Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Planet of Adventure

If I had George R. R. Martin’s plotting skills, Tanith Lee’s lyrical style, Orson Scott Card’s characterization abilities and Jack Vance’s creativity, I would be a very happy writer. But if I could only have one of the above, I’d go with Jack Vance’s imagination.

The first Vance novels I read were the Planet of Adventure series, also sold under the title Tschai, the name of the titular planet. I suppose “Planet of Adventure” didn’t sound like something adults would be likely to pick up, which is too bad, because that describes the books perfectly. Life on Tschai is an endless roller-coaster ride, alternately bleak and crazy and frustrating and fascinating. And no books that I’ve ever read can match the Tschai novels for sheer creativity.

The story itself is extremely simple. A spaceship from Earth is destroyed while in the orbit of an alien planet, leaving only one survivor. Stranded on the planet, Adam Reith gains allies, antagonizes powerful factions, avoids assassins, saves a princess and tries to get back to Earth. It’s told over four short volumes, each of which can more or less stand alone. The characterization is rudimentary. Reith is what you'd expect an American spaceman from a book published in 1979 to be like – brave, loyal, ubercompetent (he fences circles around a cavalier) and red-blooded. Every character speaks like every other, in a complex scholarly way that sometimes segues into speechmaking but very rarely into levity.

But that’s not why I read the books. I read them – and enjoy them – because Vance can, in a few words or sentences, provide an utterly alien culture or appearance or behavior. Tschai itself is home to four very different alien races (hence the four books), three of whom live on the surface and one which skulks below. Each race uses humans, kidnapped from Earth and brought to Tschai, and has selectively bred and trained these humans to be similar in appearance and behavior to whichever race they serve. Then there are the numerous other societies on Tschai, each with its own mating rituals, weapons, style of dress or religion. The setting is just as lush and inventive, and the meals... well, read for yourself.

There was yellow broth, faintly sweet, with floating flakes of pickled bark; slices of pale meat layered with flower petals; a celery-like vegetable crusted with crumbs of a fiery-hot spice; cakes flavored with musk and resin.
Planet of Adventure, book 2

Vance’s characters wear bizarre hats, haze-water and breeches buckled at the knee and ankle with jeweled brooches. I can see echoes of this in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but in the Planet of Adventure books, it’s much more concentrated. It’s like taking a great gulp of literary vodka.

So I don’t read these books expecting a Byzantine plot, or characters who will make me laugh or cry. Instead, I browse through them with an open notebook at hand. Then when I read about something like sequins (the universal currency of Tschai) growing from the ground in great nodes, I can scribble something like, “Money literally growing on trees. Consider!” That’s a pretty crude example, but you see what I mean. There is so much imagination in these books (as there is for pretty much all of Vance’s work) that they spark my own thoughts in different directions. Because of that, I can browse through them again and again. I’m sure to find something I missed the first or second or third times, some throwaway term or description that will give me a flight of fantasy.


Luc2 said...

Funny that you mention GRRM's plotting skills. Although strong in the early books, I thought the meandering plot in book 4 to be his weak pint. His strongest point is characterization, IMO.

Good point about how you can pick up specific strong points with different writers. As much as there's to complain about Robert Jordan, his intricate worldbuilding, including very intricate details about different societies is still fascinating, IMO, even after 12 books.

kiwi said...

Jack Vance? Thank's for the post, Marian, I'm going to check him out.

Agree with you, Luc2, on RD. Unlike GRRM, Rob really was 'other worldly.' It's a real tragedy he didn't get to finish the series.

Marian Perera said...

Funny that you mention GRRM's plotting skills. Although strong in the early books, I thought the meandering plot in book 4 to be his weak pint.

True. The highlights of the first book for me, plot-wise, were Ned Stark's fall and Dany's rise. The second book had the Battle of the Blackwater Rush. The third book had the assault on the Wall, Dany's battles, the Red Wedding and the duel. The fourth book had... Brienne and the Bloody Mummers, Cersei's decline, Brienne and the Bloody Mummers (the sequel) and intrigues everywhere. The only thing that really stood out with a bang was the kingsmoot. I'm hoping the next book makes up for this.

Marian Perera said...

Jack Vance? Thank's for the post, Marian, I'm going to check him out.

I'm sure you'll find it an interesting experience, provided you know in advance what to expect. I also recommend "The Moon Moth", a short story published in 1961, if you can find it, since it's one of the few things I've read from Vance that has a plot as good as the setting. On the planet Sirene, people wear masks constantly - fanciful concoctions with names like Forest Goblin, Moon Moth and Sea Dragon Conqueror, the mask representing a person's status and position. The protagonist is sent to Sirene to find a murderer who has blended in with the local population, but how is he supposed to do that when it's a killing offence to take anyone's mask off?