The Sociology of Jack Vance

by Henry on May 28, 2013

A few years ago I suggested that I wanted some day to write a longform piece on the sociology of Jack Vance. Unless I get funding from some unexpected source (e.g. some Vanceophile billionaire) to take time out from my more traditional academic responsibilities, that probably isn’t going to happen. However, I have drafted a few short blog posts (a couple of which are yet to be completed), primarily for my own entertainment over the last few years. I’ll be publishing them over the summer lull, for the edification of those four or five of you who share my paired interests in f/sf fantasy writers with baroque prose styles and social science theory. A final post, “The Feminist Jack Vance” (consisting of 20 lines of carriage returns, followed by a note in eight-point type explaining “This page intentionally left blank”) is probably better described than written. Vance has few female characters indeed who cannot immediately be categorized as waifish love-pixies, self-centered sexual manipulators or plain-faced man-hating harridans (there are women such as Paula Volsky who clearly like Vance’s work and are influenced by it, but far fewer, I imagine, than there might be were he even slightly more enlightened).

Forthcoming at Irregular Intervals:

I – The Spirit of Market Capitalism in Master Twango’s Establishment at Flutic.

II – Positional Goods and the Column-Sitters at Tustvold.

III – Robust Action among the Breakness Wizards.

IV – Informal Institutions and the Old Tradition of the Perdusz Region.

V (to be completed) – The Stationary Bandits of the Tschai Steppes

VI (to be completed) – Class, Status, Party, Distinction, Clam Muffins.

{ 85 comments }

1

Anderson 05.28.13 at 1:41 pm

Vance’s contempt for gays might merit a blank half-page somewhere. Right re: the females, though Madouc is a bit of a scamp … interesting how her circumstances are a re-run of Suldrun’s, but turn out happier due to her very different personality.

2

Henry 05.28.13 at 2:00 pm

Yes – Madouc is one of the rare counter-examples. While I love Vance’s prose style, there is a lot of baggage that comes along with it, and while this isn’t sufficient to stop me enjoying his books, I can very readily understand why it might stop others.

3

RSA 05.28.13 at 3:00 pm

Wayness Tam is another exception in many ways, as are a couple of other minor characters in the Cadwal Chronicles.

4

Anderson 05.28.13 at 3:12 pm

Vance’s musings always remind me of the 18th century … he shares some interests, strengths, and limitations with the Enlightenment philosophes. Would’ve written that up into a paper, if I’d ever gotten that Ph.D. instead of going to law school.

5

Tangurena 05.28.13 at 6:44 pm

I’ve never given much thought to the “sociology” of his works as many of them were creatures of the era they were written in – where white males were the agents of action, and all else were the background imagery that was acted upon. And this was the same thing you could say about every author from “the golden age of SF”. Since Vance’s stories were more about the people and situations they got wedged into, friends of mine who dislike SF tend to enjoy his stories. In that regard, he’s in company with Lois McMaster Bujold: they both use other planets and spaceships to travel around, but the stories are about people and not about rayguns.

I am glad that I got a set of the first Compact Integral Edition, as it appears that there might not be a second edition.

6

Niall McAuley 05.28.13 at 8:24 pm

VII – Chasch, Dirdir, Pnume,Wankh: Kopad Nopplegarth & Pharems Iocunu.

7

casino implosion 05.28.13 at 9:03 pm

Some maniac named Paul Rhoads beat you to it, in a book of weird libertarian screeds entitled “Winged Being”.

8

Adam Roberts 05.28.13 at 9:15 pm

I’m excited by this news, Henry. Very much looking forward to seeing what you have to say.

9

David Studhalter 05.28.13 at 9:24 pm

Indeed, this sounds most fascinating. I have always thought of Vance, as another commenter noted, as in the tradition of The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (Smollett)… the soul of wit; a bit antique, not to be taken too seriously, but enormously entertaining. So the deficits of his degree of “social enlightenment” that may appear in his work may or may not mean much of anything about what he really thinks. The societies he portrays are intrinsically interesting, but I don’t believe he is holding them up as models. More likely models of perdition.

10

Aaron Singleton 05.28.13 at 9:40 pm

Vance is nearly one hundred years old. It is a bit ignorant to expect him to hold modern views about gays, etc. I never did understand this. He is a product of his time and environment.

11

David 05.28.13 at 10:18 pm

I know he’s said Wyst and The Gray Prince have political messages, so he appears to be hysterically anti-welfare state and, if not pro-colonialist, anti-anti-colonialist.

12

casino implosion 05.28.13 at 10:26 pm

@11: “Wyst” has an obvious anti-welfare state message, but it certainly isn’t “hysterical”. It’s one of Vance’s best tales, with that eerie mix of ironic black humor and understated horror that only he can pull off.

13

Ken 05.29.13 at 12:19 am

Seems like Rumfuddle should be covered, though I’m not sure how.

14

Sancho 05.29.13 at 1:02 am

Vance’s sci-fi tends along the lines of “self-sufficient macho man outwits universe”, but Cugel seems to exist as a sufficiently amoral vehicle to showcase fantasy musings without getting hung up on higher causes.

15

David 05.29.13 at 1:12 am

It really does come down to the prose style, doesn’t it? Some people are immune to it but it hits the sweet spot for me. As I recall, Assault on a Cityhas a strong female lead, but I haven’t read it in years.

16

Rich Puchalsky 05.29.13 at 2:11 am

I like Vance’s work, but “the stories are about people” (comment #5) is just not true. All of the people in Vance’s books are one person — maybe 4 at most, if you assume that those 4 basically share the same outlook on life but have modified it according to their body type (Vance’s model robots come in handsome man, ugly man, thin attractive girl, not-thin pushy woman varieties, although “handsome man” does get a good or evil switch).

