Mike’s Prattle


Jack Vance – Vandals of the Void; The Rapparee/The Five Gold Bands; Big Planet; Take My Face/The Flesh Mask; “The Kokod Warriors;” “Coup de Grace;” Strange People, Queer Notions

Posted by Mike on January 28, 2008

That’s a lot of Vance. A few years ago, another library phase ago I checked out a bunch of early Vance, mostly Underwood-Miller editions as well as some of Vance’s early mystery work. I found at the time that I enjoyed everything, right down to the most minor of his minor work, there’s just something penetrating and clear about the man’s prose and story visions I find appealing.

Soon after this, the Integral Edition was announced and over a few years became a reality, and unfortunately I had to watch from afar not having the money to throw at it and I wondered if I’d ever get a chance to check out some of the even rarer Vance work which prices $75 per book and more. And then the LINK PLUS system came back to my library system and I found I had access to the whole edition. Which is why that’s almost all I’ve been reading lately, as my goal is to read everything in the set that I don’t already own a copy of (and then some).

The first of these was a juvenile science fiction story called Vandals of the Void which was originally published in 1953 and then completely forgotten about until the Integral Edition. Unsurprisingly it has a Heinlein-esque feel to it, taking place in a pulp-era near future where the Earth has spread through the solar system. It’s about a precocious young man who manages to glom onto a space pirate conspiracy, often getting clues before many of the adults do. Of its era sure, but a quick bit of fun.

The Rapparee has had several names through its incarnations, starting out as The Five Gold Bands, being abridged as The Space Pirate and coming into its Vance-approved title as part of the Integral Edition. Our roguish hero Paddy, who has an Irish brogue as thick as a cliché gets embroiled in interspecies politics who, as part of the paradigm, have shut the Earth out of the new space drives. Paddy is soon a wanted man when he’s forced to be a moderator at a high level interspecies meeting, only to escape on the run with information on the space drives, which sets him on a quest to find the Five Gold Bands which would complete this information. He meets up with a female agent from Earth that obviously becomes the romantic interest, with a fun bit of early Vance banter between them. As one of Vance’s first novels this, again, is a bit of old time pulp adventure, tight, short and fast moving. Already Vance’s extraordinary talent for new cultures and planets is in full force.

Big Planet is another Vance novel that appeared to have gone through a period with an abridged version, although I believe it was restored by Tor in the 80s originally. The Big Planet itself is gigantic but with a low gravity due to its lack of metals (I can’t imagine if this could exist in actuality but it’s a great concept) and the protagonist, with a number of others, crash lands and has to make his way over an untold distance through all sorts of hostility and danger to reach a place where he can leave the planet. This sort of travelogue type of style is one Vance has used through his whole career to great success, as his characters have to navigate the most incredible new cultures and terrains while avoiding the enemies on their trail. Along with The Dying Earth this is the earliest Vance that most resembles his mature style.

Take My Face (IE title: The Flesh Mask) was originally written under a pseudonym, Peter Held, and it’s no surprise as this is definitely one of the Vance outliers in terms of style. I’ve read a few Vance mysteries before: Bird Island, The Fox Valley Murders, The Pleasant Grove Murders and the Deadly Isles, and while all of these definitely resemble the Vance you’d know, Take My Face is substantially different, a high society murder mystery about a number of young 20s friends who have in common an accident that badly disfigured one young man who went on, as you’d expect, to be badly treated by his peers. When some of the friends start to get mutilated and killed, the expectations are that it was this disfigured man come back for revenge. The mystery, like all good ones, turns out to be much more complicated than expectations, although it was a good thing it was a short novel as I didn’t find the characters to be all that sympathetic due to their affluence and occasional self-centeredness.

The two shorts are the final two entries in the Magnus Ridolph sequence, all of which are science fiction/mystery combos and a little on the formulaic side in that Ridolph is usually approached by someone who needs his help, shows up to whatever planet he’s needed at and by way of intelligence and craftiness manages to make good money and solve the problem. With “The Kokod Warriors” Ridolph is asked to stop a gambling operation on a planet of aliens who are divided into warrior factions who by nature continue to wage war with one another with tourists there to bet on the outcome. It may be the best of the sequence. “Coup de Grace” is a neat little story where upon visit to a space station, Vance becomes embroiled in a murder mystery in which the culprit could be one of several aliens. In classic fashion (contrasted to a panicking executive), Ridolph ends up deducing the criminal via how they behave culturally, always an aspect of Vance’s work I find of interest. And in fact this is several years after the rest of the series and starting to show Vance’s increasing maturity as a writrer.

Finally, there’s Strange People, Queer Notions, a novel written in the late 50s but not published until decades later as Strange Notions (with the Dark Ocean). Amazingly, of all the mysteries I’ve read so far, this was my favorite. Chuck Musgrave is a casual artist currently living in Italy who is hired by a mysterious figure called Kex who wants him to do paintings of an artist/tourist town called Positano. Within two days of showing up in Positano he’s immediately embroiled in mystery after he’s ambushed and nearly beat to death after falling down one of Positano’s treacherous staircases. Feeling like he’s in over his head, the only clue he has is a list of a dozen or more names of eccentric foreigners living in Positano, all of which start treating him in the bizarre fashions. When he finds that his erstwhile employer has sent everyone on the list letters in a blue envelope, declaring him as a fraud of some time, Musgrave realizes he’s been embroiled in a dangerous game that begins to escalate with murders. Musgrave’s curiosity not only gets the best of him but he falls for one of the names on the list, drawing him deeply into the mystery. I found just about everything was satisfying on this one from the twists to the astonishing ending where the mystery of Musgrave’s romantic interest is revealed in a tense denouement. It’s also one of the few novels where Vance deals with sexual relationships more explicitly than you’d expect (although not at all graphic), which makes me wonder if that’s part of the reason it wasn’t published for so long.


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