Jack Vance: Science Fiction’s Trickster Against Teleology

If there is one science fiction author that Francis Fukuyama and the general neoliberal ‘thought leader’ establishment would dislike, it has to be Jack Vance. Not that I suspect such classes of people have heard of him as he wrote genre fiction with a noticeable lack of mid-life crisis-having college professors having affairs with their students to compensate for existential despair. While such literary guardians search fruitlessly for the meaning of history, Vance just comes up with a darkly comic ‘LOL’ in response.

Jack Vance was an author of immense output whose ‘golden age’ of writing occurred between the 60s and 80s (though he was active from the 40s-oughts) and who spanned numerous genres and themes. He is also, full confession, my favorite author.

moon moth jack vance comic

Image taken from a comic adaptation of ‘The Moon Moth’ by Jack Vance. Adaptation by Humayoun Ibrahim.

Though Vance’s best and arguably most famous works are his ‘Dying Earth’ series, which I cannot recommend heavily enough, right now I want to focus in particular on his science fiction space operas, which was the majority of his output. There was a succession of settings which one could argue, albeit without concrete proof, were all different time periods in the same history of a future Milky Way.

Whether one calls it the Oikumene, the Gaean Reach, or what have you, Jack Vance had a fairly consistent view of far-future space colonization in a setting of faster than light drive. Most high space settings, when they include time dilation and forgo any violation of the lightspeed barrier, often focus on how much cultures diverge from planet to planet. In faster-than-light drive settings, however, this effect is often downplayed. Not in the case of Vance. If anything, the opposite seems to occur and contact with others leads many people to intentionally differentiate themselves. What comes from this is a theme of highly bizarre alien cultures (though almost always the cultures are human in origin) which are often not isolated but in contact-especially commercial contact-with each other.

In the variety of settings across the time of Vancean Space, there usually seems to be a pleasant core region (usually centered around Earth) where living standards are high but high population densities and the monolithic nature of culture has quashed any sense of adventure or counterculture. This leads many to migrate outwards, past the bubble of First World type planets, and into a wild frontier of what habitable worlds can be found there. Cults, communities focused on professions or hobbies, and general societal rejects have then created a halo of space where they can do what they want on their various colonies, albeit with little security or stability as the inevitable rush of grifters, criminals, and space pirates follows them for these new opportunities far away from state police or military control.

Even ‘The End of History’ as it pertains to Earth and its nearby colonies is really just the impetus for starting it elsewhere. And as some stories imply (not even including the Dying Earth series) such as The Last Castle, life on the core worlds may too one day degenerate from its present bucolic nature.

Often, a typical space-bourne Vancean protagonist is someone from the core worlds who finds themselves on a secret mission or stranded by chance in some odd sector of space or planet. In these types of stories, there are often multiple cultures on each planet, with the ‘Planet of Adventure’ series going the furthest by having a world divided up into spheres of influence based on the natives and three alien species from elsewhere. The unifying factor is that all of these species have taken towards humanity as servitor races through abduction as a race easy to genetically manipulate. Each of these species then has a form of humanity modified to be their junior partners with varying results. In some the modified peoples are outright slaves, in others they eke out a semi-independent organization while presenting a deceptive face to their masters, and in others, the human-alien hybrids have actually become the dominant force over their supposed masters.

Another kind of Vancean protagonist is that of the person born and raised on these strange and faraway worlds. Often, such types experience culture shock if they go to the core worlds and we see the process mentioned above is portrayed in reverse. Since these are the characters who are more likely to face intense danger such as pirate attacks of wars between worlds, they tend to be a bit more action-oriented.  The ‘Demon Princes’ saga of novellas, my personal favorite of Vance’s science fiction, fits this setting the best. A group of criminal masterminds who once destroyed the protagonists’ home colony on a slaving raid is hunted down, Kill Bill style, by the main character. But the story is more of an excuse plot to take us on a tour of this bizarre frontier of space. Each of the big baddies have personalities that loom larger than life over their respective narratives, and each has effectively retired to use their ill-gotten gains to pursue careers as what can only be described as ‘failed artists.’ The various planets they settle on to do this also affect these post-criminal hobbies to great degrees, from an incel impotent surrounding himself with a cloned harem of his one past true love to a jilted fantasy author whose many characters have become distinct personalities jockeying for control in his own brain, to a god-complex LARPer who uses a giant land crawler bristling with weapons to terrorize a planet full of pre modern peasantry, all the strange grotesquerie of flush with success humanity is there. The galaxy for the successful gangster is like one giant Little St James Island.

A truly great and genre-bending tale is ‘The Dragon Masters,’ which is about a world were humans having once fought off a costly reptilian alien attack have now technologically degenerated into a medieval-style culture where genetically modified ‘dragons’, which are the former reptile alien captives, are now dumb beasts bred for war and ridden into battle by the knightly human class of the planet. The real twist occurs when, after this long-lived culture introduced, the old reptile aliens return for a second invasion, now riding atop giant human-modified brutes descended from those they took captive on their last raid. An epic battle of aliens riding beast-men and men riding beast-aliens ensues.

In general, Vance tends to like worlds with a rural, even pre-modern vibe. Planets where elaborate cultures of social prestige and Byzantine rules of public conduct are fascinating but often skin deep covers for the base greed and sensual drives of humanity everywhere. Haggling, negotiation, commerce, and espionage are near-constant themes be it do or die pulp adventure or sedate social climbing. The sheer amount of cultural protocol makes you wonder how many anthropologists enjoy these stories. The short ‘Moon Moth’ or ‘Languages of Pao’ are good starters on these types of themes.

But always Vance straddles a line between extremes. He never glorifies his strange cultures, showing the more insular ones in a kind of parochial light and all as a mixed bag. Neither does he glorify the safe homeworlds of humanity’s first civilizations. He is telling an aggressively values-neutral tale of both the highs and lows of cultural diversity, erring on the side of diversity being positive but also quantifying that with a strong *but not all forms of it*.

Be they alien to the culture they are exploring or natives, almost all of Vance’s space heroes are reformers in some sense. Or at least disruptive personalities. Although his most overt trickster character is in Dying Earth, you still see many lesser versions of this personality type in his science fiction. Change is good, if rough as a process. Diversity is not stasis but can and should be an unfolding process. One cannot help but kept the impression that Jack Vance, had he lived in the future of his own creation, would have spent his youth out in the frontier and only later retired to the core worlds. This was, after all, a guy whose sense of irony was so cultivated that when a publisher begged him to write a conventional space opera he responded by writing a book literally titled ‘Space Opera’…but made it about an interstellar opera company and how a variety of their shows are perceived in the different planetary cultures they go to.

But then again, there are enough protagonists of his who end up adopting a strange new planet’s culture even if their first interaction with it was hostile. As a person who was born and raised in America but often found myself more comfortable living abroad, I can certainly see this. Vance was a very well-traveled person in his early life before partial blindness and age eventually relegated him to his Oakland home before he died in 2013.

In his future, just like in ours, history will never end nor will it go inevitably in just one direction either until the human race is extinct. And even then events will still unfold, just without us. No matter how many planets we colonize, the process of repulsion, which I discussed before in more metaphysical and theoretical terms here, remains a part of the human experience.  And the various tricksters will always keep things interesting even if all we have to look forward to is entropy.

And yes, since I mentioned it enough here I am sure eventually I will make a sequel to this post specifically about the fantasy of Jack Vance such as The Dying Earth and Lyonesse.

 

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