The Sociology of Jack Vance I: The Spirit of Market Capitalism in Master Twango’s Establishment at Lutic

by Henry Farrell on May 30, 2013

Described in the early chapters of _Cugel’s Saga_, Master Twango’s manse is a study-in-miniature of society as a web of contractual relations and power asymmetries. When Cugel takes up the role of ‘overseer’ for Master Twango, he is informed by his predecessor that “[a]t Flutic all is exact, and every jot balances against a corresponding tittle.” This description is misleading; the subsequent suggestion that “[c]onditions at Flutic are always optimum[sic] and at worst meticulous” is more apt in its sly hint that the books are jiggered.

> “At Flutic,” said Weamish, “nothing is left to chance. Twango carefully distinguishes sentiment from business. If Twango owned the air, we would pay over coins for every gasp.”

In most of Vance’s work, rococo social practices and rhetorical flourishes of false sentiment gild the most debased manifestations of self-interest. At Flutic, the veneer is almost completely worn through. Master Twango’s establishment is a parodic model of market capitalism without the ‘goodwill’ that sociologists like Ronald Dore see as a foundation-stone of mutually beneficial market relations. Dore suggests that “the sentiments of friendship and the sense of diffuse personal obligation which accrue between individuals engaged in recurring contractual economic exchange” not only make life more pleasant, but are the source of considerable economic efficiencies. A little bit of give-and-take makes everyone better off. At Lutic, however, everything is marked down as a debit or a credit. When Cugel asks his predecessor for a few bites to nourish him, all he gets is a rhetorical question.

> To whose account would I charge your refreshment? To Gark? To Gookin? To Master Twango himself? Absurd. Inevitably, the consumption would fall against the account of Weamish, which is to say, myself. Never! My account is at last clear, and I propose to retire!

Spying and rigid hierarchy serve as a poor substitute for the more diffuse sentiments extolled by Dore.[^Throop] Most certainly, when Cugel and Master Twango discuss terms, the latter takes pains to imply he has a liberal and genial temperament. Yet as Cugel soon discovers, any ambiguities in the contracts governing his new responsibilities are immediately resolved in favor of Master Twango, and enforced through swift and thorough beatings by the repulsive Gark and Gookin. Moreover, the accounting system through which employees’ wages are tallied against expenses incurred may err by the odd misplaced decimal point, again to Twango’s advantage.

Twango does employ the assumption of goodwill as a rhetorical shield. When the merchant Master Soldinck discovers that he has been mulcted of several valuable crates of scales, Twango points out that Soldinck had himself inspected the crates and handed over a receipted invoice. Despite the suspicious circumstances, Twango cannot conceive that one of his employees (the aforementioned Weamish) might have abstracted the scales for his personal benefit. Were he suddenly to find enlightenment, it might plausibly render him legally responsible for reimbursing his counterparty. Hence, he obdurately insists on the benign motives of his employee as well as his own observation of the appropriate contractual forms.

Both economists (Albert Hirschman; Kenneth Arrow) and sociologists (Dore) have suggested that the virtues of markets could not be sustained if actors were truly self interested and short sighted in the ways that many models insist they are. One interesting research program asks whether markets can themselves generate these virtues, or are instead parasitic on the social virtues generated by more traditional forms of sociability. Vance provides a picture of what a market society without morals might look like.

As an aside, an ungenerous reader might imagine that the description of Flutic has some internal inconsistencies. It is remarkable that Master Twango would waste money providing a lavish buffet of food every night, in the hope that his employees would partake of it and hence incur further debts. His employees, being fully aware of the ploy, invariably confine their appetites to stewed kale, hunks of raw onion, and small dishes of boiled burdock leaves. This renders Twango’s tactic both inept and expensive (an actual economist might insist that his strategy cannot be maintained in equilibrium). Yet such a manifest display of irrational behavior must surely be intended by the author for some subtle rhetorical purpose.[^fn1]

Further sociological readings.

Ronald Dore, “Goodwill and the Spirit of Market Capitalism,” _British Journal of Sociology_ (1983). Available (behind paywall) [here](

[^fn1]: So too, it is inconceivable that Vance errs in his description of the unfortunate imbroglio at the lavatory trough behind the Inn of Blue Lamps, where Master Chernitz is invited to retract his suggestion that Cugel is a “moral leper,” even though no such suggestion is recorded in the previous text.[^fn2] Still, one must admit that the distinct literary conventions of the omniscient and the unreliable narrator are only rarely combined to advantage. _To what purpose_ they are combined in this particular instance, I cannot readily discover.

