by Rich Horton
I'm dipping again into my reserve of Ace Double reviews written a long time ago, as I haven't finished my latest Old (non)-Bestseller. But this book seems important to me, as it's by one of SF's greatest writers, and it features a couple of fairly interesting early works. Also, as I have lost my web host for my home page, and haven't found a new one yet, it's nice to get some of the older posts back online.
Jack Vance (real name John Holbrook Vance) was born in 1916, and died in 2013. He was one of the most original of SF writers, and had a remarkably characteristic prose style. He has been one of my favorite writers for a long time.
|(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)|
Somehow right from the beginning Don Wollheim decided that Jack Vance books should be backed with Jack Vance books. Did he think Vance so individual an author, so unique in appeal, that he was best marketed as a unit? At any rate, this is the first of 7 Ace Doubles (not counting reprints and repairings) to feature Vance, and all but one of them had Vance on both sides. This book features two novels originally printed in single issues of Better Publications pulps: Big Planet in the September 1952 Startling Stories, and Slaves of the Klau, under the title "Planet of the Damned", in the December 1952 Space Stories. Both original magazine publications were full-length novels, though I am not certain that they contained the entire text of the book. I suspect they did, however. Big Planet was also published in hard covers by Avalon in 1957. It is a bit over 50,000 words long, and Slaves of the Klau is more like 42,000 words. It should be noted that Slaves of the Klau has been retitled Gold and Iron for the Vance Integral Edition, at Jack Vance's direction, and Vance's original, darker, ending has been restored. It is also worth noting that there was apparently a longer manuscript version of Big Planet, cut for first publication, that was later lost.
Big Planet is one of Vance's best remembered early novels, and justifiably so. He had not yet quite developed his mature prose style (except for much of The Dying Earth), but traces of it definitely shine through in this book. And his delight in inventing odd societies is fully evident, as well as his usual hint of misogynism. (The latter present too in Slaves of the Klau.) Moreover, while Big Planet is to some extent a travelogue (one of Vance's most preferred modes), it also has a nicely constructed plot with a satisfactory resolution.
Big Planet is a very large metal poor planet, fully inhabitable by humans. It has become a sort of repository for misfits tired of the regimented life on Earth, and a vast array of oddball groups have settled there over the centuries. The lack of long distance communications, and the sheer size of the planet, have meant that most societies have stayed fairly independent and isolated. But now it appears that one ruler, the Bajarnum of Beaujolais, has designs on conquering a large part of the planet. A new commission has been sent from Earth, led by Claude Glystra, to try to stop the Bajarnum, who is actually an Earthman named Charley Lysidder. But their ship is sabotaged, and they crashland near Beaujolais, but 40,000 miles from the Earth Enclave.
Glystra and his fellow survivors decide to try to make it to the Enclave -- but they have only local transport for their journey. Joined by a beautiful local girl, they begin the long journey. The novel, then, consists of this perilous trip, during which member after member of the group meets his death. They encounter some of the Bajarnum's soldiers amid a forest inhabited by men living in treehouses, nomadic raiders, a dangerous river crossing menaced by a plesiosaur-like monster, a town called Kirstendale with a delightful economic system that seems to allow everyone to live in luxury, an elevated sail-propelled sort of train (an idea he reused in one of his much later Anome books), and finally the Oracle of Myrtlesee. Glystra quickly realizes that one of their number must be a traitor, but who he cannot guess.
|(Cover by Ed Valigursky)|
Slaves of the Klau is not as good, and indeed it is surely one of Vance's least-known novels. Though I still enjoyed it fairly well. As the story opens, Earth is occupied, very benignly, by a few members of the Lekthwan race, a very humanoid (to the point of being typically beautiful, if unusually colored) people who have given humans the benefits of some of their advanced tech. But Roy Barch, an employee of one of the Lekthwan administrators, is suspicious -- he believes the Lekthwan influence, even if well-intended, will stunt Earth's development. He is also somewhat hopelessly under the spell of the beautiful daughter of his employer. One night he takes her on a date -- resulting only in frustration as she makes it clear that she regards him as a hopeless primitive -- but on returning to the Lekthwan estate he finds all the residents murdered. He and Komeitk Lelianr, the Lekthwan girl, are rounded up by the attackers, the brutish Klau. It seems the Klau are evil slavers, trying to take over the galaxy, and given only token resistance by the virtuous but ineffective races such as the Lekthwan.
The course of the rest of the story is predictable -- upon arriving at the slave planet, Roy finds a way to escape with "Ellen" (as he calls Komeitk Lelianr), despite her ennui and her conviction that resistance is hopeless. After hooking up with a grubby bunch of escapees, Roy eventually hatches a desperate plan to make a spaceship from scratch and head back to Earth. Vance elaborates this rather routine plot pretty well -- Roy's efforts are far from fully successful according to his plans -- though they do end up having the desired effect; and Komeitk Lelianr doesn't immediately jump into Roy's arms. It's not a great novel at all, but it's enjoyable in the terms of early 50s pulp SF, and it prefigures later Vance pretty well, particularly in the character of Komeitk Lelianr, who is the standard late Vance aloof, superior, woman. The only departure is that at the end she comes back to Roy (admittedly somewhat hesitantly), while in later Vance she would have been more likely to meet a bitter end. (And I don't know how his preferred version, Gold and Iron, ends, but I suspect this is one aspect that changes.)