They’re books of style. All of Vance’s books and characters inhabit the same style, and if you like it, you like it. The right comparison is probably to James Branch Cabell.

The bit about feminism being absent is not quite enough. There’s a lot of rape fantasy in these books.

17

Anderson 05.29.13 at 2:24 am

“There’s a lot of rape fantasy in these books.”

And just plain rape; Cugel comes first to mind.

… Zelazny is another writer I adored as a kid whose attitudes to women haven’t worn so well; Lord of Light, or the first Amber series.

18

NickT 05.29.13 at 2:30 am

I think people tend to forget that Vance’s ‘macho’ heroes tend to look remarkably silly at frequent intervals because they persist in over-estimating their charm and sexual attractiveness. There’s a pretty fine line between say Cugel the Crafty and Mangeon the troll from Lyonesse. I think there might be a rather good paper to be written on the sexual comedy of Jack Vance, but you’d have to remember that Vance doesn’t seem to greatly admire masculine stereotypes either.

19

Peter T 05.29.13 at 2:44 am

There is this odd moment in a few Vance stories where someone turns up waving some ancient parchment, and everyone just meekly hands over the kingdom. His central characters are often in collision with societies tied up in elaborate rules of their own invention.

20

David 05.29.13 at 4:33 am

@ NickT: yes.

21

Katherine 05.29.13 at 11:23 am

Sounds as if rather than a blank page for The Feminist Jack Vance, what you need is several pages on The Misogynist Jack Vance. I’ve never quite understood how people who appear so imaginative, original and far thinking should be so entirely unquestioning in such areas.

But hey ho, if Ursula Le Guin and Tanith Lee have time for him, maybe I’ll give him a go.

22

Walt 05.29.13 at 11:51 am

Isn’t there a festival on a planet in one of the Demon Princes books where women go around raping men?

23

Rich Puchalsky 05.29.13 at 1:55 pm

“Isn’t there a festival on a planet in one of the Demon Princes books where women go around raping men?”

Not that I remember, although it wouldn’t be out of Vance’s style to have such a festival that the manly hero gets entrapped in and busts up. What I think you’re thinking of is the society of the Darsh in _The Face_, in which both men and women chase down and rape adolescents of the other sex at night. That ends in a charming scene in which the love-interest of the hero and six or so of her relatives are duped into taking a tour during the nightly ritual and are all caught up by Darsh and raped. The hero, Gersen, saves his love interest and they take this romantic opportunity to have consensual sex. Afterwards:

Gersen came forward: they looked at him with suspicious stares. “I happened past and was able to help Jerdian Chanseth,” said Gersen, “She is back at the hotel, and you need not worry about her.”
One of the older women, Aunt Mayness, said grimly: “We are sufficiently worried about ourselves; we all have had beastly experiences.”
Aunt Eustacia said in a voice somewhat more moderate: “I suppose that we must be philosophical. We have suffered outrage, but no irreparable damage; let us be grateful at least to this extent.”
“That is hardly my present emotion,” snapped Aunt Mayness. “I was set upon time after time by a gross beast smelling of beer and that intolerable food.”
“The man who attacked me also smelled poorly. Otherwise he was almost courteous, if the word is at all appropriate.”
“Eustacia, you are far too bland!”
“I am, most of all, tired. If Jerdian is back at Dinkelstown that leaves only Millicent and Helen to be accounted for. Here they come now, together. Let us leave this awful place.”

So they all decide that under Darsh society what happened wasn’t punishable, and to save their reputations, they decide to tell no one about it.

That’s a literal gang rape within the events of the book, but it’s also a rape fantasy, because of its lack of consequence. The older women are played for moderate amusement: one said her attacker was almost courteous, and implicitly she must have kind of enjoyed it, and the other is a snob who seems just as angry that the man smelled badly as she is about what happened. No one else is injured or traumatized or pregnant or got an STD or anything, at least as far as we know.

It’s perfectly OK in my opinion to enjoy reading Vance: I do. But this stuff is there. Too many people refer to characters like Cugel as “amoral” or something relatively neutral like that, and say that it’s a description relative to how he’s presented within his society. But of course Vance chose to create that society too.

24

Anderson 05.29.13 at 3:09 pm

I would love it if someone had asked Norma Vance on the q.t. about some of these passages.

25

Anderson 05.29.13 at 3:13 pm

… Also, we’ve managed to get this far & not mention “The Murthe”? (Even tho I do love the line, “Gilgad has been quick to accept the dictates of high fashion.”) That is pretty close to being Vance’s manifesto on the subject of male-female relations.

26

NickT 05.29.13 at 4:47 pm

@25

“That is pretty close to being Vance’s manifesto on the subject of male-female relations.”

And Natasha’s dance is Tolstoy’s manifesto on the quadrille. Seriously, taking one short story and ignoring the total way that Vance views his sex-obsessed, often buffoonish male heroes is preposterous. Look at how Ildefonse the Preceptor is presented in that story and then tell me that Vance isn’t writing sexual comedy that mocks both sides of the equation. I do wish people would stop trying to turn literature into these trivial exercises in political correctness and actually think about things like context and irony.

@23

Well heavens above, why shouldn’t Vance create amoral societies? Should we hope that literature is reduced to nice people having tea with nice people and saying nice things? Now that’s fantasy literature – call it Fifty Shades Of Delicatemindedness – and it would be far worse, morally, than creating an amoral world and populating with amoral, legalistic, pompous, self-obsessed caricatures. Hell, I’d argue that Mitt Romney and Jamie Dimon ought to be Vancian characters – and yet, here they are solidly part of our reality. I think Vance deserves credit for facing the reality of what someone like Cugel is and the way he behaves when he can get away with it.

