The World-Thinker and Other Stories, like The Potters of Firth and Other Stories and Golden Girl and Other Stories is a collection of Vance’s earliest short fiction. The quality not the same as the work he would produce later in his career, there nevertheless exists that little spark of wit that would define the grandmaster’s style of sci-fi. Perhaps for the die-hard fan only, the following is a light breakdown of the collection.
“Seven Exits from Bocz” - Vance scheming on what Hitler's rightful fate should have been - in a sci-fi setting of course!
“The God and the Temple Robber” - A confused story, but one which hints at an anything-goes, Dying Earth sensibility A man steals a jewel but returns it when dire consequences incur. What he finds upon his return to the temple is not what he thought.
“I’ll Build Your Dream Castle” - A strange tale for Vance, the focus being the building industry and the integrity of the business concerns backing it. An early story, Vance obviously is experimenting with form.
“DP!” – After WII troglodytes begin emerging from caves in serious numbers, and as a result, affirmative action has never received such a Vancean twist. The movie District 9 has something in common, though it is possible Vance is playing off Wells’ The Time Machine, trying to give credit where credit is due to the real heroes of the war.
“The Devil on Salvation Bluff” – The natives vex a missionary couple on an unstable planet. How they are vexed is precisely Vance, a culture clash that Australia has undoubtedly experienced and is still experiencing. One of his better earlier works.
“Noise” - Strange, surreal piece about a man stranded on a seemingly lifeless, alien planet. Vance gives new meaning to the word “mirage”.
“The Phantom Milkman” – Female protagonist in the first person. A woman tries to find the secret behind the milk that keeps appearing on her doorstep. Not one of Vance’s best.
“A Practical Man’s Guide” – Ralph Banks, the definition of mundane, is intrigued one day by an offer for more exciting things in life. A one-off from Vance, this is not one of his best.
“The House Lords” – First contact on an architecturally strange planet may provide more adventure and mystery than the explorers intended. So-so Vance.
“The Absent-Minded Professor” – An assistant professor seeks to get revenge on his mentor, and most importantly, escape. But it seems being too organized has its downside side, as well… A one-off.
“The Secret” - An Ursula Le Guin feel. Fantasy only for the lack of names to the setting, this is one of Vance’s more serious works: a story about maturing. This and “Noise” are the best in this collection.
“The Ten Books” – When an everyday “Ed and Jane” come upon an alternate human civilization, the deeper motivations of culture and scientific exploration arise. At times a satire on the hyperbole of critics, reviewers, and fans of artists, musicians, etc., the rest is culturally sensitive commentary that pushes the story toward being one of the best in the collection.
“Where Hesperus Falls” - A man 96,232 years old is tired of life and concocts the most bizarre suicide ever when all other attempts fail. A rare first person narrative from Vance, the story is nevertheless a one-off.
“The World-Thinker” – A brief meditation on the Christian god, Vance’s colorful imagination permeates everything about this story rooted in the power mathematicians and programmers have in controlling money, etc. A middling tale, it is the first Vance ever had published.
Telek (novella) – It’s a different world and a different place. Humanity, despite possessing a small number of freedoms, is subservient by default to their overseers, a group of telekinetics known as the Telek who control things with their mind powers. The Telek brutally punitive for any acts committed against them, a murder of one of their own unleashes an investigation from hell for humans, and starts a revolution in the process. Set against the mind control of physical objects, the human underground has its work cut out for them, their Telek lords seeming to possess every advantage. That is, except one.
A quick-paced, fun story, Telek nevertheless falls far short of The Last Castle and The Miracle Workers’ standard of novella quality for Vance. Written fifteen years prior to these, it can be seen Vance is still working out his own voice, the story more experimental than serious. Moreover, there seems much more room for the idea to be developed; 100 pages is not enough. As a result, the story has an empty, almost antiquated feel, not to mention a lack of cohesion between major plot points. Slightly reminiscent of Alfred Bester, fans of Vance will nevertheless find something to be enjoyed.
In the end, The World-Thinker and Other Stories represents the very beginning of the very beginning of Vance’s writing career, only the Dying Earth stories excluded. In fact, “The World-Thinker” is Vance’s first published story. And it shows. Vance experimenting and finding form, certainly better examples of his writing exist elsewhere. It is interesting, however, to see the seeds of ideas being planted. “The Devil on Salvation Bluff” with its cultural mis-match, “Seven Exits from Bocz” with its theme of revenge, and “The House Lords” with its inexplicable alien encounters all exhibit the rudiments of Vance’s later fiction. Perhaps for this, the collection is worth it.