From Alastor to dying earth

Or actually, the reverse. Not long ago I started Jack Vance’s ‘Tales of the dying earth’, which is a collection of four (all four) of the dying earth novels. After a small interlude of short stories from Asimov’s, i continued into his ‘Alastor’, which provides the entire Alastor trilogy. I had never read Vance before, which is odd because he is one of the great of sci-fi, and with right i discovered.

To start with the dying earth: at first i was taken aback, as it started about magicians and strange gardens and a general atmosphere of fantasy i never quite can get in to. Even though the novel is set in the very-far future, where the sun is waning and coming to an end of its life (we’ll forgive Vance that the sun will not die as a small flickering red start but instead starts a new life cycle after expanding beyond earth’s atmosphere), there is not much technology in the stories.

One of the sub-stories details ancient technology, that after lying dormant in the foundations of an old city where strange folk live is brought to life again by an adventurer from elsewhere. I’m a sucker for hard sci-fi, where technology and the explanation thereof makes up an important part of the verbatim. It may then come as a surprise that this was not the story that interested me the most. What I found most intriging were the wanderings of Cugel the Clever.

Set in an almost medieval scenery (but like the other dying earth novels really situated in the far far future), the stories revolving around this unfortunate character describe his troubles as a result of trespassing on the premises of Iocunou the laughing magician. Cliffhanger after cliffhanger propel the reader (ie. myself) through the chapters. Misfortune is met by ingenuity (Cugel is not called the Clever for nothing), and in the end all is well.

However entertaining the dying earth novels were, their lack of star travel and techonology left me wanting. So I started the Alastor trilogy without too much expectations in that regard. The trilogy is set in Alastor cluster, a set of some 30.000 stars around many of which worlds revolve, inhabited by the off-spring of earth people. Three such worlds are described by the stories of some of their inhabitants.

Generally, the surroundings of these worlds are relatively low-tech, but still Vance manages to instill in the stories a good sense of how life might be in such a future where mankind has spread over 3000 worlds. He brilliantly discusses three very different cultures, that have evolved over the aeons. The story set on Marune reads like a fairy tale, with kings and queens, knights and noblemen and castles riddled with secret passageways. Still, they ride in air-cars and converse by video-phone.

The first and last stories show a contrast, in the story set on Trullion a young man returning from a few years of active duty to discover his homestead beyond recognition struggles to get together the money that, when acquired, will set everything right. Or so he thinks. An open, but relatively happy end leaves the reader wondering about what might follow with the people he has come to known intimately.

The last story, set on Wyst, is no doubt inspired by the anti-soviet sentiment prevalent in the US around the time the story was written, something you get a lot actually with sci-fi from the 60s/70s. Called egalism, the doctrine of equality among all gives the people of Arrabus a seemingly lustful live: they work only a few hours a week, and spend the rest of the week enjoying themselves. Although their joy is relative, as it exists mostly of drinking and exploring sexual perversities. There are only three dishes in the country, and all live the same live. Revolution is in the air, though, sparked by the visit of the off-worlder who is the hero in this story.

Vance is a master of describing cultures, somewhat reminiscient of David Brinn’s exptrapolations of extra-terresterial life (although of course Vance preceded Brinn). Reading the stories is visiting the worlds. It is easy to identify with the main character, because all three of them are, like the reader, dropped in unknown surroundings, perplexed by the people and the circumstances. Gradually the circumstances unfold, and the secrets become known and we learn the true nature of things.

Luckily, Vance is a proliferate writer. There’s at least a dozen more novels from his hand to explore. I’m hooked, ABC stock your shelves with Vance, I’m coming for more!

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