Friday, November 1, 2013

“The Dogtown Tourist Agency” by Jack Vance

This is the first of the two Miro Hetzel outer space detective stories, and originally appeared in the hyperbolically advertized anthology Epoch, where I read it.  In my paperback edition of Epoch “The Dogtown Tourist Agency” takes up 102 pages; in the ad for Epoch on the last page of my edition of Poul Anderson’s Trader to the Stars it is touted as “a complete novel.”

Hetzel is an “effectuator” in the Gaean Reach, the vast human space empire which is the setting for many of Vance’s works.  Hetzel is not a very vivid or memorable character, he is just the detective guy who, for hire, carries out investigations, so readers hoping to encounter an unforgettable character like Cugel the Clever or a protagonist driven by deep personal psychological or political issues, like Kirth Gerson or Glawen Clattuc, will be disappointed.

The story takes place on Maz, a planet at the intersection of three space empires, the human Gaean Reach, and the empires of two different species of inscrutable aliens.  The natives of Maz are a violent warrior race whose fighters know no fear; they have only an Iron Age technology, but if they were given access to modern weapons and space ships they would pose a threat to all three space empires.  So, the three space empires all have representatives on Maz, to make sure nobody smuggles weapons to the natives or hires them as mercenaries.  A small ramshackle human town known as “Dogtown” that caters to human tourists sits near the official building where the delegations of the three space empires meet.
Hetzel has come to Maz at the behest of a major manufacturer of precision electronics.   A new competitor has appeared, selling goods equal in quality to those of the established firms, but at lower prices.  How this is possible is a mystery, as is the location of the new firm, though clues indicate the items are secretly shipped from Maz.  Are the items being sneaked into the Gaean Reach from one of the alien civilizations, or built on Maz by a native labor force at the direction of some unknown agent?  Hetzel is to solve the mystery, and, if possible, put an end to this unwanted competition.

Once on Maz, Hetzel gets involved in all manner of strange and terrible events including murders, kidnappings and wars.  Tragedy strikes every person and group in the story, except Hetzel himself, who accomplishes his mission and accepts a generous fee.

This is an entertaining story, with a few laughs here and there, an unfolding mystery, bizarre crimes, and a weird alien race which Vance succeeds in making both very unlike any human culture, but also reminiscent of Earth nonwestern cultures whose traditional way of life has been shaken by contact with the wealth and values of the West.  Another solid tale from Vance that I do not hesitate to recommend.

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