Mike’s Prattle


Jack Vance – Emphyrio, The Domains of Koryphon (The Gray Prince); Philip K. Dick – A Scanner Darkly; Ramsey Campbell – Alone with the Horrors; Fritz Leiber “Be of Good Cheer;” “The Square Root of Brain;” “The Princess in the Tower 250,000 Miles High”

Posted by Mike on December 15, 2009

I’m actually about three posts behind in terms of noting books I’ve read in the last month or two, in fact looking back I’m kind of surprised how many words I’ve crunched of late, I can’t remember the last time it was so effortless. And I’m about to take some time off of work for the  holidays, so I suspect the run will be fairly interrupted. So I hope to finish a couple of these before I totally forget about the books.

Subterranean put out a three book omnibus a little while ago collecting three of Jack Vance’s books and as most Vance releases these days the texts are from the big Jack Vance Integral Edition project. I used to have access to a library copy of the whole series for a while, I’m not sure why we lost it as I probably had a year off from even checking out books when it happened, but I had gotten pretty close to reading everything in the IE I might have trouble finding elsewhere. A few exceptions were Bad Ronald and the Dark Ocean; which fortunately were released as Print on Demand titles so I own one with the other on the way, but I’m having to check out older versions of The House on Lily Street and The View from Chickweed’s Window (which I suspect are probably not terribly different from the IEs as they were released later in the game). But showing up at the library was the Reader which contains The Languages of Pao (which I already a while back in the IE version) and these two, Emphyrio and The Domains of Koryphon, so I decided to check these out to get back into Vance after a gap of some time.

Emphyrio is most definitely one of Vance’s best works, certainly his best novel that isn’t part of a series. It’s tight, measured, well contained, and surprisingly epic in scope. It posits a tightly controlled and tyrannical society where a woodworker and his son live, often beat down by the nosy and meddlesome officials. Naturally, as often with Vance, both characters are very self sufficient and clever and after attending a puppet show, the son shows signs of wanting more than his current life, with his father in quiet support. What happens over time is a number of circumstances and events are set up, both coloring the planet’s society and giving the protagonist a method to finally get off world. But it’s less a science fiction story than a mystery at this point as he more or less unravels exactly what is behind the society by managing to decipher some earlier mythical documents. Many authors would take twice the length to tell such a story, but Vance, as always, is economical and visionary.

The Domains of Koryphon is later and the imagination perhaps even more vivid although the story as such is less mystery and more a planetary adventure or romance. Issued originally as the Gray Prince it demonstrates Vance’s unparalleled skill in world building, or at least in every case where he does it, I’m drawn in by the way humankind (and even aliens in this book) has reconstituted a planet to its own devices. The books sets up with the sort of explanatory prologue that rarely works in the fictions of others and then places a number of characters in the midst of a mystery when the father of two dies in a crash. Cultures clash and there’s definitely a depth to the planet’s society and history that really gives it vividity (not to mention great descriptions, one of Vance’s many strengths) but to some extent it was maybe a bit of a lark and a little thin in places. But there’s still so much to like and I still came away from it thinking I was elsewhere for a while. I love the way bizarre cultural ethics and bartering are set up, which tend to be even unusual for the protagonists, and the consequences of these. And of course the fact that most of Vance’s characters are competent and able. This is also somewhat notable for having one of Vance’s rare female protagonists although this thread seems to almost be dropped halfway through as the three main men take off on the expedition to solve the mystery.

I finally finished Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. I started it ages ago and even saw the movie of it in the middle somewhere which struck me as being a lot different (in particular the end point which in the book was fairly ambiguous but ended up in the movie like a “Soylent Green is people” moment). In fact I felt Dick really captured a very Californian manner of drug patois that the movie obscured by missing the riffing dialogue style and even while reading the latter half, I couldn’t picture Keanu, Woody et al in any of their characters places. Don’t get me wrong, I think Dick was cracking to some extent at this point (after all VALIS and the Gnostic stuff was up next) but at the same time he was on that fence where he captured something particularly unique and subtle about paranoia and a future United States where its tendrils have extended themselves well into law enforcement and just about everything else. Dick may be one of the hippest of the SF world in these days and ages, but at least what I take from his books seems to often be what Hollywood almost always misses, a lack of concretization, letting the ambiguity and complexity of a situation speak for itself.

I’ve been reading the huge Ramsey Campbell short story collection “Alone with the Horrors” also for what seems like ages, but when I picked it up again I was well into his evolution and surely enough the work gets better as it goes. Campbell’s crazy subtle which can’t possibly be for everyone, his is the horror that hides in the cracks, that’s implied, glanced at, but, however no less inexorable than it is when it’s graphic elsewhere. There’s so many stories they’d be too hard to cover in their entirety but some of the scenes I’ll never forget, like the end of “The Companion” in a carnival at night as the protagonist rides one of the scary rides only for the final ride to begin with one of the most chilling endings ever in a horror story. I couldn’t do it justice, but it was severely creepy. The kids in “The Apple” whose innocent pre-adolescent torturing of a neighbor has its consequences, the horror of which is no less hidden in that it hides behind a costume during a Halloween party. The slow decay of a nephew who’s uncle mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a mysterious ship in a bottle and the redolent atmospheric doom that closes in around him.  A teacher frustrated with his students begins to hallucinate impending catastrophes. Several stories where buildings or topographies become hypnotic and deadly labyrinths.  If the legacy of a man’s writing is partially how long his work stays with you then Campbell has to be commended with a fine legacy as I remember bits and pieces of many of the stories, some unforgettable. So many of them start with almost dull, “normal” situations where one thing about them starts to slow and turn black, while the psychological effects are never shied from. Sometimes what is most frightening is what is implied rather than splattered.

And of course several more Leiber shorts: Be Of Good Cheer, a reply from a government official to a woman who is concerned about the direction the world is going with robots taking over. “The Square Root of Brain” about a Hollywood Party filled with conspiracy theorists interspersed with dictionary definitions. And, “Princess,” a poetic short short where a man in the far future and his daughter traverse a gigantic bridge from the Earth to the Moon. It ends fairly bizarrely but is beautifully written.


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