Friday, May 5, 2017

Three stories by Jack Vance from 1951

I enjoyed Jack Vance's Son of the Tree so much during our recent month-long celebration of Ace Doubles that I decided to read my copy of Underwood-Miller's 1992 collection of Vance stories, When the Five Moons Rise.  I picked up my copy of this hardcover at a library sale soon after my move to what they are calling the Buckeye state.  (When you move to a new place you learn new things; for example, people in Ohio don't like it when you call them "Hoosiers"--it seems that applies to people from some other state!)

When the Five Moons Rise contains twelve stories, but I've already written about two of them--"The Devil on Salvation Bluff" and "Ulward's Retreat"--on this blog. The remaining ten I will read in chronological order over three different blog posts.  Today we deal with three stories from 1951, "The New Prime," "Men of the Ten Books," and "The Masquerade on Dicantropus."

There's the loyal retainer and the beguiling
courtesan right there on the cover!
"The New Prime" 

"The New Prime" first appeared under the title "Brain of the Galaxy" in Worlds Beyond, a SF magazine I never heard of before.  Edited by Damon Knight, it lasted only three issues--"Brain of the Galaxy" appeared in the third, alongside stories by big names like Poul Anderson, Richard Matheson, C. M. Kornbluth and Lester Del Rey--Knight evidently got high class material for the magazine but still it didn't sell.  Business is hard!

Most of this story consists of a series of exciting vignettes, each set in a different society.  A 20th-century Bostonian finds himself naked at a party and must escape the police.  A soldier leads his unit in a war against giant intelligent insect-men.  A loyal retainer has a limited amount of time to search a ruined city for the legal document that will save his lord from the death penalty--he meets a beguiling courtesan who tries to distract him from his mission.  An artist who creates images with his mind competes against other imagists in an arena.  Finally, a gentleman on a diplomatic mission is tortured by the merciless intelligence officers of a totalitarian state--will he reveal his country's secrets?

After the entertaining vignettes comes the explanation that ties them together.  Our entire Galaxy is overseen by an executive (the "Prime" of the title) and an eleven-member deliberative body of Elders.  It is time to select the next Prime, and the candidates have just completed a test of their character and personalities, each sitting in a special couch, his mind absorbed in what we would now call a virtual reality simulation; each of the vignettes was one facet of the test, each assessed a valuable quality like the ability to think quickly under pressure, imagination, loyalty, etc.

The Elders have the task of selecting a new Prime, or allowing the current Prime a second term.  The incumbent Prime scored highest on the test, but the Elders note that such qualities as compassion and sympathy were next measured by the test, and perhaps it is these qualities that are needed at the present time.  The character of the Galaxy Prime, they believe, exercises a psychic influence over the many civilizations of the galaxy, and the current Prime's boldness, steadfastness and singleness of purpose have inspired a trend around the galaxy of authoritarian government--on Earth the rise of the Bolsheviks and the Nazis, for example.  The Elders have another candidate in mind, one so mild the stressful test may have severely damaged his psychology!

The vignettes are well-written adventure stuff, and the interesting resolution gives us a little of the old "sense of wonder" as well as a sort of twist ending--thumbs up for "The New Prime."

"Men of the Ten Books"

"Men of the Ten Books" (I believe Vance's preferred title is "The Ten Books"--at least that is the name under which the story appears in 21st-century publications) first appeared in an issue of Startling Stories alongside The Starmen of Llyrdis, a novel by Leigh Brackett which I read in early 2013, before the birth of this blog, and Earthmen No More, a Captain Future novelette by Brackett's husband Edmond Hamilton which I have not read and which does not appear to have ever been republished in English (maybe it will appear in a future publication of Haffner Press?)

Ralph and Betty Welstead are a married couple who disagree about everything.  (Who says SF is unrealistic?)  It is the far future, when the human race has colonized much of the galaxy, but there are still areas to be explored, and the Welsteads are explorers who make ends meet by mining asteroids.

The Welsteads discover a planet that was settled 271 years ago by the sixty-odd survivors of a shipwreck--these people have had no contact with other humans for all that time, but have succeeded in building a high tech, high trust, highly cultured society--the Welsteads think it is practically a utopia, with less crime and corruption and better technology and higher living standards than on Earth!  Ralph and Betty are shown around the planet, called Haven, by the mayor of the city they landed in.  The people of Haven are thrilled to meet the Welsteads, because they have a very rosy picture of Earth--the only books that survived that shipwreck were ten propaganda pamphlets gushing in purple prose about how wonderful Shakespeare, Rembrandt and other geniuses were (without actually including the text of one of the Bard's plays or a reproduction of one of Rembrandt's paintings) while glossing over all the crummy stuff Earthlings have been pulling since the dawn of time.  In fact, the reason the people of Haven are so successful is that their society is united behind the goals of constructing a civilization worthy of humankind's (supposed) grand traditions and developing a space drive so they can get back into contact with Earth.

