Tag Archives: Jack Vance

Rogues, long-distance lovers and UFOs: books read

After publishing Eyes of the Overworld in 1966, Jack Vance authorized a sequel, The Search for Simbilis, by Michael Shea. Then in 1983 he released a sequel of his own, CUGEL’S SAGA, picking up directly from the end of Overworld, at the point where Cugel’s revenge on the Laughing Magician has instead dumped the rogue on the far side of the world. Determined to make it home, Cugel sets out across the dying Earth, scamming everyone he meets except when they scam him first — though at least this time, his defeats are due to dumb luck rather than his own stupidity.

I enjoyed this but not as much as the first two Dying Earth books. At 300 pages, the picaresque formula wears thinner, and sexism is still a problem. Women are either unpleasant battle axes to be thwarted or sexpots to be seduced or betrayed; the seventeen virgins Cugel seduces (or rapes?) in one story never even appear on stage. So despite its appeal, severely flawed.

The graphic novel LONG DISTANCE by Thom Zaler starts with protagonist Carter telling a family at the airport that he used to be in a long-distance relationship, then flashes back to show how he and Lee (the other protagonist) met cute in another airport and began a long-distance relationship. Despite being perfect for each other, they’re both attached to their jobs, and that leaves them stuck in Columbus and Chicago, respectively; can they make it work?

This is cute and funny (as I’d expect from the creator of Love and Capes) though despite having met TYG long-distance it didn’t strike a chord as much as I’d expected. Probably because Lee and Carter are uncertain about where the relationship is going where TYG and I agreed up front we’d get married if things worked out. But that’s not a flaw in the book.

I read HOW UFOS CONQUERED THE WORLD: The History of a Modern Myth by David Clarke as background for Alien Visitors but it works well in its own right. A former UFO believer, Clarke details how a chance sighting by one pilot in 1947 kicked off America’s flying saucer obsession (though the pilot never said the ships he saw were saucer shaped), though the book also covers some of the earlier Things In The Sky incidents (a mystery airship at the end of the 19th century, the “foo fighters” of WW II). He then dissects the evidence that even trained observers aren’t reliable eyewitnesses, goes inside Britain’s government UFO tracking group (regrettably as Clarke’s English there’s less on U.S. research) to dismiss the stories of men in black and discusses how much pop culture influences UFO beliefs as well as vice versa. For instance one theory, that the U.S. is flying planes incorporating alien tech, originated on X-Files, the passed into UFOlogy. The best of my research reading to date.

As I’ve read and liked several of Raymond F. Jones’ short stories I picked up RAYMOND F. JONES RESURRECTED: Selected Science Fiction Stories of Raymond F. Jones to read a few more. The focus of Jones’ SF stories is often science itself. In “Noise Level” a group of physicists learn someone has invented antigravity and try to duplicate it; “Tools of the Trade” has Earth engineers struggling to repair an alien technology; “The Unlearned” debates whether Earth should give up independent research in return for learning the secrets of the universe for a more advanced race. Jones is clearly a fan of thinking outside the box as all three stories hinge on breaking away from conventional paradigms. It appears he’s also one of those writers who aren’t big on villains, preferring antagonists who are simply misguided. I was convinced the aliens in “The Unlearned” must be up to some scheme for instance but no, it turns out they’re simply wrong. I enjoyed this enough to dig out the one collection of Jones’ stuff I already have.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Gaughan, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Grimdark with a smile: Jack Vance’s Eyes of the Overworld

Grimdark fantasy existed long before the term; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword is as grimdark as you can get and it’s decades old. THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD, Jack Vance’s sequel to The Dying Earth, doesn’t initially read grimdark — it’s stylish, elegant and humorous — but it has a view of the world just as grim as Game of Thrones. The protagonist, Cugel the Clever, is an amoral antihero and rapist (I’ll come back to that last point) but most of the people he encounters are as greedy, corrupt and selfish as he is. Despite his nickname, Cugel isn’t all that clever;  when he thinks he’s scamming someone, his confidence in his own cunning blinds him that he’s the one being snared.

Like the first book, this is a collection of short stories, here linked by Cugel’s quest. In the opening, someone talkes Cugel into robbing Incounou, the Laughing Magician (if he’s laughing at you, you’re in for it) which doesn’t go well. Incounou extracts a promise from Cugel to hunt for one of the eponymous eyes, contact lenses that transform whatever you’re looking at into a world of beauty. Not being an idiot, the mage puts a tiny creature inside Cugel to gnaw his vitals if the thief runs off or in some fashion tries to double-deal. Then off we and Cugel go on a picaresque, black-humored journey across the dying future Earth.

