Thursday, April 24, 2008

One Hundred Words of Genius

3: Sea Voyage,
The Pnume (1970)

Our Jack Vance passage today is taken from the prolific period from the early 1960s to the late 1970 when he reeled off a masterpiece a year with an unceasing sureness of touch. The Pnume (1970) is the final work of the Tschai series, in which an Earthman finds himself stranded on a richly-evoked planet with no obvious means of returning home. Tschai is at once dangerous and beautiful, and shows Vance's peerless world-building capacity at its finest. But Vance also deploys a melancholy reflectiveness, one of the qualities which lifts him far above the ruck of genre writers.

In this passage, suggested by Richard Chandler, the protagonst Adam Reith undertakes a journey by water:

The voyage proceeded, southwest toward the Saschan Islands. Days passed without event more noteworthy than the turn of the heavens. Each morning Carina 4269 broke through the horizon into a dull bronze and old rose dawn. By noon a high haze had formed, to filter the sunlight and lay a sheen like antique silk on the water. The afternoons were long; sunsets were sad glories: allegorical wars between dark heroes and the lords of light. After nightfall the moons appeared: sometimes pink Az, sometimes blue Braz, and sometimes the Nhiahar rode alone under the stars.

This passage is characteristic of Vance at his best. A lifelong traveller and sailor, he often reflects both interests in his work. Tedious descriptions of sunrise and sunset are the bane of much descriptive writing, but here Vance excels. The components of the excerpt are straightforward: a sea voyage, colours of muted subtlety, sunsets, a melancholy otherworldliness. No aspect of the prose shouts: it's a restrained beauty appropriate to the dull bronze and old rose dawn. The only part of the passage which moves outside of the factual is the allegorical wars between dark heroes and the lords of light. Even this is of a piece with the melancholy flavour of the whole.

Vance has a reputation as a great stylist, and justly so; here he shows that style is not always about pyrotechnics. Here he whispers with the soothing beauty of the breeze.


David Isaak said...

For me it's the "antique" modifying "silk" that makes this passage ring.

I'm not even sure how antique silk differs in appearance from silk produced yesterday (though my mind's eye leaps ahead to flesh out the image--the sheen is a bit more burnished and rich). I like the way "antique silk" is at once specific and also a bit conceptual.

Alis said...

Yes, ditto 'old rose' - conjours up a completely different colour than simply 'rose'.

Tim - you're tagged for some random facts over on my blog. Hope you don't mind...

Tim Stretton said...

Vance is a master of colour. Interestingly, on the antique silk, my conception is almost the opposite of David's--I see it as more muted than 'modern' silk, the colours bleached by centuries of light (in the way that the 'high haze' has filtered the sunlight in this passage).

Part of the power of the passage is the way in which Vance makes the reader's imagination do most of the work--so David and I have both collaborated with the author in different ways to come up with different images.