Jack Vance may no longer be with us, but his voice can still be heard. Refined throughout his lifetime into an ever more sublime salience of dialogue and plot, 1996’s Night Lamp sees the author re-treating elements from his own stories while striking out into another unique novel the likes of which no other can imitate. A seamless fusion of Emphyrio and Araminta Station, along with minor elements from several other works, the novel is classic Vance that shows no deterioration in quality despite being published in the author’s 80th year.
In the style of legends, Night Lamp begins with young Jaro Fath found beaten nearly to death on the side of the road. Adopted by a loving couple who bring him to the planet Gallingate, everyone is rightfully concerned when psychological tests reveal Jaro is suffering from amnesia (memories of the first six years of his life missing) and possibly schizophrenia, a strange voice speaking within his skull and haunting his days. But not all is forgotten. Jaro has vivid images of his distraught mother and a man clad in black with a white face stuck deep inside his memories. Begging for an explanation, the older he gets the more he resolves himself to become a spaceman and find the man from his nightmares and discover why his mother was murdered.
But for as much as Jaro requires answers from his mysterious past, he is smart enough to know he must first grow into adulthood. The first half of Night Lamp is thus a coming of age story a la Maske: Thaery, The Languages of Pao, and Emphyrio. Rivaling the wit and pertinence of Wayness Tamm in the Cadwal Chronicles, developing alongside Jaro is Skirlet Hutsenreiter. Smart if not smarter than Jaro, she comes from a higher eschelon of society than Jaro and his parents’ who are ‘nimps’—the lowest order on Gallingate. Dealing with the social system and the trials of adolescence give him the experience he needs to discover the murderer, but not without his share of bruises and bumps.
Less flamboyant than Cugel or Araminta Station, Night Lamp more closely resembles Maske: Thaery in style. Vance obviously writing with intended reserve, humor is of the more sublime variety. Not to say one is better than the other, only that in his years Vance is able to whittle away at his own writing to make it more subtle in detail and flavor.
The same cannot be said of plot, however. Few actual surprises, those who have read a lot of Vance will find little new story-wise. Not always a bad thing, there is a profusion of odd musical instruments, funky societies, strangely indoctrinated cultures, a villain full of his own logic, and a smile upon the ending. Perhaps utilizing too many of his own motifs, some are, unfortunately, abandoned after having been well-developed. Skirlet for example, is featured strongly in the beginning, but slowly fades, her value as a result, too.
If there is a unique aspect to Night Lamp compared to Vance’s other fiction, than it is the stronger than usual preoccupation wth cultural decay. Two of the main cultures presented are stratified along strict lines. One, having shot itself in the societal foot by setting up detrimental customs, is threatened with extinction if changes are not made to tradition. In typical human fashion, however, they choose to ignore the obvious and push blindly along the broad corridors of routine. The other is based upon the principles of ‘striving’ and ‘ledges’, the former needed to achieve the latter. People ignorant of the basics of life, the rat race they participate in, not to mention the resulting prejudices, have left them culturally empty, and the only traditions of value to be found in the backwaters of the older societies which are scattered in the countryside.
In the end, Night Lamp is older, more subtle Vance that shows he still has the flair for storytelling despite the eight decades behind him. Difficult to summarize without repeating what I’ve written thus far, suffice to say it’s difficult to think fans of the author will be disappointed. Containing all of the elements they’ve encountered before in slightly new shades and hues, it’s coming of age/planetary adventure as only Vance can write. That it’s also one of Vance’s longer works means there’s all the more to savor.