[^fn2]: Vance’s literary attitudes towards gay people are, if possible, even less advanced than his attitudes towards women.

[^Throop]: Vance’s books are equally skeptical about non-market reciprocity. When Cugel is unexpectedly ‘saved’ from danger by Iucounu, the Laughing Magician, he tries to press a small amount of money and an exhaustive verbal contract on Iucounu to avoid incurring any implied obligation. In _Lyonesse III: Madouc_, the Giant Throop applies a harsh and exacting logic to the many small reciprocities of the guest relationship, inflicting the fiercest of penalties (viz. being torn limb from limb and eaten) on guests who do not provide adequate compensation for the deprivations they inflict e.g. by enjoying the warmth of his fire.



yabonn 05.30.13 at 12:30 pm

As an aside, an ungenerous reader might imagine that the description of Flutic has some internal inconsistencies.

I must be the lenient reader type – I’d think that the story/intent/scene/whatever trumps the economic interpretation, anyway. That the texts lends itself so well to an economic interpretation is a question for economists : if they are just using a model of a rational man, and if Vance is trying to portray a greedy jerk, how come the two match so well?


Anderson 05.30.13 at 12:50 pm

To add the obvious, Flutic’s is an exaggeration of the real-life “company store” system that kept workers permanently in debt.

… Reciprocity is stressed as early as the first tale in The Dying Earth, where Pandelume explains that the symmetry of nature permeates personal interactions as well, hence nothing is free.


David 05.30.13 at 1:37 pm

I don’t think people acting selflessly or just like normal people is particularly rare in Vance’s books.


Sam Dodsworth 05.30.13 at 3:08 pm

I read the lavish buffet as a sign that Master Twango likes to torment his indentured “employees”. Which is to say that, like everyone else on the dying Earth, his commitment to rules and rationality is simply a mask for his selfish desires.

One of Vance’s perennial themes is the way that a rather cynically-viewed “human nature” always trumps noble ideals and rational argument, so one way to read this would be as a critique of rational markets from the conservative side.


Anderson 05.30.13 at 3:20 pm

4: agreed. Economists ignore sadism at their peril.


Adam Roberts 05.30.13 at 3:55 pm

This tit-for-tat, or eye-for-eye, logic is immanent in Vance, from the local to the general –the latter in his fondness, or even over-fondness for stories of revenge (‘in which,’ as John Clute puts it, ‘a young protagonist evens the score against the world’). The Demon Princes series is tied together with an over-plot about revenge; Cugel works his way through his saga impelled by a will-to-revenge and so on. Although, having said that, I wonder if there’s a difference. The local market-logic instances of ‘you have enjoyed benefit x, and must therefore pay me x’s exact equivalent in money’ mentioned in the post is about (a) inculcating a precise attentiveness to detail — the average visitor would not think that enjoying the warm, the of a host’s fire is ‘taking’ something from the host that requires remuneration, as with the Giant Throop example, and (b) an actuarial sense of balance, such that x is remunerated at precisely the value of x, no more, no less. Both these things seem to me integral to Vance’s larger aesthetic. Revenge, though, (and howevermuch Vance falls back on it as a plot device) is often fundamentally unbalanced, both because it is deferred until the end of the story, and because the death of the person who wrongs you is both too little to right the terrible wrongs you have suffered, and too much.


Henry 05.30.13 at 4:06 pm

Adam – that’s interesting – had not thought about Vance’s parodies of actuarialism in the context of revenge. And of course the Demon Princes revenge motif is slightly undermined by Vance’s inconsistencies about the actual incident that traumatized Kirth Gersen so profoundly.


Anderson 05.30.13 at 4:35 pm

Don’t have a text at hand, but I believe that Cugel tells Iucounu that he’s actually drawn up (figuratively, I presume) a balance of the discomforts, injuries, etc. he’s incurred. Actuarial revenge indeed.

I’m rereading the Demon Princes novels now, and Gersen thus far does not seem to think that his revenge program is balancing any books. He’s pledged to it and, indeed, molded for it by his grandfather; it’s what he has as an identity, which troubles him throughout the series.