The people of Haven are eager for the Welsteads to integrate them back into the wider human civilization, but Ralph fears that contact with Earth will corrupt the good people of Haven and he plots to sneak off the planet without letting them get a look at his space drive.  Betty isn't so sure Ralph should be "playing God" and isolating the Havenites' against their will, and goes behind her spouse's back to warn the mayor about Ralph's scheme.  Ralph's plan is frustrated, and the Havenites are set on a challenging course--facing the disappointment of learning the truth about Earth and maintaining their innocent culture in the face of Earth corruption--but the mayor assures the Welsteads that challenge is what the Havenites want, that mankind, on Haven or any other planet, is at its best when confronting challenges.

A solid and entertaining story.  I especially like the way "Men of the Ten Books" raises the topic of the reliability of secondary sources, of the distorted view they provide of the past or of other peoples.  (Perhaps even more subversive is the idea that suffering delusions can be beneficial for societies.)   The idea that a society united in pursuit of some grand goal is a better society is also an interesting topic we see in fiction and in the opinion press from time to time.  "Men of the Ten Books" appears to have been well-received, appearing in the anthologies The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1952 and 1960's Out of this World 1, which has an introduction by Bertrand Russell.


"The Masquerade on Dicantropus"

Another story from Startling, with another sexy babe and rocket ship cover--what young man could resist such advertising?

Like "Men of the Ten Books," "The Masquerade on Dicantropus" is about a married couple.  Did Vance have marriage on the brain in 1951?  Is it significant that Vance and his wife travelled the world and would live for months at a time in European and African locations?

Jim and Barbara Root are living on the barren desert planet of Dicantropus; Jim is maintaining an antenna and engaging in some scientific work, looking over bones and rocks with his microscope.  What he is really interested in is a mysterious ancient ziggurat nearby, but the primitive natives don't want him poking around over there, and he respects their wishes.  Barbara spends her time complaining, stomping around, and counting the days (three months and three days to go!) until they can leave this boring ball of sand where they are the only humans--she's been here with her boring husband for six months already!  Her interest is piqued when a clue surfaces suggesting the pyramid is full of diamonds, but Jim refuses to try to bust his way into the structure--his job is to maintain the relay transmitter, not go to war with the locals Cortez-style.

A ship makes an emergency landing on Dicantropus--its sole occupant is Marville Landry, mining engineer and hunk!  After he is cured by Jim of his illness, Marv and Barbara start spending a lot of time together, long walks in the desert after fancy dinners and that sort of thing.  Not only is Marv dreamy, he is a man of action!  When he learns there may be diamonds in the ziggurat, he steals Jim's pistol from Jim's drawer, takes up an atomite torch, and that night he and Barbara the skank are drilling their way into the pyramid under cover of darkness!

It turns out that the "primitive natives" are neither primitive nor native to Dicantropus. They built the pyramid to distract visitors, keeping their attention away from their hidden space cruiser.  When Marv and Barb break into the pyramid they realize it is not ancient and find it is totally empty.  Their secret revealed, the aliens attack. Landry is killed, but Jim rescues his wife (for some reason.)  Jim transmits a call for help and the aliens leave.  Jim and Barb patch up their marriage, and, oh yeah, Jim found the diamonds--they were in the volcano where the alien space ship was hidden, so the Roots are now filthy rich.

This story is just OK.  The story's gimmick (distracting pyramid) isn't as clever as the gimmicks in the other stories we looked at today (ruler of the galaxy's brainwaves influence alien civilizations; virtual reality test; distorted view of reality based on biased sources leads to better outcomes.)  The plot doesn't hold together as smoothly as it might; for example, Landry has the gun but instead of shooting the aliens when they attack, he uses the gun as a club, and Vance gives a reason why the high tech aliens would want to live secretly as primitives on a barren planet but it just doesn't feel very convincing.  I'm also finding the ending unsatisfying.  Landry is the one who figures out the aliens' subterfuge, but instead of being rewarded for his boldness he dies while Jim, who was against antagonizing the aliens, benefits from Marv's enterprising nature and willingness to take risks.  Barbara isn't punished for her infidelity, nor is Jim for his inattentiveness to his wife.  This sort of material could be presented as a morality tale or as a tragedy, but instead the whole thing feels wishy washy.  Oh well, as sports guys might say, you can't hit it out of the park every time you go up at bat.

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More Jack Vance stories from early 1950s SF magazines in our next installment!

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