Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Cadwal Chronicles by Jack Vance

This series of three novels – Araminta Station, Ecce & Old Earth and Throy – sees the arrival of Vance’s late style. It sets the tone for Vance’s final sequence, Nightlamp, Ports of Call and Lurulu, a series of elegiac novels set in his established far future of galactic civilisation, the Gaean Reach.

The Gaean Reach isn’t an especially detailed setting. It’s more like a set of conventions that look a lot like pulp-era space opera: easy interplanetary travel, wide-spread human settlement, near-universal currency, language and police force across the galaxy, and thriller plots based on simple motivations of greed, lust or revenge. Vance uses this classic setting as a background for his vividly detailed imagination for place, his ear for droll, self-regarding rhetoric, particularly on the part of his villainous characters, and the extraordinary vocabulary he deploys with such effortless flair.

However, the pulp-era elements he leans on so heavily are built on attitudes that are these days considered naive, and even offensive. Many readers will find the sexist thriller clichés and character types distracting, and the rough and ready evolutionary anthropology suggested by the numerous depraved or backwards societies of the Gaean Reach has disturbing implications.

Could it be that hiding behind the jovially cruel Vancian world view lies a racist and sexist tract?

The planet Cadwal is a nature reserve run by a small bureaucracy of administrators known as the Conservancy. Centuries ago the Conservancy was established by a charter from the ancient Naturalist Society to maintain the planet in its pristine state from the small settlement of Araminta Station. Life among the Conservators is bound bound by strict – and somewhat arcane – rules of rank and privilege. According to the charter the population of Cadwal is limited to staff of six Agencies, each limited to 20 agents and their immediate families. Over the 10 centuries since the founding of the conservancy each agency has become the preserve of a single family.

When a family member comes of age they’re ranked according to a complicated and not entirely transparent formula that measures their entitlement to remain on Cadwal. Those that pass can look forward to a life of luxury in the genteel world of the Conservators. Those who fail are sent offworld to seek their fortune. Needless to say, failure is seen as catastrophe, and so places are hotly contested.

At the time of the Cadwal Chronicles, the Society is in disarray and the disappearance of vital documents puts the planet’s unspoilt state at risk. A cabal of self-serving bureaucrats and malign interests want to seize Cadwal for themselves using an uprising of the servant class, known as the Yips, as cover to make their move. The series follows the efforts of a group of citizens of the Conservancy to prevent them, in particular the young hero Glawen Clattuc.

The antagonists are led by two sisters, Spanchetta and Smonny Clattuc, both forbidding women, with generous figures and masses of curly hair. They’re driven by greed and lust for power, but their true motivations are personal.

Smonny seeks vengance for the humiliation of being refused agency at her own coming of age. She’s engineered herself into the position of leader of the Yips and plans to use them to destroy the Concervancy and take control of Cadwal. Spanchetta had intended to marry Glawen’s father, Scharde Clattuc, an ambition not shared by Scharde himself. When he returned from offworld married to Glawen’s mother, Spanchetta was furious and has worked to sabotage his life since. Destroying the Conservancy is for her just another way to destroy Scharde.

Their ally and rival is Dame Clytie Vergence - ‘a handsome woman if rather stern’ - a Warden the Conservancy and political grandee. Dame Clytie is a member of the Life, Peace and Freedom Party, who seek to nullify the charter and bring democracy to all inhabitants of Cadwal, including the Yips.

It’s a front for more selfish interests, of course. Their goal is later revised to a desire for ‘structured democracy’, where Yips will have some nominal rights but remain the servant class. Members of the Life, Peace and Freedom Party, meanwhile, will be free to establish substantial estates in Cadwal’s more picturesque spots and the fortunate Yips will be allowed to work the land and serve cool drinks to former party members.

All three are played quite broadly, like domineering aunts from a P G Wodehouse story, aided of course by Vance’s fine touch with elegant sarcasm and obduracy. But they are villains in earnest and this is not farce. Spanchetta and Dame Clytie advance the cause by hampering matters matters within the Conservancy while Smonny directs the most beastly crimes – murder, rape, kidnap, blackmail and torture.