(Hadn’t realized Vance lost his father & was raised by his grandfather, which is interesting re: Gersen and may also go some ways to explaining his more retrograde social views, since his grandfather must’ve been born mid-19th-century.)


casino implosion 05.30.13 at 9:41 pm

The “actuarial” thing is also found in fairytales, which Vance channels in the Lyonnesse books and other places—the need for extreme contractual detail when dealing with fairies and other numinous figures.


Chris Williams 05.31.13 at 12:23 am

In the last couple of the Demon Prince books, Vance begins to set up Gerson’s worry about what he will do – in fact, what he will be – when he’s evened the account, and the final lines in the series are just marvellous. I will not spoil them.


Ken 05.31.13 at 1:14 am

Anderson @8: Near the end of The Eyes of the Overworld:

“I intend to pursue the manner in this wise: I shall calculate the sum of those hardships I have endured; including such almost incommensurable qualities as chills, cold draughts, insults, pangs of apprehension, uncertainties, bleak despairs, horrors and disgusts, and other indescribable miseries, not the least of which were the ministrations of the unspeakable Firx. From this total I will subtract for my initial indiscretion, and possibly one or two further ameliorations, leaving an imposing balance of retribution.”


Anderson 05.31.13 at 1:20 am

10: awesome.


Sancho 05.31.13 at 1:21 am

“Revenge program”. It really is. Gerson’s day job is working on bloody vengeance.

At least the KPIs are clear.


Graeme 05.31.13 at 1:31 am

It’s almost a literal program: While Demon Prince Alive do Kill Demon Prince. Gerson is a killing machine, one programmed by his grandfather as far as I can tell. The trememdous final lines of the series are where he discovers this program doesn’t properly end.


LFC 05.31.13 at 3:01 am

Dore suggests that “the sentiments of friendship and the sense of diffuse personal obligation which accrue between individuals engaged in recurring contractual economic exchange” not only make life more pleasant, but are the source of considerable economic efficiencies.

Of course, as the OP also suggests, one can sometimes have “recurring contractual economic exchange” without much friendship etc involved. I doubt, for example, the Syrian generals submitting their arms requests to the Russians bother much w that. Though I did note the “kind regards” in this passage:

The Syrian army’s March weapons request to its Russian supplier was the stuff of everyday battles in a long and grueling conflict. ­Twenty-thousand Kalashnikov assault rifles and 20 million rounds of ammunition. Machine guns. Grenade launchers and grenades. Sniper rifles with night-vision sights.

The Syrian army general asked for a price quote “in the shortest possible time.” He closed with kind regards to Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state arms exporter.

‘Pls rush instruments of death asap. As ever/mille amitiés, etc’

quoted psg from


Rich Puchalsky 05.31.13 at 3:11 am

That’s what Gerson thinks of himself. But the books have an additional formula. In every one, Gerson thinks (paraphrased) “I’m a man with only one purpose, to kill Demon Princes. So why am I so attracted to this alluring young woman? This is a distraction from my mission!” He reluctantly gets romantically involved, most often sexually but sometimes not quite, and then dumps her at the end of the book because he can’t ask her to go along on his brutal path. So he’s free to pick up another one in the next book.

What’s the connection between the Demon Princes series and James Bond? No, it’s not the women. Vance makes fun of the Sierra Club and Fleming makes fun of the National Audobon Society. I may write something about wilderness, the encroachment of rules, and the appeal of the super-criminal. A rather unusual percentage of Vance’s work takes place in nature preserves and around wilderness lodges.


Henry 05.31.13 at 3:15 am

Vance makes fun of the Sierra Club and Fleming makes fun of the National Audobon Society. I may write something about wilderness, the encroachment of rules, and the appeal of the super-criminal. A rather unusual percentage of Vance’s work takes place in nature preserves and around wilderness lodges.

For sure a lot takes place near or in preserves or lodges, but insofar as I can make it out, he is basically on the side of the conservers. This is emphatic in the Araminta Station books, but also present in others too. He seems to like nature being preserved in all its horrid multifariousness, but against what he sees as a liberal interventionist dogoodery that tries to reform and improve.


