Monday, February 25, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

The Book of Dreams
Jack Vance, 1980

For the first time, "Why Should I Read...?" revisits an author, the peerless Jack Vance. I make no apology for this; Vance could easily support forty entries. In our first visit, we looked at his masterpiece of high fantasy, Lyonesse: The Book of Dreams, another work of Vance's rich later period, is an example of his sf. I don't propose today to revisit my earlier analysis of Vance's excellences--instead, I'll let the work speak for itself.

The Book of Dreams is the final work of Vance's "Demon Princes" series, in which the hero Kirth Gersen tracks down and kills the five galactic crime-lords who killed his parents. It sounds pretty grim stuff, an Elizabethan revenger's tragedy set in the far future; but that reckons without Vance's characteristic humour, and his interest in the societies in which his protagonist finds himself. Most Vance novels have an interaction between the protagonist and a local functionary: in this case, Gersen is staying at the prestigious Penwipers Hotel as he tracks down the elusive 'Howard Alan Treesong':

The porters moved swiftly around the room, adjusting the placement of furniture, wiping surfaces with their scented cloths, then departed, swiftly and quietly, as if they had merged into the shadows. The chief porter said: “Sir, the valet will attend you at once to assist with your wardrobe. The water is already drawn for your bath.” He bowed and prepared to leave.
“One moment,” said Gersen. “Is there a key to the door?”
The chief porter smiled benignly. “Sir, you need not fear intrusion at Penwipers.”
“Possibly not. But, for instance, suppose I were a jewel merchant carrying a parcel of gems, and a thief wished to rob me. He need merely saunter to my room, open the door and divest me of my wealth.”
The chief porter, still smiling, shook his head. “Sir, such a terrible thing could never happen here. It would simply not be tolerated. Your valuables are quite safe.”
“I don’t carry any valuables,” said Gersen. “I merely suggested a possibility.”
“The inconceivable, sir, is rarely possible.”
“I am totally reassured,” said Gersen.
“Thank you.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He drew back as Gersen extended his hand. “The staff is adequately paid, sir. We prefer to accept no gratuities.” He inclined his head crisply and departed.

—The Book of Dreams, Chapter 3

I'm not even going to explain why this is wonderful. If you don't see it, I don't think I can tell you. Our brains are just differently wired up. The only clue I can give is that it's not just the quality of the writing; it's also the context. Can you think of another science-fiction writer who would try to deploy something of this sort in an adventure story? It's the kind of passage which helps us to understand why one of the 20th century's greatest science fiction writers cites his own favourite author as P.G. Wodehouse.

How has it influenced me?
This one's simple. One day I'd like to write a passage this good--and be able to repeat the trick, as Vance does in every novel after about 1960.

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • read the passage a couple more times; you'll find the lessons
  • look particularly at the dialogue tags and adverbs


David Isaak said...

“The inconceivable, sir, is rarely possible.”

Brilliant line.

As to PG Wodehouse, he seems to be a writer's writer. The critics thought he was entertaining enough but not really a writer of the first rank. Yet any number of writers from any number of genres can go on and on about how he used language.

Oh, well. Comedies seldom win major Oscars, either.

Tim Stretton said...

Wodehouse mined a narrow seam; but he exploited it to the full. His plots, for me at least, carry virtually no interest--as you say, it's the use of language which is magnetic.