Mike’s Prattle


Jack Vance – Wild Thyme and Violets (+1), The Man in the Cage, Gold and Iron, Clarges; Grant Morrison – The Invisibles 5-6: Counting to None, Kissing Mister Quimper

Posted by Mike on March 19, 2008

This is most if not all of the reading I’ve done over the last couple months or so, I haven’t been keeping track so much.As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading a lot of Jack Vance while I have access to the Integral Edition and I’m kind of getting to the point where a break in action would be nice, mostly because I notice more and more this gap in quality between early pulp Vance and that incredible style he started to mature into in the late 50s and early 60s. While I enjoy it all, over several books some of the earlier material is a bit formulaic and not nearly as sublime as he’d get. And that awareness is making me want to get onto better things. I’ve got a couple more IE volumes I’d like to tackle soon, but I may give it a few weeks, especially as all I have left to bring me into the 60s is four more mysteries, “The Houses of Iszm” and the Ellery Queen books.

Anyway, the first title here is a collection of stories and outlines that act as the appendix of the whole Integral Edition, in fact this is the book that consists of items you’re not likely to find any other place. There’s a big Starlost-like outline called the Stark about the destruction of Earth and the ark that takes everyone off that would have been a TV series or movie at the time. It strikes me as very unVance like and like several other encounters, it seems to have been borne from conversations between Frank Herbert and Jack Vance.

One conversation between these two also ended up in Herbert writing Dune (desert planet) and Vance, the Kragen (water planet). While there’s no question which writing went onto bigger acclaim, The Kragen, which was expanded into The Blue World soon after, is the central novella in Wild Thyme and by far the best thing in it. I’ll be saving The Blue World for a later time and you can now buy The Kragen through Subterranean Press, but it’s a fantastic, mature Vance novella about a water world and the group of a number of rebels who decide that the continual invasion of the Kragen (obviously similar to Kraken) isn’t to be endured any longer. The band digs up the writings of its ancestors who landed on the waterworld in order to find science that will help defeat the seabeasts, all while dealing with those who represent the status quo and more or less venerate the Kragen and try to sabotage their efforts. Like many Vance works, it repeats the theme of humans stretching themselves to fulfill difficult tasks and does so brilliantly. It’s by far the best of the latest stretch of Vance reading, undoubtedly due to its place in the mid-60s.

The rest of Wild Thyme includes an alternate Guyal of Sfere from The Dying Earth. It’s been ages since I read the original so I didn’t remember if there were big differences, but its inclusion in the collection implies that there were. There were also other outlines, including one rather long, sketchy mystery in the vein of The Flesh Mask (The Telephone was Ringing in the Dark I believe was the title) that was a little too embryonic. The rest of the book is filled with writings about the project and bibliographic lists, most of which you can find at the Integral Edition archives.

I also managed to check out the outline to the third (I hope I get this right) Joe Bain mystery novel, although contrary to the volume titles at the IE site, actually appears with the other Bain books in Vol. 13, which I’d already read years ago. Not much to write home about, although even in saying that it’s sort of unfair to the idea of an outline.

The Man in the Cage, another early mystery title, takes place in Morocco as a man flies in from America looking for his lost brother whose possible whereabouts are set up in the first chapter. As he pieces together the clues, he starts to realize his brother’s involvement in a bit of heroin smuggling, all while romantically falling for a woman tied to the situation. It reminded me of Strange People, Queer Notions in its unusual setting and cast of bizarre and unique characters and like that book it was entertaining if not satisfying in the same way much later Vance is.

Both Gold and Iron (aka Slaves of the Klau, Planet of the Damned) and Clarges (To Live Forever) are distinctively pulp Vance, especially the former whose plot involves a man on Earth who is dragged off to a slave planet by a dominant alien race. In writing this and noting the passing of Arthur C. Clarke yesterday, I’m reminded of just how wide open pulp SF was at the time before and there are all kinds of fun ideas here that science might have vetoed in a different era. But like I mentioned earlier, Vance’s major theme of a man relying on his human intelligence and wit to solve massive problems is in full view here and while so much of it seems unlikely in retrospect, it made for a rather fast moving and engrossing bit of pulp.

Clarges actually reminds me at times of later science fiction in that the system Vance sets up that fosters immortals in the Clarges culture could easily be similar to modern books where copies of humans allow for later resurrections, and there were several times the book reminded me of, say, Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon, although, of course, the fact the Clarges inhabitants still use reel to reel tape reminds one that future prediction can be haphazard. I actually thought Clarges was something of a mess, with a very un-Vance like and criminal protagonist whose motives for advancement are put on society and not thought through enough to be satisfying. Unlike the evidence provided by Vance’s outlines, this book doesn’t seem to have as much of a structure as you’d hope and several of the consequences of actions in the book never seem to come to fruition.

I’m also finishing up Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles series, speaking of messes. Grand conspiracies, musings on the nature of the universe and all of those things this series does are certainly of interest, but I’ve had a hard time being sympathetic with any of the cast of protagonists here. Like many superhero driven plots I’m constantly wondering where these people come up with the money and resources to do what they do and I’m never quite sure if Morrison thinks the universe is inimical or not even despite the Archon premise. Overall I’m more or less happy to be along for the ride (and seem to like the art better with every new volume), and assume that part of the confusion is just the chaos involved with the whole set up.

Anyway that does me for now, I’m about halfway through Vance’s The Languages of Pao (which seems a bit more mature than the early 50s work) and Rikki Ducornet’s Entering Fire, which is more of the kind of thing I’d rather be reading, once again telling me that maybe a break on the Vance would be appropriate now.


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