultimate paragraph contains this terrific one-line summation of the story’s theme: “The heart is a muscle, okay? That means it shrinks in space.”
In “Standing in line with Mr Jimmy”, the backdrop is a future impoverished America, the hero a no-hoper street-kid. Chip is unemployed, lives on State handouts, ‘maintenance’, and is pacified during his waking hours by a computerised earpiece – the Mr Jimmy of the title – which talks to him, advises, plays music… (As in many of the stories collected here, the plot is slight: Chip applies for a continuation of his maintenance, is denied, joins a line of citizens queuing for something – we never find out what – and in line meets the woman who cut his maintenance and conscripted him to a road gang in Mexico.) The story works, despite the lack of tension and convoluted plot detail, on a human level. And again the technology is secondary to Kelly’s main concern: the delineation of the human condition under the stress of a changed future.
This is most evident in “Pogrom”, the collection’s most pessimistic tale. It is a bleak and simple story of Ruth’s confrontation with a hostile outside world, her alienation as a ‘have’ in a culture of ‘have nots’. Suffering a self-imposed exile in her own home in a violent city, reduced to seeking human contact via wallscreens, she embarks on a hazardous bus journey across town to share a meal with an old friend. It is at once a frightening extrapolation of current inner city conditions and a clinical examination of one woman’s incomprehension and fear of a changed world.
One of the delights of the book is its range: there are no two SF stories alike in idea or setting; and likewise the modern fantasies are nicely varied. “Heroics” is a simple story, beautifully written and superbly characterised, about a middle-aged school teacher who dreams of being a hero, and whose dream turns out to be ironically prescient. In “Monsters” we are allowed into the life of Henry, a corpulent sociopath and potential killer, who worships his Beretta in a shrine beneath the stairs. Henry battles to keep the monster within him from emerging. To Kelly’s credit he makes the repulsive Henry at once believable and sympathetic, and conjures an unlikely and moving denouement. “Dancing with Chairs” is a slight though effective character study of a man who suffers rejection by his lover and a consequent bizarre disenfranchisement.
In “Faith”, Kelly’s powers of characterisation and social observation are at their sharpest. The quiet, involving love story charts Faith’s affair with Gardiner Allen, a horticultural scientist with a remarkable talent. In his portrayal of Faith, a thirty-five year old mother whose husband has left her, Kelly shows a sympathy and understanding for ordinary people rarely matched in the genre.
Perhaps the finest story here is the unclassifiable, “The First Law of Thermodynamics”. During the course of an evening, Space and fellow 60s students trip on acid, visit the farm of an ex-baseball star turned supplier, and daub political slogans on the interior walls of the liberal arts building. The idealism, egotism and hedonism of Space and his friends is beautifully captured, and put in perspective by the story’s climactic final shift, a device that by all the laws of story-telling should not work but which, in the context of the story and its themes, is a tremendous and moving achievement.
Science Fiction is a broad field. While the prevailing ethos in the genre seems to dictate that novels and stories should ideally kowtow to the Big Idea – an ethos happily accepted by those who champion Hard SF – it should not be forgotten that there is room for the quieter, more reflective literary story which uses the furniture of SF as a metaphor with which to examine the human condition. Thankfully, James Patrick Kelly is doing just that.
Think Like a Dinosaur consists of fourteen stories – twelve reprinted from Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, one from the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and one from The Sycamore Hill Anthology – between 1984 and 1997.
In an age when the bigger publishers are wary of issuing collections by anyone other than big names and known sellers, Golden Gryphon Press should be congratulated for showcasing the considerable talents of James Patrick Kelly. The quality of the stories is exceptional, the book as an object attractive and beautifully produced.
Think Like a Dinosaur is published by Golden Gryphon Press, 364 West Country Lane, Collinsville, IL 62234, USA.
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The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl & C.M. Kornbluth, Gollancz SF Masterworks series, £6.99, 186pp.
