Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jack Vance's "Planet of Adventure"

I just finished rereading Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure, which is a tetralogy comprised of four books, all connected chronologically. I've blogged about Vance before HERE. Unlike the Big Three — Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke — Vance's virtues aren't immediately perceptible to a casual reader. He's a very subtle writer, leading many not to take note of the philosophical and political depth of his work. This contrasts very much with Heinlein, whose philosophy is right there on the surface for all to see. And that's okay, too. Nobody on the conservative-libertarian spectrum would fail to include Heinlein on his list of literature with political significance. Also in contrast to Heinlein, Vance is a very realistic writer, which seems paradoxical at first, because his material is full of fantasy and speculations about alien worlds and species.

But sometimes fantasy and science fiction is the best vehicle for realism. It enables the writer to show the universality of principles and the innate nature of living things in general and human beings in particular that endures no matter the physical and cultural background that it finds itself in. This is certainly the case with Planet of Adventure. And for some readers, at least, it may be the best introduction to Vance.

This book, or set of books, is Jack Vance's answer to Edgar Rice Burroughs. The protagonist, Adam Reith, has been sent to a planet far away from which signals have been received back on Earth. His companion dies when their ship crashes, and, like John Carter, he has to survive on a strange world. The world, Tschai, is inhabited by two native races and three invading races. It also has human beings, who were picked up from Earth by the aliens in prehistory and basically enslaved. After thousands of years, human beings have come to emulate their captors — each alien race being radically different from one another — and therefore changed, physically and culturally, while retaining their essential humanity, though they've entirely forgotten Earth. Reith has to cope with all that, and somehow find his way back to Earth. Very much an Edgar Rice Burroughs situation.

Now, as my good friend Bob Wallace has pointed out, Burroughs if full of wisdom, and if you give your sons and daughters some Burroughs to read, you've given them a guide to life. But for more subtle and universal wisdom, you should give them Vance to read as they grow older. Burroughs tells them how men and women ought to behave. Vance does the same, but goes much deeper into how people do behave and how to cope with humanity in all its manifestations. In Planet of Adventure we learn how to deal with a multicultural, chaotic society. In Araminta Station, we learn about how to keep a stable society from becoming multicultural chaos, and the importance of tradition and how to retain it and modify it when necessary. In The Demon Princes we learn about justice and retribution. In his Alastor Culture books, we learn about the trap of socialism and the struggle to maintain good government. And in all his work, we learn about the value of human decency and ingenuity. If current science fiction is getting you down, dip back into the Golden Age with some Jack Vance.
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Quibcag: The illustration is from Miyazaki's wonderfully charming movie, Whisper of the Heart.

4 comments:

  1. I remember reading "The Dying Earth" when I was a teen and thinking, Who is this guy? This was no one like him, then and now.

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    1. I also read Jack Vance's books, brilliant stuff. I cut my reading-teeth on these and Roger Zelazny's Amber series.

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  2. Thanks for writing about him. I just discovered Vance and you were the first link about his politics.

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  3. I read the Planet of Adventure series starting at the age of 18. I am 65 now and am reading it again. I have read all the greats, but Vance is still my favorite.

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