Jack Vance
Night Lamp

Jack Vance is eighty this year [1996], has been publishing sf for just over fifty years, and assembled a recognized classic as long ago as 1950: The Dying Earth. And now here's another solid sf novel, which to my immense relief is as readable as ever. Some people – I name no names, and especially not Paul Kincaid – dislike Vance's elaborate ironies, his coolly exotic style, and his fondness for describing (at length, and with footnotes) oddly conceived societies replete with strange customs, disconcerting food, subtly coloured artforms and downright lunatic musical instruments, like the new novel's 'froghorn'. Personally I love this stuff, and suspect that the harsher Vance critics object not so much to all his characteristic baroqueness and verbal furbelows as to the fact that the stories he tells may seem almost too simple – even pulp-plotted – for the ornate vehicles that carry them.

There is some truth in this; the fine point of judgement concerns whether the rich icing is being applied to a good plain cake or a stale one. Certainly Night Lamp features many standard plot elements, often already used by Vance himself. The young hero Jaro has amnesia, as did the hero of Marune: Alastor 933 and a million books by others. He is (here owing to adoption) something of a social outsider, as in numerous Vance novels, notably The Blue World and Emphyrio; and as in Emphyrio and the Cadwal Chronicles, he longs for and ultimately attains his own spaceship to travel freely about the Gaean Reach. Shady property speculators covet his home, as in Maske: Thaery; and as in that book and each volume of the Demon Princes sequence, he ultimately sees the not entirely satisfying destruction of his lifelong enemy. As in (again) Cadwal, there is a strengthening relationship with a fond and competent father, strife with an appalling adolescent gang, and difficulties with a theoretical ally whose sufferings should make him an object of sympathy but who has been driven by them into complexly malevolent insanity. Lots of other such points could be cited.

Yet Night Lamp certainly doesn't feel stale. There is a real sense of doom in the few childhood images that haunt Jaro, as though (as also seemed to happen in the slenderly plotted Marune) Vance is intermittently touching on electrifying personal archetypes. The last torment of Jaro's mother is as hideously inventive as anything in the Musical Hell of Bosch; we can believe that Jaro has to forget, and later wince at a stroke of irony when the desperately lying villain relates a version of events which is somewhat truer than Jaro can ever know. His quirky professorial foster-parents – whom one has come to like – need to be disposed of, and (rather than stoop to traditional means, such as a traffic accident) Vance takes some trouble to invent yet another bizarre society whose peculiar obsessions lead all too logically and even semi-comically to the couple's fate. Other diversions from Jaro's own story include two other characters' tales of grisly doings, one of these quite irrelevant.

My own digression is into a Theory of Successful Self-Indulgence. Old and revered sf authors notoriously produce longer and more sprawling works than in their prime, perhaps not so much because trembling editors are afraid to suggest cuts as because typical book lengths have considerably increased, while the average Dean of SF's notion of how much plot is suitable for a novel may not have changed in decades. Hence, possibly, the padded feel of the later Asimov's gaseous expositions or the later Heinlein's endless wrangling about protocol and sex. Contrariwise, when writing sf at greater length (as here and in Araminta Station) Vance gives us more of what he's good at: warped sociology on successive worlds, meticulous landscape-painting in subtle colours, and numerous touches of satire. The class system on planet Gallingale is characteristic, with its frenetic upward striving to join ever more elitist peer-groups with suspiciously frat-like names – 'from Parnassians to Black Hats to Underwoods, to Squared Circles, then perhaps to Val Verdes or Sick Chickens' ... the apex of the pyramid being the sonorously titled aristocracy of the Clam Muffins.

Admittedly, Night Lamp is eccentrically paced and slightly shambolic in construction. The conclusion trails off into conventional boy-wins-girl happiness, with just a bracing touch of uncertainty; but despite many cheery and even funny passages, this novel is somewhat darker than expected from this author. Vance seems much possessed by death, perhaps no unusual thing for an octogenarian. One poignant aside concerns the dilapidated libraries of the ancient world Fader (whose lonely sun is Night Lamp): all their books, millennia old yet still strangely compelling for this novel's characters, are the last personal testaments of people who earnestly wanted to convey something of themselves into the unknown future. Comment would be superfluous. Jack Vance has already succeeded in this traditional auctorial goal, but I hope he'll be with us for a while longer, and able to convey some more.