Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Maske: Thaery

And so with a single post, I threaten my hard-won reputation as a SF geek.

For years, people whose opinion I respect have told me that I need to read Jack Vance, whose merits they all sang quite loudly. And I tired, I really did. I read three of his books and afterwards felt somewhat cheated as the expectations I had been given were not nearly matched by what I had read. And then, in 2009, the New York Times wrote a glowing tribute to Vance in the wake of the publication of a collection of stories by authors who admired Vance. The article opens with compliments that should make any read stand up and take notice (

Jack Vance, described by his peers as "a major genius" and "the greatest living writer of science fiction and fantasy," has been hidden in plain sight for as long as he has been publishing — six decades and counting.

The article goes on to quote authors I like a great deal, like Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, and Michael Chabon, all of whom praise Vance as a craftsman and master storyteller. So clearly I was missing something and resolved to try again. I did some research and found that the Dying Earth books, for which he is best known and about which the New York Times article was written, are exorbitantly expensive as they are out of print. More research led to another lauded book, Maske: Thaery which I was able to pick up fairly cheaply recently and so my renewed attempt at appreciating Vance was begun.

That same article says the following about Vance:

Reading Vance leaves you with a sense of formality, of having been present at an occasion when, for all the jokiness and the fun of made-up words, the serious business of literary entertainment was transacted.

And yet when I read him in the past and in this most recent attempt, I didn't find his formality to be a gateway to "the serious business of literary entertainment." I found his language to be stilted and unwieldy, often getting in the way of appreciating what he was trying to say. The best analogy I could think of was watching a dubbed anime movie, where the characters' mouths move and the poor translators have to get the relevant part of what the characters are saying in the space of how long the characters' mouths move. Sometimes, the English is much shorter than the Japanese and the translators are forced to make the characters say things in far too many words in order for the characters' voices to be saying something as their mouths move. The results are sometimes unintentionally funny and sometimes extremely off-putting. In the case of Maske: Thaery, it is a nuisance.

It's no help that the thrust of the story is a yokel trying to make his way into the upper echelons of a society that is highly regimented, but the stiltedness goes beyond the words they say to each other to the narrative segments between. Jubal Droad knows that he is intrinsically as good as the snooty people he deals with in Wysdor, and there is some humor in his repeated attempts to advance his fiscal and professional career. But the narrator is third-person, and so in the passages where Jubal is alone or interacts with others of his clan, the high-falutin' language and style is particularly out of place. It also doesn't work in the expository passages that exist just to describe the strange world the reader finds himself in.

Jubal ends up being pitted repeatedly against Ramus Ymph, a nobleman in Wysrod who appears to be breaking various Thaerian laws about interaction with other races and other planets. Jubal's new job as a junior investigator for the mysterious D3 is to investigate Ramus Ymph and report on his crimes to his superior, Nai the Hever. His investigations force Jubal to travel all over the world of Maske but also to a neighboring planet. Vance populates these locales with fairly flat characters, but the effort spent on defining their cultures, no matter how silly, is masterful. But again, the reader often has to fight through oddly constructed prose to get to the meat of it.

Vance also makes some odd structural choices for Maske: Thaery as well. For instance, the first half of the book is laden with footnotes to expand on Thaerian terms and culture. And when footnotes are insufficient, there are also a few pages of endnotes. The notes help to round out the culture that Vance has elaborately built up. But they also disrupt the flow of the narration, actually serving as asides with little narrative value beyond being signposts to Vance's worldmaking skills. Craftier writers have found ways to include the information found in the notes actually in the narrative so that it doesn't take away from the ongoing story. In addition there are two distinct points where the narrative skips over critical periods of time to begin again with Jubal having to recap the parts that were skipped over. At a low level, this is an interesting writing technique that breaks up a straightforward recitation of facts, but at a higher level it again serves as a distraction from the story being told. At the highest level, both the notes and the time-jumping call into question the effect that Vance is attempting to make with the story—is this a historical account, a reading indicated by the high language and style and footnotes, or is this a less rigorous retelling of the facts of Jubal's escapades?

All that said, Maske: Thaery is a simple read despite the contortions of style and structure. But at its end, I still don't get a feeling that I know any of the characters very well at all—what motivates Jubal is never very clear. The novel makes it clear his overriding issue is the acquisition of money and prestige but this doesn't offer much insight into why he makes the specific decisions he makes. And because the third-person narrator is neither omniscient nor omnipotent, we get very little insight into how Jubal's mind works. The alternative is that Jubal is a very flat character indeed, making him far less enjoyable as a character. And truly, no other character in the novel is built up as much as Jubal.

So while I can see Maske: Thaery as an interesting experiment in storytelling, I don't see it as much of a success. And given the praise that has been heaped on Vance, I expected a great deal more out of the novel. It may well be a matter of taste and I am just different in this regard. After all, I'm not overwhelmed by the grandeur of Mad Men and I find the original Hulk to be a fine bit of moviemaking. I'm reluctant to make a fifth attempt at Vance, but if I can find a fairly decent cheap copy of his reputed masterpiece, The Dying Earth, I'll work up the gumption to give him another chance.


  1. Fred,
    Maske: Thaery is actually one of my favorite Vance novels, and possibly one of my favorite novels of all time, although it does wander at the end. You may not get Vance and his social commentary on the selfish, pretentious behavior of humanity, but it is there, let me assure you! His style is unique, and I can see how it might be found obtuse, rather than charming.

  2. Oh, and by the way, try "Dragon Masters". People who don't like Vance much like that award winning novella.