When Boys Read Books, They Read Science Fiction (An Appreciation of Jack Vance)

When I was young, boys still read books, though not the kind our parents or teachers wanted. We read for fun, which meant science fiction, adventure, fantasy, humor, or horror. Few of the books we liked best were found in the children’s section of the library. We prowled the adult shelves, but even there the pickings were slim. The horror “section” of the large Hawthorne, California library consisted of one book, August Derleth’s Who Knocks? Worse yet, it was always checked out. We searched for new titles on the drugstore racks. We haunted used bookstores and thrift shops. And we swapped titles.

We also swapped opinions. We described the stories we were reading. The ability to present a gripping plot summary was a recognized social grace on my parochial school playground. (At St. Joseph’s the “playground” was a public street chained off from traffic for the half hour of our recess.)  We discoursed upon the relative merits of books and authors. We generated our canon—Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Isaac Asimov, H. G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle. We also speculated about legendary, out-of-print authors, such as H. P. Lovecraft and Olaf Stapledon. What information we could glean in those pre-internet days came from louche sources such as Famous Monsters of Filmland. T. S. Eliot had Ezra Pound for an advisor. We had Forrest J. Ackerman. Both of them liked to wear capes, though Pound never wore vampire fangs.

I date my own beginnings as a literary critic to those boyish conversations and arguments fueled by our shared pleasure, curiosity, and passion. As we six young misfits huddled at the curb talking about novels, comic books, and movies, I learned the hypnotic power of story and style. I also first encountered the mysterious truth that between the same covers each reader finds a slightly different book. I’ve never belonged to a better literary community.

Our reading naturally developed. By fifteen we were reading Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Hermann Hesse. By sixteen we had discovered Evelyn Waugh, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges. It never occurred to me that I might be a writer, but obviously the Muse had already registered me for her draft. When I went away to college, I became a man and put away childish things. I never felt obliged, however, to disown science fiction. Although the English professors, like the town librarian, considered it infra dignitatem, we students knew Sci-Fi was one of the great contemporary genres, the modern manifestation of romantic mode.

Young people today would find it nearly impossible to imagine this vanished boys’ book culture. Our reading had an urgent vitality in those pre-digital days because it provided pleasures not easily available elsewhere. It didn’t just nourish our independence from authority. Our reading was often a clandestine operation since our tastes lay outside the sympathy of most adults. Many times a librarian would refuse to check out a book because the cover looked too violent or lurid for a young reader. My best friend had to hide his books from his father who would tear up such offensive titles as A Princess of Mars or The Time Machine. Decades later when I read those virtue-laden adventures to my young sons, I searched in vain for their moral depravity.

Just as my friends and I started high school, I remember buying a new Ace paperback called The Dragon Masters by an unfamiliar writer named Jack Vance. This short novel became an immediate sensation in our juvenile cenacle. We thrilled to the story and its ingenious premise, but those were the ordinary pleasures of Sci-Fi. What took us by surprise was the sheer exuberance of Vance’s imagination and his masterful style.

Youth is particularly susceptible to the magic of words, and adolescents respond to verbal vigor and panache, especially in a familiar genre. One friend memorized the types of alien dragons and recited them with the glee others reserve for poetry—Juggers, Termagants, Blue Horrors, Long-horned Murderers, and Fiends. We read what other Vance titles we could find. That took work since paperback originals came briefly into print and then often vanished entirely. Lodged so early in my pleasure receptors, Vance became an author I have read and reread across the years.

The Languages of Pao (1958) is not one of Vance’s best novels, but it is an important transitional one. In this relatively early work the author explores the narrative style and strategy that will characterize his later masterpieces, The Dragon Masters, “The Moon Moth,” and “The Last Castle.” The Languages of Pao promises the generic pleasures of Space Opera. To quote the back cover copy of one paperback edition: “The Panarch of Pao is dead and Beran Panasper, his young son and heir, must flee the planet to live and avenge his father’s death.” Death, danger, and revenge—Giuseppe Verdi and George Lucas would know how to handle that plot. Genre fiction is about ingeniously fulfilling the expectations of the form—predictable pleasures delivered in surprising ways. But Vance’s novel isn’t quite what the genre or the back cover copy promises.

