The Jack Vance Treasury by Jack Vance (edited by Terry Dowling & Jonathan Strahan)
While I don’t think there’s any one novel or short story or even collection of Jack Vance‘s work that comes close to capturing all the best aspects of his writing, I do think that this 633-page Subterranean Press collection does a fairly good job of exposing the reader to a wide array of Vance’s oeuvre. In addition to eighteen stories that span much of Vance’s writing career, there’s a brief comment from Vance himself after each story that gives a little view into how his mind worked while in creative mode, as well as some of the authors and factors that had a major impact on him in developing his writing (note to self after reading one of his comments: re-read P. G. Wodehouse, then find and read some Jeffrey Farnol, two of the writers he says influenced him). There’s also an “Appreciation” by George R.R. Martin who admits to being a major fan of Vance.
Two of Vance’s Hugo Award Winning novellas are in the book, “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle,” which share similar themes of a far-off future where remnants of humanity have to fight alien enemies after having lost much of their knowledge of the technological weaponry of the past. As happens in many of Vance’s stories, the setting is in a future so distant that our own time is completely forgotten, as is the original time of human exploration of the galaxy. I read an article once where the author opined that many of Vance’s works take place in “an ancient future” and I think the phrase definitely fits these two stories as well as another in the collection.
My own personal favorite story in this “ancient future” and “humanity fighting for their survival” theme is actually “The Miracle Workers,” which is also perhaps my favorite story in the collection. In this one the empirical scientific mindset and methods that have led humanity to the exploration of the galaxy have become the stuff of legend, and those who strive to emulate such thinking and attempt to make use of the empirical method and earlier technology are scorned as “mystics” and “miracle-workers,” while the respected “scientists” at the time of the story are practitioners of telepathy who have developed the ability to cause mass delusions in the minds of their enemies. When the “jinxmen,” as the telepathy masters are known, attempt to use this weaponry on an alien race that shares the planet with the humans, the results are not what they expected. Another theme in this story is that of a young person who has the ability to think differently than the prevalent culture, and who suffers derision and ridicule because of this. Vance uses this theme in so many of his stories (chief among them his novel The Blue World, as well as the aforementioned “The Dragon Masters,” and “The Last Castle”) that it is obviously a prevalent idea with him. Usually these Cassandra-like characters end up being proven correct in their debate with the dominant cultures in which they live, but sometimes at great cost. Perhaps one of my favorite touches in “The Miracle Workers” is that the planet on which the action takes place is named Pangborn, almost certainly homage to the late Edgar Pangborn (1909-1976), author of the excellent post-apocalyptic novel Davy, which was nominated for a Hugo in 1964, and which in my mind deserves a reissue for modern readers.
Vance’s characters almost always win by virtue of their brains rather than their brawn, and one of his earliest characters personified this to an extreme. In the story “The Kokod Warriors” the protagonist is an aging, slight, effete and dandyish private eye of sorts known as Magnus Ridolph. As Ridolph tells a potential client in the story who expresses her initial dismay upon discovering his age and stature, “If your business requires feats of physical prowess, I beg you hire elsewhere. My janitor might satisfy your needs; an excellent chap who engages his spare time moving bar-bells from one elevation to another.” In this story the aging Ridolph turns the tables on some former business associates who had swindled him while satisfying his client’s request. In later years Vance seems to have expressed some embarrassment at the simple style and writing of the Ridolph stories, all of which were published in the late 40’s and 50’s, but the character remains a major favorite of mine, an underdog who is able to turn the fact that his enemies underestimate him to his advantage time and time again. Now that Vance is no longer writing I continually hope against hope that perhaps one more story of good old Magnus is out there somewhere, but I know that it’s probably not in the proverbial cards.
Another favorite story in this collection is “The Men Return,” a short work in which the Earth swings into a part of the universe where cause and effect no longer rationally apply. Most humans die when this happens, as for example solid surfaces become molten for no apparent reason, food can no longer be produced simply by planting and sowing, and a myriad of other deadly things occur with no rational basis. The only humans who survive are those who are already insane, and therefore open to the non-causality of the new world, and those in whom the logical impulse is so strong that they become small pockets of rational existence unto themselves.
One of the things I like about most of Vance’s work, is that his characters often battle against great odds successfully. Most of his stories end on a hopeful note, even when the protagonist has suffered a defeat or experienced great loss. However Vance can be as bleak as any when he sets his mind to it, and not all his stories are sanguine. “The Secret” and especially “The Mitr” both fall into this category, the first about a young man coming to terms with adult responsibility and mortality, while the latter is a beautifully written yet tragic story about a young girl marooned on a tropical island on an isolated planet.
“Sail 25” is a work about a group of young space cadets in the making on a training mission with a tyrannical, seemingly alcoholic and perhaps suicidal captain. Said captain is one of Vance’s most interesting characters to my mind, and even though this story written early in his career doesn’t have the lyrical quality that much of Vance’s later writing has, it has its moments of humor and high tension. It’s also one of my favorites in this collection.
Several DYING EARTH stories are included, among them my favorite “Guyal of Sfere,” in which a young man is born with a curious mind in an era where curiosity is all but extinct. I’ve always thought this story was quite similar to Arthur C. Clarke‘s Against the Fall of Night, for those of you who have read that story. There are also some stories from the Dying Earth adventures of Vance’s rogue character Cugel the Clever as well.
“The Moon Moth” is also a favorite with many of Vance’s fans, about a young diplomat who is sent to a world where everyone (even children) wear masks, which are chosen carefully to represent their place in society. Outworlders such as the young diplomat are looked down on and consequently have to be quite careful in their choice of mask and even their casual interactions with the natives, who tend to kill anyone who presumes above their station or “strakh” as the natives term the place a person has in the society, based upon a mix of accomplishment and reputation.
The other stories in the book are a mixed lot, but all have something to recommend them, even the older ones such “The Gift of Gab,” which is a pretty straightforward science fiction mix of adventure and mystery, as a group of workers on a watery planet try to determine what or who is murdering them one by one as they try to survive until an awaited re-supply space ship arrives.
I’d have liked to have seen some samples of Vance’s LYONESSE fantasies as well as an example of his ALASTOR CLUSTER series in this volume, but I guess the idea was to show examples of his short stories and novellas (the Cugel stories apparently having been originally published in magazines before being combined into the first novel starring that character) so I’m content with the selection.
Like most of the Vance works printed by Subterranean Press, The Jack Vance Treasury is now unfortunately out of print, but a recent check on Amazon and Bookfinder shows used copies in the $25 to $100 dollar range, so those of you who still like well-made hardback books for your collections should be able to find a copy. I also found a couple of copies on the state library on line system where I live, so that may be another route to find and read this volume. I recommend it quite as much for brief but very insightful Vance comments after every story as I do the great stories themselves.
To close, here’s a list of the table of contents:
- Preface, Jack Vance
- Jack Vance: An Appreciation, George R.R. Martin
- Introduction: Fruit from the Tree of Life
- The Dragon Masters
- Liane the Wayfarer
- Sail 25
- The Gift of Gab
- The Miracle Workers
- Guyal of Sfere
- The Kokod Warriors
- The Overworld
- The Men Return
- The Sorcerer Pharesm
- The New Prime
- The Secret
- The Moon Moth
- The Bagful of Dreams
- The Mitr
- The Last Castle
- Biographical Sketch & Other Facts, Jack Vance