27

Anderson 05.29.13 at 5:22 pm

26: I didn’t say that Vance doesn’t satirize males. Of course he does. But a scene like the one Rich recounts from “The Face,” to the extent it’s satirizing females, does so by implying that rape isn’t so terrible after all. And women are seldom nearly as fully realized as men are. A particular example that comes to mind is Glyneth, who’s a lively, clever protagonist … until she starts having kids, at which point she simply disappears from the book, whereas Aillas somehow manages to keep having adventures.

The point is simply that Vance’s ideas about women are a minus, not a plus, in assessing his work. He is scarcely unique in that.

28

Rich Puchalsky 05.29.13 at 5:28 pm

NickT’s comment above is a perfect example of why I don’t like Vance fandom, even though I like Vance. He can’t even describe what Vance writes accurately, but has to instantly fall back on clichés about political correctness and conservative theories about how human nature is just the same everywhere so we’re supposed to be seeing “the reality of what someone like Cugel is”(!) This defense of Vance’s work goes like this: “Sure, the women are raped — but the men are presented as buffoons, so it’s just an even-sided sexual comedy.” Vance has the excuse of being, as someone else wrote, a hundred years old now. Non-centenarians don’t have this defense.

Vance’s work is read because of its style. No one is saying that writers have to write moral worlds. But readers don’t have to follow apparent authorial belief in the moral characteristics of those worlds.

29

David 05.29.13 at 6:15 pm

Vance has written a ridiculous number of books, I doubt I’ve read a tenth of his output. Based solely on the books I’ve read, I don’t think Vance is a misogynist.

He approves of 1940s-60s gender roles. His most dominant or resourceful women tend to be unlikable and foolish. He clearly has a bug up his ass about domineering aunts. His female characters aren’t less likable, intelligent, moral or three-dimensional than his male characters. Happy relationships are partnerships. He’s written sympathetically about unhappy women in more patriarchal societies than 1960s USA.

30

David 05.29.13 at 6:22 pm

I also haven’t read any Vance in a while. Maybe if I reread them now I’d see them with new eyes?

31

Anderson 05.29.13 at 6:27 pm

“I also haven’t read any Vance in a while. Maybe if I reread them now I’d see them with new eyes?”

Could be. As I noted upthread, that happened to me with Zelazny ….

32

David W. 05.29.13 at 8:10 pm

33

Chris Williams 05.29.13 at 8:14 pm

I’ve not thought it through, but I get the impression that Vance has become (?became – I understand that he said a few years ago he was writing his last book, but I can hope for more…) more willing to write stronger female characters after the 1960s – Madouc and Wayness both spring to mind.

Vance’s sociology is relativism run riot, especially the mock footnotes. Worlds are turned upside down, but they are replaced by new irrationalities, and the social concept that he loves most of all is always the society (planetary or galactic) of enclaves, where the rules change completely at the border. I’ve always thought that he was a deep-dyed reactionary, but I’ve also always loved his style, and the ways that he can tell even a weak story. See also: Keith Roberts.

34

rea 05.29.13 at 8:31 pm

That’s a literal gang rape within the events of the book, but it’s also a rape fantasy, because of its lack of consequence. The older women are played for moderate amusement: one said her attacker was almost courteous, and implicitly she must have kind of enjoyed it, and the other is a snob who seems just as angry that the man smelled badly as she is about what happened.

It’s been a while since I read this, but I think you misss the point Vance is making about the society to which the women belong. Rape is no more important to them than to the Darsh. What bothers the women is that they were constrained to associate with lower class individuals.

35

Anderson 05.29.13 at 8:36 pm

32: Damn, hadn’t heard. And for a moment there, I thought we killed him with this thread.

36

Chris Williams 05.29.13 at 9:12 pm

Shortest hope ever, then.

37

Anderson 05.29.13 at 9:47 pm

Given the tenor of this thread, it’s worth linking to the 2009 NYT Mag article on Vance, which notes that he received fan letters from, among others, “the young Ursula K. Le Guin.” A good article, for anyone who missed it.

38

Rich Puchalsky 05.29.13 at 9:48 pm

“It’s been a while since I read this, but I think you misss the point Vance is making about the society to which the women belong. Rape is no more important to them than to the Darsh. What bothers the women is that they were constrained to associate with lower class individuals.”

That reading isn’t supported by even the short excerpt that I quoted. But you can argue it with NickT if you want — it can’t both be the case that Cugal is just a trans-societal, human eternal template of how guys will be guys, and that in some societies there are women who mysteriously don’t mind being raped as long as there’s no social differential. Strangely enough — or perhaps, not strangely at all — both of those assertions tend to minimize the recognition of what Vance is actually writing.

RIP Vance, it’s really too bad. The bad ways in which his writing interacts with contemporary readership doesn’t detract from its strengths.

39

rea 05.29.13 at 10:00 pm

it can’t both be the case that Cugal is just a trans-societal, human eternal template of how guys will be guys, and that in some societies there are women who mysteriously don’t mind being raped as long as there’s no social differential

Goodness, Rich, you seem to think that Vance is writing about our world.

40

RSA 05.29.13 at 10:04 pm

@37: Thanks, Anderson. That was very well done.