It’s unusual to see a book with three female villains. I suppose one could see them as powerful women operating in a man’s world but they’re still stereotypical frigid harridans, driven by egomania and sexual frustration. It definitely doesn’t feel like a celebration of subversive girl power.

Glawen’s girlfriend, Wayness Tamm manages an adventure every bit as eventful as Glawen’s in the middle section of Ecce & Old Earth, but aside from her, the main heroes are all men – Glawen, Scharde, Bodwyn Wook, Egon Tamm, Eustace Chilke. She proves herself the equal of every challenge that crosses her path, but she’s a feisty girl type, a cunning Nancy Drew to Glawen’s ultraviolent Hardy Boy. She even gets to show her nurturing side to the poor orphans, Myron and Lydia during her run-in with the evil step-mother Irena Portils.

Importantly, Wayness is also a good girl, because sex is one of the things that turns a woman bad. The likes
of Spanchetta are entirely driven by frustrated desire, while Smonny becomes a debased bawd presiding over every kind of depravity at Yipton. Even Irena Postils, it’s implied, pines for the glamorous treasure hunter Melvish Keebles. Male villains also tend to be afflicted with an excess of lust – the roué Namour, the sleazy youth Arles, and Kirdy Wook who is entirely broken by his desires.

Vance isn’t a puritan: Glawen and Wayness both enjoy physicality, and an excess of sexual continence is just as damaging as an excess of lust. The cult of the Zubenites, a wonderfully deranged Vancian sect, are driven to murderous psychosis by their sexless creed of Monomantic Syntoraxis.

Nevertheless, rape is a constant source of threat. Araminta Station is driven largely by the apparent rape and murder of Glawen’s first love, Sessily Vedder, before the main plot hits its stride. Wayness Tamm is threatened this way several times, and even Glawen is kidnapped by the Zubenites for use as a sex slave. Sexual threats often turn up in Vance’s fiction; off the top of my head I can think of Pallis Atwode in The Star King and Glyneth threatened by Vishbume in Lyonesse – I’m sure there are many other examples.

The mood can be inconsistent, though, ranging from ruthless sexual violence to the rubicund bawdiness of classic farce, like the punishment of fairy Twisk in Lyonesse or Wayness Tamm’s farcical encounter with Bully Buffums at the Mischap and Doorn auction house in Ecce & Old Earth. Maybe it’s deliberately mixed up to keep the reader off balance? Maybe it’s just a matter of keeping the mix just right? The fruity atmosphere is one of the joys of reading Vance but without this sensation of threat and danger under the surface, maybe it would all be a bit twee.

The atmosphere of sexual threat feels especially lurid in contrast to the classic 1950s space-police atmosphere of the Gaean Reach setting. The technology level is more like a Golden Age space opera than an interplanetary epic written in the 1980s and 90s. Characters call each other on video phones and write letters. The space police use simple blasters or their fists. There’s a rich diversity of planets inhabited by all varieties of humanity, lightly sprinkled with Orientalised aliens. The universe is more or less entirely Newtonian and travelling between the stars is so easy it’s not even worthy of comment by anyone (occasionally referred to as ‘intersplit’).

The formal Vancian style also suggests a former age and the characters behave as if it’s the 1950s rather than thousands of years in the future. All the boys at school dream of owning a space yacht in which to cruise the space ways; the Girls all want to find a date for Parilla, the annual Cadwal wine festival.

The old-school manners and ‘classic’ SF background give his futuristic world an ancient and dreamy atmosphere, lost in time like The Dying Earth. However, his reliance on classic imagery leads Vance further into dark territory, the murky issue of race.

