Archive for June 28th, 2013

The Immram of Jack Vance

Not to long ago on this very blog I was looking for a word associated with a type of storytelling that involved going from island to island and solving mysteries on each one, on the way to a final destination. I discovered it’s a story form from Ireland, a place that knows from sailing west towards mystery, called an immram. Remember that? From way back on Wednesday? I thought it sounded like an interesting style of story that could be translated well to science fiction.

Five_Gold_BandsYesterday, I decided to finally pick up one of the Jack Vance Ace Doubles I have in the basement, that whole problem I have with not reading the giants of the science fiction genre until they sadly pass. One side of the Double is his Hugo-winning novella The Dragon Masters. Figuring that the better of the two, I started on the flip side with a novel called The Five Gold Bands (aka The Space Pirate). Here’s the gist of the story: In the future, humans have spread to five planets and rapidly evolved to best live in their new environments. These five races have kept the secret of space travel from their home planet, doling out just ten pre-made black box propulsion drives to the planet every year. Thus, stolen drives can be worth a king’s ransom.

Through an act of self-preserving genocidal assassination, the Irish protagonist gets a series of five clues that will lead him to the segmented instructions on how to make the drives. He travels from planet to planet with these often cryptic clues, and once he lands must solve the clue to get the next piece of the puzzle before arriving at his planned final destination.

The story is, in short, a science fiction immram, right down to the choice of an Irish protagonist. Now, the classic immram features westward travel (to the point that some Celticists discount Voyage of the Dawn Treader as a true immram because they travel east), but the classic immram is also taking place on the surface of a globe where “west” makes sense as a direction of travel. There are other key elements of a classic immram missing, but in terms of finding a story about an Irishman bouncing from planet to planet solving puzzles and riddles on his way?

I suppose the seed could be placed further back in the classic voyaging myths of legend, these kinds of island hopping adventures are not exclusive to the Irish immram, but it was that inclusion of an Irish protagonist, and picking it up so close to discovering the term… I guess what I’m saying is the world is full off odd little coincidences sometimes.

As for the book itself. Oh, gosh. Traveling to five alien worlds in just half of an Ace Double is a rather tightly packed itinerary. It’s a great concept, but I think it would be better told in double, or even triple, the word count. I feel like I’m reading the most detailed outline I’ve ever picked up, but that it’s still an outline, still just bones that need a little more flesh on them. It’s got about 20 pages left, and in that time has to wrap up the fifth planet, retrieve the pieces of the puzzle left on a sixth planet, and get back to earth. That’s the sort of breathless pace this book is built around. Entire planets are visited and left again in the course of 8-10 page chapters.

Still, I see several reviews citing this as an early work and cautioning not to judge Vance’s output on just this one novel, so I’m still looking forward to flipping it over and tucking into The Dragon Masters.

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