Jack Vance was a fairly prolific author during his writing career, publishing over sixty novels and various short stories in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery. During the 1960’s and 70’s many of his science fiction stories were set in a far future milieu which he termed the Gaean Reach. In these stories interstellar travel is common place, as is colonization of a multitude of solar systems throughout the galaxy. While some of the colonized planets contain alien life forms with which the human colonies have to co-exist, the majority of Vance’s works in the Gaean Reach deals with the many unusual human cultures that have developed over the many centuries of colonization. Vance is never what can be termed a “hard-science fiction” writer, but he shines at the “softer sciences” especially when coming up with strange and varied types of future human cultures and societies.
Maske: Thaery is a short novel first published in 1976 and set in this far future time. Vance doesn’t set dates, but since the entire galaxy appears to be colonized and settled by human explorers and colonists and since most of the planetary cultures explored by the books seem to have been existent for multiple generations, it would seem that the books are taking place in an unimaginably far distant time. This is not important to the stories themselves however, and Vance simply uses the different books to explore how human beings might interact and change psychologically over time.
While I agree with some other reviewers that Maske: Thaery is not one of Vance’s best books, it was still a fun, quick read. The story’s protagonist is a young man named Jubal Droad. Jubal lives on the planet Maske, which is mostly ocean. This is a favorite premise of Vance’s from time to time, and when he writes about it one wishes that the folks who made the movie Water World had had him as a consultant or writer before they totally messed up that movie, but I digress. (If you’re interested in the theme, I recommend Vance’s wonderful book The Blue World for his best exploration of this type of setting.)
In the far past Maske was colonized by a group of humans known as the Djan. Much later a group of religious fanatics came to Maske and took over the large island known as Thaery. The descendants of this group broke off into differing factions known as the Waels and the Glints. The Waels are considered the upper or elite class, while the Glints are considered as a less refined lower class. In an effort to keep out unorthodox ideas, the Waels or Thaeriots forbid travel to other planets.
Young Jubal is a Glint and at his reaching the age of young adulthood he decides to go on a “Yallow” — a journey wherein a young person wanders about the land. This pilgrimage is more than just an extended vacation however, as the young people usually use the time to submit to work in helping to maintain the land’s infrastructure and eco-systems. (Think of a young person in our own time that goes on a Peace Corp mission.) While on this Yallow, Jubal is almost killed due to the arrogance of an upper class native of Thaery. Upon his recovery he goes to the capital city of Wysrod, with letters of introduction provided by his uncle, where he becomes involved in the politics and intrigues of Thaery, re-meeting his adversary from his Yallow incident and also befriending a couple of interesting young women who are related to the leader of Wysrod.
The novel is both a picaresque and a coming-of-age work, the type of story Vance seemed to really enjoy writing and to excel at. My only complaint with it is that is too short to fully explore the themes and the culture presented. This is fairly common for many of the early Gaean Reach books however, and I can only assume that the market constraints of the time were forcing Vance to write short novels. It is interesting to note that during the 1980’s and 90’s many of his later fantasy and science fiction works were much longer and more fully “fleshed out.” Despite the length of the book and the fact that it cried out for a sequel, it’s still a fun read and I think a must for any Vance fan. It doesn’t have the stylistic prose of THE DYING EARTH or LYONESSE, but it is a quick read and Jubal is a sympathetic character whose adventures are interesting. If you read this and enjoy it then I would also suggest some of Vance’s other earlier Gaean Reach titles, such as Marune: Alastor 933 and Wyst: Alastor 1716.