Rich Puchalsky 05.31.13 at 3:32 am

He’s basically on the side of the conservers, but in a very specific and conflicted way. The conservers are always revealed to be basically selfish, preserving a space that they end up becoming the controllers and aristocracy of. He’s not fundamentally opposed to this, but he thinks the ostensible desire to preserve nature for its own sake is always a hypocritical cover, or ends up being one. He seems to value the borderland between wilderness and civilization as a sort of testing ground; true wilderness in his books is a morass of super predators, civilization is a net of rules, and it’s the stations in between that provide scope for action. So the conservers are preserving something vitally important, but in a very uneasy way, since they’re having to put rules over what was formerly unruled.

In a larger sense, the entire Gaean Reach setting wouldn’t work as Vance has it work if it was ever civilizable. The Demon Princes — who, yes, are very much like Bond villains in their flamboyance and individual charisma — couldn’t exist if you couldn’t get into a spaceship and disappear untraceably, but they also would be of no importance if they didn’t keep impinging on civilization.


DaveL 05.31.13 at 12:46 pm

@18 In a still larger sense a lot of Vance is about what happens when individuals can acquire awesome cosmic power and exercise it arbitrarily with little chance of retribution except from other individuals like them. High technology in the Demon Princes series, magic in The Dying Earth, etc.

Vance, being rather a cynic, thinks the results would be awful. He cloaks it in florid prose and a large dollop of irony, of course. You probably would not want to live on the Dying Earth, or in Lyonesse, or even in the Demon Princes/Gaean Reach universe. A lot of the bits previously identified as “rape fantasies” come across to me as consequences of retribution-free power. The Anome trilogy gives the rare case where there is some kind of retributive power, but it doesn’t work very well (possibly because the problem is an invasion rather than a Bond Villain) and is completely broken by the end.

Iain Banks, fundamentally more optimistic, rigs a similar game by creating the Minds as the ones who keep the Bond Villains and the Hitlers in check. I suspect most of us would be quite happy to live in the Culture.


Rich Puchalsky 05.31.13 at 1:13 pm

“a lot of Vance is about what happens when individuals can acquire awesome cosmic power”

The mages, perhaps, but the Demon Princes really don’t have awesome cosmic power. The only power that they started with was the ability to steal a spacecraft. From there on, everything that they built was created out of their individual more or less human qualities.

An important connection is to the E.E. “Doc” Smith Lensman series, which I imagine that Vance must have read, although I haven’t bothered to look it up. There are two separate scenes in the Demon Princes in which Gersen pretends to be from the IPCC and holds a crystal with a identifying picture of himself up to his forehead so that it glows, an open burlesque of the Lens. The whole idea of the Lens was that it was supposed to be a non-falsifiable identification for law enforcement officers who had to travel to strange planets beyond the reach of the officer’s civilization.

Vance is as much as saying that he doesn’t want that to work. A world without Incounu would be a world without the verve that Vance wants to write about.


rea 05.31.13 at 3:07 pm

There is a sort of literary version of the anthropic principle at work in Vance’s universe-building–Vance has the civilized worlds, and the verge, and the beyond, not because he thinks that’s the way the universe is or ought to be, but because that structure helps his story-telling.


Zamfir 05.31.13 at 3:31 pm

Isn’t there always, in every story?


Rich Puchalsky 05.31.13 at 4:14 pm

There is, in every story, but I think that the bit with the glowing fake identification qualifies as an actual reference. If the Demon Princes really did have awesome cosmic power, then the books could easily have become the IPCC vs the Demon Princes as the Patrol vs Boskone. Vance is saying that he isn’t making that writing choice in a characteristic arch and understated way. He has the interplanetary law enforcement force, the super criminals outside the civilized planets, the cooperation of the super criminals into joint action, but it all falls down because of a couple of critical absences that to VAnce are freeing. The lack of a spaceship tracker, so that criminals can be in contact with civilization but outside it. The lack of Arisia, the ultimate central planners of the Lens, and their mirror image the ultimate secret conspiracy of bad guys that would stifle the individual evil that Vance wants to write about.


Peter T 06.01.13 at 12:25 am

One key to Vance’s view is The Institute, the Gaean society that works to prevent regimentation, and limit the application of technologies of social control. Although in the Book of Dreams he suggests that the Institute too needs to be balanced. I think Vance thought that any society left entirely to its own devices would spin itself into an elaborate cocoon, increasingly vulnerable to external shocks.


