When we are dead, the opportunity is past

Jack Vance is best known for his Dying Earth books, but I’ve been picking my way through some of his Gaean Reach science fiction as I’ve been able to snag cheap copies.  The latest was Maske: Thaery, which I picked up at a New Hampshire flea market.

Maske: Thaery tells the story of Jubal Droad, a young inhabitant of the planet Thaery who is “obstinate, forthright, and sometimes acts the swashbuckler” as one character describes him.  While on his Yallow, the youthful pilgrimage of all Thariots, Jubal is crossed and nearly killed by a stranger.  His subsequent pursuit of that stranger and a career in the Thaery equivalent of the “big city” leads him to become a hotel inspector, an interplanetary spy, and a major player in the politics of the Droad family and two planets.

Vance does not trouble with the boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and science fantasy, and so his science fiction feels more like Star Wars or Guardians of the Galaxy–light on science and heavy on action and witty dialogue.  While not as droll as the Dying Earth books, Maske: Thaery has its share of witty repartee and dry humor, as in this passage (names redacted to avoid spoilers):

A, understanding that B was too stubborn to cook for C and that C would starve before she troubled to feed herself, much less serve himself and B, philosophically took himself to the galley and prepared a stew of meat and herbs

It also has plenty of Vance’s characteristic prose, which manages to be both light and dense at the same time–swift, clean language packed with strange terms and references that seem more to lift it up than weigh it down, creating a sense of an alien landscape with familiar resonances:

Dawn illuminated the sky.  Across the southern horizon extended a dark smudge: Thaery.  By the presence of land the emptiness of sea and sky was emphasized.  Mora rose, and the shore was revealed in detail.  Due south the Cham reached a tree-shadowed arm around Duskerl Bay; beyond spread the gray texture of Wysrod.  The Clanche, with all kites drawing, drove onward with ponderous and fateful motion.

Like much vintage genre fiction, Maske: Thaery is nice and short. Vance packs it with twists, turns, and reversals.  A series of scuffles and a dramatic, set piece confrontation break up the intrigues and keep the story humming neatly along.

The tone, content, and pace of the novel are perhaps best summed up in the words of Vaidro Droad, Jubal’s uncle and sometime mentor:

While we are alive we should sit among colored lights and taste good wines, and discuss our adventures in far places; when we are dead, the opportunity is past.

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