41

Rich Puchalsky 05.29.13 at 10:18 pm

@39: I was referring to NickT’s: “Hell, I’d argue that Mitt Romney and Jamie Dimon ought to be Vancian characters – and yet, here they are solidly part of our reality. I think Vance deserves credit for facing the reality of what someone like Cugel is and the way he behaves when he can get away with it.”

42

Jake 05.29.13 at 11:20 pm

Isn’t that rape scene a pretty straightforward leftist political critique? Aunts Eustacia and Mayness are Methlen; the rapists are Darsh. The Methlen are the exploitative, racist, status-obsessed overclass, the Darsh are the manual laboring underclass. The book even has racist neighborhood covenants as a key plotline!

So the rich aunts on holiday go out to spectate on the native mating rituals and get attacked and gang-raped. Rational people would be traumatized, angry, scared, whatever. Given their class advantage they could certainly try to get extrajudicial revenge. Instead they maintain composure, complain about the low status of their attackers, and decide to tell no one to avoid loss of face.

Not because rape is somehow not bad, but because their society is deeply fucked up.

43

Sancho 05.29.13 at 11:40 pm

I see more genuine sexism in Vance’s work than subversive critiques of sexism, but he wasn’t writing for Andrea Dworkin.

We could take Vance to task for not exploring the power relationships and chronic effects of violence in his books, too, but wouldn’t that seem like over-thinking it?

44

Rich Puchalsky 05.29.13 at 11:44 pm

I don’t see anything better in rape fantasy as leftist political critique than I do of it as “sexual comedy” or whatever.

Here’s another one, from _Night Lamp_, which Henry on the Vance RIP post recommended as a late work with more gentle politics:

Wilbur Wailey, after a stint as a locator, began to conduct enterprises of a questionable sort. […]
To this world, which Wailey named Safronilla, he brought bevy after bevy of handsome young women, whom he recruited by a variety of tactics. To some he paid generous bonuses; others he kidnapped, from convents, colleges, holiday camps, beauty pageants, spiritual improvement groups, and the like. On one occasion he captured an all girl fife, bugle, and drum corps, along with their instruments. […] their indignation went for naught. One by one, methodically, assiduously Wilbur Wailey got each of them with child — not once, but several times. Fifteen years later he made the rounds again, this time inseminating his daughters with neither prejudice nor favoritism, as he did his grand-daughters in the sunset of his life.
When anthropologists gather for a gossip or an excursion into shop talk in the lounges of their clubs, […] someone may make a reference to Wilber Wailey and his career. After a few moments someone else will say: “They don’t make men like Wilbur Wailey nowadays!” And for a time the group is quiet, while everyone thinks his or her own thoughts, and wonders how it goes now on far Safronilla.

(pg. 215 in my edition)

I can already hear the rationalizations about this one — how it’s physically impossible and was intended as a tall tale to begin with, is as an absurd comment on the anthropologists’ reaction, etc. But basically Vance likes to write rape fantasies. The specific bit about abducting an entire girl’s musical group was also done in one of the Demon Princes books.

45

Anderson 05.29.13 at 11:48 pm

“not exploring the power relationships and chronic effects of violence in his books, too”

He would fare better there; Aillas in Lyonesse learns something about government and war.

46

Sancho 05.29.13 at 11:59 pm

Rape fantasies are power fantasies. Whether or not Vance found them titillating to write, Wilbur Wailey sounds like his stock all-powerful male character who, I presume (having not read the story), is outsmarted by a weaker but smarter protagonist.

That’s not a defence of any sort, just an observation.

Sometimes the practical and/or dream-like tone of Vance’s writing makes it hard to tell if he’s going the full De Sade or just treating rape like a stubbed toe because it moves the story along.

47

Rich Puchalsky 05.30.13 at 12:05 am

He’s not going the full De Sade. Nor is he treating rape casually to move the story along. The above quote is from a footnote, and is completely gratuitous to the book’s plot.

I probably wrote the wrong thing with “But basically Vance likes to write rape fantasies.” I’m not trying to speculate about why they’re there. It might be better to write “Rape fantasies are a very common element of Vance’s works.”

48

Henry 05.30.13 at 12:13 am

Jack Vance had many virtues as a writer. But I simply don’t think you can make a serious case that the attitudes towards women set out in his books (maybe they differed from his attitudes in private life – books are not necessarily a reflection of personal beliefs and obviously I didn’t know the guy) weren’t retrograde, and sometimes actively creepy. There’s too much evidence to the contrary, across too much of his work, much of it with a nod and a wink, and an appeal to an assumed sense of complicity. It’s possible to be a feminist and to find value in his work (if Ursula Le Guin can do it …). But it’s finding value in spite of, and not because of.

49

Jake 05.30.13 at 2:04 am

This kind of stuff is demeaning to the term “rape fantasy.” John Norman and late-career Robert Heinlein have rape fantasies as a very common element of their works. Ian M. Banks liked to write torture fantasies.

Vance likes to write about people doing horrible things to each other out of indifference or caprice and includes rape in that category.

50

NickT 05.30.13 at 2:58 am

@44
“I can already hear the rationalizations about this one”

I can already hear the shallow grinding of axes by people who do not appreciate irony and who have never stopped to ask themselves why Vance writes of rape in so dry and factual a way.

