Abstractions four or five or six times removed from reality
September 21, 2008 1 Comment
Jack Vance takes a sociologist’s approach to SF in the three novels collected in The Jack Vance Reader, the first I’ve read of him: Emphyrio, about a repressive guild-based welfare state, where an old legend inspires a young man to non-conformity. The Languages of Pao, about mass-scale social engineering, where a world’s ruler brings in outside linguists to make his people speak (and therefore think) like warriors, merchants, and engineers. And The Domains of Koryphon, from a world where human colonists compete with other races for land. In all these stories, the focus is on social forces and mass psychology, not at the expense of characters, but as the nuanced backdrop against which the characters act. I’ll single out (at random) The Domains of Koryphon (aka The Gray Prince) for praise: Vance brings his eye for social dynamics to the issues of colonization and slavery, taking a provoking approach where the colonial landlords are morally wrong but realistic, while their urban, intellectual critics are naive hypocrites. Some have called it a racist novel with a message of might makes right, which is stupid. This is a story for adults who don’t turn their brains off when they read. The Domains of Koryphon is not meant to comfort, but to provoke ideas. The moral high ground of the human landlords does makes it a problematic novel, though, and it’s more fair to criticize it than to neuter it with the label of escapism. Even so, I’ll return for more of Vance’s speculative sociology.