Sunday, March 24, 2013

Touring the stars with Myron and friends

Ports of Call
Jack Vance
Fiction 300 pages
Tor, 1998

Jack Vance
Fiction 204 pages
Tor, 2004

Myron Tany longs to visit other worlds. When the opportunity arrives at last, he readily agrees to captain his great-aunt’s space yacht. When she strands him on Dimmick, he demonstrates the resourcefulness typical of Jack Vance heroes—he joins the crew of a space freighter.

Now Myron begins the series of minor adventures that fill out Ports of Call and its sequel Lurulu. While some Vance stories are filled with adventure and danger, others are closer to a P. G. Wodehouse’s comedy of manners. This story is one of those.

Although Myron Tany is the central character, the books are not entirely about his doings. Their episodes also involve the ship’s crew members and its passengers. In the end, two themes emerge: 1) lurulu, an undefinable state of self-realization and contentment, and 2) the friendship of the freighter’s four crew members.

When Vance wrote these stories, he was well into his older years and had already lost his eyesight. The two books are uniquely Vance, however their characters are not the plucky heroes of earlier Vance novels. Myron is unexciting and conventional, yet displays enough wanderlust to join a ship’s crew. The other crewmembers are neither dashing nor daring, except perhaps Fay Schwatzendale, who compensates for his good looks with his cautious and skeptical manner.

Vance, himself, spent time on freighters. And while his freighters plied the seas, rather than the stars, Vance experienced his share of distant customs and vistas. He lived and wrote abroad with his wife during various periods. Some of the exotic customs which make their way into Vance’s fiction may be parodies of customs he encountered abroad. In his autobiography, Vance describes of a port in Chile where the strict enforcement of laws parallels their enforcement on one of Lurulu’s worlds. In many of his novels, Vance tells the story through a single perspective. Here he employs the perspectives of multiple characters of varying ages. These are books to be sipped rather than gulped.

The two women who play important parts in these books include Myron’s great aunt and the captain’s mother. Aunt Hester is depicted as vindictive and vain, while the captain’s mother is frivolous, vain, and senile. Both refuse to let go of their youth, and one wonders if they may have been modeled after some of Vance’s contemporary female acquaintances.  Another elderly character, Moncrief, is a showman who manages to muster enough of youth’s second wind to hold his troupe together.  Unlike the captain’s mother, or Aunt Hestor, Moncrief demonstrates the possibility of aging with dignity.

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