Saturday, May 13, 2017

Four stories by Jack Vance from the period 1954-1962

It's the final four stories in my copy of When the Five Moons Rise, a 1992 collection of Jack Vance stories from the 1950s and '60s produced by Underwood-Miller.

"When the Five Moons Rise" (1954)

"When the Five Moons Rise" first appeared in Cosmos.  In addition to showing up in various collections of Vance's work, it would be reprinted in 1993 in Lighthouse Horrors, an anthology of stories linked, I guess, by the fact that they prominently feature lighthouses!  If you are wondering why a publisher would bet on a collection of stories centered around lighthouses, just ask a member of the Viennese delegation, as Nabokov calls them.

Perrin is one of two men who live in a remote lighthouse on a rocky seacoast on an alien planet.  Perrin isn't native to this planet--he can barely tell the five moons apart.  The moons orbit the planet at different speeds, and his partner warns Perrin that, on those rare days when all five rise together, "it is not wise to believe anything."

Sure enough, on the day when the moons rise at the same time, strange and dangerous things happen.  His partner disappears, and things that Perrin thinks of suddenly and improbably appear.  When the radio fails, a new radio set washes up on the shore.  When he feels lonely, a beautiful young woman arrives at the lighthouse.  Interrogating this woman provides clues that she is a dangerous being, perhaps analogous to a demon from Hell.  Perrin resists succumbing to his desire for the woman, lest he be dragged down to Hell or suffer some similarly dreadful fate.

This story is not bad, though the plot is a little gimmicky and pedestrian.  The way Perrin resolves the plot reminded me of Frederic Brown's famous 1944 story "Arena." In "Arena," the hero knocks himself unconscious to get through a force field which only permits passage of inanimate objects and unconscious creatures.  In "When the Five Moons Rise," Perrin knocks himself unconscious in order to foil the menacing beings, who apparently need the thoughts of their victims to take on physical form.
"Where Hesperus Falls" (1956)

"The Wreck of the Hesperus" is one of those poems people always mention but which I had never read.  Thinking it might be important to truly grokking what Vance was up to in "Where Hesperus Falls," and thinking at age 45 it was about time I got a little edjumacation, I pulled up Longfellow's 1840 poem at The Poetry Foundation website and give it a whirl.  It turned out to be a much easier poem than one of those brain busters like "The Waste Land" or even the relatively easy "Dover Beach."  You don't have to know about ancient Greece or Dante or anything to get "The Wreck of the Hesperus": a guy is given great responsibilities, and in his arrogance and overconfidence takes an unnecessary risk and destroys those for whom he is responsible, including his family and himself.

"Where Hesperus Falls" is set 96,000 years in the future!  Our protagonist is Henry Revere, who was born in the 20th century; when he was young a chemical experiment went awry and somehow made him immune from the aging process, and so he was watched the world and the human race change, empires rising and falling, human culture and human biology evolving, for over nine thousand centuries!  Bored with life, which offers nothing new, he wants to commit suicide, but the authorities of the day consider him a priceless treasure and watch him like a hawk, using all the high tech apparatus at their disposal to stop him from killing himself!

Revere comes up with a crazy scheme of ending his now burdensome existence.  He recalls that back in the 20th century a satellite (christened Hesperus) was launched, and its orbit is scheduled to decay sometime this decade! Revere does all the math and calculates that the Hesperus will crash in the middle of the ocean, and at the appropriate time sails a yacht there to meet his doom!  He doesn't really care that his squad of minders accompanies him--"This is the risk they assume when they guard me."  Obviously Revere's willingness to put others at risk is reminiscent of that of the sea captain in Longfellow's poem.

