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The Jack Vance Reader
edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan
Subterranean Press, 482 pages

The Jack Vance Reader
Jack Vance
John Holbrook Vance was born in 1916. Over a career spanning many decades, he has garnered many honours. They include the Edgar Award in 1960, the Hugo Award in 1963 and 1967, the Nebula Award in 1966, the Jupiter Award in 1975, the Achievement Award in 1984, the GilgamXs Award in 1988, the World Fantasy Award in 1990, and the Grand Master Award in 1997. He has used many pseudonyms including Alan Wade, Peter Held, John Holbrook and John van See. Jack Vance's original manuscripts for several of his books are kept at Boston University's main library in the manuscripts department.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Jack Vance Treasury
SF Site Review: Lurulu
SF Site Review: The Dragon Masters
SF Site Review: Lyonesse II: The Green Pearl and Madouc
SF Site Review: Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden
SF Site Review: Night Lamp
SF Site Review: Tales of the Dying Earth
SF Site Review: Big Planet
SF Site Review: Emphyrio
SF Site Review: Ports of Call

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dustin Kenall

3 books. 3 introductions. 1 author. Jack Vance. Normally, that should be enough to make any collector happy. So perhaps that's what editors Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan were counting on when they collected three of Vance's shorter novels (or longer novellas) into a compact trade cover, slapped on a preface about the "planetary adventure" subgenre, and apportioned a separate introduction for each book by Robert Silverberg, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Mike Resnick -- Jack Vance admirers and masters in their own right, one and all. And as a compendium of Vance's older works, The Jack Vance Reader pulls together three workman-like tales of the Grand Master into a solid, respectful anthology. But as an introduction to a new generation of readers, the volume fails to entice. If any sci-fi author's oeuvre is worth exploring, it is that of Jack Vance. His Dying Earth saga is a seminal classic of the eponymous sub-genre, a triumphal pairing of baroque fantasy to far-future speculation. His fairy-tale Lyonesse trilogy outclasses and outsmarts, outsparkles and outdelights nearly all the competition. Vance invites you inside the story, and his words are not so much printed on the page as whispered in your ear.

But the tales collected herein -- Emphyrio, The Languages of Pao, and The Domains of Koryphon -- are not so accessible. Involute, slow, at times laboriously factitious, they are interesting explorations of "ideas in action," but paper-thin characters, stilted dialogue, and flat plots deprive the stories of much emotional resonance. They are not failures, but neither are they classics destined to be read and re-read in another 50 years. Accordingly, while the studied aficionado can appreciate them, the general reader may not even finish the anthology. More disturbing, she may not bother returning to any of Vance's worlds.

Emphyrio, the first selection, is a study in the power of myth and individualism in a dystopian society. One part "Harrison Bergeron," one part Anthem, the story traces the life of Ghyl Tarvoke, the son of a woodworker living in a feudalistic society where stasis is considered progress, conformity excellence. That society is divided into three classes: an aristocracy of rentiers who live in eyries above the city, their only interaction with commoners is the tax they take for public infrastructure built centuries ago; a mass of semi-professionals and artisans working within a highly regulated guild system and receiving fixed municipal welfare allowances; and "noncuperatives: non-recipients of welfare benefits, reputedly all Chaoticists, anarchists, thieves, swindlers, whore-mongers." As he should in such a story, Ghyl chafes at this procrustean culture. He discovers the legend of Emphyrio, a mythical hero with liberational tendencies. In a fit of capricious enthusiasm, he submits Emphyrio's name for the mayoral ballot, in the hope of inspiring the populace to reassert its privileges under the forgotten Charter. Amiante, his father, is supportive: "Freedom, privileges, options, must constantly be exercised, even at the risk of inconvenience. Otherwise they fall into desuetude and become unfashionable, unorthodox -- finally irregulationary."

Political discussions of this sort punctuate the narrative and are not uninteresting. In the middle of a piratical adventure, Ghyl and a group of friends take the time to debate the parameters of their original compact with the sobriety of political philosophers theorizing over the state of nature, a scene Vance plays well, however self-consciously. But, as Silverberg writes in his introduction, the tale is a fable. And the most engaging fables are those with peripatetic plots that move from one idea to the next at a fairly rapid pace. Without the emotional pull of realism developed with three-dimensional characters, evolving relationships, and textured and alert dialogue, fables need some sort of constant self-awareness and theatricality to keep the reader's interest.

