Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:
How Not to Escape a Planet of Adventure
Planet of Adventure, by Jack Vance (1983). PB
Planet of Adventure tetralogy:
The Chasch (formerly The City of the Chasch; 1968)
The Wannek (formerly Servants of the Wankh (1969)
The Dirdir (1969)
The Pnume (1970)
Confession time: I love Jack Vance. He has one of the most unique and intelligent writing styles of any author. Regardless of the genre or tale, his works stand apart from all others, largely due to his extremely erudite storytelling. No one approaches his use and love of language. His language building skills are phenomenal and we could devote entire books to studying his alien races and languages. Plus, the man could tell a hell of a good story, be it adventure or mystery, science fiction or fantasy.
Therefore, when I thought about writing this piece on some great old planetary romances like John Carter of Mars or Flash Gordon or….no. I had a better idea. No one told SF adventure as well as Jack Vance. Not only was the depth and richness of his worldbuilding greater than almost any other author (perhaps only Tolkien competes with his richness of culture and backstory, linguistics, and attention to detail), but his command of language is unparalleled. Sadly, due to some fluke of the cosmos, many people are less familiar with Jack Vance than they should be. So, it was settled. We journey with Jack Vance. But to which of his manifold worlds? The Gaean Reach alone had tens of thousands of worlds to explore, but which would be the best introduction to Vancean space? Perhaps the best planetary romance ever written and a perfect introduction to his works involve the aptly titled Planet of Adventure. Therefore, let us blast off with the protagonist Adam Reith in his ill-fated starship! Off to the quintessential Planet of Adventure itself to remind people how thrilling space can be.
The Planet of Adventure has it all, literally. There are spaceships and sailing ships, advanced aliens and primitive tribes, monsters and beautiful maidens, swords and rayguns, ancient ruins and gleaming space ports. If you can think of an adventure trope, be it warring tribes of the steppes, great caravans and dinosaur-like monsters, swashbuckling sea voyages and deadly jungles, creepy underworlds full of slithering horrors and the Museum of Foreverness, deadly deserts and great mines full of gem- and human-hunting aliens that are better than the Old West, spaceports launching ships and flying cars, sword fights and laserweapon shootouts, etc., this world has it and truly encompasses the concept of adventure.
The hallmark of a Jack Vance tale is the amazingly diverse alien societies he creates. This planet, a giant world named Tschai (orbiting Carina 4269), abounds in them. Similar in some regards to his other giant world of adventure, aptly named Big Planet, Tschai is large enough to have a lot of variety in geography and in population. The world has continents and oceans, steppes and cities, jungles and deserts. In prototypical SF adventure style, it has two moons. It is populated by five major races: the reptilian Chasch, the bird-like Dirdir, the insectoid Pnume, amphibian Wannek, and, surprisingly, humans. All are alien races except for the Pnume, who are said to be the original inhabitants of the planet, driven underground by the invasive aliens. Tschai has suffered a series of migrations or invasions over the millennia, among often warring factions of these alien races, though now an uneasy peace exists on the world. There are even humans here. The humans of Tschai were brought to the world as slaves some 10,000 years ago, when they were still primitives on Old Earth. This basic alien slavers threat to humanity also spurs Reith on to escape the world and report back to humanity that these aliens know of them and actively use them. But the humans here are not just helpless victims. Over time they have adapted and developed elaborate cultures, each centered around their differing alien overlords, thus Wankhmen, Dirdirmen, Chaschmen, Pnumekin and even the Gzhindra, agents of the Pnume. Some, not to give too much away, have flipped the paradigm.
In typical fashion, Jack Vance explores all aspects of society through the juxtaposition of the numerous alien races and native cultures, of high and low levels of civilization. One non-surprise comes from the revelation that the slaves have in some places become the slave masters and that some of the adapted human slaves on this world, the Wankhmen, are responsible for destroying entire cities and shooting down Reith’s own spaceship just in order to preserve their monopoly of power and money. There are sexual politics, which I won’t cover in this review, and also interspecies politics which are revelatory. There are studies of wealth and poverty, or high science and superstition, of great civilizations now crumbling into forgotten ruins. A lot can be explored in such a rich world. In a way it is akin to the endlessly unfolding pageant of life one finds in the Canterbury Tales.
Finally, you also have the tripartite psychological aspect of the hero Reith and his quest companions, Anacho and Traz. Traz is a steppe tribesman, an Emblem Man of the Chasch, and hence a primal, passionate man of action. Anacho is a cool, aloof Dirdirman, a thinker, and the one who consults and informs Reith throughout all the books about the cultures and history of the world. Thus they are a sort of Id and Ego, with Reith being a Superego amalgam– or to put it pop culturally, he is Kirk to their McCoy and Spock.
The joy that one experiences reading Vancean prose cannot be underestimated. He has a distinct mastery of the English language, a subtlety of humor, an unmatched analytical tack even amidst the most raw moments of perils and violent battles. I wish others SF writers would study him more, because they would profit from it. In an odd juxtaposition, though you might say he is no Shakespeare, I am hardpressed to find any other than Shakespeare to compare Jack Vance to in the breadth of his storytelling, the command of the language, and the scope of his imagination. Vance is quite unique.
I would urge anyone interested in SF and adventure, or looking for a start on Vance’s vast oeuvre, to read the novels of Tschai collected as The Planet of Adventure. They are a fantastic starting point into his boundless imagination. Adventure calls!