Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Three 1950s stories by Jack Vance: "The Miracle Workers," "The Men Return" and "The Planet Machine"

Flipping through the scan at the internet archive of the October 1958 issue of Astounding, seeking the illustrations for Pauline Ashwell's "Big Sword," which we read in our last blog post, I noticed that Astounding readers had voted Jack Vance's "The Miracle Workers" the best story in the July issue.  I'm pretty sure I read "The Miracle Workers" years ago, long before this blog's spontaneous and incomprehensible generation, but I didn't remember much specifically and so I decided to give it another read, along with two other 1950s Vance stories which have yet to be subjected to the MPorcius treatment, "The Men Return" and "The Plagian Siphon" AKA "The Planet Machine" AKA "The Uninhibited Robot."

"The Miracle Workers" (1958)

In the Preface to the 2006 volume, The Jack Vance Treasury, Vance says that he wrote "The Miracle Workers" with the specific aim of appealing to Astounding's famous editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., who, Vance says, "had a predilection for unusual ideas."  It speaks to Vance's ability to write for a market, and perhaps to Campbell's own ability to figure out what his readers wanted and transmit that info to writers, that "The Miracle Workers" was the most popular story in the issue in which it appeared.

I'm reading the version of "The Miracle Workers" that appears in The Jack Vance Treasury, via a scan at the internet archive; I believe the texts in The Jack Vance Treasury are derived from those prepared by the Vance Integral Edition project, and thus the text I am reading is as close as possible to Vance's original vision.

"The Miracle Workers" is set on Pangborn, a planet which was colonized by humans, the war-weary crews of space warships, over 1000 years ago.  Pangborn's current human inhabitants have access to very little of their spacefaring ancestors' hi-tech equipment or technical know-how--these people ride around on animals or in animal-drawn wagons, their soldiers lug around spears and crossbows.  But the Pangbornians of today do not pine for the conveniences of the modern industrial past--instead, they consider the few remaining hover cars and the energy weapons to be relics of an uncouth age, and consider empiricism and the experimental method to be mere superstition and mysticism!  In place of what you and I might call science and technology, dear reader, the intellectuals of the story's topsy turvy milieu embrace voodoo and fortune telling!  When Lord Faide's army marches off to war on Lord Ballant, behind his mounted knights and foot sore infantry roll the wagons of his cadre of wizards with their cabinets full of voodoo dolls!

The plot of "The Miracle Workers" largely concerns the esoteric work of, and rivalries among, Lord Faide's "jinxmen," "cabalmen" and "spellbinders," each of whom has different ambitions, attitudes and ideas; one young apprentice even suspects the scientific ancients' books and artifacts worth studying.  During the battle below the towers of Ballant Keep we witness the sorcery of the jinxmen and cabalmen of both sides--we learn the nature of their spell casting, which consists in part of telepathy and in part of very clever psychological manipulation.

Another major plot element of "The Miracle Workers" is the relationship of the humans to the planet's natives, called by the humans "the First Folk."  After Lord Fainde takes Lord Ballant's keep, wipes out the Ballant family and receives oaths of allegiance from Ballant's retainers, he is master of all humanity on Pangborn.  This is when the natives, still resentful after being driven out of their ancestral lands and into the forests by human beings many centuries ago, begin their anti-human guerrilla war in earnest--for a long time they have been breeding and training an army of arthropods of all sizes for this campaign of revenge and reconquest.  When Lord Faide finds that the conventional warfare methods of his knights and crossbowmen is of limited use in crushing the native uprising, he turns to his jinxmen, but since the jinxmen's sorcery relies on "getting into the heads" of their enemies, will it be of any use against the First Folk, whose mental processes, psychology and culture are radically different from that of humans?

This is a fun story, full of violence and understated jokes, but also a story about imperialism/colonialism and about ways of looking at the world, ways of thinking.  Presumably the fact that the story chronicles a renaissance of scientific thinking (the formerly laid back First Folk have seized upon the experimental methods and mass production practices of the early human colonists in their drive to build a war machine with which to take back their homelands, while the quasi-medieval humans, in response, begin to consider a return to such methods themselves--the miracle workers of the title are not the jinxmen but their ancestors who flew spaceships between the stars) appealed to the science-loving audience of Astounding.  The siege and bioweapon aspects of the story are obviously reminiscent of Vance's famous award-winning 1966 "The Last Castle" and his 1965 "The Dragon Masters."  I feel like I just recently read "The Last Castle" and "The Dragon Masters," but I guess it was over four years ago because I don't see that I have produced any blog posts about them.  Maybe it is time for a reread of those classics?

