Vance in the NYT

by Henry Farrell on July 17, 2009

The “New York Times Magazine”: has a long, appreciative article on Jack Vance, which seems to me to be more or less exactly right on his virtues (his wonderful prose, most especially his characters’ ornate conversational style, which confects a froth of cupidity, _amour-propre_ and sundry other ignoble motives into spun-sugar extravagances of rococo diction), while touching on some, at least of his flaws (poor ability to plot; I would also note his difficulties in creating complex characters, especially female ones). The NYT piece has a nice illustration of the former from _Eyes of the Overworld_, describing a conversation between Cugel, whose efforts to become a vendor of purportedly magical artifacts have proved unavailing, and the far more successful proprietor of the neighboring booth, who possesses many small items of great value.

bq. “ ‘I can resolve your perplexity,’ said Fianosther. ‘Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.’

bq. ‘No need,’ said Cugel. ‘My interest was cursory.’ ”

Vance’s description of the foppish Ivanello, whose facial expressions run “the somewhat limited gamut between amused indifference and easy condescension,” is shorter, but has some of the same flavor.

One topic that the piece’s author doesn’t touch on is Vance’s sociological imagination, which I’ve always admired. He has a particular interest in status relations – the society of his late novel, _Night Lamp_, where everyone strives to become members of clubs of ever-increasing exclusivity, culminating in the Clam Muffins who are at the top of the social pyramid, is described in especially droll terms. But the village in _Cugel’s Saga_, where the men sit all day on pillars to soak up the purportedly healing fluxes of the upper atmosphere, while paying assiduous attention to which of them has the highest pillar, is a very nice discussion of the relative nature of status games (Cugel discerns that they don’t pay any attention to the absolute height of their pillars and uses this to bilk them). One of the novels in the _Planet of Adventure_ series (sadly, I don’t think it is the gloriously named ‘Servants of the Wankh’) has a set-piece that anticipates Mancur Olson on the distinction between stationary and roving bandits. I’ve wanted for years to write a short piece on the sociology of Jack Vance (and now that I have tenure can perhaps do the occasional thing for pure fun). Anyone have suggestions for other sociologically rich parts of the Vance corpus?

The crazy police suspicion of photographers

by Chris Bertram on July 17, 2009

The latest “episode”: of police harassment of street photographers is recounted by Henry Porter in the Guardian. There just seems to be an endless loop around this stuff: police officers stop/arrest/intimidate photographer, fuss in the press, lobbying of politicians, earnest denials and issuings of revised guidance by senior police, continued botherings despite guidance. Do, repeat.

What really astonishes me about this is that the alleged terrorism link is based on what seems to be a law-enforcement myth about the bad guys scoping out their targets using DSLRs and that the police are actually missing a major intelligence opportunity. Anyone who mixed with enthusiastic photographers knows that there is a bunch of people in every town and city who wander around looking at things, noticing the unusual, exploring side-streets and back alleys, and so forth. Even when we haven’t got cameras on us we’re looking, noticing, framing, making a mental note. You’d think that a smart police officer somewhere might have cottoned on to this and had the idea that cultivating good relations with such people, not acting so as to piss them off, might actually be a good idea. But no. The police mentality is to see such people as suspicious and possibly criminal and to intimidate them off the streets. Stupid, stupid, stupid.