The main threat to Cadwal are the descendants of illegal immigrants and escaped servants, known as the Yips. The Smonny and Spanchetta and the LPF mean to exploit the issue, but the Yips are a problem anyway. If it was possible to negotiate with the Yips, it might be possible to solve the problem, but the Yips aren’t really that type. Their character is neatly expressed in the description of their illegal settlement, Yipton.
Yipton had long been a tourist attraction in its own right. Ferries from Araminta station conveyed tourists to Yipton, where they were housed in the Arcady Inn: a ramshackle structure five stories high built entirely of bamboo poles and palm fronds. On the terrace Yip girls served gin slings, sundowners, coconut toddy: all formulated, brewed or distilled at Yipton from materials whose nature no one cared to learn. Tours were conducted around the noisome yet strangely charming canals of Yipton, and to other places of interest, such as the Caglioro, the Women’s Baths, the Handicraft Shops. Services of an intimate nature were provided both men and women at ‘Pussycat Palace’, five minutes walk from the Arcady Inn along creaking bamboo corridors. At Pussycat Palace the attendants were mild and obliging, though the services lacked spontaneity. Nothing was free. At Yipton, if one requested an after-lunch toothpick, he found the reckoning on his bill.
In Yipton everything has a price, and life is cheap. The Yips are the embodiment of grotesque amorality – they’re not actively evil, they merely lack any moral scruple, they’re uninterested in abstraction or introspection. All they want is an easy life and work is just something that must be endured to secure further repose.

Such is their moral separation from the norm, that the Yips are consistently characterised as at least a bit non-human. The Yips themselves are not even able to breed with the members of the Conservancy:
For reasons not wholly understood, Yips and ordinary Gaeans were mutually infertile. Some biologists suggested that the Yips were a mutation and represented a new human species; other suspected that the Yip’s diet, which included molluscs from the slime under Yipton, gave rise to the situation.
There’s an implied spectrum of ‘sentience’ in the Gaean Reach that establishes examples of non-sentient, and thus disposable, intelligence. A sightseeing highlight on Cadwal, are the native ‘banjee’ who regularly fight great battles at a point where two paths cross, slaughtering each other in the thousands using primitive weapons and armour. Similarly the ‘swamp waifs’ that attack Glawen and Chilke when they rescue Lewyn Burduys on Soum clearly have some kind of intelligence more than merely animal, but they’re apparently not worth communicating with.

While they have degrees of awareness – from the purely hostile swamp waifs to the apparently human Yips – it’s as if these creatures are part of their environment rather than fully independent of it like fully sentient humans. They remind me of the faeries in the Lyonesse series or the carping Sandestins of The Dying Earth. Maybe, like these supernatural creatures the Yips and other sentient humanoids in the Reach are intended to embody these kinds of environmental spirit.

In this environmental sense, the Yips are merely in the wrong place. Like all natural phenomena they belong somewhere, just not here. On Cadwal they threaten to overwhelm the natural character of the world like a species of introduced pest. The beneficient Conservators plan to forcibly deport the Yips if a home can be found for them, in essence to send them back where they belong. We’ve all heard that one before, I’m sure.

The Yips, of course, are ‘from’ Cadwal as much as they’re from anywhere. Even so, after Yipton is destroyed at the end of Throy, the philanthropic transport tycoon Lewyn Burduys installs what remains of the Yips across an idyllic archipelago within his own estates on Soum. In this drowsy tropical atmosphere, the Yips presumably find an environment that suits them.

Rather than xenophobia, this is the kind of patronising racism that sees the lesser breeds as children, more or less, without agency of their own. It’s a little less disturbing than genocidal rage, but it’s still a bit hard to swallow.

However, it also widens the moral gaze, for the obvious perpetrator is not always the worst villain at work. The moral failure in this story lies equally with the Conservators.
The Charter exempted children, retired persons, domestic servants and ‘temporary labor not in permanent residence’ from the count. The term ‘temporary labor’ was extended to include farm labour, hotel staff, airport mechanics – indeed, labour of every description, and the conservator looked the other way as long as this work-force was allowed no permanent residence.

