Sunday, 14 March 2010

Fantasms & Magics by Jack Vance

I have a horror of being left without something to read on public transport. Even if I don't actually read whatever it is, it's a comfort to know it's in my bag, ready to hand if I need it. On the other hand, though, I don't like to plan my reading out too far in advance. I find a big pile of books lined up to read gets intimidating after a while, and is often populated by things that were a good idea at the time, but are now no longer attractive.

These competing impulses and delivery snafu on the part of amazon UK (I had to pick the parcel up from a warehouse on a side street off the Old Kent Road on Saturday morning) have coincided to leave me without anything new to read. I had Rogue Moon on hand as an emergency book, but that was the last of these I had to hand.

I clearly need to pay a visit to my regular second hand haunts, but in the meantime, I reached for Fantasmes & Magics by Jack Vance. I've read this short story collection before, but Vance is a writer who rewards revisiting. The fine details of his musical style, are always a pleasure, and he is a canny thinker on matters of practical ethics and human nature, and his quaintly told stories have the the sonorous authority of fairy stories.

In Fantasms & Magics, Jack provides a foreword reflecting on the theme of the paranormal that could come straight from the mouth of one of his quick-witted protagonists:

Phenomena such as telepathy and poltergeists may well be manifestations of different and distinct principles: there may be two, three, four or more such realms of knowledge, each as rich and intricate as physics or astronomy. There is little systematic study. Conventional scientists shy away from the field because they are, in fact, conventional; because they fear to compromise their careers; because the subject is difficult to get a grip on; because scientists are as susceptible to awe and eeriness as anyone else.

This is the ostensible theme of the collection, but Jack himself admits that “the stories in this volume are by no means homogeneous” and it includes reflective shorts like “The Men Return” and “Noise”, a format that allows him to express pure atmosphere and character without directly addressing any particular theme, let alone that stated in the foreword; Guyal of Sfere from The Dying Earth is also reproduced here, but I admit I didn't read it this time around.

The foreword seems to have been written with the opening story in mind, a novella called “The Miracle Workers”. The action takes place in a typical Vance setting – a distant planet separated from the mainstream of human civilization, a closed society with its own rules and morĂ©s. In this case, the descendants of star ship crews fleeing a galactic war have degraded into warring medieval clans, battling for supremacy with swords and bows and the occasional piece of ancient technology, no longer understood but lovingly maintained.

As well as lords and knights, there is a technocratic class of wizards called jinxmen, who arrange for supernatural aid in their masters' battles, using powers of sympathetic magic and possession. These are clearly based on the voodoo cultures of the Caribbean and given a gloss of sci fi psionics of the type that was popular in the fifties and sixties. In these skeptical times it's easy to forget that ESP and psionics were respectable, if speculative, subjects for believable SF - it's integral to classics SF like the Lensmen, Dune, the Foundation series, Stranger In a Strange Land, Slan and numerous novels by Phil K Dick.

This “explanation” of the jinxmen's hoodoo is a trifle ambiguous, the question of how much we're supposed to credit the power of suggestion and how much is genuine psychic phenomenon is left open. The jinxmen themselves are typically Vancian martinets and acerbic rivals, competing for the favour of their commanding Lord while pretending lofty aloofness from material matters.

However, while effective against human opponents, the jinxman's powers turn out to be no use against the insectile hive mind of the First Folk, the winsomely named indigenous inhabitants of the planet. When the First Folk attack the humans, the jinxmen turn out to be unwilling to accept new ways of dealing with the problem. This being Jack Vance, there's a an iconoclast on hand to save the day. On this occasion the roles is split between the wise head jinxman Hein Huss and the free-thinking apprentice Sam Salazaar who finally triumphs using the discredited ancient principles of evidence-based research.

It's a wonderful story told with the wit and imagination I love Jack Vance for, and rendered with great clarity through his typically well-judged prose. It distils so many of Vance elements themes into a single small package – petty rivalries, erudite debates on based on imaginary metaphysics, the challenge of the new, and in the First Folk, matters of colonialism and the nature of the alien.

This was well worth a re-read, and its good know there are writers like Vance that one can return to again and again. On the other hand, I'm glad I've got my amazon package at last and can get on with reading something new now.

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