‘Good things come in small packages.’ is a common enough expression, and the same could be said of Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao. Written in 1957, the book is one of Vance’s earlier creations and does not represent the maturity of style that the dialogue of Tales of the Dying Earth or plotting of Planet of Adventure display. However, one can see that seeds have been planted and buds are sprouting. The novel, though checking in at only 150 pages, is unmistakably Vance.
Fully deserving to be fleshed out - to have all of the details unpacked - the exposed bones of The Languages of Pao tell of the exiled ruler of the titular planet and the steps he takes to stabilize his beloved country after his father’s assassination. Baren is just a boy when he is whisked away by the seemingly benevolent wizard dominie, Falafox, to the planet of Breakness. The knowledge Barend gains and linguistics he learns unwind in an unpredictable fashion that only Vance can write. Events moving swiftly – perhaps too swiftly for the weight of the ideas contained within – the story nevertheless moves with a deft plot and focus to its conclusion. In typical Vance style – positive for the protagonist, that is - the climax occurs in satusfying fashion, bearing nothing of the fairy tale colors other pulp sci-fi stories of the time wore.
Aside from the plot moving at times quite rapidly, the only disadvantage of The Languages of Pao is that the reader is left wanting a more detailed narrative regarding the role language plays in the story. While what content exists is more than sufficient to carry the plot, the thematic punch is somewhat pulled due to the paucity of description. Obviously playing off Saussere’s ‘sign’ and ‘symbol’ theory of linguistics, the book would not have suffered if the social connection to language was made stronger (for example, as in Le Guin's The Telling or Mieville's Embassytown). Alas, the idea coming so early in Vance’s career, the seed never had a chance to fully blossom.
That being said, The Languages of Pao is certainly an atypical sci-fi story written as only Jack Vance can. The cultural insight, wry humor, and well-thought out plot typical of the author are all present. As such, the book comes highly recommended for any Vance fan who has not yet read this work, or for anyone who would like a light taste of what role linguistics might play in a sci-fi story.