9:39 a.m. May 30, 2013

Jack Vance Made Worlds, Over And Over Again

It’s always a mistake to try to convey the greatness of science fiction to those who’d rather read about divorce on Cape Cod. And trying to get fans of these belated 19th century adultery novels (or those who think it’s all rendered new and exciting by changing the gender of one of the principals) to understand the glory of Jack Vance -- who died this week -- is particularly hard.

Vance doesn’t offer any of the handholds needed by the delicate products of English Departments. He was not a “literary” writer. He had no interest in literary jokes and crossword puzzles. He considered pathos to be a cheap trick used only by weak authors.

So, for consumers who think Molly Bloom’s frigging soliloquy is tops, there’s nothing to find in Vance’s work but what seems like journeyman narrative prose, cruel jokes, and a lot of treacherous killing. These ingredients can be combined so as to entice the unworthy, as demonstrated by a minor Vance knockoff called "Game of Thrones"; but when combined in Vance’s real formula, they’ll never be popular. They weren’t really meant to be. Vance had bigger spells to perform.

He created worlds. Literally hundreds of worlds, in more than sixty novels. That was the writer’s job as far as Vance was concerned. Those of you who stick to writers who are content to reanimate some dismal corner of this one world really have no idea how hard it is to make a new one in a book. The nomenclature alone is enough to defeat most of those who attempt it. The few who succeed in creating a field of names, like Tolkien, generally exhaust their lives in the process.

Vance made worlds over and over again, for a few hundred dollars a world. Nobody thought much of it, and it was only the Europeans, particularly the Italians, whose translations of his work kept him and his wife alive in the Oakland house Vance designed and built to contain their endless quarrels. Every day he’d sit, hammering out planets much more lethal and interesting than the one he inhabited.

Like most world-makers, he was at his best in the multi-volume series. It takes a while to tour a whole world. While America was reading utter crap, self-indulgent nonsense about rich people’s marital problems, Vance was carving terrible, magnificent worlds like Durdane. The "Durdane" series is probably the best way to explain to you unbelievers Vance’s achievement, because even among Vance fans, few people know it. They know his "Dying Earth" series—which deserves all the praise it gets, and more—but they often don’t know the less-visited Vance worlds like gam.

The first book of the Durdane series, “The Anome,” was published in 1971 at the height of the hippie era, and written in Oakland, a few miles southeast of that movement’s epicenter. But it breathes the colder air of Vance’s universe. The hero of this first book is a boy raised on a planet settled by hundreds of cranky sects, each of which finds room to indulge its worst obsessions. This is a common theme in Vance, as in the "Big Planet" books: Give ’em enough rope, and enough room, and human societies will run off into the wide open spaces and go bad in a hurry.

The hero of “The Anome,” Gastel Etzwane, has the bad luck to be born in a canton which practices a degraded form of Tibetan Buddhism ( a popular fad of the Bay Area at the time). Boys are raised to be monks, segregated from women and girls, eventually graduating to an orgiastic religious service in which they thrash around on the smoke of hallucinogenic leaves, imagining communion with an extraterrestrial goddess.

Meanwhile, women are pimped out along “Rhododendron Way,” condemned to service every passer-by. This is the only way that the sect can reproduce without endangering the loathsome “purity” of the male monks.

Gastel’s older brother flirts with a girl and is found, head down, in a barrel of water, killed for impurity. His mother, whom he loves, is eventually murdered by the Rogushkoi, a new race of quasi-humans which turns out to have been invented as a biological weapon in a war between two space-faring species, the Asutra and the Ka. Meanwhile, the agent of the human species, content to watch this abandoned human outpost deal with its own existential threats, watches calmly, even as Gastel’s family is wiped out and he is taken off-world as experimental material by the Ka.

And the Ka…they’re one of hundreds of cultures invented by Vance, totally unknown and unremembered even by most SF fans, but they are wonderfully detailed and likely. That’s the only way I can describe them: likely; probable. The Ka are a mournful, determined, musical, stoic species, evolved from swamp-dwelling omnivores. They remind me of Koreans, in their fierce hopelessness, their losing struggle to catch up with bigger empires. They have no fondness for their human experimental subjects, from whom they hope to create bigger and better biological pesticides on the lines of the Rogushkoi—and yet the Ka are also the creators of "The Great Song", an epic that tells of their journey across the swamps in tens of thousands of verses. Humans can be taught to sing "The Great Song", with a little help from pipes that can enable human mouths to make Ka phonemes, and the Ka give special favors to human camp inmates who can learn a certain number of verses.

So Gastel, a born musician, learns The Great Song in this bleak Dachau, from an old woman who says “I have played the Great Song so many times I almost feel like a Ka.” The old woman calmly informs him to spend less time with a certain fellow inmate, Polovitz, because “He likes to kill,” and then explains the canto of the Great Song they are about to practice—so convincingly that I swear to God, I want to hear the recording myself:

“She reached for her own pipes. ‘Ah, my poor, tortured gums! This is the nineteenth canto. The Sah and Aianu use Raho fiber to wind rope and dig coral nut with blackwood sticks. You will hear both the schemes for blackwood and for rough wood employed in a rude, scratching action, as is general usage. But you must carefully play the little-finger flutter, else the scheme is “visiting the place where the quagmire may be distantly seen” from Canto 9635.’

Etzwane played the pipes, watching Polovitz from the corner of his eye. Polovitz paused to listen, then played Etzwane a flinty glance and continued on his way.”