Quite good.  "The Miracle Workers" has appeared in many Vance collections and many anthologies, including some purporting to offer some of SF's greatest short novels and some devoted to tales of warfare or magic.

"The Men Return" (1957)
The Earth has drifted into a field of chaos, and logic no longer functions, the laws of cause and effect having been repealed.  The Earth's surface changes color and texture at random, the sun is absent from the sky and time is meaningless, the plants you ate "yesterday" may poison you "today."  Humanity has almost been wiped out, and only a small number of men survive: insane people, whose disordered minds somehow sync with the disorder of the landscape, and the Relicts, men whose grip on sanity is so firm, whose belief in logic so steady, that they generate a field of order around their own bodies.  But to survive, the Relicts must eat and drink from the world of disorder that surrounds them, a perilous endeavor.

Less than ten pages long ("The Miracle Workers" is like 65), "The Men Return" is more a catalog of absurd and insane visions and ideas (cannibalism is a given among the Relicts) than a plot-driven story.  We observe the desperate day-to-day existence of a few Relicts, their scrabbling and scheming to find food and avoid becoming food.  Then the Earth drifts out of the area of randomness, the sun returns and with it logic and causality--the insane people quickly die from trying to repeat the feats of daily life under chaos (e. g., stepping over a twenty-foot chasm or eating rocks) and the Relicts can begin building civilization anew.

"The Men Return" is well-written, featuring Vance's customary clever dialogue, but to my taste it lacks substance; you might call it experimental if you were being kind, a little gimmicky if you were being callous.  Maybe we should see this as a pioneering work of psychedelia.  (Remember when I pointed out the psychedelic nature of some passages in Clark Ashton Smith's 1932 story "The Monster of the Prophecy?"  Well, elsewhere in The Jack Vance Treasury--on page 384, in the author's afterword to "The Overworld"--Vance admits to being influenced by Smith, whom he read as a child.)

An acceptable strange entertainment.  I read "The Men Return" in The Jack Vance Treasury; it first appeared in Infinity Science Fiction, where its experimental nature is heralded on the cover: "A New Kind of Story by Jack Vance."  You may recall that we recently read the Algis Budrys story in this issue of Infinity, "The Burning World."  "The Men Return" has been widely anthologized, including  in Robert Silverberg's Alpha Two (alongside Vance's friend Poul Anderson's quite good "Call Me Joe") and in Brian Aldiss's Evil Earths (alongside Henry Kuttner's fun adventure novelette "The Time Trap.")

"The Planet Machine" (1951/1986)

In contrast to "The Miracle Workers" and "The Men Return," stories anthologized far and wide and beloved by multitudes for their memorable ideas, "The Plagian Siphon" has never been anthologized, only reappearing in Vance collections following its initial airing in Thrilling Wonder Stories.  The title used for the tale in the Vance Integral Edition, where it appears in the Gadget Stories volume, is "The Uninhibited Robot."  I am going to read the version in my hardcover copy of the 1986 collection The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, which I acquired at a book sale at an Ohio public library--in this book the story appears as "The Planet Machine."

The Augmented Agent and Other Stories is apparently somewhat rare, only 798 pages of this edition having been printed.  When I got it, it was in pretty good shape, but here in Maryland I live in the upper story of a 100-year-old house whose landlady considers maintenance optional, and is thus subject to strange and unpleasant variations in temperature, humidity, and odor; as a result, the condition of my books has deteriorated to some degree.  Ned Dameron provided The Augmented Agent and Other Stories with a mind-boggling wraparound cover in hideous colors that seems to integrate Soviet iconography and African-influenced modern sculpture.  I have not read the story "The Augmented Agent" (original title, "I-C-a-BeM"); when I do, maybe it will provide some insight into this outre vision.

