Long ago I read at least one of Alexei Panshin's Anthony Villiers novels, and I remembered the book with some affection. I ran across all three of them in a used book store a little while back, so I bought them and decided to give them a reread. I read the three books very quickly -- they are very readable books, witty, with nice characters that you root for, and considerable narrative momentum in the absence of particularly rigorous plots. The first book has an introduction by Samuel R. Delany, in which he calls the series a roman fleuve and compares it to A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. That qualifies as one of the less acute comments Delany has made, IMO. Just because a series of books is a series doesn't make it a roman fleuve, and certainly just because a series of books is vaguely comic in tone and about the doings of bohemian and upper class sorts doesn't make it much like A Dance to the Music of Time (which is one of my favorite 20th Century works.) That said, the description I gave above, "very readable, witty, with nice characters ..., and considerable narrative momentum in the absence of particularly rigourous plots" actually does apply fairly directly to Dance. But let that pass -- the Villiers books don't really resemble Powell's great novel all that much, but they are very enjoyable. Indeed, I was quite surprised by how much I liked them -- more than I expected by a long shot.
|(Cover by Kelly Freas)|
Villiers finds himself on Star Well, an isolated planetoid in the middle of the Flammarion Rift, which is something of a tourist attraction -- basically an hotel/casino. He is a bit short of cash, but partly by outfoxing the crooked casino operators, he is on his way to getting enough money to head to the planet where his father's allowance can be claimed. On Star Well he discerns that something fishy is going on, particularly when he stumbles across a starship landing port that is not mentioned on most maps of the planetoid. He also encounters a plucky 15 year old girl who is chafing at the thought of the four years her father (as it turns out, a friend of Villiers) means her to spend at a finishing school. And he finds himself the target of a clumsy attempt at a scam. Torve the Trog shows up in the company of a fat Mithraist priest named Augustus Srb, who may not be all he seems. After some enjoyable capering about, we learn that Srb is an Inspector General, convinced that something nasty is going on behind the scenes a the casino. Villiers, seemingly by accident, ends up helping out. The ending involves a duel, and then a scary conclusion where Villiers' 15 year old friend stumbles into real danger and he manages to rescue her at the last minute. It's handled with a nice very light touch, and lots of real cleverness, and dry humor. Very enjoyable.
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The Thurb Revolution (1968) finds Villiers and Torve on Shiawassee, a planet under a somewhat strict censorship regimen. Almost any sort of art is forbidden, so, by mysterious means, Villiers ends up heading to another planet in the system, Pewamo, which is used only for camping and very limited tourism. He influences some idle youth from Shiawassee to follow him, and almost by accident ends up starting a new artistic movement. Plus he encounters his old friend Fred, who is fleeing an arranged marriage of his own (remember that Villiers had trouble with his arranged marriage). One of the cute things Panshin does is never tell us who Fred really is in The Thurb Revolution -- but an offhand reference in Star Well makes it clear that he is actually the Emperor's second son. Throw in an intelligent cloud that thinks it is God, an assassin, a gawky young woman disguised as a man, a set of acquaintances of Villiers engaged in an unusual form of Tag, and you have another feather light but very enjoyable book.
|(Cover by Kelly Freas)|
At any rate, Masque World, which turns out to be the Villiers book I had read in my teens, is of a piece with the previous two. Light-hearted and clever, very fun to read. The plot is hardly worth recounting -- it concerns a nobleman (and relative of Villiers) obsessed with melons, two Trogs (one real and one fake), a Christian historian, the phenomenon of peelgrunt, the Monists, the parents and sister of Louise Parini, and an incompetent bureaucrat and his alien supervisor. Good solid fun. And I gnash my teeth that I will never read the "real" Universal Pantograph.
All in all, these are three of the most purely enjoyable SF books I have read recently. Not serious in plot or tone, they still allow room for meditation on serious topics. And they are very nicely constructed with a very light but sure hand, and interlarded with funny bits -- sometimes farcically so, more often arch or subtle. First rate -- on the evidence of these books, Panshin's near complete disappearance from the fiction writing world is just a damn shame. (His only other novels are the Nebula-winning Rite of Passage (1968) and a fantasy co-written with his wife Cory Panshin, Earth Magic (1978).) Phoenix Pick published an omnibus edition of the three Anthony Villiers novels just this past June as New Celebrations.