This came out 16 years after the first book and Vance’s style has improved considerably. At one point a sorcerer says he can foretell Cugel’s future but it will require wrapping Cugel in the intestines of freshly killed owls, burning his little toe and dilating his nostrils to let an explorer beetle enter his body. Cugel passes. And Vance is very good on imaginary names: “The great cities Impergos, Tharuwe, Rhaverjand — all unheard of? What of the illustrious Sembers?” Exotic names, but believable ones, I think; they sound right.

The story is cynical as hell. Cugel lies, cheats and steals, and cons people with this voice of injured reason (under the circumstances, surely you can’t suggest that I pay for this meal!); his intended marks abuse him just as much. In one story he’s marked out as the sacrifice to the local bat-creatures; in another he’s tricked into serving as the town watchman (an important post) by being promised luxury, food and the woman of his choice; instead he ends up trapped in the watchtower with no luxury, crappy food and no sex. While I’m not a big fan of antiheroes — and Cugel’s the least heroic antihero I’ve read since Flashman — the results are entertaining and often funny. But then there’s the rapey stuff.

Dying Earth was sexist, but Eyes is a lot worse. In the watchman story, Cugel picks out one of the local women to be his mistress, then slowly (very slowly) realizes she’s just part of the con the town is playing on him. When he escapes, he takes her with him, rapes her and then she’s killed by a monster at the climax. In another story, Cugel’s bid to pass himself off as a rightful king fails spectacularly and he has to flee the city alongside Derwe Coreme, the former ruler. They become lovers but when Cugel needs help from a family of vagabonds they ask for his woman in return; he hands her over to be their sex slave without hesitation, then forgets about her. He has no qualms and neither does Vance seem to care about the women.

I don’t mean that this makes Vance pro-rape; he’s writing a dark, cynical story in a corrupt world so it’s not like the rape doesn’t fit the setting. Nor does Cugel show remorse about anything else. But nothing else he does is comparably vicious; okay, his revenge on Incounou might be, but that’s revenge, where his treatment of Derwe is gratuitous cruelty. And Vance treats it as no more consequential than stealing a character’s dinner in another chapter. Much as I liked the rest of the book, I don’t think I’d recommend it.

#SFWApro. Top cover by George Barr, bottom by Jack Gaughan; all rights to covers remain with current holder.

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Heroes with Secret Pasts and a dying Earth: books read

Andre Norton’s THE JARGOON PARD is the first sequel to Year of the Unicorn, set in Arvon, the homeland of the Wereriders. Arvon comes off much like Estcore, a land that sealed itself off after arrogant mages opened dimensional gates to Very Bad Things, and protagonist Kethan has a backstory similar to Kerovan of Crystal Gryphon, a son born touched by magic so that his mother can use him as a tool to attain power.

Surprisingly, though, the book charts it’s own course, starting with Mom bearing a girl, whom she promptly swaps for the son of another woman (Gillan of Unicorn). Like so many Witch World protagonists, Kethan grows up feeling something of an outsider, then one of his mother’s rivals gives him a magic belt that triggers his innate shapeshifting powers. Now he’s a pard (big puma — the jargoon is the carved gem on the belt’s clasp) but he can’t turn back unless he submits to the will of his mother’s resident sorceress — and Kethan would sooner die. The results are solidly entertaining; this is also the first book to spotlight the worship of the harvest/mother goddess Gunnora, which plays a big role in many later books.

THE DARK WORLD has Henry Kuttner’s name on it but some researchers suggest C.L. Moore is co- or sole author. While it has a lot in common with Mask of Circe, it also resembles Dwellers in the Mirage (amnesiac hero with buried memories, good vs. bad girl, other-dimensional soul-sucking horror) and would later inspire both Roger Zelazny’s Amber and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Falcons of Narabedla.

Oh, wait, you might want to know about the story too! The protagonist is a WW II veteran suffering strange blackouts and odd memories. When he’s drawn into the eponymous alternate timeline, he discovers that’s because he’s actually Ganelon, a member of the ruling coven of mages, bound to the other-dimensional horror Llyr; the resistance against the coven managed to swap him and the real veteran (parallel world counterparts), leaving Ganelon with the veteran’s memories. Now that Ganelon’s back, he’s ready to regain power, which requires working with the resistance against the coven and somehow driving Llyr back from this plane of existence. The result is a lively fantasy, though the random mix of myth names (Llyr, Medea, Freydis) is jarring (as Lin Carter says, names matter).

