Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Long Post About Jack Vance's Durdane

One of life's great pleasures is hunting out old Jack Vance paperbacks. Wherever we are, if I spot a second hand book shop and can spare a moment, I'll nip inside and check the shelves for any of those old old Sphere, Coronet or New England Library paper backs (always with great covers by Chris Foss or Jim Burns) that I haven't read before, hoping for a new treasure.

Vance was terrifically prolific, and it seems there's always something new to find. A lot of those books are forgettable pot boilers, of course - The Five Gold Rings is one I read recently that was just a threadbare pulp fiction detective plot mechanically articulated through wooden characters, barely held together by Vance's deft turn of phrase. I suppose it's the latter that keeps me buying, as there's always some wry turn of phrase in a Vance novel to make it worthwhile. Plus they're always short and small enough to fit in a jacket pocket, the sort of book you can finish between Tuesday and Thursday on the commute to work.

I prefer to hunt my Vance in the wild rather than purchase farm-reared Vance from Amazon sellers - the hunt is part of the thrill, and life is long so why use it all up at once? - but even after twenty-odd years of foraging there are some gaps in my Vance reading. I recently got to fill one of those gaps by reading the Durdane trilogy: The Anome, The Brave Free Men and The Asutra. I owned volumes one and three for quite some time in a couple of nice matching Coronet editions (from 1975, I think) but hadn't been able to track down the middle volume until late last year. Alas, it's not a match to the other two, but a rather nasty Ace edition (from 1978) with paper so coarse you could getter a splinter from it. Maybe I'll have to replace that rotten tooth in my collection using Amazon sellers...

Anyway, Durdane is second-tier Vance (in my estimation) but still contains much of interest especially for the Vance afficianado. It has all the classic Vance elements – isolated communities with eccentric customs, a wilful boy who rebels against the local martinets, Vance's famously melifluous prose and dark imagination. I could write about all that, about the interesting political questions that Vance raises or his curious treatment of women in this story, but since finishing my course, I've been thinking a bit more about books from a technical writerly persepctive. I find myself trying to peek behind the curtain to see if I can spot the writer at work, and this series of books gives quite an interesting perspective into Vance's development.

What follows is a rather lengthy rumination on plot and structure in Durdane. Just as a warning, unless you're really, really interested in jack Vance, you might find this a bit boring. Fair warning, this is me in full three-sheets to the wind boring SF didactic mode. A few years back I wrote a profile of Vance for the Zone, and that's an altogether easier place for the casual reader to begin, and the Vance afficianado might be interested to read my review of Vance's last (perhaps last ever) novel Lurulu, also on the Zone.

First published in 1970 (serialised in two parts in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) it was only the second series he completed, after the four Planet of Adventure novels, having apparently abandoned the Demon Princes series after three novels in 1967.Both of these earlier series are very rigidly structured around concrete setting details: the hunt and destruction of each of the five Demon Princes and Adam Rieth's encounters with the four civilisations of Tschai. In each series, every new book starts with the plot dial set back to zero, with the previous events having little impact on what comes next. I think that's why Vance likes these isolated communities. He can have a bit of action there and then move the cast along somewhere else without having any impact on the long-term narrative. In Durdane, I think he's attempting to produce a longer narrative with rising action that relies less on the this type of episodic picaresque.

He nearly pulls it off. The first two volumes tell a reasonably seamless story of Gastel Etzwane, a young man native to the continent of Shant on the Planet Durdane. He escapes religious slavery in the canton of Bashon and vows to return home one day and and free his mother and sister from indenture to the vile chiliites. To do this he must petition the Faceless Man (the titular Anome), the unseen ruler of Shant who controls the population through explosive collars around their necks. What follows has a restless quality as Vance searches for the main narrative: Etzwane's escape from the Chiliites occupies the first third of The Anome. Over the next third he seeks his fortune as a travelleing musician while saving the money to pay for his mother's freedom, as instructed by the Anome. When he returns to Bashon, though, he finds that the inhabitants have been slaughtered by rampaging Roguskhoi, beast men who have been sweeping into Shant from north. He petitions the Anome to fight this scourge, but is refused. Incensed, Etzwane sets about to rouse the people of Shant against the Anome, and this, and fight against the animalistic roguskhoi, take the action to the end of volume two, The Brave Free Men.