Vance keeps his plot moving, but it never seems to interest him as much as the setting. He develops the social and cultural context of his story beyond the immediate demands of his plot. He delights in providing complex and evocative detail to dramatize the alien qualities of his imaginary planet—its strange aristocratic and bureaucratic titles, its political protocol and academic curricula, its dynastic structures and genealogical complications, its linguistic customs and vocabulary. And, of course, he chronicles its resonant place names.

Science fiction writers were already old hands at naming imaginary settings—Barsoom, Klendathu, Laputa, Terminus, or (if one goes back far enough) a fantasy island called California. It is the task of writers “to give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name”—even when the locales are in another galaxy. But traditionally those fictive settings existed mostly to generate a particular plot or provide satirical observations about the quotidian world.

In The Languages of Pao Vance invents detail that bears no obvious relation to the storyline, and he shows little interest in Swiftian moral satire or Wellsian social commentary. Vance is too busy elaborating a new world to worry much about the everyday one. His impulse seems mostly poetic. He wants to cast a verbal spell to make the reader feel an alien reality—even if it must come prepackaged in the conventions of pulp fiction.

Vance had an ear for poetry or, more precisely, the music of austerely heightened prose. In The Languages of Pao, his was still a clumsy ear, but he began to craft his paragraphs more formally than did any of his mid-century peers in the genre, except the bookish Ray Bradbury. Developing this gift, Vance gave his narrative voice an understated but sonorous authority. His style doesn’t summon the trombones and tympani; it cues a brooding oboe and the cellos. No one reads science fiction for its prose, but in Vance’s best work one could.

In most other respects, The Languages of Pao is a period paperback potboiler. The plot is inflated and improvisatory, the characterizations mostly mechanical, and the narrative pacing uncertain. Vance avoids the trouble of exposition with a perfunctory opening chapter of “factual data” about Pao. Judged by the standards of mid-century Space Opera, The Languages of Pao is solid but unexceptional.

Perhaps one reason that the novel feels so fact-heavy and emotionally light is that it lacks Vance’s distinctive melancholy. There is an immense amount of descriptive detail but very little atmosphere. The narrative tone is uncharacteristically clinical and detached. The novel is all text with none of the brooding subtext that animates works like The Dying Earth or “The Last Castle.” In The Languages of Pao, complex planetary problems, including class divisions and language barriers, are expeditiously solved, though not without much intrigue, several murders, one war, and a little romance. Melancholy didn’t fit the essential optimistic energy of early Space Opera, which is probably why Vance never excelled at this popular subgenre. It is surely not coincidental that his novel Space Opera (1965) doesn’t concern interplanetary warfare but an interstellar touring opera company.

In The Languages of Pao Vance surreptitiously wrote an experimental novel underneath the extraterrestrial adventure his readers thought they were buying. (Philip K. Dick made a career out of such creative subterfuge.) Vance doesn’t care much about the plight of his characters. What fascinates him is the process of elaborating an imaginary world. Most of the fictive detail doesn’t yet cohere. He generates more detail than he can at this point artistically assimilate. Vance’s novel has none of the sociological and cultural sophistication one sees later in Ursula K. Le Guin, who had the advantage of being raised by an anthropologist.

Vance must have sensed that he was on to something interesting in The Languages of Pao—the complex aesthetic pleasures of exploring a fully realized fictional environment. In 1958, this was a radically original idea for science fiction, though one beyond the reach of a single short novel. As J. R. R. Tolkien had demonstrated in fantasy, the enterprise required a vast canvas. Our culture now takes such elaborate imaginary worlds for granted not only in novel cycles such Frank Herbert’s Dune books but in countless videogames, graphic novel series, television shows, and film franchises. Vance’s book was a failed but joyful experiment in a new style of fiction. His visionary approach, however, eventually proved
decisive in both his later career and the history of the genre.


Published on Conceptual Fiction, February 13, 2016