Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Birthday Review: The Anthony Villiers Novels, by Alexei Panshin

Today is Alexei Panshin's 79th birthday. I wanted to highlight his work with a look at my favorites among his work, the Anthony Villiers novels. This is something I wrote back in 2001, though I don't think my perspective has really changed.

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)
Star Well (1968) is the first.  Anthony Villiers (aka Viscount Charteris) is a 30ish man in a future Galactic Empire.  His father has despaired of him after Villiers divorced the woman he had been pushed into a quasi-political marriage with, and he has been given an allowance and apparently told to wander the less travelled parts of the Empire.  But, we immediately gather, he is a very talented man. (Indeed, though I don't really think Panshin necessarily had read Dorothy Dunnett back in 1968 when these books came out (though The Game of Kings dates to 1961, so he could have), in some ways Villiers recalls Lymond (with a bit less of an edge -- the books are comedies, after all).  Though as Sherwood Smith points out, more likely Villiers and Lymond both descend from such ancestors as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Lord Peter Wimsey.)  Villiers is slight, handsome, a great dresser, very polite, very intelligent, good with weapons, etc. etc.  He travels everywhere in the company of an alien Trog named Torve.  Torve is a philosophical being, in appearance a 6 foot tall furry frog, who composes "musical" pieces which sound like "Thurb".


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.
(Cover by Kelly Freas)

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)
The third, and, sadly, probably last, of these novels is Masque World (1969).  The book closes with an announcement that the fourth, The Universal Pantograph, will be appearing soon, but it's been over 30 years now, with no sign of it. Apparently (at any I heard it on Usenet, so it must be true) Panshin was dissatisfied with his treatment at the hands of Ace, perhaps not surprisingly.  He still makes occasional noises that sound like he might eventually write it (and perhaps the up to three further books originally planned) -- but I fear that the 60ish Panshin would not write the book the 30ish Panshin would have, most likely to the detriment of the product. [Now that Panshin is nearly 80, I think all thoughts of another novel of any sort from him can likely be abandoned.]

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.

5 comments:

  1. I read these Villiers novels back in the 1960s when they came out, but I don't remember how I reacted to them. I loved Rite of Passage, and his nonfiction Heinlein in Dimension. I thought about trying them again in 2012 when they were produced on audio, but never never felt like risking an Audible credit on one.

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  2. I've long been curious about these (the only Panshin I've read is Rite of Passage, which is far from a lighthearted romp), and I'll definitely give them a try now.

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  3. Every decade or so I longingly look for "the next Villiers" book to finally be given to the world.

    At this time of his & my life I am learning to let things go .. only still learning.

    I always imagined that he had already written it and in his reply to a letter I sent to him way back when through his publisher, he chose to say that the market had moved away from Villiers (and sighted 3 current, popular, author's books). In my irrepressible optimism I thought to wait for times to change and they have, but no wonderous release. The 3 stories were just the right amount of non-violence, mystery, not too much "futuristic tech", humor that was jus t righ, and comfortable characterization. Very distinctive. Have never encountered the like since.

    As you can tell they matched my sensibility very well.

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    1. I've come to the conclusion that The Universal Pantograph was never written, or at least never finished. And, alas, I fear it never will be. I see Panshin post every so often on Facebook or elsewhere, but I've never had the guts to ask him about the possibility of another Villiers book.

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    2. Please please please please DO ask him - I've been waiting since I first picked up Star Well during an airport layover, in sheer desperation, as I didn't know the author and it had an awful cover. The whole trilogy is one of my favorite reads. I long to know what happens next - shame on Panshin for dropping all those hints and then not delivering - there otta be a law!

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