Jack Vance: Night Lamp

Another Vance novel — I guess I’ve read over twenty by now —and it pretty much goes according to formula, but hey, I love the formula. An adventurous young man has to achieve his destiny by overcoming a smattering of obstacles on various worlds spanning the galaxy, each of which has some charmingly odd culture and people who love to haggle.

Night Lamp was published in 1996, so it’s pretty late Vance, and it feels kind of loose (not that his novels are ever particularly tight), but everything does pretty much fit together in the end. Around a quarter of the way through, I was thinking, “Hey, this is really good, I wonder if this would be a good recommendation for newcomers to Vance.” But then things slow down a little as the focus shifts to the reminiscences of a second character, and I felt that the pace never quite recovered. In addition, a new plot element (which, to be fair, had been hinted at earlier) popped up literally 90% of the way through the book, mostly just made me feel uncomfortable for the characters involved, and was then resolved in a completely unsatisfying manner. That left a weird taste, and the book was already a bit overlong (close to 400 pages) anyway. So overall I’m not going to put this up there with his best. If you’re not a Vance fan there are better places to start, and if you are you’ll probably read it anyway, and still get some enjoyment out of it. And how many books have as a major plot point a quest to become a member of the exclusive social club the Clam Muffins?*


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6 Responses to “Jack Vance: Night Lamp

  1. C J Silverio says:

    I enjoyed _Night Lamp_, though I had similar reactions to the last third. “The Moon Moth” is my favorite story to recommend to newcomers to Vance, because it has all the Vancean elements: the self-reliant protagonist, the eccentric cultures, the odd currencies, the ridiculous inventions that turns out to be carefully literal descriptions of Earth objects or foods.

    We have all the Vance there is thanks to a subscription to that reprint project earlier this decade, and maybe someday I’ll manage to read it all.

  2. dfan says:

    Oh, I’m really jealous that you have the Vance Integral Edition – I discovered him too late to get in on that. Although I see that there is now a Compact VIE being produced…

  3. Mark Dominus says:

    Your description of Vance’s formula reminded me strongly of another description I once read of the typical Vance novel. It was something like “A resourceful hero must overcome a series of insurmountable obstacles in various alien cultures whose only common value is avarice.”

    But have you read “Bad Ronald”? It departs completely from the formula. I read it a few months ago after reading an article about in which it was pointed out as one of the very few Vance novels with an evil protagonist.

    One remarkable thing about Vance is that he is one of the few authors who succeeds in making the good characters be more interesting than the evil ones. (J.K. Rowling is another.) The villains in the Demon Princes novels, for example, are mostly just a bunch of vandals and schoolyard bullies blown up extra-large.

  4. dfan says:

    I have not read Bad Ronald, I’ll check it out when I can.

    Hmm, I don’t really agree that Vance’s good characters are more interesting than the evil ones. To take the Demon Princes as an example, I thought Viole Falushe and Howard Alan Treesong were pretty interesting, while I’m not sure I could distinguish Kirth Gersen from Adam Reith if you put them both in front of me – one grimly determined super-competent space-man is much like another.

    Do you count Cugel as good or evil? He got two whole novels.

  5. Caleb Wilson says:

    I think Cugel is evil. But the combination of extreme selfishness, false politeness, and blustery self-righteousness is what makes him great to read about. He’s so selfish he hates for anyone, even random unfortunates he’s trying to screw over, to think badly of him, which I think makes him more than just an ordinary villain.

  6. Mark Dominus says:

    I find Reith to be something of a cipher. Kirth Gersen, and his doubts and loneliness come across much more clearly clearly to me.

    I probably shouldn’t have said “interesting”. I think I meant something more like “attractive”. Viole Falushe may be interesting, in a bug-on-a-microscope sort of way, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to be him. Even though he’s wealthy and powerful beyond imagination, he’s still the same gross loser who dissected a frog in high school and then ate his lunch without washing his hands, and all his wealth and power life is bent on enacting his pathetic fantasies about Jheral Tinzy.

    Treesong is an exception among the Demon Princes; he’s the only one who doesn’t come across as a complete loser, and whose schemes go beyond petty revenge or juvenile fantasy. But he’s also completely insane. However, I will admit that I reread the relevant section of The Book of Dreams every time I’m about to go to a high school reunion.

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