Rich Puchalsky 06.01.13 at 1:59 am

“Although in the Book of Dreams he suggests that the Institute too needs to be balanced.”

I don’t think so. The relevant part of _The Book of Dreams_ is probably the section in which Gersen rescues the remaining high-rank member of the Institute and is told The Secret:

“The Dexad [i.e. the executive committee of the Institute] perceived society as separated into three elements. In order of consequence, they were humanity at large, the Institute, and the Dexad. Humanity and the Institute were seen as opposing forces in a state of dynamic equilibrium. The Dexed functioned to maintain the tension, and to prevent each side from overwhelming the other. The Dexad therefore has often acted in opposition to the Institute, creating situations constantly to outrage and stimulate the membership.”
“Now you are Triune, and you will appoint a new Dexad. How do you regard this point of view?”
Dwyddion uttered a short bleak laugh. “I have discovered something about myself. The Secret embarrassed me. I saw myself across thirty-two years: the earnest swotsman, the sweating dupe controlled by Institute can’t, reverent toward Triune and Dexad, contemptuous of the general population.”

It’s not really a balance. The Institute functions as yet another of Vance’s organizations of conservation: some of Dwyddion’s past activism included “I directed the campaign against pesticides on Wirfil; I worked as liaison officer with the Peas and Beaners at New Gorcherum; I served with the Natural Jungle League of Armongol.” But it’s all just a scam. The leaders of the Institute are really just interested in having feasts, and playing everyone off against each other so that they can preserve a position of comfort and power.

That’s why the bit about Vance being on the side of the conservators is very equivocally true. He’s not really concerned with nature being preserved as such. And he’s contemptuous of the people who really believe that it should be preserved. But the efforts of preservationists, dupes though they are, preserve a half-tamed space that would otherwise vanish to the depredations of vulgar people.


Rich Puchalsky 06.01.13 at 2:02 am

That should be “Institute cant” in the block quote above. Spellchecker error.


Peter T 06.01.13 at 3:44 am


But see the exchange between a fellow of the Institute and a spokesperson for the League for Planned Progress. Vance clearly sees the Institute as the (self-appointed) guardian against totalitarian bureaucracy, and the Dexad as the check on the Institute’s inevitable excess of zeal.


Rich Puchalsky 06.01.13 at 4:01 am

The exchange is from a public debate. The representative of the Institute in that debate is of the 98th degree, and therefore doesn’t know The Secret quoted above. Therefore, even if he’s sincere rather than knowingly putting out Institute propaganda, he’s a dupe. The final purpose of the Institute is not to guard against totalitarian bureaucracy, it’s to keep the leaders of the Institute in a position of power.


Doug M. 06.01.13 at 5:00 pm

To bring it back to the OP: the concept of moral balance in Vance does exist, even if only for purposes of plot driving. By and large, characters who do evil get evil done to them in return, especially if they’re protagonists. Awful things happen to Cugel, again and again, while (say) Kirth Gersen, Prince Aillas or Adam Reith — all of whom occasionally cross the street to do a good deed — end up winning.

(This is actually a design point in the Dying Earth roleplaying game, FWTW. You can play a Cugel-like character there, and have fun doing it — but the game will punish you for it.)

Doug M.


Doug M. 06.01.13 at 5:11 pm

A point that hasn’t come up: Jack Vance came from Circumstances. His family was threadbare middle class; his parents were separated; the Great Depression and the death of his grandfather caused the family’s modest fortunes to collapse, forcing him to drop out of college and take a variety of odd jobs. (He bobbed in and out of college for years, eventually graduating at the age of 27.)

He was a self made man who didn’t really gain some degree of economic stability until well into middle age, and that after many years of combining odd jobs with writing. By his own account, he managed to have a lot of fun, but it was an existence that was very precarious and sometimes miserable. And it’s very likely he encountered a Master Twango or two along the way.

Doug M.


FredR 06.02.13 at 4:33 am

Nobody yet seems to have mentioned Vance’s bizarre theory that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change would one day be the pre-eminent law-enforcement body in the galaxy.


Andrew Brown 06.02.13 at 6:08 am

What’s bizarre about that? If the IPCC doesn’t take over soon, we’re never going to get to the Gaian Reach and someone else will have to write Tales of the Frying Earth.

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