@38
” it can’t both be the case that Cugal is just a trans-societal, human eternal template of how guys will be guys, and that in some societies there are women who mysteriously don’t mind being raped as long as there’s no social differential. Strangely enough — or perhaps, not strangely at all — both of those assertions tend to minimize the recognition of what Vance is actually writing”

And why shouldn’t it be both? And no, Vance isn’t saying that guys will be guys. He’s saying that given the sort of sex-obsessed egomaniac grifter that Cugel is, yes, Cugel is going to behave as he does. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the lazy (and unsurprisingly unspecified) generalization and the acts of an individual character created by a novelist. You might note that Cugel’s rapes are never presented with approval, much less salacious detail. Vance doesn’t suggest that Derwe Coreme or Marlinka enjoy being raped, far less that they don’t mind it. If you are looking for an old-school conservative bigot arguing that women secretly want to be raped – which is where too much of the sanctimonious “discussion” on this thread is headed – you aren’t going to find him in Vance. Nor can you ignore the consistent presentation by Vance of his male characters making fools of themselves – and generally vastly over-estimating their own prowess and attractiveness. To do so is to radically misunderstand what Vance is getting at – which is hardly an admiring vision of the male of the species as a sexual being with women being cast as legitimate and grateful prey.

51

Sancho 05.30.13 at 4:01 am

I shouldn’t drag this further down the rabbit hole, but (IIRC) Cugel’s rapes portray his victims as unconsenting but in some way obliged due to the restrictions of their role and caste. They’re not attacks in which he chooses a random victim and assaults them purely for the excitement of sex and power.

I’m reminded of Flashman’s sex life in George MacDonald Fraser’s series. The character is clearly a mysogynist and sexual opportunist, but the underlying message is that it’s a brutish and hierarchical culture which allows him to behave that way.

My worst memory of Cugel is when he kills some sort of sea-sprite on a beach for teasing him. Whether that’s Vance portraying a woman getting her just desserts for tempting a man, or demonstrating the character’s antisocial mindset, I can’t say.

52

GeoX 05.30.13 at 4:48 am

So I read The Dying Earth and I found it charming and evocative in an old-fashioned sort of way, so that was fine, but then I turned to Eyes of the Overworld, and…holy shit. The protagonist was just so utterly repellent in every way. It was really, really unpleasant reading, and I didn’t, and still don’t, even understand the point. It’s not like your protagonist has to be likable, but this ain’t Lolita; it’s still pulpy fantasy adventure stuff…only with a central character who’s more or less completely intolerable. Why? I mean, I was never under the impression that he was meant to be a great guy, but I am at a loss as to what Vance thought the point of this exercise was.

53

Sancho 05.30.13 at 5:02 am

Well, a huge a part of Vance’s style is experimenting with what happens when a system reliant on agreed rules encounters someone who doesn’t obey the rules. Maybe he wanted a thoroughly antisocial protagonist to fully explore that.

That theme is everywhere. It’s very caveman sci-fi.

http://tinyurl.com/nvjtm3

54

GeoX 05.30.13 at 5:14 am

Well, I could be completely wrong, but I got the impression that we were meant to in some way admire Cugel’s cleverness/resourcefulness–that he was meant to be an at least partially likable anti-hero of sorts. But to me, the idea that anyone could react to him in that way is…terrifying.

55

Sancho 05.30.13 at 5:26 am

Cugel IS clever and resourceful. Moreover, he recognises the weak points and contradictions in social contracts and exploits them.

We can admire Cugel without liking him. I think most readers enjoy watching him fail, which he inevitably does after some minor success.

Keep in mind that the people he bilks are rarely any better than himself. He’s sort of like a talent-inverted Conan.

56

GeoX 05.30.13 at 5:38 am

See, this is what I just don’t get. Sure, he’s clever and resourceful, but cleverness and resourcefulness are not traits with any moral weight one way or the other. He’s also a murderer and a rapist and he sells that one woman into (presumed sexual) slavery ’cause it’s convenient at the time and he never feels any remorse whatsoever about any of this. I can’t “admire” a character like that–doesn’t matter how “clever” he is. Sure, seeing him fail is preferable to seeing him succeed, but the magnitude of his awfulness is so much greater than that of his failures that they’re not really comparable, and it just seems perverse to try to claim there’s some kind of implicit karmic balance here.

57

Sancho 05.30.13 at 6:03 am

Are you sure that repugnance isn’t because Vance gives the reader an intimate awareness of Cugel’s atrocities? People who admire, say, Ghengis Khan’s strategic brilliance aren’t necessarily thinking of the times he had hundreds of people buried alive or skinned for his entertainment.

58

Peter T 05.30.13 at 6:32 am

In The Dying Earth everyone is either an egomaniac sod, an obsessive or a fatalist. After all, the earth is dying, the sun is about to go out, and everyone is spending their last moments. Most of the people who attempt to get the better of Cugel are no better than he is.

59

Jake 05.30.13 at 8:21 am

It is enjoyable watching Cugel fail. There’s a part of humor that comes from being led to expect one thing that turns out to be something else at the last minute. Cugel feels set upon by the world, you start to sympathize, but then it turns out he deserves everything bad that happens to him. But then people actually do conspire against him, and for a little while he is actually a victim, etc.

It’s a tricky balancing act that doesn’t always work, but from what I recall Cugel’s Saga pulls it off much better.

60

Anderson 05.30.13 at 8:57 am

Re: Cugel in Eyes of the Overworld, he IS repugnant. But I would argue the end of the book is poetic justice that he richly deserves. He’s a no-good rogue whose occasional successes are balanced by the even lower nature of his opponents. Other than the leader of the pilgrims, who brings out as much moral decency in Cugel as we ever see from him in that book, I can’t recall a single admirable character.

61

Rich Puchalsky 05.30.13 at 10:29 am

“I shouldn’t drag this further down the rabbit hole, but (IIRC) Cugel’s rapes portray his victims as unconsenting but in some way obliged due to the restrictions of their role and caste. They’re not attacks in which he chooses a random victim and assaults them purely for the excitement of sex and power.”

