Sep 18, 2014

The Languages of Vance

cover art by Maelo Cintron
I recently mentioned in passing The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance. The story was originally published in Satellite Science Fiction magazine in 1957. It was published in book format the following year. My copy of this novel is the TOR edition shown to the right, which I first read in 1990, 33 years after it first came out.

cover art by Frank Paul
The science fiction genre includes a broad range of story formats, many of which I find hard to enjoy. Some folks hold the inconvenient notion that science fiction exists as a genre within which contemporary social, political and philosophical issues can be explored in new ways. I've never enjoyed (you can read "enjoy" as "been entertained by") a science fiction story that translates a contemporary issue into an imaginary domain of "spaceships and planets". I suppose writers seldom expect to entertain readers when they are rehashing some heavy contemporary issue as fiction.

cover art by Ric Binkley
Features found in later Vance novels are here in embryonic form: the boy with no parents who must confront the unfriendly world he finds himself in, a planet that has long languished in isolation from a larger interstellar empire, start-of-chapter blurbs from imaginary books, manufactured and engineered humanoids, the sheep-like populace of a planet being exploited by masters from another world.

Beran Panasper is just a boy when his parents die and he is taken to a far world. Eventually Beran is returned to his "rightful" place as ruler of Poa. But along the way we are subjected to annoying plot elements seemingly plucked from a fantasy novel such as "Lords", "wizards" and "air-horses". The planet Pao must bribe the warlords of a nearby planet with ransom money in periodic payments of a million marks each.

cover art by Scott Grimando
To put an end to the submissive nature of the Paonese and move them out of their comfortable pastoral existence, a plan is initiated by which new languages and cultural conditions will be introduced on the various continents of Pao, the goal being creation of Paonese warriors and industrialists who will provide the means for the planet to defend itself.

All this is accomplished in 20 years. Along the way we are introduced to another common Vancian theme: by the time Beran returns home to Pao, he is set apart from the Paonese by his foreign education: "I can never be truly and wholly a part of [Pao] or any other world."

In the end, Beran need not worry about not fitting in: Pao is transformed into a new planet. The "change your language, change your behavior" theme that drives The Languages of Pao is never more than a superficial intellectual exercise. Pao's social engineering experiment is over-shadowed by the grim reality of colonialism. The technologically backwards rulers of Pao must learn the hard way (we watch them learn the lesson three times; first Beran's father, then his uncle then Beran himself) that they cannot be free and autonomous unless they get off the farm and develop a modern technological society that can defend itself from invaders. Beran finally takes this lesson to heart only after 213 pages into the novel.

cover art by Dwight Morrow
This is a lesson that countless rural nations of Earth have learned. By sending their young people off to study in more technologically advanced countries and by pushing their own industrial development, nations can catch up technologically and put an end to their exploitation by colonial powers.

Near the end of the story, Vance had time for a terse exploration of one subplot. If an industrializing nation planet like Pao quickly develops a modern military force, how can it avoid a military coup d'état? For Pao, the solution seems to be keeping the generals entertained with parades and marshal posturing so that they don't care to meddle in politics.

cover art by Henry Van Dongen
What interests me about The Languages of Pao is how Vance depicted the unsophisticated bumpkins of Pao as having to view  technologically superior visitors from other worlds as "wizards". Beran goes away from Pao for schooling and learns the technological tricks that explain the "wizardry". With that knowledge, he is willing to destroy the comfortable rural lifestyle of his people in order to give them a chance at freedom from foreign rule.

One of the more amusing consequences of Vance's contrived translation of the plot from 20th century Earth to Pao is admission that the invaders of Pao have no good reason to travel across interstellar distances to colonize the planet. The Brumbo warlords just want gold while the Breakness wizards just want Pao's women. In the late 1950s, Vance found it impossible, or at least inconvenient, to break free from the confines of swords and planet fantasy.