In THE STARMAN OF LLYRDIS by Leigh Brackett, an Earthman who’s spent his entire life as even more of an outcast than Kethan learns the reason: he’s only half-human, the other half being Varddan, the one race that can survive interstellar travel due to a gen-engineering breakthrough a millennium ago. The protagonist proves his Varddan genes hold true and wins the right to live and work in space — but then allies himself with revolutionaries who want to share the genetic breakthrough with all the races of the galaxy. A perfect example of Brackett’s fondness for characters who achieve their dreams only to find them hollow (as her husband put it).

Jack Vance’s THE DYING EARTH is probably best known as the basis for spellcasting in D&D (Gary Gygax copied Vance’s idea that mages can only hold a limited number of spells in their mind) but deserves to be known in its own right. On a distant future Earth, various wizards and occasional mortals feud, seek love or quest for knowledge amidst ruined cities, ancient secrets and unpleasant cults.

This blew me away when I read it as a teen, but less so now. The treatment of the female characters is sexist and Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique (which I suspect was a big influence) is a much eerier, darker setting, and Smith is a better writer. That said, this is still entertaining and enjoyably eerie.

#SFWApro. Top cover by Gray Morrow, bottom image is uncredited. Rights to both remain with current holder.

 

 

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One book, some graphic novels (#SFWApro)

THE MANY WORLDS OF MAGNUS RIDOLPH struck me as minor Jack Vance when I first read it, and rereading doesn’t change that impression. The exploits of the elderly but cunning trouble-shooter dealing with everything from intelligent sardines to a planet of thieves are readable enough, but don’t particularly stand out from any other pulp problem solver. And like so many stories from the forties, the assumption everyone will be using tobacco in the far future now looks dated (though films such as Dimensions where apparently nobody in the 1930s smokes are just as dated in a different way).

SPIDER-MAN: Crime and Punisher is a mix of stories including a Punisher two parter, a story where Flash Thompson reflects on Spidey’s influence on him (easily the best in the book) and where writer Joe Kelly attempts to update the Bronze Age villain Hammerhead. Unfortunately while I can see Kelly’s reasoning that Hammerhead’s shtick (acting and talking like a 1930s Warner Brothers mobster) has been done to death, he doesn’t offer us anything better—he could have plugged the Rhino or Man-Mountain Marko into the story and gotten the same result.

FINDER by Carla Speed McNeil has a great rep, but I couldn’t get into it: the story of the titular wanderer Jaeger and his various relationships is well-written (as the intro notes, McNeil has a great feel for relationship scenes) but it has no dramatic arc or momentum, at least not in the first 200 pages (I gave up. Forgive me). I’m not sure if that’s the fault of “decompressed” storytelling or just a matter of taste, but either way this didn’t work for me.

CHEW: Chicken Tenders by John Layman and Rob Guillory is one in a series (Vol. 9) of oddball adventures involving Tony Chu, who gets psychic impressions from things he eats, with murderers, terrorists and a vampire with even greater “cibopath” powers than Chu has. Doesn’t convert me to a fan, but I’ll definitely look at this series again.

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And now, book reviews! (#SFWApro)

