Jack Vance


Ports of Call


I figure Vance must have been in his eighties when this was published, and as a prolifically established name I suspect the quality control had slipped Asimov style. I haven’t minded a couple of his books, much as the language is usually pretentious. It’s such a ubiquitous flaw, particularly in fantasy (Hugh Cook, Terry Goodkind) to think that virtually mock-heroically pompous expression, reaching for the thesaurus constantly with a High Schooler’s concern that clear and precise language isn’t somehow impressive enough – or, rather, with the foolish arrogance to feel that using antiquated or obscure constructions and vocabulary displays great intellect. Much as they may hope to, it’s not putting them in the league of ‘great’ writers like Shakespeare, Austen or Samuel Johnson: they haven’t worked out that the reason classic authors like these sound so different to everyday speech is more to do with historically dated language than some objectively ‘higher’ style – to their intended audience of contemporaries their now elevated sounding words were far more immediately accessible. It might be fun to have a single character that speaks in that self-consciously ostentatious way, but in Vance we have every character, and the narrator, speaking in the same irritating style. Yes, every single one – from carnival entertainers, to isolated tribesmen to a murderous, uneducated, impoverished bar slut. It’s some relief that Vance finds it difficult to maintain this contrived style to its most painful level throughout the entire novel – he unwittingly slips into greater sense and clarity here and there – but they are only slips.


There is no plot. There starts to be one, and, who knows, there might be another sequel or two to tie up the starter story, but it’s really pretty random. At least this is more justifiable in context than some other equally undisciplined books – as the title suggests, our protagonist is unattached and pretty happy to be fairly aimlessly flitting about from exotic port to port as crew on an opportunistic cargo (and, at a pinch, passenger) vessel. Hey, there are writers whose style and individual episodes are good enough that they can get away with weak or even non-existent plots on occasion (Fry, Wodehouse, Adams, Keillor, Banks), but Vance isn’t one of them. OK, there is some charm, some wit – but not enough. Vance perhaps felt he’d bolstered this by adding some daydream titillation – our young hero Myron can’t seem to help but find himself in intimate situations with attractive young women. It’s not soft porn, but it is somewhere near to Star Trek 1/James Bond. Vance was born in 1916, and his presentation of playthings women and utterly expendable third world characters is neither politically correct nor insightful: rather it tends to confirm why some attitudes were better left in the last century. His men are supposed to be cool, I suppose, never dropping their carefully scripted lines under fire or seduction.


In his defence he was consciously writing a light comic daydream novel – it was never meant to be some searing social commentary. I suspect the humour may have worked better for someone with more of his own generation’s presuppositions. There’s much better Vance out there.


January 2005