These first two volumes read very much as a single narrative. In fact, The Anome doesn't end, so much as stop almost mid-scene. There's much less of the wandering picaresque in this story than Vance's earlier and Etzwane returns to various locations and meets up with continuing characters who develop and change. At the end of The Brave Free Men, however, this story is done, and the new government of Shant is established. The roguskhoi have been traced to their source (the Asutra, spidery-squiddy aliens that can infiltrate the body of a human being and control their actions) and driven from Durdane.

Unable to extend the narrative beyond the first two books, Vance falls back on old habits to wrap the story up. The third volume finds Etzwane and his ally Ifness travelling to Durdane's other large continent, Caraz, to trace the Asutra. Posing as a travelling merchant, Ifness is secretly a Fellow of the Earth Historical Institute and provides Etzwane with assistance throughout the series. He's a convenient deus ex mechina whose handy Earth gadgets get them out of many a pickle. Ifness can only be of limited assistance, as the Institute rules certain interventions as illegal. In this regard he's more of a Vancian wizard, in particular of Shimrod from the Lyonesse series who acts under principles enforced by the master magician Murgen. These two travel around Caraz for half the final novel, and the characters and situations that had been the focus of the previous two volumes are forgotten. After a series of encounters at isolated communities, Etzwane finds himself kidnapped and taken to the Asutra homeworld, where humans are being used as cannon fodder in the course of some internal conflict. There he fights and finally defeats the Asutra on their own turf.

Or so he thinks, because the ending has got a really strange coda.

While he's on Asutra, Etzwane witnesses a huge space battle between the Asutra's flying bronze disks and the familiar black globes of their enemy, but this time a new type of ship intervenes sleek and silent and powerful. A couple of black ships are destroyed before the silver ships arrive, but then the bronze ships flee. Etzwane and his companions fight their way back to the camp and over-run it. They lay a trap and hijack an Asutra bronze disc space ship to take them back to Durdane. The Asutra are strangely passive, but Etzwane is exultant – he has rescued hundreds of humans and returned to Dyrdane.

But what of Ifness? Over the many months he was a slave for the Asutra, Etzwane held out hope that Ifness would come to the rescue, but he never turned up and Etzwane assumes that Ifness was unable to convince the authorities of Institute to break their code and intervene. When he returns to Caraz, he collects Ifness's boat and returns to Garwiy on Shant to discover what has happened to his ally. He discovers Ifness in Fontenay's Inn, somewhat displeased to see him. Etzwane asks why he did not rescue them and Ifness explains bruskly that he returned to his masters on Earth where he arranged for all the humans to be freed from the bondage of the Asutra. The sleek ships that Etzwane and his fellow slaves saw were Earth ships. By the time of the battle that Etzwane witnessed, the Asutra were already defeated, that's the only reason Etzwane and his fellow slaves were able to escape: they were to be evacuated in any case.

Suddenly, Etzwane's victory is snatched from him. His enemy was already defeated. And what's more, the man whom he assumed was coming to his rescue had no such intention, and dealt with matter without regard to Etzwane's safety. In the end, after all their adventures together, Ifness hardly seems to notice Etzwane at all. Etzwane longs to travel the universe, see Earth, but Ifness dismisses him as he might dismiss a bumpkin. The series ends on a sour note: in the end, Etzwane even refuses to join his old musical band. He sits and broods and drinks.

Vance could easily have contrived matters to have Ifness and Etzwane reunited on Asutra during the attack, but he deliberately marginalises the hero and really you've got to wonder why. I think Vance was always attracted to tragedy and melancholy, but the standard heroic narrative doesn't really allow for it. The Demon Kings ends on a similatly down beat note (as noted by David Langford in Jack Vance: Critical Appreciations and a Bibliography (ed. A E Cunningham).

His first great work, The Dying Earth is a kind of very fractured mutiple viewpoint novel, but subsequently he stuck to close third-person narratives until the later, longer series. In Durdane and The Demon Kings he pushes this linear plot scheme as hard as he can. In this series, he might have had a strand with Finnerack and Ifness and thus extended the action and added a bit of depth to the tale. It has the structure of those later series, but not the breadth. The multiple view-point narratives allowed him to explore levels of success and failure, and to weave in patterns of set back and victory for the main characters to drive the narrative.