Scans of my copy; feel free to click to zoom and get more intimately
 acquainted with this Pepto Bismal Socialist nightmare
(Curious caterpillar that I am, I read the first dozen paragraphs of "The Planet Machine" in my hardcover copy of The Augmented Agent and Other Stories and then the same paragraphs in "The Plagian Siphon" in the October 1951 Thrilling Wonder Stories and found quite a few additional words and phrases in the 1986 version.  There are also typos in the 1986 version that do not appear in the 1951 version.  The universe is in a state of entropy.)

Remember how in Heinlein's 1955 Tunnel in the Sky, Biggle's 1963 All the Colors of Darkness, and J. T. McIntosh's 1962  "One Into Two" there is a network of teleporters connecting different parts of the world and/or the galaxy?  Here in "The Planet Machine" there is a similar system connecting many different Earth locations as well as different planets, facilitating trade and travel.  Marvin "Scotty" Allixter is a technician whose job uis to maintain and repair these teleporters.  One day a slight irregularity is discovered with transmission to and from Rhetus--maybe the Rhetus machine just needs some fine tuning, but maybe some criminals have acquired their own teleporter machine and are rerouting transmissions of goods to themselves, stealing them.  So Allixter puts on an armored suit and straps on a disrupter pistol and steps into the "tube," bound for Rhetus to investigate.

He materializes not on Rhetus but some world unknown to man; he has walked out of an alien teleporter reception machine, but he sees no accompanying transmission machine.  How can he get back to Earth?  Using a computer translator, Allixter haltingly communicates with some natives of this world.  These little weirdos lead him through a landscape of ruins to a machine--it turns out that this machine runs the entire planet in the interest not of the natives but of some aliens, the Plags, mining and refining resources and teleporting them to the Plag home world.  The machine is supposed to run itself, and no Plags live on this planet.  The machine's security apparatus is currently malfunctioning, blowing up the mining and refining installations at random, and killing all the Plags sent to repair it.  With the aid of the natives and his translation device, Allixter figures out how to avoid getting killed by this security system himself, how to repair the machine, and how to get back to Earth.  He also figures out that his arrival here was no accident--he was deliberately sent as a kind of cat's paw by a clandestine Plag agent on Earth.  Allixter returns to Earth and neutralizes the Plag agent.  Then, in the kind of denouement you find in detective stories, he explains to everybody (including readers like me who couldn't figure it out ourselves) how he figured that stuff out.

"The Planet Machine" is not bad, maybe a little long.  Vance spends a lot of time exploring how a computer might go about learning an alien language so it can act as an interpreter between an English speaker and a heretofore undiscovered alien civilization, and on speculations on how a complex computer might work, how one might program it and distract it if need be. 

A version of "The Planet Machine" appears in this 1980 Dutch collection of Vance stories,
while the VIE edition of the story, "The Uninhibited Robot," appears in the 2013 collection Magic Highways

When I think of Jack Vance I first think of things like the two Cugel books, which are so hilarious, the Demon Princes books, with their complicated villains and violent detective/secret agent plots, or the Alastor and Cadwel books, which touch on politics and social issues in the context of an adventure story.  But these three 1950s stories have at their centers science (in particular the scientific method itself and circumstances which seem to call it into question) and technology.  All three are worth your time, if only for Vance's charming style and clever little jokes, which always bring a smile to my face.

Expect to see more Jack Vance short stories in the near future here at MPorcius Fiction Log.


  1. Interesting. Not too many people have read, let alone reviewed, The Planet Machine.
    The Men Return is an old favourite, which I first read back in 1970 or so! And I used to use the name Sam Salazar, from The Miracle Workers, on a message board years ago...

    I puzzled over the Ned Dameron cover of The Augmented Agent hardcover from Underwood Miller when I re-read it (or maybe it was the first time reading that particular collection, although I had read all the stories in it before) and am fairly sure that it illustrates The Planet Machine, not the title story!

    1. I like to read stories and authors that are a little off the beaten path.

      "Sam Salazar" is a great name for a message board where you are the guy who disagrees with the mainstream of thought at the board!

      My next two blog posts will cover the seven stories that make up the rest of the contents of The Augmented Agent and Other Stories so I suppose I will come up with my own candidate for what story the strange cover illustration applies to.