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The Politics of Jack Vance

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message 1: by Lucas (new)

Lucas Cole (lucascole) | 23 comments I Wonder what some astute readers make of Vance’s political systems (not his personal political views unless it’s pertinent). Clearly, he has poked fun, if not abject ridicule, at a myriad of religious systems he invented for his stories—and those systems often played a central part of the plot. But his political systems were important, though less peculiar or contrived than the theology. When I first started reading Vance, I wondered if he had a degree in anthropology or political science.


message 2: by Phil (new)

Phil J | 19 comments That's a great question. I go into it at length in my review of Wyst and my review of The Domains of Koryphon.

Other important books to look at for this question would be Nopalgarth and Emphyrio.

All said, I think you are on the right track with anthropology. I think Vance considered politics and religion as mechanisms of society rather than things that were inherently right/wrong or worth having an opinion about. I think Vance's opinion of society in general is that every time a social system is born, it creates blind spots and stifles individuality.


message 3: by Ivan (new)

Ivan Stoner | 29 comments I think Vance's treatment of political systems/structures is very subtle, very thoughtful and usually very difficult characterize in any sort of straightforward way. He certainly excelled at offering different points of view in elegant and often beautiful ways (particularly with those "quotations" from in-universe scholarship he often used).

For example, I am rereading The Brave Free Men. The narrative might be said to be about reclaiming individual freedom. But here's a really nice passage where a character defends a sort of Burkean traditionalism:

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Dystar said: "Without my torc I would be mad with joy."

Mialambre seemed astounded both by the .concept and by Dystar's response. "How can this be? The torc is your representation, the signal of your responsibility to society."

"I recognize no such responsibility," said Dystar. "Responsibility is the debt of people who take. I do not take, I give. Thereafter my responsibility is gone."

"Not so," exclaimed Mialambre. "This is an egotistical fallacy! Every man alive owes a vast debt to millions—to the folk around him who provide a human ambience, to the dead heroes who gave him his thoughts, his language, his music; to the technists who built the spaceships which brought him to Durdane. The past is a precious tapestry; each man is a new thread in the continuing weave; a thread by itself is without meaning or worth."

Dystar gave generous acquiescence. "What you say is truth. I am at fault. Nonetheless, my torc is unwelcome; it coerces me to the life I would prefer to live by my own free will."

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I am not sure what his background was in this area, or where he got his ideas, or whether he just had an enormously far ranging independently developed intellect. It's pretty amazing though.


message 4: by Ivan (new)

Ivan Stoner | 29 comments All of that said, I personally can't really read the Cadwal books because they feels sort of gross, fascist, and bigoted to me.

That may be a result of my own inability to look at things without bringing personal baggage though.


message 5: by mark (new)

mark monday (majestic-plural) | 21 comments I haven't read any of the Cadwal books. Can you say more about why you feel that way?

I've often had the feeling that Vance has a rather libertarian outlook. But then that butts up against his ongoing critique & parodies of insular human cultures left to themselves (often to develop toxic and/or nonsensical stratifications), as well as what feels like a progressive take on environmental issues.


message 6: by Ivan (last edited Aug 16, 2018 09:34AM) (new)

Ivan Stoner | 29 comments Mark -- the series presents a lazy, amoral species called the "Yips" immigrating into the protagonist's largely pristine world. The locals ("Peefers") who want to defend the Yips' rights are presented as stupid, holier-than-thou trustafarians (and in the book the Peefers truly are stupid, because the immigrants as presented really are awful and destructive to society).

There's also more in the way the Araminta societal structures are presented that strongly rubs me the wrong way, and feels more like Vance taking a normative stance than normal. But, again, this is personal. I don't want this thread to turn into a fight about Vance's personal views, or an exercise condemning the societies he presents in his books where they don't vindicate our own beliefs.


message 7: by Christopher (new)

Christopher | 10 comments In an old interview I remember Vance saying that he took a double sided view towards human culture-on the one hand he lamented the disappearance and mass homogenization that occurred in modernity, on the other hand he spoke of ossified system in isolation getting worse and more irrational with time.

This tension is particularly noticeable in his high space works. All the interesting characters and action happens outside of the core worlds which are often implied to be nice but boring places to live. At the same time, many of the adventures are set in places where problems are caused by societies of a reactionary and navel-gazing nature.