Wow, you really aren’t recalling correctly, then. In the section called “The Ocean of Sighs”, he kidnaps a woman and her daughters and systematically forces them to sleep with him every night. There’s no obligation of role or caste, only the threat of violence. The other time already alluded to above where he sells a woman into slavery after raping her is the same way. He just takes her by force.

“If you are looking for an old-school conservative bigot arguing that women secretly want to be raped – which is where too much of the sanctimonious “discussion” on this thread is headed – you aren’t going to find him in Vance. “

As I wrote before, he writes about rape without consequence. He generally doesn’t write that the women don’t mind, no, that’s rea’s thing. But he trivializes it. The women are capable of systematically planning, as in “The Ocean of Sighs”, to show up Cugel as a buffoon yet again, without any really lasting discomposure.

And he’s not really writing about what a real sex-obsesses egomaniac would do, if that has any meaning for a far-future society in which the Earth is about to end. He’s following a classic picaresque model.

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Sancho 05.30.13 at 10:53 am

Okay. It’s been years since I read them, so I’m wrong on the evidence.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.30.13 at 11:31 am

Anderson: “He’s a no-good rogue whose occasional successes are balanced by the even lower nature of his opponents. “

There’s a very simple writer’s trick for making the reader identify with an antihero: make the antihero’s opponent even worse. Incounu the Laughing Magician is a bad enough person so that Cugel’s acts are diminished in comparison. And at the end Cugel does meet a reasonably admirable character, Bazzard, who he doesn’t compulsively try to cheat or rob as he does everyone else, but instead acts reliably with to plan his final move against Incounu.

That’s why I don’t really buy the comparison to, say, Genghis Khan above. Vance isn’t writing historical fiction or contemporary fiction. Every element of both character and world is his choice, as a writer, with no disconfirming knowledge already in the reader’s head. It’s interesting to see all of the different, mutually exclusive ways in which people misremember or justify what happens in the books. They have to rationalize Vance making Cugel into a more or less sympathetic character — in the same way that Odysseus is sympathetic — with what the character does. But that’s trivial for a writer to do.

And that’s why contemporary readership interacts badly with Vance. Vance was writing (in Cugel’s case) a picaresque, in which the main character is assumed to be a rogue. He goes around having one unrelated encounter after another, and cheats and steals. And the sexual violence that he does isn’t really treated by Vance as being much more serious than that. But in contemporary society people are much less willing to say “Oh, that rogue Cugel” in connection with rape in the same way that the anthropologists talk about Wilbur Wailey in _Night Lamp_.

So they have to invent all sorts of justifications that are in most ways worse than the original. The “sexual comedy” bit is worse: no one would really try to justify works in which women appear primarily to get raped so that the main male character would look like a buffoon. The “he’s just creating societies where women don’t mind being raped” bit is worse.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.30.13 at 12:23 pm

And here’s a final bit of textual evidence in support of what I’m writing. This one is from the Demon Princes series, _The Book of Dreams_. It’s an exchange between Gersen, the hero, and a minor but wholly sympathetic character named Mayneth. There are absolutely no future plot points mentioned: the episode is in the book for its own sake. Mayneth and Gersen are discussing the young girl, one of the local natives, who Mayneth keeps as a servant.

“She’s fascinating to look at,” said Gersen. “Is she, well, affectionate?”
“It’s been tried, with generally poor results,” said Mayneth. “Are you curious? Touch her.”
“Where?”
“Well, to begin with, on the shoulder.”
Gersen approached the girl, who swayed back, blinking her great grey eyes. Gersen reached out his hand; she uttered a quick spitting hiss and sprang back, mouth open to show sharp teeth, hands raised and fingers curled.
Gersen drew back, grinning. “I see what you mean. Her opinions are very definite.”
“Some of the local lads use a bait of molasses candy,” said Mayneth. “They like it and while they’re eating they can’t bite…. Well, here’s our lunch. She’ll go away now, because she can’t tolerate anything but lettuce and occasionally a bit of boiled carrot. Such is the dark side of vegetarianism.”

Again I await the various forms of justification. But try imagining a society in which a new visitor asks of a young girl servant “Is she affectionate?” And the vaguely aristocratic host says that oh, the local human-but-not-like-us girls generally defend themselves well enough, except when the local lads manage to bait, overcome, and rape them. But what about the dark side of vegetarianism, hmm?

Vance is a conservative writer whose work is largely colored by 19th century U.S. attitudes. He’s not just writing from his time and place, he’s writing behind, and in opposition to, his time and place. That’s what all of the Vancean bits about heroes breaking up societies fossilized by rules are about — those same rules that say that you have to treat it seriously when some of the local lads have fun with the lesser human girls. That doesn’t make him any less of a great writer. But readers who can’t hold it in their heads that he can be a great writer and also write these kinds of scenes are in for some weird justification.

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rea 05.30.13 at 1:29 pm

He generally doesn’t write that the women don’t mind, no, that’s rea’s thing.

That’s emphatically not rea’s thing.

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Sancho 05.30.13 at 1:41 pm

I’m not sure what you’re trying to lawyer out here, Rich. As you say, they’re Vance’s creation, and Vance wrote them sexually violent. He also wrote them into situations that treat their sexual violence lightly.

No one’s suggested it’s something that should be ignored, but I’m puzzled that it’s become the focus of the discussion. I don’t think anyone ever picked up a Jack Vance book for the rape scenes, and maybe there’s something more to his work than them.

It’s okay to say that Cugel does something clever, then does something abhorrent, without melting down over some sort of cognitive dissonance because the story doesn’t stop for six-month rape trial. And that’s my point with Ghenghis Khan: if someone said that he was a genius at directing mounted soldiers, would you scream back that he also killed children?