I thought a theme of "The Wreck of the Hesperus" was responsibility, and we also see this theme in "Where Hesperus Falls."  But while readers have no reason to doubt that the sea captain in Longfellow's poem has a legitimate responsibility to his daughter and fellow mariners, and is acting in the wrong by sailing them into a hurricane, Revere's load of responsibility and the justice of his actions is very much open to dispute.  Revere asserts a right to end his own life, but his "guards" insist he has a responsibility to the human race to survive, to serve as a link to the past.  Vance's story is about the tension between an individual's freedom and his duty to society--the head of the team assigned to preserve Revere's life dismisses Revere's claim of self-ownership and asserts the primacy of duty (and sends me to the dictionary in the process):
"We all must fulfill our existences to the optimum.  Today your function is to serve as vinculum with the past."
Do we live for ourselves, or for others?  And if others infringe on our freedom, are there limits to what we can do to preserve our liberty?  Even if we agree that Revere has a right to kill himself, does he have a right to kill his oppressors in the course of defending that right?

This story has some plot holes (modern civilization never tinkered with the Hesperus for 96,000 years?), but I like its various themes and ideas, and there are nice SF touches, as Vance describes the fashions and technology of the far future.  Good!

"Where Hesperus Falls" first appeared in Fantastic Universe, in an issue with an absolutely genius Hannes Bok cover and stories by plenty of big names.

"Dodkin's Job" (1959)

"Dodkin's Job" first appeared in Astounding, and later was included in Jerry Pournelle's anthology The Survival of Freedom (which includes an essay by anarchist intellectual David Friedman, a Robert Heinlein fan and the son of titan of free-market economics Milton Friedman), so I am expecting a hard core anti-collectivist/anti-government story from Vance.  Let's stick it to the commies, Jack!

Vance's novels often include excerpts from fictional reference books and scholarly works, and, setting up the story's theme, Vance begins "Dodkin's Job" with an extract from a Leslie Penton's First Principles of Organization, an extract in which Penton quotes one of the founders of the "Theory of Organized Society" thus: "When self-willed microunits combine to form and sustain a durable macrounit, certain freedoms of action are curtailed."

It is the future, a time and place in which the Theory of Organized Society has been put into action!  The government assesses all citizens, assigns them a rating, and then allocates to them appropriate jobs, housing, food, sexual relationships, and leisure time.  Our hero is Luke Grogatch, rated "Flunky/Class D/Unskilled," and recently assigned to work as part of a gang digging a new tunnel for the sanitation department.  Grogatch is relatively intelligent, and could have achieved a higher rating and better compensation (like "Class 7 Erotic Processing" instead of the "Class 15" he now enjoys, and a chance to choose which TV channel to watch instead of being stuck with only "Band H" at a communal screen) but he is a "Nonconformist" and refuses to employ "all the tricks and techniques: the beavering, the gregariousness, the smutting, knuckling" that are required to get ahead.  And now that he is in his forties, it is probably too late to start beavering his way to the "High Echelons" and such perquisites as "AAA Nutrition" and "a suite of rooms for his exclusive use."

New regulations come down that add three hours to Grogatch's workday without adding to his compensation.  All the other flunkies just accept this--most everybody but Grogatch in the Organized Society is a docile conformist--but Grogatch marches into the office of the bureaucrat who issued the new regulations in hopes of having the new rules rescinded, beginning an odyssey through the public services apparatus as each functionary and executive he confronts shirks responsibility and directs him to a different office or department--even the Secretary of the Department of Public Affairs and the Chairman of the Board of Directors pass the buck!  (Grogatch's peregrinations among the upper levels of the Organized Society is facilitated by his clothes, which belie his current status as a flunky--"the clothes make the man" is a theme we see elsewhere in Vance's body of work; it was in Son of the Tree, for example.)  In the end, Grogatch discovers where the real power in his society lies, and seizes it--will he use his newfound power to help others, or only himself?  

