Book Report: The Languages of Pao & Gold and Iron by Jack Vance

September 6, 2008 at 10:04 am (Books Galore) (, )

So. Continuing my induction to science fiction literature…

The Languages of Pao was not what I was expecting. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing; it was hard for me to connect with Beran’s fears. I don’t know when Jack Vance was writing; perhaps this is a generation gap or someting? I did note that the device of introducing concepts and then explaining later (or introducing concepts that can be explained through continual usage, such as Utter Black as the color of royalty) is a very effective way of hooking readers. It smooths the path to infodumps (ever the curse of stories set in radically new worlds) because the it makes the reader want to know about what concept is all about.

Here, another random note.

The society of Pao has the same eerie “same, everything’s okay because that’s just how things are” quality that Lois Lowry’s The Giver’s world does — when Jonas’ dad kills the baby and says “bye bye little guy”  in a goofy talking-to-baby voice? Yeah.

Gold and Iron was much the same. Well, I expected the ending–which totally twisted on me, how d’you like that. I’m not sure how I feel about that story. It left me unsettled; the mode of gratitude you’d expect to be owed to Branch is not there, suggesting that such a mode is a human construct, rather than an inherent characteristic of sapient life. It’s interesting, because my current class is about gift and sacrifice and dealt a little with gratitude–one of the views we’re studying is that gratitude is actually a burden; we resent in our gratitude because we are forever beholden and can never discharge that debt. Does their lack indicate that they live lives without the paradoxical voluntary/obligatory nature of gifts and reciprocation? Does that make the alien races more or less enlightened than humanity? Is pragmatism the same as wisdom and truth? Or do we need the little lies, as Terry Pratchett would say, of gratitude to believe in the larger lies of loyalty and faithfulness to friends, family, and state?

I did like how Branch got in the last word, though. His sarcastic little comments surrounding Ellen’s apology and their child (though when he would have been conceived I do not know) are true, which is perhaps why the normally composedly superior Lekthwan was pissed; she knew they were true. Despite her belief in Lekthwanian superiority she knew that she had proven herself baser and inferior to Branch’s humanity when she did not protest leaving him on Magarak. She knew her apology was not enough, would never be enough, and that without him she would have spent the rest of her life in the breeding pens. She knew. And Branch knew. And she knew that he knew.

Overall I seem to sense that Jack Vance’s writing delights in delivering endings that aren’t what you expect them to be, or are what you expect them to be in a weird way. In both stories, ordinary people (for their world) are forced to confront radically different world views with greater or lesser success as understanding or assimilating. Large time jumps seem to be the norm to. I found both stories vaguely unsettling, I don’t know if I want to read more–his worlds are fascinating, but his stories are disquieting. At any rate, he was still well worth checking out.


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