Feb 16, 2015

Sapient Books

the Demon Princes novels
In an article called "Centireading force: why reading a book 100 times is a great idea" by Stephen Marche, he wrote:

"books pick us, rather than the other way around" -Stephen Marche

Marche uses the term "centireading" to refer to having read a book more than 100 times (in another Reality it could be hectareading).

Marche notes: "There is a definite affinity between centireading and madness".

Alastor Cluster series
The first novel written by Jack Vance that I read was Trullion: Alastor 2262. I've never tried to count how many times I've read that book, but it might well be about 100.

In addition to the Alastor Cluster series, I've also often re-read the books in Vance's Demon Princes series and the Cadwal Chronicles series.

Apparently P. G. Wodehouse was one of Vance's favorite authors. Stephen march describes The Inimitable Jeeves as one of the two books that he has read 100 times.

What kinds of books might provoke someone to read them 100 times? Books that are playful and full of humor probably stand a much better chance of lasting through 100 readings than grim books that take themselves too seriously.

Vance's books are full of jokes, pranks and amusing prose even when the protagonists are struggling through difficult times.

the Cadwal Chronicles
Probably the most well-known example is in The Face when our hero, Gersen, first does battle with a gang of thugs across hundreds of pages and hundreds of light years of space. Finally, Gersen poisons the Demon Prince known as  Lens Larque. Knowing he is about to die, with is last breath,  Larque asks Gersen to complete his last great prank. Gersen says "no", allows Larque to die an agonizing death and then Gersen decides to go ahead and complete Larque's last great trick: turning the moon of planet Methel into a giant leering sculpture of Larque's face.

Books That Grab You
I'm intrigued by the idea that a book could literally select its reader. Stephen Marche described books that one reads 100 times as being like family. Here are four  examples of times when I can easily imagine that a book selected me.....

The Gods Themselves
Perhaps the first science fiction book that I ever read was The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. I was in grade school when I discovered this book on the shelf at my local library. As a child of the television era, I don't think it had ever really occurred to me that such a thing as a hard-bound science fiction novel might exist and be available in libraries. Somehow, I was called to the small shelf where the selection of Sci Fi books waited.

cover art by Jasper Schreurs
I'd been introduced to Jack Vance in English class during my first semester in college. During the break between semesters I was looking through a pile of books at a discount store. All those books had their covers ripped off. Somehow, from deep down in the bin, a woeful copy of Trullion: Alastor 2262 called out and attracted my attention before it was carted off to the dump.

Star King
When I was in graduate school I was looking through the Sci Fi section of a book store. I was familiar with the Alastor Cluster series, but unaware of the existence of the Demon Princes series.  This was about the time when the last novel in the series was published. I was lucky enough to be able to read the early books in the series without having to wait long for the last one.

Araminta Station
art by Rudolf Eizenhöfer
I was busy working when the first book in the Cadwal Chronicles came out and I did not even notice that Vance had begun a new series. However, my wife knew well my practice of re-reading (endlessly) the books in the Alastor Cluster and Demon Prices series, so she bought me a hard-cover copy of Araminta Station.

Assignment Nor'Dyren
1 More
For completeness, I need to mention one more book that I endlessly re-read: Assignment Nor'Dyren. This is a novel that along with Solaris really brought home for me the idea of a planet as a living being.

Vance seemed to enjoy crafting delicious moments of "tragic drama" in which an unsuspecting character is about to have their entire world come crashing down around him.

In Trullion, Vance introduces the mysterious Ryl Shermatz, who describes himself as a wandering journalist. In fact, Shermatz is the absolute ruler of Alastor Cluster (the Connatic), a man who enjoys secretly moving among his subjects without being recognized. In the scene where Shermatz is first introduced to Vance's readers, he is sharing a quiet evening of conversation with Akadie the mentor. Akadie is in an exulted mood, glad that he is now free of the $30,000,000 ransom money that he was assigned to collect, having just handed it off to the blackmailer's messenger that afternoon.

other cover art
However, while they talk, Shermatz is patiently waiting for Akadie and the people of Trullion to learn that the space pirate Bandolio had been captured. Both Glinnes (Akadie's friend and the protagonist of the story) and Shermatz must coldly allow suspicion to fall on Akadie (who is thrown in jail) until the true identity of Bandolio's local accomplice on planet Trullion can be determined.

Near the start of the Alastor Cluster series,  readers are told that, "When in doubt, do nothing" is one of the Connatic's favorite sayings. Shermatz lets Akadie sit in jail until Glinnes tips his hand (he has found the $30,000,000 that Akadie is accused of stealing; in locker #42 at the local spaceport) and shares with Shermatz evidence of Akadie's innocence. At that point, Shermatz assumes another of his cover identities: Over-Inspector in the Whelm, the Connatic's military service. In the role of Over-Inspector, Shermatz can quickly arrange for Akadie's release from jail. It is only in the last book in the series (Wyst: Alastor 1716) that Vance gives readers enough clues to convince us that Shermatz is actually the Connatic. Upon re-reading Trullion we can fully enjoy Vance's literary construct and understand fine points such as why Shermatz allows Glinnes to keep the $30,000,000 in ransom money.