In 1951, working as a literary agent and with little time to spare for his own fiction, Pohl wrote the first twenty thousand words of what was to become The Space Merchants. Horace Gold, infamous editor of Galaxy, wanted a novel to serialise – if Pohl could finish the book, Gold would publish it. However, with pressing work commitments, Pohl could not guarantee to finish the book on time – so enter C.M. Kornbluth. He’d worked with Pohl on stories before, and agreed to see what he could add to the first 20k. He rewrote the beginning of the book, added a middle section of his own, and the pair finished the novel in turns. The book was serialised by Gold under the title of Gravy Planet (with chapters set on Venus added). Then the hard work of selling the novel to a book publisher began. Every major house in New York turned it down flat – one editor going so far as to say that it wasn’t very good and that it needed a pro-writer to pull it into shape.
Then Ian Ballantine started a new SF paperback line, published The Space Merchants in 1952, and the rest is history. The book became a classic, cited by Kingsley Amis in New Maps of Hell as having, “… many claims to being the best science fiction novel so far.” The book was translated into twenty five languages and has sold an estimated ten million copies world-wide.
And here it is yet again, presented in the excellent SF Masterworks series, with a Blade Runner-inspired cover by Steve Stone (which works).
But is it a classic, and does it deserve Masterwork status?
Reading this novel more than fifty years after its first publication, I was struck by two things. The first and most important is Pohl and Kornbluth’s prescient extrapolation of globalisation and the power of advertisement. The second is the characterisation of Mitchell Courtenay.
The world is one vast global economy run from America, and specifically by two advertising agencies – Schocken-Fowler for whom Courtenay works, and the Taunton agency. These super-powers rule supreme. Cultural status is defined by one’s ability to afford consumer goods. It’s a divided world of haves and have-nots, with everyone fighting to have. What is incredible about this vision, written half a century ago, is its far-sighted grasp of the evils of a consumer-driven society. (There is even a terrorist opposition known as the Consies – Conservationists)
The characterisation of Courtenay is interesting, too. For much of the book he is an anti-hero, a top-level advertising copywriter content with his privileged status and ignorant of the suffering in society. Courtenay is not an appealing character, and for Pohl and Kornbluth to portray an unsympathetic central character in the early 50s was a brave risk – but one which worked within the context of the story.
As for the story… it’s a pretty conventional thriller run-around. Courtenay gets the job of selling the idea that the colonisation of Venus, an almost uninhabitable hell-hole, is desirable; the Taunton agency and the Consies oppose the idea; Courtenay finds himself officially ‘dead’ and working at a menial job in Puerto Rica – his first taste of life as a have-not . It’s a fast-paced, complex, twisting read with plenty of thrills and spills and turn-arounds. Courtenay’s conversion towards the end of the novel, when he comes to appreciate the ideals of the Consies, is a trifle glib and unconvincing, and the ending is a little skimpy – but what makes The Space Merchants a classic is the fact that Pohl and Kornbluth, knocking out this short novel in New York in ‘51, proved to be eerily accurate foretellers of a future very much like the one we are now inhabiting.
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The Longest Way Home, by Robert Silverberg, Gollancz, C-format paperback, 213pp, £10.99.
Silverberg’s latest novel is a strange one.
I always think of this writer’s work as falling into three distinct ‘periods’. There was the early, Ace Double period, dating roughly from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties when Silverberg churned out novel after short adventure novel for the paperback market, as well as hundreds of short stories. For the most part the novels were hackwork, with exceptions like Master of Life and Death and The Seed of Earth – unambitious skiffy stuff written at speed for an insatiable market. Then Silverberg matured, became the urbane wordsmith who turned in such ground-breaking and sophisticated novels as Thorns, Tower of Glass, The World Inside, A Time of Changes, Son of Man, Dying Inside – I could go on, citing novel after excellent novel from this writer’s halcyon middle-period. Then, from the mid-seventies to the present, Silverberg throttled back, producing a steady stream of perfectly mediocre novels that combined the facility of his middle period with the adventure content of his first – Lord Valentine’s Castle, The Queen of Springtime, Hot Sky at Midnight, among many others.