So the Ka, the losers in a bigger war, breed some humans, the Rogushkoi, like we breed ladybugs to kill aphids, while encouraging other human slaves to learn their epic song before grinding them into experimental DNA. Humans, in Vance’s novels, can very quickly become anything they are made to become, culturally or phenotypically. In The Dragon Masters, one of his better-known early books, two species (ours and a saurian rival), use the other species as breeding material in a livestock arms race. The humans breed saurian base models into “dragons,” fighting beasts of a dozen different designs; and the saurians do the same, unleashing troll-like hominid smashers, big-nosed sniffer primates, and human steeds. As a purpose-bred human says in another Vance novel, expressing his own contempt for his enslaved species, “Men are as plastic as wax.”

Those humans not enslaved by the Ka are enslaved by the Asutra, a more powerful parasitic species that sprang from the same swamp as the Ka. The Asutra prefer a nest near the central nervous system of their hosts, which is why the slaver who captures Gastel is known as “Hozman Sore-Throat”; he carries an Asutra nestled on his collarbone and modestly wears a scarf to cover it. In the course of the series, the Asutra also infest Gastel’s closest friend, a man he innocently betrayed while escaping from the horrors of his Buddhist canton. Risen to power, he finds this man in a nightmare prison camp, condemned for helping Gastel escape. So far so good—but like many Vance characters rescued from long imprisonment, he doesn’t, won’t, can’t recover, and consumed with rage, makes an easy prey for the Asutra. He dies, as these characters generally do.

What such a summary can’t convey is the wonderful cheer and humor of Vance’s novels. He said that his model was P. G. Wodehouse, and his dialogue is full of the courteous monstrosity of a Wodehouse exchange. He loves these cruel worlds, their scope and range, the endless fecundity of human cultural degeneration.

There’s only one truly sad Vance novel, and that’s “Emphyrio,” because in Emphyrio Vance tried (I’m just guessing here, I never met the man) to write about what it was like for middle-class kids like his son, the one person he seems to have loved, to grow up in a moralized, stagnant place like Northern California.

“Emphyrio” begins with the placid, stagnant existence of an urban craftsman and his son. (Affection between father and son is almost the only pathos in these novels.) They live in a world ordered by guild, where everyone is guaranteed a bare minimum standard of living and denied the opportunity to take any bigger, wilder chance. The incorrigible are “exiled” into the neighboring canton—except that the neighboring canton has walled itself off, so that “exile” means being pushed by a huge piston into a brick wall—a wonderful imagining of the California talent for lethal euphemism.

“Emphyrio” is very slow, is about slowness, and the imposed lassitude of a safe place. Of all the Hells Vance imagined, he seems to have felt this one most deeply, which is why the ending of “Emphyrio,” when the big scam and its genetic element is finally revealed, the legend of “Emphyrio” is told again, heartbreakingly. I’m telling you, if you want to be truly choked up, read these writers like Vance who eschew pathos until it’s unbearable.

This stagnant hell seems to have struck Vance as the worst of all. His many hells show a remarkable imagination, but the worst of them always involve stasis. Take Jaro’s brother in “Night Lamp”, who is confined to a dark, filthy cell from infancy, or the Spell of Forlorn Encystment from the “Dying Earth” series. In this Vance world, there is magic, but it’s not pretty. It’s often beautiful, as in Sadlark and the discovery of the Skybreak Spatterlight scale, but it’s not pretty. “Forlorn Encystment” means that you are instantly transported to a body-sized capsule forty miles under the surface of the earth. Simultaneously, you are gifted, if that’s the word, with the “Spell of Untiring Vitality,” so that you do not need to breathe or eat, and will never age. So you are stuck inside a rock egg just big enough to contain you, for all eternity. And there are many magicians who can work this spell on those who annoy them, or spill something on them, or just hum the wrong song. In one scene, Cugel, the amoral protagonist of the series, accidentally pronounces a spell reversing “Forlorn Encystment” and instantly finds himself surrounded by the hordes of dazed, insane victims he’s expelled from the earth around him.

And Vance went on making his worlds through decades of neglect, never softening them to suit the public taste. Even as he lived through the hippie era, his worlds didn’t soften. They liquefied and heated up a little, as in the opening scene of “The Dragonmasters,” but there was always a Somali feel to them, the awareness of a feral, merciless world always ready to come back. In Vance’s world, Oakland circa 1971 is a horrific anomaly in the long, befanged, inventive, fecund history of the species.

Along the way, Vance casually produced the finest nerd’s-revenge tale ever written: “The Book of Dreams,” from the "Demon Princes" series. The book in the title is the adolescent notebook of a provincial dweeb who goes on to become one of five “Demon Princes” who occasionally collaborate on slave raids, one of which destroys the family of the protagonist, who crushes them one by one. This lost notebook is the one thing our Demon Prince loves, and it serves as the bait which finally kills him. But as always in Vance, the narrative utility of the device can’t convey the superfluous, surplus beauty and pathos of the thing itself, the half-dozen voices the teen nerd invents for his aspects, their stern, ridiculous, scary and touching colloquies.

"The Demon Princes" books, like all of Vance’s work, are about moving through tribe after tribe, each treacherous and wonderful in its own particular way. Like the Darsh—you will never forget the Darsh, once you get to know them. The Great Darsh Face…you who have the good taste to’ve read your Vance, you know what I mean, “that great Darsh face” blown into the surface of the moon…and the rest of you, well, you can go to Hell or Cape Cod.