Few writers have been blessed with such a rich imagination as Jack Vance. Not only was he very creative, he was also a stylistic writer with a unique prose, erudite yet entertaining. This volume, published in the mid-1970s, brings together a collection of Vance stories from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s with the loose title The Worlds of Jack Vance. Although disparate in content – except the three stories of Magnus Ridolph – the book feels solid and surprisingly coherent. Thus, it could be read in one go, or each story as a stand-alone treat for Vance thirsty SF readers.
This is book is a little gem, from the great cover all the way to the very last page – a must read if you like Vance’s style. I especially liked the two longer stories The World Between and The Moon Moth. The weakest story was The Brains of Earth, which still is better than the majority of mainstream SF. If you have a possibility to buy this book, don’t hesitate – you will not regret it!
The World Between (1953)
In an act to strife growing boredom in the crew, the captain of the research vessel Blauelm decides to make a detour into the Kay System before returning to the Blue Star. Although not at war, the Kay and the Blue Star civilizations have been quarreling for a long time. The explorers happen to stumble on a planet suitable for human life, if properly bioformed. When the Blue Star claims the planet and starts introducing a succession of species designed to transform the methane atmosphere into oxygen and carbon dioxide, the Kay responds in turn. What ensues is biological warfare, where the Kay are dropping pests and the terraformers responding with pest of the pests, increased resistance, etc. A quite entertaining novelette, especially for me as biology professor. Good stuff, which ends with a surprising twist.
The Moon Moth (1961)
Newly graduated from the Institute, Edward Thissel finds himself promoted to Consular of the Home Planets on Sirene, after the unfortunate death of his predecessor. Sirene is an extremely beautiful and fertile planet, but home to a strange civilization. Because of the bountiful environment, people have evolved a culture around honor instead of wealth where one’s place in society is displayed by ornate masks, such as the Forest Goblin, the Dragon-Tamer, or the Red Bird. Poor Thissel is ill prepared for the Sirenese life, and have to don the Moon Moth mask; a drab grey mask with tufts of hair, marking him as of little consequence. To make matters worse, language is accompanied with music, played on a dozen different instruments – and if played with the wrong instrument, intonation, or scale, the message can be interpreted as insulting. This was what caused the death of Thissel’s predecessor. After an uneventful three months of learning instruments, Thissel receives an urgent order to find and exterminate an assassin who just arrived to Sirene. But how to find a man with an unknown face in a city of masks?
Brain of the Galaxy (1951)
A patchwork of seemingly non-connected stories: a man appears naked at a cocktail reception; another man leads the remnants of a warrior battalion towards retaliation; a third man searches an abandoned desert city for a parchment in a brass coffin; a fourth man paints vivid dream pictures on a screen with his brain; and a fifth man endures endless bouts of tortures in the Room Below. All in the quest for the Brain of the Galaxy.
The Devil on the Salvation Bluff (1955)
The religious settlers on Glory struggle to turn the wilderness into neat, orderly habitation. They are partly successful, but the unpredictable timing of day and night makes life difficult – Glory has nine suns, all of which seem to pop up and down seemingly random on the sky. Another irritant are the Flits, descendants from a crash-landed spaceship 500 years past that roams the mountains with their sheep, seemingly careless about the joy of God and civilization. Something needs to done about the Flits, as an interplanetary Inspector is about to arrive.
The Men Return (1957)
When causality disappeared, the downfall of men was imminent. Now only a handful sane humans, called Relicts, remain, while a new humans, called Organisms, developed from the lunatics and insane. And now the last Relicts are bound to be eaten.. A both disturbing and wonderful little novel, with Salvadore Dali inspired landscapes, ever-shifting and dangerous, and rampant cannibalism.
The Kokod Warriors (1952), The King of Thieves (1949), Coup de Grace (1958)
Magnus Ridolph is one of Jack Vance’s favorite characters, to which he often returned in his work. Magnus Ridolph is like a Galactic version of Hercules Poirot crossed with an adventurer from a fantasy novel. Although serving the general good, he seems to take on missions that are also quite lucrative to him. This collection has three Magnus Ridolph stories, all very enjoyable to read and all with the same quick humor. In the Kokod Warriors, he sets out to help the Women’s League Committee for the Preservation of Moral Values to halt the betting and gaming on the strange planet Kokod, where little tribes of Kokod warriors live to fight one another in perpetual and ritualized warfare. In The King of Thieves, Magnus Ridolph lands on the planet of thieves and sets out to steal from the King of Thieves. And in the Coup de Grace, an anthropologist is found dead, shot in his head, in the little spaceport The Hub. Magnus Ridolph is asked to find out who the killer is, and uses logic and skill in a very Agatha Christie-like manner to do so.
The Brains of Earth (1966)
Abducted by the alien race Tauptu, Paul Burke finds himself on a planet plagued by a century long war. The war has just come to an end, where the last of the Chitumih have been seiged by the Tauptu. Chitumih and Tauptu are the same race, the only difference between the two is that Chitumihs are infected with a mind-sucking parasite called the nodal that influences their behaviors. However, the Chitumih are not the only infected: all of Earth is overloaded with nopals. After some terrible treatments, Burke his sent back to Earth with a single mission: to cleanse Earth from nodals. And he only has a month to do.