Everyone knows the scifi grandmasters- Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein- but there’s another set, not so heralded- Moorcock, Wolfe, and Vance. Who? Oh, c’mon guys, you know: Michael Moorcock wrote The Dancers at the End of Time series (and a couple of Blue Oyster Cult songs); Gene Wolfe wrote the extraordinary Book of the New Sun novels, and Jack Vance wrote…Jack Vance.
It’s kinda hard to describe the guy. “All-over-the-place” Cervantes would just about sum him up. The Dragon Masters is stunning and probably the best thing he ever did, a hard scifi story that reads like fantasy and, okay, so Vance is like Heinlein, but then there’s “Cil,” a short story that’s magic and fantasy so he’s Poul Anderson and, well, no. He’s Jack Vance. Pretty much his own category and I’ve long admired him. It’s almost automatic reflex for me to pick up anything I spot of his. That’s how I got Araminta Station.
There it was, cheesy cover and all, sitting on the shelf at Blue Plate Books and I had never heard of it but it was Jack Vance so, mine. And about ¼ of the way I am shaking my head ruefully and laughing out loud because…well, here’s an example:
“Would you like to travel and visit other worlds?”
“I have not thought too much about it. I wonder why everyone asks me that question.”
“I’m sorry if I’m boring you,” said Glawen (page 262)
Seriously, who writes like that, I mean, since the early 1800s? Only genteel Victorian drawing room readers appreciate such conversations. Which is exactly the point here because Vance has created one of the most stolid post-Victorian Victorian societies in his Gaean Reach novels, of which Araminta Station is the first of a trilogy set in that far future, far flung locale.
The little snippet of conversation presented above is between our hero, Glawen, a resident of Araminta Station, and a Yip prostitute. Glawen has been sent “undercover” into Yipton by his uncle, a chief of Bureau B, to sniff out possible revolutionary inclinations by the Yips, a sort of weird peasant working class imported to the planet Cadwal to do the heavy lifting and now intent on making Deucas their own and what in the blue blazes am I talking about? I don’t know! You pretty much have to pick out the plot and backstory and culture and history from context, and it ain’t easy, primarily because Jack Vance insists on using a picaresque, stultified very old fashioned language in this novel. It’s not the first place and time he’s done so: “Cil” referenced above is a classic example, but if you’re not prepared for it, it’s off-putting. Think of Jack Vance as beer: an acquired taste but, once you like it, you really like it.
And I really like it. There are adventures galore in this novel as the intrepid Glawen gets himself into one pickle after another in his effort to acquire Agency status so he can stay on Cadwal or get booted off as excess baggage. There’s murder mysteries and cults and witches and kidnappings and heroes riding to the rescue and it’s like a Robert E Howard and Sax Rohmer story combined into a Lord Bulwer/Jules Verne hybrid. And that’s just the first book. I can imagine what the next two are like.
So if you get a chance, pick it up. But go easy. Beer ain’t for everybody.