Monday, May 8, 2017

Three stories by Jack Vance from the period 1952-3

Back flap of dust jacket of my copy of
When the Five Moons Rise
In 1952 Dwight Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson in the US presidential election, much to the dismay of fictional college professor Moses E. Herzog.  John Kasich and Vladimir Putin were born. And on the literary side, Clive Barker was born and Knut Hamsun died.  In 1953 there was lots of exciting Cold War news, with the bogus Doctor's Plot, the death of Stalin, the end of the Korean War, an uprising in East Germany against the communist government, and the execution of the Rosenbergs.  It was during this tumultuous period that the three stories by Jack Vance which we will be talking about today were first presented to the SF-reading public.  I read them in my copy of the collection When the Five Moons Rise, published in 1992 by Underwood-Miller.

"Telek" (1952)

"Telek" was first published in Astounding.  It later appeared, among other places, in a 1969 collection of Vance stories entitled Eight Phantasms and Magics and in 1970's Great Short Novels of Science Fiction, edited by Robert Silverberg.

"Telek" is one of those stories about homo superior and the tensions between this new strain of humanity with super powers and us poor mundanes.  We see a lot of these in the speculative fiction world, from van Vogt, Kuttner and Moore, Clifford Simak, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and a million other people I'm forgetting or ignoring.  I just read one by Alice Laurence and one by Barry Malzberg, for example.  When I first started this blog, I had grand visions of dozens of descriptive tags that would help me categorize all the fiction I was reading, tags like "postapocalyptic," "sex," "dinosaurs," "socialism," etc., and "homo superior" would have been a good one to use.  But I got lazy and only use the author and "positive" and "negative" tags.  Anyway, lots of these homo superior stories are allegories of the plight of blacks in America or Jews in the West or gays or witches or some other oppressed or marginalized group and we are expected to sympathize with or identify with the people with superpowers.  Vance doesn't take that tack in "Telek," though.

Sixty years ago the first Teleks appeared, a tiny minority with amazing telekinetic and teleportation powers.  These jokers can teleport out to the asteroid belt, then teleport back with vast amounts of platinum and uranium, so they quickly became extravagantly rich.  At first the Teleks helped the rest of humanity, using their powers to bring wealth from space and to quickly accomplish arduous jobs like clearing jungles and building roads, but as time has gone by, they have been acting more and more high-handed.  Their weird abilities, and their tremendous wealth, mean the Teleks are essentially above the law and immune to any kind of social pressure, and each generation of homo superior feels less kinship to homo sapiens, so their behavior is getting worse and worse.  A small group of mundanes has decided that the Teleks are too great a threat to human liberty and must be destroyed.

Shorn is an architect, and an important member of the mundane underground, working for Gerskamp, who is in charge of a major construction project--building a stadium for a big upcoming Telek celebration.  Shorn recruits a reluctant Gerskamp to the rebel cause, and they mine the arena--when the Teleks are all assembled at the stadium they hope to blow up every last one of them at the same time!  (Didn't a mined sports arena also figure in the plot of Vance's 1978 Wyst: Alastor 1716?)

Even beyond the psyker business, "Telek" reminded me of a (more clearly written than is to be expected from that Canadian madman) van Vogt piece.  The story is set on a futuristic Earth of visiphones and slidewalks and aicars where the monetary unit is the "crown," and much of the story's 50 pages is taken up with high tech espionage stuff--people doubling back to lose tails, using hypnotic drugs to interrogate a recruit suspected of being a Telek mole, cobbling together in the lab a countermeasure to the two-inch long robot beetles the Teleks use to spy on people, and donning elaborate disguises.  There is also sociological discussion of the (im)possibility of Telek and mundane getting along, and speculation on just how the Telek powers work (Astounding editor John Campbell, Jr. was fascinated by psychic powers and encouraged writers to include them in stories.)  Perhaps more characteristic of Vance (and a reflection of 1950s architecture and culture) is a section in which Shorn laments that while people in his era have more political freedom and material wealth, in "the ancient monarchies" there was greater diversity in the look of buildings and of clothing, and in people's behavior--Shorn feels that modern life's utilitarianism and concentration of people in urban spaces has lead to a grey conformity. Do the individualistic and extravagant Teleks represent the opportunity for a flowering of culture as well as a risk of political tyranny?

