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Night Lamp by Jack Vance
(HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 380 pages, paperback. Published 16 March 1998.)

The work of Jack Vance is unique. He writes of high adventure in the far future, eschewing the Big idea and the intricately explicated extrapolation of scientific trends in favour of picaresque tales of derring-do among lavishly portrayed societies in a bustling and teeming galaxy.

It's easy to imagine that the lone furrow he ploughs might be alienating to the SF purists for whom science and technology are the only true subject of the genre. Indeed, Vance seems almost perverse in his disavowal of the modern trends of SF: his characters still communicate by radio and telephone; the science of his spaceflight - along with every other gadget or invention in his novels - is never explained. His characters dress not in the ubiquitous one-piece coveralls of so much stock SF, but in almost medieval garb, lovingly described.

Far from being a flaw, the archaic quality of Vance's work is a strength; it adds to the antiquated feel of his settings, the sense of the timeless history of the expansion of the human race throughout space. The reality of his novels, the eerie sense that Vance is describing actual visions he has seen - a time-tripping travel writer sent back to report on the wonders of the far future - is achieved too by the power of the language he invokes to describe the bizarre imagery. His skill at naming things, people, objects, places, is legendary: in this novel we have characters called Tawn Maihac, Skirlet Hutsenreiter, Twee Pidy, Humber Thwan; planets and towns entitled Gallingale and Ushant, Dimplewater and Loorie. Vance describes with satirical glee the social levels, or "ledges", of the planet Gallingale, with their clubs called the Tattermen, Kahulibahs, Zonkers and Clam Muffins. There is an element of farce in all his work, but it is saved from absurdity by the juxtaposition of low humour with elements of horror, in this novel the monstrous Loklor and the white house-ghouls.

The central character of Night Lamp will be familiar to the seasoned Vance reader. Jaro Fath is a somewhat reserved, upright, sardonic youth who overcomes adversity through the application of logic, persistence and wit, to inevitably triumph over evil foe. The story follows Jaro from the age of six when he is saved from death at the hands of louts by professors Althea and Hilyer Fath, while visiting the world of Camberwell. They adopt and raise him on the planet of Gallingale, where he applies himself at school and dreams of becoming a space-farer and learning the truth of his origins. He has vague memories of his mother's murder, terrible visions of a black-cloaked figure, though his first six years of life remain lost in amnesia. We watch him grow to maturity, fall in love, learn self-defence, meet his biological father and venture across the Gaean Reach in search of the villain who killed his mother. The quest for revenge, a common theme in Vance's work, plays a large part in this novel.

We know how it will end: we can rely on Vance for the traditional satisfying outcome. What is more important than the resolution, however, is how the denouement is achieved; the incidental detail of the far future lovingly described, the baroque and whimsical societies portrayed. Much of the delight in a Vance novel is the convoluted dialogue, the repartee and banter between indignant and vain characters, the bluff and bluster, the metaphorical turn of phrase and barbed insult.

If the novel has faults they are those of Vance's work as a whole: the characters are not individuals so much as types; his female lead is there for romantic interest and nothing more, and she is always described as small and insouciant, pert and pretty. These quibbles to the side, however: Night Lamp is a rich and deeply satisfying novel of colourful adventure, and I recommend it to readers new to Vance's work and those familiar with his singular visions.

Review by Eric Brown.

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© Eric Brown 7 November 1998