Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Review of Night Lamp by Jack Vance

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.


  1. Great review. I love Night Lamp, and I think you've hit on most or all of the reasons I think it is so great.

    1. I see on your (relatively new) site that Night Lamp is not the only work of Vance's you enjoy. Is there a favorite, or handful that stand out as his best you think?

    2. I've read all but two of Vance's science fiction and fantasy novels, I believe. The Cugel, Demon Princes and Tschai books I have read twice, and I expect I'll read the Cadwal and Alastor books a second time in the next year or two.

      The two Cugel books are probably the ones I had the most fun reading. The best plotted novel is probably The Face, though Palace of Love and Book of Dreams have pretty good plots and have somewhat more interesting villains than The Face. I was very impressed with the tone of Trullion, and enjoyed the satire in Wyst. Araminta Station is very good, and the Cadwal books as a whole are interesting because they address political and social issues.

      I think Vance's writing improved over time, and I think Night Lamp is actually a strong candidate for best Vance novel overall.

    3. Wholeheartedly agree on your 'best of' remarks. The Lyonesse trilogy and The Tchai books have many strong moments, but overall lack the consistency of Cugel. Blue World is also a strong novel; I don' know if any author has so vividly imagined a water world, but again, for one reason or another, falls shy of the quality of the plot of The Face. And Araminta Station is indeed interesting from a variety of perspectives.

      I have not read the Durdane series or Ports of Call/Lurulu pair, though they sit on my shelves awaiting the right moment. Anything to recommend? Should the 'right moment' come sooner rather than later?

    4. I read the Durdane books a long time ago and Ports of Call and Lurulu even further in the past. The Durdane books were fun, I guess about average for Vance, say as good as the Tschai books, not quite as good as Blue World, which I agree is very good.

      As I remember themPorts of Call and Lurulu are what I think of as picaresques, a series of disconnected episodes, and not as interesting or amusing as the Cugel books or Showboat World, which have interesting characters. I should read them again to see if I might appreciate them more, but as of right now, I think of them as below average for Vance.