I adore Subterranean Press because they’re regularly publishing the kind of classic and new speculative fiction that you might have a hard time finding otherwise. They ignore teen trends and market demands and focus on producing high quality volumes of excellent fiction complete with beautiful covers and interior art.
Hard-Luck Diggings is a collection of 14 of Jack Vance’s unconnected short stories that were written early in his career, when he was perfecting his style and writing the kind of tales that were currently popular and likely to be purchased by publishers.
In each of these tales the prose is sparse, the characters are quickly sketched, and the plot is fast, tight, and weird. Many take place in the far future but, even though they were written 60 years ago, they somehow don’t seem dated (except that only men occupy positions of authority and the characters are still using audiotape, videotape, and typewriters, and are powering their spaceships with steam).
The stories are presented in order of publication so, perhaps not surprisingly, the later ones are better (though they only span 11 years). I didn’t much care for the first three stories — “Hard-Luck Diggings” (1948), “Temple of Han” (1951), and “The Masquerade on Dicantropus” (1951) — and that’s probably because they are missing that wry ironic flavor of bizarreness that has developed into the Vance “brand.” That starts to show up in the fourth story — “Abercrombie Station” (1952) — which takes place on a space station where zero gravity makes it fashionable to be fat. Two stories — “When the Five Moons Rise” (1954) and “The Phantom Milkman” (1956) — border on horror so, though they are intense and exciting, they aren’t my favorites.
The stories that I most enjoyed were:
- “Three-Legged Joe” (1953) — a planet-sized lesson in electrical circuitry.
- “DP!” (1953) — the actions of world governments dealing with the eruption of millions of strange creatures from the bowels of the earth serve as a metaphor for global social and political ills.
- “Shape-Up” (1953) — a clever protagonist applies for a dangerous job.
- “Sjambak” (1953) — a reporter is sent to bust a myth about strange sightings on another planet.
- “The Absent-Minded Professor” (1954) — an ambitious junior astronomy professor needs his senior out of the way.
- “The Devil on Salvation Bluff” (1955) — shows what happens when we let the clock rule our lives.
- “Where Hesperus Falls” (1956) — an immortal man tries to kill himself. (This was my favorite story.)
- “Dodkin’s Job” (1959) — a nonconformist gets to the bottom of the bureaucracy.
Each story in Hard-Luck Diggings is followed by a short autobiographical afterword extracted from sources such as the biography This is Me, Jack Vance! (Subterranean Press 2009). Some of these give background about the story, Vance’s early career, his writing practices, or his travels. I learned a lot about my favorite author through these little glimpses into his life and thought this was a nice touch.
Hard-Luck Diggings is a nice collection of stories for any lover of excellent speculative fiction, and a necessary one for any true Vance fan.