That thimbleful of readers who regularly visit this blog (fist bump!) know that Speculiction is bosom buds with Jack Vance’s fiction. Having completed his oeuvre, there is good, local knowledge of what qualifies as a ‘Jack Vance story’. That thimbleful will also know of the praise often lofted the way of Paul Di Filippo. One of the great chameleons in fantastika (able to change colors but also imitate), hearing he was publishing a Vance-esque novel in 2021, I was all ears.
I was all ears because, Di Filippo’s tribute to Stanislaw Lem “The New Cyberiad” is brilliant. Capturing all the glory of Lem’s robot stories while spinning a worthy, parallel tale, I was hoping Di Filippo would be able to capture the essence of a Vance story in his own way. Let’s see if The Summer Thieves (2021) does as such.
Heir to his planet’s rich farmlands and herds of highly profitable herples, Johrun Corvivios’ story is only about to get better at the outset of The Summer Thieves. Preparations for a wedding to his high school sweetheart underway, things seem to be going smoothly. Guests are invited, the party planned, the weather will be nice, and all lights appear green. Until (you knew it was coming), all lights turn to red—a flashing red, complete with a piercing alarm. Plans shredded and burned, Johrun is forced to into the universe, there to recover what he lost and find justice.
So far, so good fans of Vance say. That sounds like the plot of several Vance novels—Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery, Night Lamps, and so on. And indeed, Di Filippo would seem to have the overarching feel down pat. There are some touchy personalities in Johrun’s life, extra-planetary exploration (and adventure) abound, and a malevolent plot is uncovered. There are even bits of baroque dialogue. If Di Filippo was aiming at a Vance target, he hit it.
But he didn’t get a bullseye. This is not objectively wrong, or to be criticized. I can only describe the manner in which Di Filippo is off-center such that readers looking to smoke some fresh Vance crack to soothe their starving nerves can feel informed. The Summer Thieves is simply not as tight as a Vance novel. The first half of the novel spends more time than Vance would waffling about. The trigger to adventure—the flashing red alarm—occurs around the halfway point. When said adventure does happen, Vance would approve, but getting there is a loose, unfocused chunk of exposition with bits of action. It’s also not as focused in terms of style. Where Vance’s sentences are crisp, sharp statements that pop, Di Filippo’s are a mix of such writing, as well as the more common, mundane. Which is a surprise. Di Filippo is one of our master wordsmiths, and chameleons, making me wonder if there is some aspect of Vance’s writing I overlook
Regardless whether effectively Vance or not, The Summer Thieves is a spot of classic space adventure. Hearkening back to earlier days of sf, it’s a romp with clear bad guys and good guys, sensawunda, and a satisfying arc of justice that reminds the reader how innocent the genre used to be. If readers come bearing those expectations, and nothing more, there is a good chance they will enjoy the novel. Looking for the ‘next Jack Vance’, proceed with caution. The flavor is certainly there, just perhaps not with the intensity desired.