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NIGHT LAMP BY JACK VANCE

(Review by Nick Gevers, Ph.D., Cape Town, South Africa)

Jack Vance is an author of unusual longevity and consistency. Since the mid-1940s, this very private Californian has published a steady stream of exotic, ironic, and polished works of SF and Fantasy, works that have changed little in style and sentiment as the decades have passed. Their narrative voice is invariably erudite, humorous, sensuous; their settings are far worlds, usually populated for centuries or millennia by the descendants of human colonists, who have settled into involuted, bizarre, and sinister cultural patterns. Vance’s mannered adventure tales are witty and picaresque confections, a somewhat specialized form of Science Fantasy that can at times become static, more interested in colourful detail than in advancing its plot; but that has a relish of its own.dome.jpg (6601 bytes) Night Lamp (1996), which richly combines narrative urgency and copious splendours of formal description, is a worthy addition to Vance’s idiosyncratic canon.

Since 1963, Vance has gradually developed a unifying background for his far-flung space operas and planetary romances, known as the Gaean Reach. Essentially a very loose confederation of thousands of human colony planets, the Reach is a timeless and limitless backdrop for exotic adventures and imaginary Baedekeresque travelogues. In Night Lamp, the fifteenth Gaean Reach novel, various remarkable and dangerous worlds are explored as the mysterious origins of the hero, Jaro Fath, are slowly clarified: as a small boy, he is rescued from one perilous backwater by a pair of kindly cultural anthropologists; he is reared by them in their own society, whose civilization is rendered peculiar by its obsession with membership of prestigious and status-enhancing Clubs; his foster parents are murdered while visiting a culture of ruthless solipsists; he meets his true father, acquires a girlfriend, and sallies to the galaxy’s edge, where a particularly splendid setting, decadent and decaying Old Romarth, is revealed as his birthplace, and almost becomes his tomb. In Old Romarth, Jaro encounters his long-lost brother, who has become a monster owing to long imprisonment; this adds to the plot psychological elements as bizarre as any of Vance’s imaginary locations. As the novel ends, a life of boundless galactic exploration beckons to the surviving characters: for Vance, wanderlust never ends.

Night Lamp is the epitomal Vance novel, recalling many earlier ones, amounting to a summary of all his past techniques and concerns. As such, this book also confirms his long-standing flaws: inattention to consistency of detail (the text is particularly poorly edited); reliance on worn-out clichés of plotting; and ethnocentric smugness, which relegates to positions of inferiority people who conform, who are primitive, or whom history has ‘passed by’. Vance is in many ways still a 1950s SF writer, unbendingly committed to the cultural habits and ideology of that decade, himself historically passed by; to read Night Lamp is at times an uncomfortably nostalgic venture. But the brew is heady; its wit and colour continue to be persuasive. Vance remains a master of his eccentric craft.

TOR (USA). 1996. HARDCOVER. more.GIF (3105 bytes)back.gif (3046 bytes)

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