The Languages of Pao gets closer to achieving this sustained narrative canter. If Emphyrio is an examination of how static societies are undermined from within, Pao is a study in how external pressures galvanize social change. On the world of Pao, it is the metastructure of language rather than the political superstructure which internalizes submission. When, unable to overcome its innate apathy, a population of billions is overrun by a few thousand off-world mercenaries, the Paonese regent seeks, like the Meiji government of Japan, to modernize. For advice, he turns to the Breakness wizards, technocratic leaders of a patriarchal society of hypercompetitive social engineers. The polar opposite of the Paonese, Breakness dominie Lord Palafox devises a plan to spur competition and individualism in the Pao population by spawning specialized subcultures with new languages. His model, though, is the chain of being not the cooperative or public commonwealth. "Trust," sneers Lord Palafox, "What is that? The interdependence of the hive; a mutual parasitism of the weak and incomplete . . . . The Paonese concepts of 'trust,' 'loyalty,' 'good faith' are not a part of my mental equipment. We dominie of Breakness Institute are individuals, each his own personal citadel. We expect no sentimental services derived from clan loyalty or group dependence; nor do we render any. You would do well to remember this."

The plot traces this transformation through the eyes of an exiled Paonese prince, Beran, living in Breakness and, due to his linguistic fluidity, neither of one world nor the other. If Emphyrio is a send up of the sclerotic social democratic polities of Western Europe, Pao certainly doesn't pull any punches for American-style cutthroat capitalism. Once again, though, there aren't really any human relationships for the reader to hold onto, just a succession of events of varying interest.

The final novel, The Domains of Koryphon, is in some ways the weirdest and (perhaps for that reason) the most enjoyable of the three. A frontier Western with murder mystery elements and political overtones, Koryphon begins with Schaine Madduc's return home after 5 years of self-impose exile to her father's landed estate, Morningswake. The estate controls vast tracks of land ceded to Madduc's anscestors by nomadic natives ("Uldras") overrun by offworld freebooters ("Outkers"). This crowded planet also includes the erjin, a semi-intelligent race trained for urban slavery, and the morphotes, obscure creatures reduced to a zoological attraction -- "CAUTION! Morphotes are dangerous and cunning! Consider none of their proffers; accept none of their gifts! Morphotes come to the fence with a single purpose in mind: to mutilate, insult, or frighten those Gaeans who come to view them. TAKE WARNING! Morphotes have injured many persons; they may kill YOU. NEVERTHELESS, WANTON MOLESTATION OF THE MORPHOTES IS ABSOLUTELY FORBIDDEN."

Schaine's father's vehicle is found ambushed in the desert, his lifeless body within. Schaine, her brother Kelse, their guard Gerd Jemasze, and assorted political activists including a quondam childhood friend now a "Redemptionist" demanding the return of tribal lands and a potential love interest/advocate of the Society for Emancipation of Erjins ("SEE") collectively navigate the wildernesses of Vance's narrative, investigating the elder Madduc's demise at one point, resolving political grievances at another. Apparently, even fantasy worlds have their Red State/Blue State culture wars: "Urban folk," declares Kelse, "dealing as they do in ideas and abstractions, become conditioned to unreality. Then, wherever the fabric of civilization breaks, these people are as helpless as fish out of water." To which a Redemptionist replies, "Imagine yourself an Uldra: disenfranchised and subject to alien law. What would you do?" Vance keeps a brisk pace and interweaves the two plots well. More importantly, the resolution is surprisingly thoughtful while comically arch.

Indeed, the three novels are well selected vis-a-vis each other. Each dramatizes a socio-political problem, envisions a solution, and works out their contradictions and limitations. Emphyrio's revolution mirrors the capitalists' strike of Atlas Shrugged, with alien oppressors substituted for government parasites. John C. Wright offers an homage to Emphyrio in his The Golden Transcendence Trilogy, but his must be counted the superior philosophical fable. Pao attempts to strike a balance between the yin and yang of stability and change, community and individualism. And Koryphon wrestles with modern post-colonial issues of dispossession and group rights, firmly settling on the side of pragmatism. These are all places worth visiting someday. Just don't make them the first stop on your Jack Vance itinerary.

Copyright © 2008 Dustin Kenall

Dustin Kenall is a lawyer working and blogging in DC. Accordingly, if at any given moment he's not reading or writing, it's probably because he's unconscious. His blog,, is always wide awake, though.

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