Maybe people aren’t bad for not getting hung up on rape in Jack Vance novels.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.30.13 at 2:37 pm

“That’s emphatically not rea’s thing.”

“It’s been a while since I read this, but I think you misss the point Vance is making about the society to which the women belong. Rape is no more important to them than to the Darsh. What bothers the women is that they were constrained to associate with lower class individuals.”

Are there two different people commenting as rea?

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to lawyer out here, Rich.”

Close reading is lawyering now? Henry presented a view of the Feminist Vance as a blank page and wrote that his female characters fell into a few stereotyped classes. I thought that was understated, perhaps in a Vancean sense. Since it had been brought up, I thought it was worth mentioning that the problem with Vance from a feminist viewpoint isn’t a blank, of an absence, or even a problem of stereotypes, although all of those contribute: the main problem seems to me to be these blocks of sexually violent fantasy that frequently occur in the text. And as soon as I wrote that, people argued that no, they were there for this, that, or the other reason that really didn’t hold up when you read the actual text.

That’s one of the main things I read and comment on this blog for — to have arguments about texts. I don’t know why you read or comment.

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Anderson 05.30.13 at 3:25 pm

I think Rich could have put that much, *much* better re: disagreeing with Rea, but rape really is pervasive in Vance’s work. What’s the Alastor book with the shierl, basically a mascot who gets raped at the end of the game by the winning team? I don’t know what to make of that — whether it’s meant to highlight the strangeness of the culture or to imply that we exaggerate the reprehensibility of rape — but it’s definitely all over the place.

Possibly Rich, who enjoys arguing about texts, can offer Henry a guest post on the economy of rape in Vance’s works.

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rea 05.30.13 at 3:38 pm

Are there two different people commenting as rea?

“He generally doesn’t write that the women don’t mind, no, that’s rea’s thing” is perhaps badly phrased, but reads like a reflection on my attitude toward rape, rather than my reading of Vance.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.30.13 at 3:44 pm

“Possibly Rich, who enjoys arguing about texts, can offer Henry a guest post on the economy of rape in Vance’s works.”

If the discussion was going to go that way, I’d point out how little, comparatively, outright prostitution figures in Vance’s work. There’s temple prostitution, as with the women who pay “taxes” in _The Palace of Love_. But if I had to guess about the function of the fantasy scenes in Vance’s work, I’d guess that it’s about the absence of rules. The Wilbur Wailey story above is about a man breaking a good number of social taboos in order to systematically get all the sex he wants, a straightforward conflict of unrestrained id with superego. So it’s ritualistic, or fetishized, but decidedly not a market economy thing. The market economy is characterized by scarcity, and for Vance it seems to be a way in which men break free from social restrictions of scarcity into excess.

The reason that it’s anti-feminist isn’t because Vance is a cartoon misogynist — it’s because in order for men to have this excess, women have to be treated as objects. The conservative sees the encroachments of other people’s rights to be treated as people as rules.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.30.13 at 3:50 pm

Well, I didn’t mean it to characterize rea’s real-world attitude towards anything. I just think that it’s a bad reading of Vance, and not supported by the text that I already quoted. And I think that it fits into a pattern of bad readings by various people in which they misread or misremember Vance in certain specific ways.

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DaveL 05.30.13 at 9:12 pm

@68 Is the shierl really raped in hussade? As far as I can recall, and various reviews and summaries agree, she is denuded after her team runs out of ransom money, which is bad enough, I guess, but not rape.

The whole “hussade” thing in Trullion: Alastor 2262 always seemed to me a transparent satire of American football sports-craziness.

I find perusing his works for the purpose of finding offenses to modern sensibilities rather a pointless exercise. If you find that they make the books unreadable, then don’t read them.

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Anderson 05.30.13 at 10:37 pm

72: you may be correct – sorry if I got that wrong. I’m embarking on rereading Ye Vancian Corpus now, & it’s been a while since I read the Alastor trilogy.

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Chris Williams 05.31.13 at 12:00 am

Talking of _Trullion_ (best line in which is the mention of the magazine “Interesting Activities Of The Elite) and the Dying Earth stories (but especially ‘Lianne the Wayfarer’), why haven’t we noticed the torture? There’s lots of torture. Did Vance approve of it?

I am re-reading _Eyes of the Overworld_ right now: once I’ve finished I think I’ll fast forward to _Lyonesse 3_ and see if it’s possible to read Madouc as a strong female character. Here’s hoping that a Vance thread is still open when I have finished the crit.

And another thing: what about the political economy of capitalism, debt and usury in _Emphyrio_? Surely that’s worth a CT thread?

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Rich Puchalsky 05.31.13 at 1:17 am

Madouc is a strong female character, I think, and I think it’s interesting to consider why Vance does so well with her and Wayness Tamm as viewpoint characters. Wayness Tamm’s part of the Cadwal Chronicles is the best part of it; her not being male frees her from having to be a super-competent killer a la most of Vance’s viewpoint characters, and he does pretty well at giving her a convincing internal life.

The question once posed has in my opinion a clear answer: they’re both high-status. Madouc is a princess, and Wayness Tamm might be as well be — she’s the daughter of the chief executive of a planet. They’re both highly threatened in status, Madouc because she’s a substitute princess, and Wayness because the basis of her father’s power is being challenged throughout the book. But they transform their initially somewhat bogus status into reality. They’re meritocratic aristocrats, in other words.

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Jake 05.31.13 at 1:59 am

There’s lots of torture. Did Vance approve of it?