The Longest Way Home is something of a curiosity. It’s the rites of passage, coming of age story of Joseph Master Keilloran, scion of an aristocratic ruling family on the colony planet of Homeworld. The planet is ruled by the benign Masters, a second wave of humans who invaded Homeworld and enslaved the first wave of settlers, the Folk, thousands of years before the novel opens. For generations, a peaceable master-servant relationship has maintained, until the rebellion of the Folk in the northern continent of Manza. Joseph, the first person narrator, is holidaying in the House of a Master cousin in the north, thousands of miles away from his own home in the southern continent of Helikis. In a single, brutal night of bloodshed, the ruling family of the area is butchered. Joseph manages to escape and begin his long journey south in an attempt to reach the family home.
The reader is all set, then, for a rollicking adventure story, a picaresque tale of conceptual breakthrough as Joseph’s assumptions of cultural superiority are subverted by the experience of his mammoth trek through a strange an alien landscape.
But it would appear that this was not the kind of novel that Silverberg wanted to write – at least not an adventure story. For one thing, there is precious little adventure, or even conflict. The tone is curiously flat throughout, both in terms of prose and the depiction of the story’s action. Silverberg’s dismissal of chapter breaks, and even page breaks, gives the novel an odd sameness of rhythm from beginning to end, almost as if the author is stressing the fact of the unimportance of such novelistic conventions as climax, revelations, denouement – subverting, in fact, reader expectation.
We watch Joseph flee Getfen House, begin his journey south, fall in with the native aliens, the Indigenes, and later the Folk, leave them and happen upon a band of rebels two years into his trek… He is not so much an active antagonist as a passive recorder of his wanderings. The planet and its inhabitants never really come to life. The story is told in a tone often – to borrow from Clute – androidal, and told rather than shown. I did begin to wonder if this was Silverberg being subversive again: not even giving the reader the prose that was to be expected from a rites of passage novel. Then, less charitably, I wondered if this was the author on auto-pilot, especially when I came across patches of lazy realisation and over-writing (the second full paragraph on page 110, for example).
I am deeply puzzled by The Longest Way Home. A long time Silverberg fan, finding much to enjoy from all his periods of productivity, I was left wondering quite what this novel represented and where it stood in the author’s overall cannon.
While thoroughly readable, as one has come to expect from Silverberg, The Longest Way Home is curiously lacking. It reads almost like a novel for young adults, yet without the drama inherent in that type of book. It is something of an amalgam, then – written with the facility of his later period, allied to the impersonal detachment of his second period – but lacking the rigorous heart and commitment his best work.
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Night Lamp, by Jack Vance, HarperCollins, 380 pages, £5.99.
The work of Jack Vance is unique. He writes of high adventure in the far future, eschewing the Big idea and the intricately explicated extrapolation of scientific trends in favour of picaresque tales of derring-do among lavishly portrayed societies in a bustling and teeming galaxy. It’s easy to imagine that the lone furrow he ploughs might be alienating to the SF purists for whom science and technology are the only true subject of the genre. Indeed, Vance seems almost perverse in his disavowal of the modern trends of SF: his characters still communicate by radio and telephone; the science of his spaceflight – along with every other gadget or invention in his novels – is never explained. His characters dress not in the ubiquitous one-piece coveralls of so much stock SF, but in almost medieval garb, lovingly described. Far from being a flaw, the archaic quality of Vance’s work is a strength; it adds to the antiquated feel of his settings, the sense of the timeless history of the expansion of the human race throughout space. The reality of his novels, the eerie sense that Vance is describing actual visions he has seen – a time-tripping travel writer sent back to report on the wonders of the far future – is achieved too by the power of the language he invokes to describe the bizarre imagery. His skill at naming things, people, objects, places, is legendary: in this novel we have characters called Tawn Maihac, Skirlet Hutsenreiter, Twee Pidy, Humber Thwan; planets and towns entitled Gallingale and Ushant, Dimplewater and Loorie. Vance describes with satirical glee the social levels, or “ledges”, of the planet Gallingale, with their clubs called the Tattermen, Kahulibahs, Zonkers and Clam Muffins. There is an element of farce in all his work, but it is saved from absurdity by the juxtaposition of low humour with elements of horror, in this novel the monstrous Loklor and the white house-ghouls.