Shorn, via skillful deception and his acumen in "the art of the deal," is inducted into the ranks of the Teleks and attains their astonishing mental powers.  (These powers are latent in every human being, and need only be coaxed out during a brief training session.)  With his new abilities Shorn foils the efforts to crush the anti-Telek underground and then triggers the awakening of the psychic abilities of all of mankind--mankind's adolescence is over, and a period of history in which every human has the freedom to roam the universe is beginning.

A good old-fashioned sensawunda tale.  Thumbs up!

"Noise" (1952)

This is one of the weaker stories in the collection.  Rather than being bold or sharp or striking or brisk, it is dreamy and slow.  I assume that is what Vance is going for, so it is more of a case of MPorcius not being the target market for what Vance is selling here than Vance failing in his aims.

There is a frame story, but the majority of the text of "Noise" consists of the journal of a shipwrecked space man.  In this journal he describes in detail the planet he has made his way to in his lifeboat, a world with unusual astronomical conditions and no apparent animal life.  There is a lake, some trees, a mountain, etc.  In turn, the planet is lit by a red sun, then a blue sun, then a silver sun, and on and on.  The planet seems to revolve at varying speeds and/or orbit an erratic course because each sun hangs high in the sky for many Earth days, then rapidly shoots below the horizon rather than crossing the sky at a constant rate.

After some time on the planet the castaway begins catching filmy glimpses of beautiful towns and people, and hearing music which has no visible source.  By concentrating, he is gradually able to interact with this mysterious parallel dimension more and more intimately.  He recognizes a parallel version of himself, and falls in love with a beautiful woman of this other dimension.  Before he is able to actually talk to the people from the other plane of existence, an Earth ship lands to rescue him, but he decides he doesn't want to leave--he prefers the beautiful faerie world to the world of his birth.

Just acceptable.  I feel like Vance spent too much time describing the terrain and too little time showing why this guy would fall in love with a fleeting vision and prefer some other universe to ours.  Despite my lukewarm reaction, everybody seems to love "Noise," and since originally appearing in Startling Stories it has been reprinted many times, including in The Best from Startling Stories, Deep Space, and Strange Glory.

"Ecological Onslaught" (1953)

Jack's name doesn't appear on the cover,
but the cover illo depicts Bernisty and Kathryn
in the climax of "Ecological Onslaught."
"Ecological Onslaught" has also appeared as "The World Between," a somewhat better title.  It was first printed in Future Science Fiction.

It is the far future; many star systems, including one called Blue Star and a nearby one called Kay, have been colonized by Earthmen, while Earth itself is almost forgotten.  A Blue Star exploration ship, commanded by Explorator Bernisty, discovers a planet equidistant between Blue Star and Kay; he claims it and starts terraforming it.  The Kays object, and try to eject the Blue Stars via threats, then by introducing invasive species of fungus and arthropods onto the new planet in hopes of foiling the Blue Star terraforming project.  Could the beautiful Kay defector Kathryn, whom Bernisty is developing a crush on, be the vector of this interference? Berel, Bernisty's jealous girlfriend, certainly thinks so!

(All proper nouns associated with Blue Star start with a "B," and all Kay people and places begin with a "K.")

A fun story full of entertaining SF touches, like all the details of the terraforming process and some medical procedures, and the many idiosyncrasies of the two human, but to us readers quite foreign, cultures.  Blue Star society includes a class of women somewhat like geishas or prostitutes (Berel is in this class), and has a taboo about being observed eating (Vance would use this idea again in one of the Alastor books, I think 1975's Marune: Alastor 933.)        

Quite good; especially of interest to fans of stories about terraforming and genetic engineering.


I'm enjoying the stories in When the Five Moons Rise, but must register some complaints with the people at Underwood-Miller.  The punctuation in the text of "Telek" in When the Five Moons Rise is plagued by typos--missing hyphens and quotation marks, double quotes when single quotes are called for, that sort of thing.  I own a copy of Great Short Novels of Science Fiction and consulted it; in that edition "Telek"'s hyphens and quote marks seem to be in order.  There are also some major printing errors in this appearance of "Ecological Onslaught,"  Unfortunate, and an indication of how valuable to the SF community was the work of the Vance Integral Edition team.

In our next episode, we finish up with When the Five Moons Rise.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunate printing errors... I wonder if Vance's work was originally published with a higher textual error rate than the stories of other authors. Alternate hypothesis: unlike the work of most story writers (which is read once, quickly, and not re-read), fans of Vance tend to re-read his stories and so the errors are noticed and become a distraction. Vance's fans became motivated to collaborate and help produce polished editions of his stories. If so, then all the original printing errors were "fortunate" and led to his work being assembled in a well-edited electronic format.