Although I do not know if it is intentional, there is more than a whiff of Ibn Khaldun's theory of the rise and fall of nations in many of his works. Success leads to complacency, complacency to decay, decay to collapse, and collapse to the rise of a new order founded by relative outsiders that re-invigorates the place and begins the cycle all over again.


message 8: by Lucas (new)

Lucas Cole (lucascole) | 23 comments Sad to hear that an entire series will go unread because of the type of politics demonstrated in the plot line. (I had more of an issue with how much time was spent with a side character, rather than the main protagonist. A personal preference of mine—don’t go off on a tangent after establishing the plot around a specific character.)

If we really dig deep into this topic, I would bet that at different times (within different novels or short stories) Jack Vance presents diametrically opposing political views, thus revealing his scope of narrative power and imagination.


message 9: by mark (last edited Aug 16, 2018 12:10PM) (new)

mark monday (majestic-plural) | 21 comments Ivan wrote: "..."

thanks Ivan! I appreciate the synopsis and your perspective.


Lucas wrote: "Sad to hear that an entire series will go unread because of the type of politics demonstrated in the plot line..."

I can only speak for myself of course, but I still plan on reading that series! I'm a Vance completist; he's one of my favorite authors. even when I dislike - on a political or even moral level - the message being delivered (e.g. The Gray Prince, much of Languages of Pao), I still find much that is interesting and enjoyable in his writing style and insights. I feel the same about all of my favorite authors - I don't need to agree with everything they say and I still want to read all of their books.


message 10: by Matthew (new)

Matthew | 51 comments I'm slightly left-of-center in the Canadian context, which makes me a raving commie by US standards. Jack Vance was a conservative in the American context, which would probably put him off the scale in Canada.

But so what? I don't read Vance for his political opinions. I read him (still, after more than fifty years) for the language, the storytelling, the iconic characters, and that sense of cool that comes over me whenever I slip into one of his worlds.

I used to do politics for a living, but the peculiarities of my life had me working, at one time or another, for the entire spectrum of mainstream Canadian politics. I found there were saints and sinners in all parties. That taught me not to judge people by their politics. It's an attitude I recommend.


message 11: by Ivan (last edited Aug 16, 2018 02:28PM) (new)

Ivan Stoner | 29 comments Darn -- I knew mentioning my feelings about Cadwal would turn this towards a discussion about Vance's personal politics. Sorry all.

Lucas wrote: "If we really dig deep into this topic, I would bet that at different times (within different novels or short stories) Jack Vance presents diametrically opposing political views, thus revealing his scope of narrative power and imagination."

I tried to make this my overarching point. And I wholly agree with Lucas here.

I don't think anyone here--certainly not me--is saying that Vance should be avoided because of whatever personal political leanings he had, or for the politics as presented in his books.

To the contrary, I believe that Vance's political explorations are almost unique in their brilliance and insight. It's just my personal experience that I was rubbed the wrong way by the politics as presented in Cadwal, and it bugged me enough that I'm not inclined to read it for a third time, especially in that I don't think it is in other respects one of his better works. *shrug* YMMV. It's not like I'm out here saying people shouldn't read it or that it should be excised from Vance canon.

Matthew wrote: "I found there were saints and sinners in all parties. That taught me not to judge people by their politics. It's an attitude I recommend."

Again, I don't think anyone is remotely suggesting people should be judged by their politics.


message 12: by Lucas (new)

Lucas Cole (lucascole) | 23 comments Ivan, there were aspects of Cadwal I liked, others I didn’t, so I’m in the same boat, or more in the same lake, as I will read it again. One of my all-time favorite Vance novels, To Live Forever, had an interesting political system at the core of the plot—based upon a system that is almost entirely speculative since the elite use of personal clones isn’t currently feasible (as far as I know, not being an elite.)


message 13: by Ivan (new)

Ivan Stoner | 29 comments Lucas wrote: "I’m in the same boat, or more in the same lake, as I will read it again. "

In that we are in the extremely select club of people who are re-reading Vance over and over, I'd have to say we are seated right next to one another in the tiniest of tiny rowboats.

Happy to share a thwart with you!


message 14: by Lucas (new)

Lucas Cole (lucascole) | 23 comments Well, I’m aged so that I can’t remember what I read before—so everything is new!


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