Sep 15, 2014

Lost Worlds

In my previous blog post I praised the skill that Jack Vance displayed in his creation of the protagonist (Kirth Gersen) in the Demon Princes saga. I've also previously admitted to enjoying Vance's depiction of the other-worldly character Ifness in the Durdane Trilogy. Here, I want to explore the differences between the Durdane Trilogy and Vance's other science fiction.

The various novels by Vance that I've read were published over a 40 year span:
The Languages of Pao (1958) [at the time, Vance was 42 years old; this was the year before I was born]
Star King (1964)
The Killing Machine (1964)
The Palace of Love (1967)
Emphyrio (1969)
The Pnume (1970) See this blog post.
The Anome (1971)
The Brave Free Men (1972)
The Asutra (1973)
Trullion (1973)
Marune (1975)
Wyst (1978) [the year I discovered Vance; he was 62 years old]
The Face (1979)
The Book of Dreams (1981)
Araminta Station (1989)
Ecce and Old Earth (1991)
Throy (1992) 
Night Lamp (1996)
Ports of Call (1998) [Vance was 82 years old]

Lost Worlds
There are several "lost worlds" that Vance used as settings in science fiction stories. The entire Durdane Trilogy concerns a planet that was colonized by humans, then cut off from contact with Earth, then ended up being secretly observed by agents of Earth's Historical Institute some 9,000 years after having first been settled. Ifness is an agent of the Historical Institute, studying the mysterious events that occur on Durdane. On the far fringe of known space, the planet Durdane functions like a "canary in a coal mine", attracting a bizarre alien invasion that can be observed -and countered- by Earth's secret agents.

The protagonist of the Durdane Trilogy is Gastel Etzwane. Vance's plots for the science fiction novels listed above were generally designed around coming of age stories told through the experiences of a young male character such as Gastel (see Gersen, Glinnes and Glawen).

Aliens crop up in other Vance stories, but usually they are not the stuff of Hollywood invasion flicks. For example, on the planet Marune, humans peacefully coexist with the natives (the Fwai-chi). In contrast, the Asutra are parasitical creatures who take control of their human hosts. The planet Durdane is subjected to an invasion by two kinds of alien creatures, one (the Roguskhoi) that impregnates human females causing them to give birth to a clutch of additional aliens and another (the Asutra) that can take up residence inside a human body and take control of the person's brain.

In his Demon Princes series, Vance introduced two other "lost worlds" on the fringe of known space: "Teehalt's Planet" and Thamber. The general idea is that when humans went out into the galaxy and settled distant worlds it was fairly easy for some of the colonized worlds to either be forgotten or kept secret after their initial discovery. In Vance's fictional universe, it is common for terrestrial planets to have intelligent life forms (such as the Fwai-chi) or be discovered holding the ancient ruins of a dead civilization. Vance really liked to play around with the "lost world" literary plot device. Stories about lost civilizations pre-dated the SciFi genre but lost planets provided Vance with settings for several interesting SciFi adventures.

Parasitical Aliens
The science fiction genre has long been parasitized by horror themes. I'm not a fan of horror and most SciFi parasites are not biologically plausible. The idea that two organisms evolved on different planets can meet and quickly establish a host-parasite relationship is silly. In The Asutra, Vance tried to depict the ineptly rampaging Roguskhoi as an experimental bio-weapon, but the whole Durdane Trilogy comes off as an unlikable mixture of vampire fantasy horror jumbled together with a rehash of another of my least favorite types of SciFi stories: an alien invasion where inexplicable alien incompetence assures that blundering humans will survive. The invading Roguskhoi are transported to Durdane by spaceships then they proceed to terrorize the human inhabitants with their swords.

Vance's imagined aliens are often biologically implausible, but in small doses they can add an amusing element to a planet. A good example are the telepathic Fwai-chi who can secrete drugs that erase or return human memories. I can easily imagine them as an ancient species with hidden nanotechnology. To defend themselves against the avaricious Kaiark Rianlle, the Fwai-chi assist Efraim, providing him with an elixir that returns his lost memories.

Gastel Etzwane
How does Gastel compare to other Vancian protagonists such as Gersen, Glinnes and Glawen? Vance had fun depicting Gastel as a musical prodigy. I suppose we can imagine that on the planet Durdane the entire social system allows for efficient selection of gene combinations that make possible a caste of talented musicians who have an independent nature. Most other residents of Durdane seem to accept their miserable lives while they suffer under the absurd rules of their local district and cower before the Anome, their supreme ruler who can, at any time, press a button and kill anyone who breaks a law. Without a revolutionary like Gastel on the planet, might the alien invasion have been successful?

Vance's protagonists are often propelled to success by luck rather than by talent. Gastel's brother is depicted as unwilling to conform to the absurd social conditions of his world, but he is punished for his disobedience and ends up dead at a young age. Why is Gastel lucky enough to survive?

Swordpunk Fantasy
Vance's writing ranges across multiple genres from mystery to horror to science fiction to fantasy. As mentioned above, the Roguskhoi use swords, which for me is a warning sign that a science fiction author has probably drifted into the domain of fantasy. Vance asks us to believe that if we deliver human colonists to the surfaces of distant planets then the settlers of those worlds are likely to regress and their descendants will undergo social degeneration and end up living in medieval civilizations. In my view, this is just an excuse that allows Vance to slip sword and planet fantasy into a SciFi story.

Vance would probably be upset by my tendency to patrol the boundaries between horror, fantasy and science fiction. Does it matter if there are fantasy elements in the Durdane saga as long as readers are entertained?

Gersen kills Bel Ruk
Probably not, but for me there is a difference between Kirth Gersen having a knife fight at the end of Hadaul game with the evil henchman Bel Ruk on the planet Dar Sai in The Face and space age warriors being equipped with swords during an alien invasion of a planet.

The Two Vances
The blues.
In my opinion, the Durdane Trilogy along with Night Lamp and Ports of Call fall flat in comparison to other Vance works like the Demon Princes saga, the Alastor Cluster novels and the Cadwal Chronicles. For me, there is a tipping point that can be reached whenever Vance allowed a story to become too darkly filled with unpleasant people and places that I would never want to visit.

Gastel Etzwane remains a mystery to me. He is an emotional cripple, the product of an absurd people (the Chilites of Canton Bashon) who have rigidly defined roles for men and women. All the women are prostitutes, including Gastel's mother and sister.

The most interesting character in the Durdane Trilogy, Ifness, dispassionately expresses his intellectual delight in the uniqueness of the Chilites. One moment Gastel is disgusted by the detached attitude of Ifness towards the misery of the people of Durdane such as the Chilites, and then the next moment Gastel returns to his music, apparently himself willing to let the people of his world continue to suffer in dark age misery. He has to keep reminding himself that his mother is still a slave and he should do something about it.

light and play
In fact, this is almost how the story ends after Gastel has learned that Earth is not just a legend and there are many human worlds that enjoy advanced technology and wonders like space travel. What is left for him but his music? He can live out his life playing the blues and lamenting the sad fate of Durdane.

At the end of most Vance novels I want to know what happens next....I'd like to spend more time in the imaginary world that Vance created. In the case of Durdane and Gastel I've never felt a desire for more. Some ports of call are better off lost, or reserved for those who perversely enjoy the dark and gritty side. I prefer adventure stories that minimize the blood splatter and err on the side of light and playfulness.
Related Reading: grimdark

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