Friday, September 26, 2014

Review of Son of the Tree and Other Stories by Jack Vance

The material so similar, it is no easy task to parse Jack Vance’s short fiction into collections.  Chronologically in order of publishing one option, the creators of the Vance Integral Edition instead went another: thematic -as challenging as it is.  While some are easier to identify than others, Golden Girl and Other Stories, for example, brings together the stories Vance wrote starring women and The Dragon Masters and Other Stories his three most successful novellas.  Others are less easy; The Potters of Firsk and Other Stories seems to simply have been a pot collecting miscellaneous stories.  Son of the Tree and Other Stories is a collection somewhere in the middle.  The common thread not immediately apparent, but once the reader delves in, the motif of space mystery becomes clear—at least for most of the stories.  The following are brief summaries of each:

“Phalid’s Fate” – A man is surgically altered to become a bug-like alien—a Phalid—so that he can get revenge upon the aliens for killing his brother in their inter-planetary war, but instead becomes involved in a massive plot.  Golden Age science fiction, this novelette is a middling example of Vance’s style of planetary adventure.

“Chateau d'If” – Mario is a bored architect until seeing an advertisement for the mysterious Chateau d’If.  Promised an adventure, he gets more than what he pays for, and must find a way to get himself out of a major hole.  Fully deserving of novel length treatment, this story is unfortunately a rushed affair full of gaping plot holes.  Though a fear of trans-humanism plays itself out in realistic style, the remainder has plot gaps the size of cadillacs, all characterization lost in the process. 

“Crusade to Maxus” - In a drawn out story that would have benefitted from later Vance wit and focus, Dyle Trave is forced to free his family.  Enslaved by the Overmen of Maxus, his plight is filled with pulpish excitement and adventure, and is not the most memorable story in the collection.

"Son of the Tree" - Almost as if having a laugh at writing itself, the protagonist of Son of the Tree is Joe Smith.  Essentially a galactic vagrant, Smith finds himself on the planet Kyril searching for the man who stole his love.  Quickly getting caught up in events surrounding Kyril’s gigantic tree of life and the rival Druids and Mangs fighting for its control, Smith soon finds saving his own skin is of more importance than getting revenge. 

“Shape Up” – A man responds to an advertisement for a hired gun, but the tests of skill and physiology he’s asked to perform may not be up to his liking.  A whodunnit of a police lineup, this simple story has the main character, and reader, sweating.

“The Augmented Agent” – As the title states, this is the story of a police detective with ‘special’ features.  Somewhere between Robocop and James Bond, Keith’s claws, extra-sensory devices, stored electricity, inbuilt communication devices take him on a tale of international espionage.  Interestingly, the setting is near-future Earth and the plot centers around Cold War concerns—not a common premise for Vance.

"The Man from Zodiac" (aka "Milton Hack from Zodiac") – When a family business fragments at the death of its founder, the new owner is forced to uphold a leftover contract. Tensions running high in a neighboring land needing weapons, his work requires increasing levels of patience dealing with the idiots involved. Vance dropping some dry commentary on politics and the weapons industry, the story is, unfortunately, rendered in equally dry terms.

In the end, Son of the Tree and Other Stories is a fair collection that focuses on Vance’s short fiction featuring crime capers, typically of the interplanetary variety.  Nothing overtly wrong with the stories, neither is there anything overtly remarkable.  Published from the beginning of Vance’s career to the middle (1946 – 1967), the quality varies, but is overall mediocre, and is not a recommended starting point for Vance.  Best left to completists, there are better places to begin reading the master of planetary adventure. 
The material so similar,

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