This is where I need some neat homily to wrap this all up, but I haven't got one and it's my blog, you know, not a PhD panel, so I'm gonna just stop. I've read the Lyonesse trilogy quite recently (in the last couple of years, at least) but it's been a while since I read the Cadwal Chronicles, and I don't think I've ever read Throy. Consequently I'm interested now to dig them up and see how they measure against my theory here. On the other hand, I've already got a pile (three books!) and so I'll wait for now. Time is so short, the number of books to read so huge, and ever-growing!


  1. Nice wrap-up of Durdane which I (despite being a Vance fanatic) only just finished, thanks to borrowing, via interlibrary loan, the Vance Integral Edition of Durdane. I found this one riveting in its endless subculture inventions, the Pure Boys, the vampiric asutra, the crazy religious cults, irresistibly Vancian motifs like color symbology, the comic-treacherous innkeepers, the dazzling descriptions of meals, the 14,000-canto history of the asutra (!), and of course the excitement of the battles. I think Vance's command of language and mood is as stunning here as anywhere else, and it was hard for me to put this one down. Also I found Durdane terribly sad at the end. As you mention, it's like the Demon Princes, when Gersen's raison d'etre -- killing the DPs -- vanishes and he's bereft. It's a heartbreaking moment when Etzwane desperately asks Ifness to if he can accompany the latter -- to revisit the pleasures of sailing through space, visiting alien cultures (even when they enslave him), risking his life daily, and just living life to the full. Ifness's "no" was for me one of the most powerful moments in Vance.

    Thanks again for the good post on the incomparable JV.

  2. Thanks Gary! I too love the invention in Vance's work, and I think Durdane is one of the more feverishly inventive sequences he wrote. It looks to me as if he's throwing off ideas looking for one that will stick for a longer narrative - at the begginning there's a rapid escalation from the Chiliites, to the balloon way to the Anome to the rughoskoi, as if none of those ideas quite satisfies him. As I say, I think it's second-tier Vance and doesn't quite shoot the lights out, but it's intriguing to see him struggling towards the next great phase of his career.

    The ending is really quite extraordinary, and bleaker still than the Demon Princes (Gersen at least has got the girl). A friend of mine described it as "melancholy", but I think it goes beyond that to nihilistic.

    I did some proofreading on the VIE, btw, before other commitments caused me to step aside, and it was very interesting indeed to read a lot of pot-boiling and non-fantastic work. A lot of the same themes come up in his detective stories (especially the revenge plot) and even at his worse there's the fantastic prose style to enjoy.

    Anyway, thanks again for dropping by and happy reading!

    Patrick H

  3. "but a rather nasty Ace edition (from 1978) with paper so course".

    ITYM paper so coarse.

  4. Indeed so.

    Alas, I don't have a proof-reader on the payroll.

  5. Actually, I recently replaced that edition with a matching one from the Coronet series, picked up for 20p at a school fete. My obsessive compulsive disorder is somewhat assuaged!

  6. "who acts under principals enforced by the master magician Murgen"

    or perhaps "principles"?

  7. Yep. I've fixed it and fixed course/coarse, too. Crowd-sourced proof reading!

    Did you think it was a good review? Now all the Vance texts are being released electronically, I might do some more Vanceification later in the year, if folks are interested (probably the Alastor books).

  8. I liked your review and agree with you that in the third volume Vance loses the plot. The second volume is not as good as the first, but the third is much worse, particularly after Etzwane leaves Durdane for his interplanetary jaunt. Strangely, in the three copies I have (the Coronet edition), the typeface in the second volume is smaller than in the first, and in the third volume smaller than in the second, as if somehow reflecting the deterioration in the quality of the writing.

    Why not do a review of the Dying Earth books?

  9. I suspect I have the same Coronet editions (Jim Burns covers?) and you're right, the type face does get smaller. I'm sure it's just the vagaries of 70s pulp publishers, but is a telling metaphor!

    On the The Dying Earth, I actually have the "tribute" volume Songs of the Dying Earth unread, and thought of re-reading the Dying Earth Books before moving on to them, perhaps on a similar sort of time scale to my Lovecraft read-through.

    What gives me pause is that I have read the Dying Earth books several times, and not that long ago. The Alastor novels, OTOH, I haven't read for a long long time, and I'm not certain I read them all (definitely Marune and Trullion, but Wyst? Maybe...)

    I'll bear it in mind though. The "Songs" volume looks great and the originals are... well, originals!

    Once I've wrapped up HPL, next on the agenda is a read through of the Alan Moore run on Swamp Thing which I still own in comics from all those years ago. I'll get to more JV later in the year, so stay tuned!


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