For Araminta Station, Vance crafted two linked scenes that take place during formal dinners, one at Clattuc House and one at Wook House. The first of these dinners comes 30 pages into the novel at the time in his life when Glawen comes of age. Glawen Clattuc's relatives are shown anxiously waiting to observe his reaction when his Status Index (SI) is announced by House Master Fratano at dinner on Glawen's 16th birthday. A rumor has spread suggesting that Glawen's SI will be so bad that he will have no chance of winning one of the numerically-limited positions for adult family members within Clattuc House. "All now awaited the moment when Fratano's announcement would blast Glawen's life..." However, as the protagonist, and with the help of several turns of good luck, Glawen ultimately survives this "scare" and another dastardly attempt to "roll him out of the House"; eventually he joins the ranks of Clattuc House with full Agency Status.

The second dinner comes 500 pages and 5 years later. Glawen has just returned to Araminta Station after completing a dangerous police investigation mission off of Cadwal on the distant planet Tassadero. Having been betrayed by Kirdy Wook and left for dead on Tassadero, Glawen has the pleasure of sitting down to dinner across the table from Kirdy. The moment is described as "high drama" by Bodwyn Wook, Glawen's supervisor in the Cadwal police force. Kirdy has previously assured Bodwyn that Glawen is dead, forestalling a rescue mission that would have otherwise been sent to Tassadero. When Kirdy noticed Glawen across the Wook formal dinning table, his smile disappears, his shoulders sag and he looks down. Bodwyn Wook comments to Glawen that Kirdy's reaction reveals, "pure and unabashed guilt".

In both the Alastor Cluster series and the Cadwal Chronicles, Vance's protagonists must live among family and friends who harbor dark secrets and who hatch horrific plots. The reader does not know the true nature and extent of those plots until the end of the story, but Vance is adept at showing us the character flaws of the evil doers and throwing them into conflict with the protagonist right from the earliest chapters. Less well written books would not support re-reading after the mysteries have been revealed, but knowing the identities of those who will ultimately come into mortal conflict with the protagonists allows the "centireader" to more fully experience and enjoy the journey of discovery, danger and adventure that Vance imagined for his protagonists.

Vance's protagonists make use of skill and good luck to survive their many adventures during which they struggle through dangerous circumstances. In The Face, Vance provided readers with a dramatic scene on the world Dar Sai that is both amusing and deadly.

After their romp among the Chailles
Jerdian takes a call from Gersen
After a magical night under the moon Mirassou, in the shadows of the Chailles, Jerdian Chanseth has fallen in love with Gersen. However, Gersen has come to Dar Sai in order to find and kill demon prince Lens Larque. He can't allow himself to be distracted by the "charming, stimulating and endearing" Jerdian.....well, not too much, anyway. In order to complete his mission, Gersen must participate in a game of Hadaul, with Jerdian among the spectators. Gersen has previously presented himself as a banker, and when he steps onto the robles at the start of the game, Jerdian watches "in total bewilderment".

Gersen battles Bel Ruk (source)
Vance describes Hadaul as "between a game and a gang fight". According to Games of the Galaxy by Everette Wright, tricks, crafty betrayal and duplicity are natural elements of Hadal. However, Gersen is skilled in hand-to-hand fighting and he manages to win the game against a dozen experienced players of Dar Sai. He is then challenged to a knife fight by Lens Larque's henchman, Bel Ruk. Jerdian must watch in "fascinated horror, with her heart in her throat."....Gersen is injured but he ultimately prevails, killing his adversary, Bel Ruk.
Jerdian on the planet Dar Sai, as
first seen by Gersen in Serjeuz:
"Delightful and superb,"
thought Gersen. (source)

Vance crafted scenes such as the one described above (with Gersen watching for Jerdian's reaction when she sees him on the robles) knowing full well that readers would not really be wondering if Gersen might be killed. Of course Gersen must survive and go on to vanquish demon prince #5 in the next book of the series. So there is nothing lost by re-readers of The Face who already know the outcomes of Gersen's battles. Knowing the outcomes allows the "centireader" to pay attention to the tricks and pranks of the roblers without being distracted by the life-and-death struggle. The only robler who seems not to be having a good time is the overly-serious Bel Ruk: "but it is not expected that he should".

By re-reading Vance's novels, we can fully appreciate the scenes where Vance has arranged for a character to be waiting patiently, enjoying the relentless unfolding of the inevitable. Only the well-informed reader, such as the "centireader", can fully appreciate how Vance crafted these scenes.

The Exode Trilogy
I recently blogged about the value of viewing the planet Earth as a sentient creature. Long ago, a nanorobotic life form took up residence inside our planet, a form of life that is only marginally interested in primitive creatures like we humans.

If the entire planet can be "animated" by an alien artificial life form then why not smaller objects like books?

Writing about his favorite books, Stephen Marche commented, "I need them close to me".

Contact by Carl Sagan
Previously, I've speculated about how Irhit and others might have guided my course through life, introducing me to particular books and even using time travel technology to bring me back from the dead.

What better way might there be to keep guiding me towards the path I must take then to keep me surrounded by certain books, particularly if those book had the power to make me read them 100 times? Carl Sagan wrote about having the sensation of hearing his parent's voices after they had died. The human brain is designed to adopt what Dennett called the intentional stance, and we apply it even towards inanimate objects. But what if a book were given a slight boost, a nanorobotic endosymbiont that that could literally communicate directly with your brain?

Next: Memories from the future....can a religion based on science fiction save humanity and allow us to have a future among the stars?
An alternate Alastor Cluster

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