"Dodkin's Job" reminded me of the Cugel stories with its quixotic hero and in that it is laugh-out-loud hilarious; the style is very funny, and there are great individual jokes.  Here's a two-line paragraph that had me in stitches:
Luke, attempting a persuasive smile, achieved instead a leer of sinister significance.  The girl was frankly startled.  
Its theme of one man standing up against a stultifying and conformist society reminded me of Harlan Ellison's famous story "Repent Harlequin, etc", but where Ellison's story is overwrought and ridiculous, the monochrome wish fulfillment fantasy of a petulant child who sees himself as a victim/hero and any who disagree with him as villains, Vance's story is clever, inventive, morally ambiguous and fun, and it feels real, unlike Ellison's story, which feels like a fable.  All that stuff I sometimes blabber on about when I judge stories, like pacing and tone and images and characters, Vance handles perfectly, and apparently effortlessly, so the story reads smoothly, here.

I strongly recommend "Dodkin's Job."  So, is Vance sticking it to the commies here?  I definitely like to think so, but the docility and conformity themes are probably more pronounced than the government oppression theme, and Vance doesn't have the characters throw around obvious shibboleths like "comrade" and "hoarders and wreckers" that would mark the story as a direct allegory for revolutionary socialism or the Soviet Union--in fact, members of the High Echelon have titles like "Chairman of the Board" and are called "tycoons," not "commissars."  Lefties reading the story can easily interperet it is an attack on the "absurdities of the class system in capitalist America" or an indictment of the Byzantine and inhumane workings of the management of the evil corporations that are always foreclosing on community centers on the TV.  Perhaps we should see "Dodkin's Job" as a story about the way large organizations, be they private or public, embedded in societies relatively free or relatively repressive, take on a life and logic of their own, diluting responsibility and sucking the humanity out of their constituent members, giving them powerful incentives to act in ways they wouldn't in smaller, more natural, settings, to the detriment of themselves and all around them.  (You remember that Peter Gabriel song, don't you?)

"Dust of Far Suns" (1962)

This one has appeared under many names; I read it years ago (long before this blog made its stupifying debut) under the title "Sail 25;" I think "Sail 25" is the title Vance prefers.  The story was first published in Amazing, under the title "Gateway to Strangeness"--this looks like a good issue of Amazing, with an article on C. L. Moore, short stories by Roger Zelazny and James Schmitz, and lots of illustrations by Virgil Finlay.

I liked "Sail 25" when I read it way back when (probably in The SFWA Grand Masters: Volume Three) and, unsurprisingly, I enjoyed it today.  In some ways it is a traditional hard SF story in which clever and disciplined men in space suits who know lots of science and engineering get into a dangerous situation and use their mechanical and technical knowledge to get out of the jam.  (Ignoramuses and those of weak character suffer a black fate.)  But Vance's signature amusing style and witty dialogue, and inclusion of an eccentric and morally questionable character, bring some laughs and ambiguity to the proceedings.

The plot: In a near future era in which ships propelled by the solar wind travel around the solar system, eight space cadets are about to go on their final training cruise, a test to see which of them is cut out to be a spaceman, that most intellectually, psychologically and physically demanding of occupations!  Administering the test is Henry Belt, a legend in the service for his idiosyncrasies.  After a technical test on the ground (the cadets are tasked with building computers out of a pile of spare parts) which only six pass, the class sets sail for Mars.  Belt observes while the cadets deal with one crisis after another that could very well send them to their doom beyond the solar system, judging their performance but not lifting a hand to help--he assures the cadets that he is ready to die.  The superior cadets save the day, and most of the class makes it back to Earth alive, where the capable cadets are graduated and the inferior survivors flunk out.

Entertaining, a good specimen of this type of story.


The stories included in 1992's When the Five Moons Rise are all worth reading, and some are great, but you should probably seek them out in other collections and anthologies, as this book is full of typos and printing errors.  I'll probably sell my copy on ebay; my PayPal account took a serious hit recently when my sporting blood was aroused and I spent much more money than I had expected to triumphing over a tenacious fellow SF fan in an epic auction struggle over a stack of old issues of Fantastic.  I've already sold a bunch of old Games Workshop models and my copy of Arkham House's The Horror at Oakdeene, which I acquired at the same library sale where I got When The Five Moons Rise, but the financial loss has yet to be made good.

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