The Chasch: Entertaining planetary romance

Jack Vance Tschai City of the Chasch (The Chasch. 1968) Servants of the Wankh (The Wannek, 1969) The Dirdir (1969) The Pnume (1970) The Chasch by Jack VanceThe Chasch by Jack Vance

The Chasch (originally published as City of the Chasch) is sort of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars as envisioned by Jack Vance. It is an entertaining Planetary Romance tale (or Sword & Planet if you prefer that designation) that describes the adventures of Adam Reith, Earthman and sole survivor of the Explorator IV, a starship that is destroyed by unknown forces while in orbit above the planet Tschai. Reith is a Scout, meaning that he is a jack-of-all-trades uniquely equipped for survival in a hostile and alien environment. Good thing too, since Tschai is a world in turmoil that will throw everything it has at Reith.

Once the basics of mere survival are attained, Reith begins to explore this strange new world and finds a menagerie of aliens and apparent humanity locked in endless and fruitless struggle. Vance displays his typically deft hand with the painting of bizarre cultures that spell out the various ways in which human (and alien) nature can be twisted by convention and assumptions into nearly unrecognizable forms. The planet seems to have once belonged to the mysterious Pnume and their insane kin the Phung in ages past. Now these creatures are rarely seen and only then as shadowy figures in the distance watching the current denizens of the world from their underground tunnels. The Chasch, who apparently ‘conquered’ the Pnume, are lizard men of three varieties: Old, Blue and Green, who war amongst themselves as much as with everyone else. The final waves of conquest were led by the Dirdir, a race of warlike, though apparently highly cultured aliens, and the Wannek (in the original publication the unfortunately named Wankh) an as yet unseen group of aliens. Each of these alien races displays varying degrees of high technology (they are apparently still space-faring) mixed with elements of antiquated, even barbarian culture (swords, armour, monarchical governments, etc.) Mixed in with these alien races is an innumerable array of human offshoots: some are client races to the existing aliens, thus the Chaschmen, Dirdirmen, Pnumekin and Wannekmen who seemed to have been genetically and cosmetically modified to display some of the physical characteristics of their masters and who each think that they are the ‘true’ human race derived in some way from their ‘parent’ alien race. In addition to these client human races are the various ‘barbarians’ who give fealty to no aliens, but tend to live in very degraded circumstances.

All of these races on Tschai are seemingly intent upon killing each other, though none of them wish to upset the current balance of power and thus restrict themselves to small battles and bandit raids. None of the races is quite powerful enough to completely overpower the others, and each of the aliens is capable of dealing a death blow to the planet should anyone attempt to overrun them.

Reith is the wild card thrust into this scenario. A typically competent and dry-witted Vance hero, he is both perplexed and aghast at the existence of so degraded an example of humanity on this planet. While he initially intends only to find his stolen space boat and return to earth, he soon becomes embroiled in the local conflicts and decides that he must help his estranged and enslaved kinsmen. Along the way he of course falls in with some allies who are impressed by his competence, technological know-how and ability to lead, and meets the requisite alien princess in need of his assistance.

I especially enjoyed Vance’s various cultures (esp. the fascinating Emblem Men whose culture is determined by the totemic signets they wear and which give the men a unique identity and motivation, the reality of these emblems is left somewhat mysterious… is it real or only a figment in the minds of the people enslaved by this ideology?) Vance’s signature ornate language was somewhat less on display than I had expected and hoped for, though certain characters did exhibit it. All in all, The Chasch was an enjoyable adventure story with a little bit extra, but I wasn’t left gasping for more at the end. I will likely eventually continue the PLANET OF ADVENTURE series, of which this is the first book, but I still think that Vance’s LYONESSE trilogy is his best work.

FanLit thanks Terry Lago for this guest review.

Published in 1968. The Chasch was originally published as City of The Chasch and The Wannek was originally Servants of the Wankh. Publisher: The starship Explorator IV is destroyed after entering orbit around the planet Tschai. Adam Reith’s scout ship is en route to the surface when the attack occurs, and is damaged in the explosion; Reith crash-lands and is separated from his ship. He finds a world full of violence, where four non-human races rule: the Chasch, the Dirdir, the Wannek, and the Pnume. Humans are present, but dominated by the other races. In this volume Reith sets out to regain his scout ship, and makes his way to Dadiche, ruled by the Blue Chasch and their human servants. Along the way he finds loyal friends, and challenges social inequities with the same aplomb that he rescues fair maidens — like the lovely Ylin Ylan, Flower of Cath.

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TERRY LAGO, one of our regular guest reviewers, is a Torontonian who, like all arts students, now works in the IT field. He has been a fan of fantasy ever since being introduced to Tolkien by his older brother when he was only a wee lad, though he has since branched out to enjoy all spectrums of the Fantasy genre and quite a few of the science fiction one as well. Literary prose linked with well-drawn characters are the things he most looks for in a book. You can see what he's currently reading at his Goodreads page.

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  1. Sounds like a fun book. Thanks, Terry!

  2. Terry Lago (guest) /

    Thanks Marion, it is indeed fun stuff.

  3. Great review Terry. The 2nd book in this series “Servants of the Wannek” (as you point out, not the original spelling/title) was either the first or second of Vance’s books that I ever read. I’d highly recommend that at some point you go ahead and check it out. It has a couple of twists that you won’t find in Burroughs, as well as the introduction of one of Vance’s more memorable
    evil villains. As you point out, this isn’t in the category of Vance’s best work, not by a long shot, but the series is great fun. I go back and re-visit it ever few years.

  4. Severian /

    Just read this two weeks ago. I liked it bit more than you did (though I agree with you that Lyonesse is the best thing he’s written).

    What I really enjoyed about the book was how quickly Vance established the situation on the planet; to my count there are at least seven alien races, not to mention the various human groups. By the mid-way point we get a compelling sketch of each society, and understand the basic rules for how they operate, and what makes them dangerous. For a book under 200 pages, that is a triumph.

    I felt like this book captured a lot of the ‘fun’ that the recent John Carter movie was reaching for. The story has a sense of adventure and discovery that is really lacking in the genre today.

    The only thing I didn’t like about it is that Vance’s humor is mostly absent, which affects characterization. Overall, I’d give it 4/5.

    Also, I’m currently reading the sequel, and its much more like Vance’s other works. The side-characters are more colorful and despicably funny, and the dialogue is typical Vance.

  5. Terry Lago (guest) /

    Thanks Steve and Severian. I plan on getting to the next book in the series some time soon (I hope!), glad to hear it seems to fall more in with what I consider ‘traditional Vance’.

    I’d agree that Vance’s ability to get things up and running as quickly as he does is great Severian, and a sorely lacking trait in the mostly bloated sci-fi and fantasy than is more common these days!

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