Liane the Wayfarer seems pretty clearly anti-torture. The torturer is a horrible person, witnesses are horrified, innocents are killed, and no useful information is gained. And – trying to avoid spoilers – the torturer does not escape consequences. Maybe if Liane started off as an upstanding person who became corrupted by the act of torture it would be even more clearly anti-torture, but that’s asking a bit much.

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David 05.31.13 at 3:22 am

And after all this hand wringing over Cugel, here we are back at the Claire Messud conundrum. Can’t you guys keep track of anything?

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Zamfir 05.31.13 at 5:06 am

@ rich, isn’t the main reason that they are late books? Catching up with the times? He must have been getting blind already in those years, Madouc and the Araminta Station seem to be basically last books he could still tackle in a productive health.

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Rich Puchalsky 05.31.13 at 1:49 pm

Perhaps, Zamfir, but I think it’s significant that if he had to catch up with the times by writing female leads, the way in which he could do it was by making them as high-status as possible, yet with that status questioned so that they weren’t merely born to it. Those characters aren’t synthetic men, certainly, but he’s smoothed over a lot of the difficulties of what would happen to a woman in the worlds that he writes by giving them resources that allow them to deal with them.

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Peter T 06.01.13 at 12:15 am

Vance also wrote in other genres. Just some: The View From Chickweed’s Window has a strong female as the central character, the House on Lily Street deals sympathetically with welfare and race, The Man in the Cage takes a dim view of sexual abuse. All mid period Vance, first two set in San Francisco/Berkeley.

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Zachary Smith 06.01.13 at 12:43 am

It’s my view the sex angles of Vance’s books are getting way too much discussion. The man had plenty of other things going on in his many novels.

Rough Justice was one of them. Evil-doers tended to get seriously slagged – eventually.

I believe Vance wrote a lot of his output with a view towards amusing himself. In years past when I dabbled with computer games, once I mastered one, I’d invent a way to make it harder next time, and continue with that theme until I was out of ways to make it more difficult.

Vance loved to put his characters in impossible situations, then demonstrate a clever way of salvaging the situation. In the Lyonesse Allias was in the bottom of a deep pit where a dozen others had perished – their skeletons were there to prove it. Later he became a branded slave working in an enemy castle where escape was unheard of. Later still he was in a guarded tunnel with certain death on the near horizon.

In the novel Blue World a bunch of marooned convicts were stuck on a world without any resources except oversized lily pads. The challenge here was for Vance to provide a believable way for them to reach advanced technology, and eventually space travel again.

In Maske: Thaery his hero started at the bottom caste of a rigid society, and plausibly worked his way towards the top.

In a short story Magnus Ridolph defeated some invulnerable crop predators while at the same time getting payback from a man who had seriously cheated him.

In an afterword to The Dogtown Tourist Agency Vance wrote something to the effect he’d like to someday give Miro Hetzel the challenge of solving an unknown crime at an unknown time at an unknown place. He comes close to this in Marune: Alastor 933 when his hero is marooned on a distant planet without either money or memory – he doesn’t even know his name. Yet he manages to return home to reclaim his kingdom and marry the girl.

At some point with his writing he was playing a game — against himself.

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Doug M. 06.01.13 at 4:49 pm

I’m surprised that everyone is rah-rah for Madouc but nobody has mentioned Suldrun yet. Yes, she’s a sad character who never gets to do very much and ends up killing herself. But she’s a POV character who has an active inner life, which right off the bat is noteworthy. (Few of Vance’s characters pause amidst the action and intrigue to contemplate; part of the reason the last paragraph of the Demon Princes is so striking is because the hero has hardly had time to be contemplative up until then.)

Suldrun doesn’t get to wander around having picaresque adventures, no. But for the first 100 pages of the book she’s pretty much the only voice of reason and decency in an environment where pretty much everyone else is stupid, evil, obsessed with status and advancement, or simply loathsome. Her liaison with Aillas fits a classic fairy-tale trope — of course the lonely captive princess falls for the shipwrecked prince — but at the same time, Vance makes it perfectly plausible: other than her late tutor, Aillas is the first man — almost the first human — she’s ever met, who isn’t ghastly in one way or another.

Also, while she never gets to go roving across the high moors, her choices in the first third of the book (rejecting Carfilhiot, embracing Aillas, concealing her pregnancy and hiding the child) are what drive the rest of the book, and indeed the entire trilogy. That book has a lot more plot than most Vance, and it’s Suldrun who sets the plot in motion.

Which is not to say that everything about Suldrun is great. Oh mais non! She’s problematic character in various ways. But she’s a thoughtfully rendered, has an active inner life, and makes the choices that drive the rest of the book. She deserves a place on the short list of interesting Vancian female characters.

Doug M.

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David 06.02.13 at 3:50 am

Peter T: Where can I find these? I know and have a chunk of the mystery stuff, but this is new to me.

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James Gary 06.02.13 at 12:48 pm

David: Last I heard, the Vance Integral Edition project (q.v.) was trying to make all of Vance’s work available as e-books…so the mysteries might be available in that form.

That said–don’t expect too much. I am a longtime fan of Vance’s SF/F work and read all of the mystery books when they were re-published in the early 2000s as part of the VIE. The Joe Bain books and “Man In The Cage” are, if undistinguished, at least readable, but reading his other work in the genre is like eating a bowl of cold oatmeal–the wit and imagination of his fantasy writing is completely absent.

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Peter T 06.03.13 at 2:50 am

David

Small press limited editions picked up in San Francisco years ago, so I can’t advise. Perhaps the VIE will get to them soonish.

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