The central character of Night Lamp will be familiar to the seasoned Vance reader. Jaro Fath is a somewhat reserved, upright, sardonic youth who overcomes adversity through the application of logic, persistence and wit, to inevitably triumph over evil foe. The story follows Jaro from the age of six when he is saved from death at the hands of louts by professors Althea and Hilyer Fath, while visiting the world of Camberwell. They adopt and raise him on the planet of Gallingale, where he applies himself at school and dreams of becoming a space-farer and learning the truth of his origins. He has vague memories of his mother’s murder, terrible visions of black-cloaked figure, though his first six years of life remain lost in amnesia. We watch him grow to maturity, fall in love, learn self-defence, meet his biological father and venture across the Gaean Reach in search of the villain who killed his mother. The quest for revenge, a common theme in Vance’s work, plays a large part in this novel.
We know how it will end: we can rely on Vance for the traditional satisfying outcome. What is more important than the resolution, however, is how the denouement is achieved; the incidental detail of the far future lovingly described, the baroque and whimsical societies portrayed. Much of the delight in a Vance novel is the convoluted dialogue, the repartee and banter between indignant and vain characters, the bluff and bluster, the metaphorical turn of phrase and barbed insult.
If the novel has faults they are those of Vance’s work as a whole: the characters are not individuals so much as types; his female lead is there for romantic interest and nothing more, and she is always described as small and insouciant, pert and pretty. These quibbles to the side, however: Night Lamp is a rich and deeply satisfying novel of colourful adventure, and I recommend it to readers new to Vance’s work and those familiar with his singular visions.
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Ports of Call, by Jack Vance, HarperCollins, 300 pages, £6.99.
I’ll start by saying that I’m a fan of the work of Jack Vance. I’ve read most of his books and every one of them has provided me with hours of entertainment and enjoyment. Ports of Call is no exception – but I do have certain reservations.
The book is less a novel than a picaresque travelogue of the many and wondrous planets of the Gaean Reach, the setting of many of Vance’s finest books.
We follow Myron Tany as he sets out from his homeplanet Vermazen with his rambunctious Aunt, Dame Hester Lajoie, aboard her spacecraft the Glodwyn as she searches for the Fountain of Youth. We are treated to all the usual Vancian trademarks: a host of bizarre, often ridiculous societies, eccentric characters, grotesque events and incidents, and much whimsical dialogue. Myron, after a disagreement with Dame Hester, is ejected from the Glodwyn and forced upon his own resources. He joins the merchant spaceship the Glicca as supercargo, and the tour of the Reach continues. There is no plot, and the story is slight: we look on as Myron and the crew of the Glicca encounters a series of strange and wonderful societies, escape being skinned alive, eat and drink of strange fare, wax philosophical about all manner of bizarre ideas, and sail off in into space towards the star Frametta. And there the novel ends.
Although there is no indication that this is the first book of a series, it certainly reads like one. A number of hooks – Dame Hester’s search for the Fountain of Youth, Myron’s early conflict with Marko Fassig, whether the religious pilgrim passengers aboard the Glicca reach their destination with their mysterious cargo – are dropped or left hanging. The novel cries out for a sequel.
The characterisation – never Vance’s strong point – is a little odd. We never really get to know Myron as a personality (his treatment of Fassig paints him as fussy and small-minded, and militates against reader sympathy and identification.) Although Myron is the central character, we get to know and like the crew of the Glicca far better: especially Wingo and Schwatzendale, two well-drawn and sympathetic personalities.
Of course, if Vance sees fit to continue the story, all my reservations might be for nought: Myron might develop as a fully-rounded individual, the unanswered questions might be resolved. As ever, I thoroughly enjoyed being allowed a glimpse into Vance’s singular vision of the future, and I hope to be aboard the Glicca if and when a sequel is forthcoming.