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The Blue World

by Jack Vance

(Gollancz SF Collector's Edition, £9.99, 190 pages, large format paperback, first published 1966, this edition published 20 March 2003.)

The Blue World, originally published in 1966, has been re-issued by Gollancz in their overpriced but nevertheless welcome SF collector's edition series, joining Big Planet in the same. The boring flat cover scanyellow cover of previous years has now been upgraded to a half-cover illustration, rather sucessfully in this case. On the other hand, the quality of the paper remains atrocious, and the typing seems lifted from an earlier edition. We might feign indifference to these details, as many of the heroes of Vance's novels would surely do, given that after all this edition rescues a very enjoyable, long unavailable title which will delight fans of Vance's stand-alone planetary romances. As usual with this writer, much of the novel's charm rests on the premises, highly ironic, and on the inventive colourful writing.

The Blue World is inhabited by a rigidly-stratified caste society composed of refugees from an earlier shipwreck, but they have had to abandon much of the knowledge and technology of the past in order to adapt with remarkable resourcefulness to a harsh and peculiar environment. They all live on 'floats', which are like giant plants floating together over the seas (imagine enormous water-lilies), with the refugees from space living upon one such group. These floats, described with Vance's ingenuity and linguistic creativity, allow the inhabitants to obtain food from the sea and to produce a variety of derivate products with which they make their clothes, dwellings, boats, communication towers, and everything else. What the different castes maintain of their hazy past are the names by which they were professionally known before crashing on the sea planet: bezzlers, incendiaries, hoodwinkers, swindlers, smugglers, peculators, etc. Needless to say, the nature of their activities has changed dramatically, as the original settlers, the prestigious 'Firsts', had to create an economy of survival, so that the old names have acquired entirely new meanings with, at most, a remote metaphorical relationship with the old ones. By a wonderul irony, this stratified society of well-organized outcasts has no clue about its criminal origins. However, Skalr Hast, a promising hoodwinker in charge of one of the towers by which people communicate from float to float through an ingenious code of signals, lovingly described, is going to have to challenge all of this. His motivation is simple and understandable: to end the predations of mankind's only enemy in this world, a strange sea-creature called Kragen which the society of the floats, lacking the technology to destroy, has long sought to appease, with disastrous consequences. The largest, most dangerous Kragen is precisely the one who preys on the human float economy. Known as King Kragen, and he is about to become a God.

The book begins promisingly but, as sometimes happens with Vance's novels, as the plot unfolds it seems to lose dramatic energy, and its initial erotic tension. It is as if the writer got bored once he has displayed his original idea, losing interest when forced to bring the story to a logical conclusion. The plot develops with remarkable economy (in some ways preferable to the endless meandering of many modern multi-volume series) but there are no real surprises at the end, and very little character development. This is a traditional male-centered, linear narrative, only made bearable by the fact that the hero has flaws and makes mistakes. However, the novel is enjoyable. To a large extent Vance makes up for the limitations of the plot with his short, sarcastic social commentary. The novel's real strength is Vance's quasi-sociological description of the way social rules operate in an extreme situation so as to generate a kind of order, albeit often at the expense of truth. In fact, one of Vance's key themes is the way mythologies and religions can grow, to be manipulated by selfish elites at the expense of honesty and fair play. It is the hero's task to challenge the falsehoods of the system by challenging the ills it has produced. In a classic Vancian mode, the young woman he loves stands rather passively as judge of his performance, herself a seeker of truth, but horrified by the cost of the hero's enterprise, measured in the destruction lives, social order and cherished traditions. But ultimately the decisive judgement is a collective one, and the narrative tension concerns in large part a political conflict, which Vance describes masterfully with his keen (if rather cynical) account of the way collective psychology can, or can not, be manipulated. His philosophy is anti-utopian, individualistic and culturally relativist, with enough wisdom to realise that anarchy will not serve either. There is also a certain concern for human suffering and for truth behind the mask of cynical detachment. This is vintage Vance: light, but not entirely light, reading, and in any case highly entertaining.


Review by Joan Montserrat.

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