Review: Jack Vance—The Book of Dreams

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Not a bad conclusion to the series, pretty much on par with the previous four.

The bad guy in this one is Howard Alan Treesong, and he sort of resembles Viole Falushe from the third novel, because he is given a fairly detailed and particular backstory. The first two Demon Princes were provided no such background, and the villain from the fourth installment wasn’t given a detailed origin story either; however, Lens Larque didn’t need one, because he was a Darsh from the planet Dar Sai, and all of the Darsh grow up in the same basic manner and end up with the same basic personality traits. It’s simply that Lens Larque evinced a particularly strong expression of these otherwise typical characteristics.

Actually, Treesong’s backstory doesn’t explain his origins so much as demonstrate that he was always evil. Among the bad habits that he picked up from a disturbingly young age was a tendency to drown his school chums. He also kept a journal of his megalomaniacal fantasies, called the Book of Dreams, which describes the basis of his later psychotic and fractured self.

Treesong comes from a planet called Moudervelt, and it is interesting in a way typical to Jack Vance. Although first settled in ancient times, it never grew to a very large population, and hence never experienced a need for a strong central government. Instead, there are 1,562 separate dominions, each as different from the rest as the vast differences that distinguish every planetary society in the Oikumene itself—except that they all share a certain rural and provincial flavor (there are no cities on Moudervelt).

Kirth Gerson eventually travels to one of these 1,562 dominions and is told by a guard at the border: “...I have visited 39 distinct and separate domains—Maunish is a haven of tolerance compared to such as Malchione or Dinkland. Our statutes are simple and reasonable. We forbid the advancement of polytheism and the display of white flags. We prohibit belching and other breaches of the public peace...” When Gerson then finds his way to Treesong’s hometown of Gladbetook in Maunish he sees a statue of an old religious hero named Diadrem Runer Fluter, posed dramatically with a knife in one hand and castrated male genitalia in the other.

Don’t start thinking that our villain was terrorized with threats of castration by a family of stern and violent religious fanatics, until it broke his mind and turned him into a psychotic interplanetary arch criminal. In the Land of Maunish, the fervor of the old beliefs have mellowed over the centuries, and while the people remain strict and observant, they are a peaceful and hardworking folk, kind of like Quakers. Treesong came from an ordinary and simple farming family here. His wicked nature doesn’t seem to be caused by his cultural environment in any way.

Allow me to quote the opening passage of the Book of Dreams (not the novel The Book of Dreams, but the book within a book, Treesong’s quasi-religious, teenage manifesto). It illustrates pretty clearly that his evil nature is the result of some inborn psychic malignancy (that is how Jack Vance imagines him, anyway):

“I am Howard Alan Treesong. I profess no fealty to the Hardoah ilk; I expect none. That my birth occurred through the agency of Adrian and Reba Hardoah is an incident over which I lacked control. I prefer to claim my substance elsewhere: from brown soil like that which I now clutch in my hand, from gray rain and moaning wind, from radiance discharged by the magic star Meamone...”

The centerpiece of the novel is Treesong’s 25th high school reunion, in which he returns to terrify his former classmates for various offenses—a teacher who chastised him, girls who rejected him, peers who mocked and bullied him. If I was making a movie of this novel, I would encourage the actor to play this scene in an over the top and campy way, in the style of the most flamboyantly overblown James Bond supervillain. The school reunion is pretty entertaining, but also kind of silly. It seems odd that the most ambitious Demon Prince, who is working on a grand scheme to rule over the entire Oikumene, would take time off to go his high school reunion. But as I’ve already said, it’s a funny scene, and even an insane interplanetary supervillain needs a vacation now and then.

So, here’s my summary of the entire series. In general, each novel is a little better than the one preceding it. The first, Star King, was the weakest. The second, The Killing Machine, was on the same basic level, but was just a little better. The third, The Palace of Love, was notably better than the first two, primarily because the villain was more interesting (to me, anyway) and because Kirth Gerson was now given the financial resources to actively pursue his mission of vengeance with energy and intelligence (as opposed to the first two books, in which he is strangely listless and passive). The fourth, The Face, was so good that it actually turned out to be the most entertaining of the series. The fifth and final novel just couldn’t top it, but it was still quite good—the second best in the series, after The Face.

These ratings are more or less arbitrary. The first two I’ve rated as the least impressive, but they still were entertaining and had a lot to like. For example, the bad guy in Star King didn’t have a very memorable presence in the novel, but his henchmen were well drawn, and one in particular was very good. The last three novels I rate higher, but they share most of the flaws of the first two, including a pulp sensibility that is at times charmingly humorous but is also kind of cheesy and silly.

All were enjoyable, and I expect I’ll be reading more of Jack Vance in the future.
 

hitmouse

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Good review. I always thought that Alan Howard Treesong was much too nice a name for a bad guy.

Recommend Araminta Station if you want something a bit more chunky for your next dose of Vance.
 
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It’s funny you mention Araminta Station, because I just started it. It seems to be set in the same universe as the Demon Princes, but the names are a little different. Instead of the Oikumene, it is now called the Gaean Reach. The very first imaginary citation was from a made up book by the “Fellows of the Fidelius Institute”, which must be the same “Institute” from the Demon Princes. And the idea of a planet set aside as a nature preserve was explored at the end of The Book of Dreams, but in that book it was called Bethune, and now it is called Cadwal.

And you’re right, Howard Alan Treesong sounds like the name of a sixties folk singer or a character off of Sesame Street, not an interplanetary supercriminal.
 
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Lyonesse is definitely on the list. I want to read a few more of his space operas first though. One of them is actually called Space Opera. There’s these three books of the Cadwal Chronicles that I’ve already started, another four novels called called the Planet of Adventure series, another trilogy called the Durdane series, yet another trilogy called the Alastor Cluster series, and then numerous stand alone novels, only one of which I’ve read before, probably two decades ago, called The Languages of Pao. It was excellent, if memory serves.

I think I have all of his science fiction and fantasy novels, and a good portion of his story collections. The Lyonesse series looks very good, but as you can see, it might be a while before I get to it.
 

hitmouse

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Space Opera is fun but certainly not up there with Vance’s best.
Planet of Adventure is very good, as are the Alastor books ( I particularly like the first one) and Durdane ( the third is the weakest)
Lyonesse is superlative.
 

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