A source of cheap, plentiful, and docile labor, conveniently close at hand was needed. What could be more convenient than the population three hundred miles northeast of Araminta Station?
Expedience – fuelled by greed and a love of luxury – lead the Conservators to follow the letter rather than the spirit of the law, allowing the Yip presence to grow. By the time they saw the danger it was nearly too late. It’s this timidity that nearly destroys them until the matter can be taken in hand by men of Glawen Clattuc’s calibre.

Breeding is a deeper issue than just race in the series. The entire society at Araminta Station is built on a hereditary principle and Glawen is a chip off the block of his flinty, sensible father Scharde. It’s notable, however, that Glawen is the product of Scharde Clattuc’s marriage to an offworlder; Glawen himself falls for Wayness Tamm, also an offworlder. It implies that the Conservators are inbred and decadent, and infusions of new blood are needed to keep society fresh: the end of Throy sees the Agency system loosened to allow a more humane regime, while maintaining the special nature of the Conservancy.

Does any of this mitigate the racist implication of the Yips? No more than the presence of Wayness Tamm mitigates the gynophobic characterisation of Spanchetta, Smonny and Dame Cytie. No more than Glawen and Wayness billing and cooing undercuts the sense of sexual threat. These issues remain. It’s not the only place they show up in Vance’s work, but they seem to cast a particular shadow across the Cadwal Chronicles.

But, there’s no way I could stop reading Jack Vance and I loved this series despite the political incorrectness. I seem to keep saying things are ‘typically Vancian’ in this article because this series distils many of Vance’s most distinctive characteristics to almost over-ripeness. The places and people and the pages of sardonic dialogue come out in a non-stop rush, particularly in the first two volumes. In fact, he indulges himself at times in long passages of eccentric world building or encounters with with verbose cab drivers and argumentative hotel clerks to no end but his own apparent amusement. If you love all things ‘Vancian’ then this is very pure spirit indeed. And if the darker elements seem stronger here than his other work then perhaps that’s why.

Vance’s melodramatic villains, orotund style and classic sci fi setting make it all feel far away enough from the real world that the offending genre-driven elements don’t seem quite so toxic. It’s almost like a fairytale, and like the best fairy tales the the moral universe of the Gaean Reach appears aligned with a kind of small-c conservatism that cynics and misanthropes of all types – be they left or right – can identify with. After all, a bit of sexual continence and dignity isn’t a bad thing in the absence of sexual shame, and as Ed Milliband says it’s not racist to talk about immigration.

The Chartists are fighting in a good cause after all, to protect a nature reserve, and not their own pampered lifestyle. As for the LPF, I think we’ve all felt at times that for all their pious talk, the ones who preach the most about doing good are the most frightful hypocrites of all. Morality is more than a matter of lofty opinions; it’s a matter of resilience and stoicism, and the capacity for decisive action to back up your convictions. Even the precise prose has a slightly disapproving school-masterly tone

Like all great genre fiction, it allows us to stand for a while in the shoes of a the righteous and true against clear and detestable villains. Vance skilfully manipulate the plot so that we feel every set back as keenly as every victory. This is what we want from genre fiction – catharsis and a short spell enjoying the view from the moral high-ground – and Vance delivers it with such grace that we can overlook the darker elements even while acknowledging that they are there.


  1. I think you're probably right about the political incorrectness... except I wonder if Vance wasn't deliberately tweaking people's expectations just a bit just to be contrarian. Araminta is pure gold, while the others don't quite sustain the same level. Still, Vance on an off day is a wonderment. His fans remember him fondly and gratefully now that he has passed on.

  2. Hi David, there's definitely something intentionally old-fashioned about this series and this robs these elements of their sting a little. It's a call back of sorts to the fiction read he read in his youth, I think.

    I don't think JV is meaningfully racist or misogynist, but he clearly relishes these generic ideas. I think they'd be less startling in a more broadly comic mode but that would also be a much less interesting book to me.

  3. No doubt. BTW, I ordered your book. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Wow, thanks David. I hope you enjoy it.


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