SWORDS AND AGAINST DARKNESS III mercifully didn’t have any of the attempted rape-humor in the first two collections in the series. It does, however, have a depressing number of typos—having had friends publish with Zebra Books, I’m not terribly surprised, but given editor Andrew J. Offutt’s comments herein about the importance of professionalism, he must have been cringing. The best stories in this issue are Ramsey Campbell’s “Pit of Wings,” which once again merges horror with sword-and-sorcery well, and the first of Darrell Schweitzer’s tales of the damned medieval knight, Sir Julian. We also get Manley Wade Wellman, Tanith Lee and David Drake so it’s a good collect.
2387018Ah, optimism—WEIRD HEROES VOL. 3: Quest of the Gypsy by Ron Goulart (cover and interior illustrations by Alex Nino; all rights to current holder) was planned as the first of a six-book series, but we only got one more. Spinning off from a short story in the first volume, this has the amnesiac psi Gypsy battling bioweapon terrorists, robot sans-culottes, Tunisian pirates and a talking vulture in a chaotic, 21st-century Europe while trying to figure out who he really is and what this “game” he’s enmeshed in involves. Unfortunately, we never did get the answers.
Based on reader feedback, WEIRD HEROES VOL. 6 ran to SF rather than the action/adventure of the first collection. Unfortunately the switch doesn’t lead to a boost in quality: the only standout was Ben Bova’s time-traveling amnesiac superman Orion (who would go on to appear in novels outside the WH format). Ron Goulart’s ET detective Shinbet is fun but Philip Jose Farmer’s Greatheart Silver entry is tedious and Arthur Byron Cover’s Galacticu Gumshoe is way too self-conscious of being a hardboiled detective in a space adventure (that story makes me understand why some writers I know flinch from metafiction).
I’m idly curious if THE BEST OF JACK VANCE was his own selection as he admits tgat several of the stories are indeed personal favorites. While I didn’t care at all for “Sails” (the kind of obsess-over-tech set-up that kills my interest), the strangely convoluted societies of “The Last Castle” and “The Moon Moth” deserve to be here, as does the whimsical “Ullward’s Retreat” and the parallel-world story “Rumfuddle.” (“The waiter is Genghis Khan.”).
ON THE MAP: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks by Simon Garfield is an entertaining but scattershot look at maps ranging from the legendary British Mappa Mundi through Marco Polo, Mercator, the Silver Map (a medallion chronicling Drake’s round-the-world voyage), Britain’s Ordnance Survey, Churchill’s wartime map room and the modern debates over Google maps and what they do to our sense of the world (“Unlike a written map, digital mapping moves with you—so you really are always at the center of the universe.”). Unfortunately while almost all the bits are good (I could have done without the discussions of brain mapping and evolutionary psychology), Garfield’s breezy bouncing from topic to topic wore out its welcome much faster than in his Just My Type. This may be because the new book is 100 pages longer, or because I’d have liked a more serious touch at times. For example, while Garfield acknowledges in passing that maps are often a form of propaganda (how they present contested borders, for instance) he never devotes any space to that topic. And the fluffiest chapter, on mapping in videogames and D&D felt equally lacking: why not deal with fiction as well (L. Frank Baum had Oz mapped out more than a century ago). Interesting, but not satisfying.

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Books (#SFWApro)

No movies due to last week’s schedule madness
UN-AMERICAN WOMANHOOD: Antiradicalism, Antifeminism and the First Red Scare by Kim E. Nielsen looks at how anti-communist paranoia of the 1920s convinced large numbers of conservatives that suffragettes and feminists were at best dupes of the Bolshevik Menace, at worst willing co-conspirators, as their opposition to male dominance posed a threat to the manliness and family structure that America’s strength depended on. It was widely believed that along with abolishing private property, the Russian Revolution had deprived husbands of their property rights in their spouses—which meant not female independence but all women becoming state-owned (and supposedly ending up in state brothels as sex slaves). Likewise, left-wing opposition to child labor was seen as directly undercutting a father’s right to control his children. As someone who blogs about feminist issues, it’s really fascinating to see how the property rights of the husband were taken as a given by so many people back then; a good book.
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THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT by George Meredith (cover by Ray Cruz, arts by current holder) is another of Ballantine Books Adult Fantasy series, a 19th century Arabian Nights tale in which hapless barber Shibli Bagarag discovers the reason barbers have become pariahs is the Ultimate McGuffin hidden in the hirsute face of the merchant Shagpat, bringing the entire world under his influence (so barbers becoming outcasts shields Shagpat from any risk of being shaved). However Shibli learns that if he can gather the right mystic talismans and a powerful blade, he can be the one to accomplish the title feat. Lush and entertaining, with some nice poetic touches (“His eyes were like two hollow pits dug by the shepherd for the wolf, and the wolf in them.”), though a bit too much poetry (Meredith’s initial publication came as a poet). And if you dislike fantasy versions of the East written by Europeans (I know some people hate that), this definitely isn’t for you.
THE WORLDS OF JACK VANCE is a short story collection by the recently deceased writer, the best of which is probably “The Moon Moth,” for its bizarre honor-bound alien culture. Close behind it is “The Brains of Earth,” a novella in which a scientist discovers Earth is trapped between two different alien mind-parasites (amusingly, when the protagonist gains psychic powers to fight them, his decision is not to go public until his powers help America win the Cold War!). In other stories, reality goes haywire, we learn what it takes to lead the Milky Way galaxy and ecoterrorists battle to take over an alien world. Vance’s flair for oddball cultures and his distinctive writing style are well displayed here.

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