New English Library edition
Thus, as science fiction, The Languages of Pao is very thin gruel. While reading the story, I start getting intrigued only when Vance hints at the nanotechnology of the "wizards", but we never really understand why a people with sophisticated genetic science and engineering wizardry (including the ability to implant "anti-gravity mesh" into your feet so that you can fly) need to travel across interstellar distances in order to obtain women from another planet. We are not meant to understand....this is just another imaginative and bizarre Vancian human cultural variation that had to be included in The Languages of Pao to move the plot along, providing an early example of Vance's many biocultural jokes that he loved to include in his stories. Women make few appearances in this dreary story of murder and warlords, but occasionally a serving maiden appears when wine must be poured.

Thought Experiment
cover art by Joe Pierson
Vance imagined that the Paonese had languished in their pastoral poverty for 5,000 before Beran came along. What if the Americas had remained isolated from Europe until the Old World had developed a level of technology similar to what the world now has? What kind of cultural clash do you imagine might occur between Incas and, say, the people of modern England? Is there any way that two cultures at vastly different levels of technological development can interact without disastrous consequences? Has Vance provided such an example? Would waving your magic wizard wand and changing the language of a people suddenly allow them to radically (and peacefully?) transform their entire culture? I doubt if anyone would be convinced of this by Vance's thought experiment.

Spatterlight Press edition
Vance ended The Languages of Pao with the question: what kind of world will Pao become in 20 more years when Beran has completed his task of forcing everyone on the planet to speak a single new language?

For me, that philosophical question can't compete with the larger question: can a stagnant and impoverished culture exist in close proximity to a more technologically advanced culture? When Vance later returned to this question in his Durdane Trilogy and with the case of Thamber, the answer seemed to be "no". However, in his Alastor Cluster novels and the Demon Princes saga, Vance seemed to continually be showing us worlds where people in a far future would successfully turn their backs on high tech gizmos and be satisfied with a simple low-tech existence.

I can't help myself from suspecting that Vance himself preferred a "backwards" world where swords and damsels in distress would never go out of style.

Do the brains of children naturally imprint on their environments, trapping us all in our pasts? Beran was nine years old when he was taken off to live in a foreign culture, so he had enough neurodevelopmental time to become a "pastiche" personality, able to use what he learned on a second planet to push his home world in new directions. Vance was a product of the age in which he grew up and he never wanted to be thrust too far into the future. His stories about travels between the stars always read like a trans-Atlantic cruise.

In my case, I'm trapped by the sort of science fiction that I fell in love with during my "golden age" of discovering the SciFi genre. In the Exode Trilogy, the people of Earth face a problem not too different from that faced by Beran Panasper and the people of Pao. We Earthlings discover that we are hopelessly flawed and we exist in a galaxy where technologically advanced aliens created us. Further, there is a planet in the galactic core that holds a new human-derived variant species that seems to have been designed to replace the primitives of Earth.

I'm not a fan of sword-splattering bloody horror, but the Exode Trilogy plays with a horror element: that we Earthlings are helpless and at the mercy of our alien creators. Can we take control of our own fate and win a chance to explore and spread ourselves among the far stars?

In the Exode Trilogy I imagine that our designated replacements, the Prelands, don't have language as we know it. Preland brains are inter-connected by means of a kind of technology-assisted telepathy. The Prelands are hermaphroditic and have moved past their dependence on normal biological reproduction. They are a step close than we to transcending their physical nature and merging into the Sedronic Domain as artificial life forms.

Will we Earthlings allow ourselves to be replace by the Prelands or can we win for ourselves a chance to reach the stars? If given that chance, will we throw it away and destroy ourselves while ravaging the ecosystem of Earth with our bumbling use of advanced technologies?

Language of Telepathy
I've written myself into the Exode Trilogy, within which I must confront a delicate linguistic matter. If telepathic aliens were to store important data in some format unique to the Sedronic Domain, how could a lowly human like me ever hope to access those data stores and make sense of them? My efforts are not totally hopeless since Angela was able to gain access to some of the information that is available in the Sedronic Domain.

cover art by Marcel Laverdet
However, what if Angela was simply fed the particular data that someone (like R. Gohrlay) wanted her to have? If I do manage to make progress for myself in accessing the Sedronic Domain, how will I ever trust what I learn from that source? Given these doubts, is it really even worth trying?

language of thought
Next: the language of thought

Related Reading: more Vance
celebrating 100 years of Vance
More posters and book covers.

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