Saturday, October 26, 2013

“Abercrombie Station” by Jack Vance and Cosmopolis

Abercrombie Space Station is inhabited by obese people, who can live in comfort in the station’s microgravity.  Earth-dwelling crook Fotheringay hires sexy svelte teenager Jean Parlier to travel to Abercrombie Station in the guise of a servant to seduce and marry Earl Abercrombie, the magnificently wealthy owner of the station.  Fotheringay assures Jean that Earl Abercrombie will soon die, and then Fotheringay and Jean will split up the immense wealth of the Abercrombie estate that Jean, as Abercrombie’s widow, will inherit.  Jean, who was abandoned by her parents and has blood on her hands, claims to have no morals and embraces this get-rich-quick scheme.

This is one of those hard-boiled suspense-thriller things, with various unscrupulous people from various social classes trying to outwit each other in pursuit of the big score, and mysteries hinted at and then revealed as the story proceeds.  Vance does a good job with this plot, and a better job with the setting and characters.  Vance develops Abercrombie Station into a strange but believable place with a strange but believable culture, where obese people are graceful and look down upon thin people as ugly.  Vance’s description of 18-year-old multi-millionaire Earl Abercrombie’s “study,” where he stores his vast museum-like collection of oddities from around the galaxy, and which is decorated by a stained glass window from Chartes cathedral which lets in the brilliant light of the sun unfiltered by an atmosphere, and is the site of one of the most disgusting atrocities I have encountered in fiction, is very vivid.  

Vance’s characters are equally interesting, at the same time both alien and burdened with psychological problems we can identify with and sympathize with.  Chief among them are 16-year-old murderess Jean, who is a fish out of water in a world where she lacks sex appeal, and who acts like she cares only about money but daydreams of having loving parents and sincere friends, and Earl, who is fascinated by the Earth and the other human-inhabited planets, but is forbidden by iron clad rules from leaving the station.  Our view of Vance’s characters evolves over the course of the story as we learn more about them and as they themselves change.

This is a great story, and I highly recommend it.  The writing style is not as fancy or baroque as many of Vance’s later works, but one could say that the story is more “science-fictiony” than much of Vance’s other work, in that Vance has really made an effort to think of how and why people would live in zero gravity.  “Abercrombie Station” also provides me another opportunity to talk about Damon Knight.  I read “Abercrombie Station” in the 1976 collection Best of Jack Vance, which includes short intros by the author to each story.  In the intro to “Abercrombie Station” Vance tells us that the basic idea of the story came from Damon Knight, who commissioned the story from Vance but was unable to purchase it when the magazine it was meant for folded.  Here we have an example of the beneficial role good editors have played in the history of science fiction.

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There are people who believe Jack Vance is as great a writer as Balzac or Henry James.  These people have esoteric arguments over what Vance’s attitude towards Christianity is, over whether Vance is a science fiction writer or a writer who uses science fiction “décor.”  From 2000 to 2007 these people produced a magazine, Cosmopolis, and a sort of companion magazine, Extant, both of which are available in PDF form at http://www.integralarchive.org/base1.htm .  I’ve spent quite a few pleasant hours flipping through them, and I think any Vance fans who have not yet heard of them will as well.  

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