Jack Vance: No Place At Saponce

Jack Vance wrote idiosyncratically in a field of idiosyncracy.  The very lushness of his prose bespoke an era well past its prime that, when sought, could never be found.  Azure, jeweler’s brass, roseate and softly crystalline.  Contradictions made to coexist and cross-inform.  Footprints trace a path along the the receding shore of a sea once filled with more deliberate monsters than now, the waves gilded by a fading sun that somehow shines proudly if wearily, attesting to empires whose ruins are more wondrous than any new powers might contrive.

He often wrote of the stuff of melancholy, while avoiding melancholy itself.  One could see how tales told about these times and places might turn maudlin for greatness lost, but not yet, not now.  Now we must see what fascinations recomplicate in a present not yet to form a past still waiting.

Was it science fiction? Fantasy?  Did it matter?

Suis generis is sometimes used only when imagination fails to pigeon-hole, where appreciation falls short, and the thing judged is greater than those judging.  Works can signify its proper definition, but more often individual writers are better gauges.  Jack Vance wrote science fiction (The Last Castle, Araminta Station) and fantasy (Lyonesse, Maduouc), and amalgams of both (Mask: Thaery, Dragon Master, The Dying Earth) that even within their clearly defined provinces did not quite fit with expectation.  He was an altogether sensual writer more concerned with moving the reader slantwise into a state of mind to perceive in unique ways places that ran counter to any norm than might be applied.

Deep in thought, Mazirian the Magician walked his garden. Trees fruited with many intoxications overhung his path, and flowers bowed obsequiously as he passed. An inch above the ground, dull as agates, the eyes of mandrakes followed the tread of his black-slippered feet.  Such was Mazirian’s garden—three terraces growing with strange and wonderful vegetations.  Certain plants swam with changing iridescenses; others held up blooms pulsing like sea-anemones, purple, green, lilac, pink, yellow.  Here grew trees like feather parasols, trees with transparent trunks threaded with red and yellow veins, trees with foliage like metal foil, each leaf a different metal…

He established a quasi-mystical ground for what might loosely be called science-fantasy, worlds where physics and genetics obtained but suggestively and where the motivations of alien minds twisted landscapes into ur vistas against which struggles for power played out in atypical fashion.

In The Languages of Pao power resides in grammars, linguistics the key to control, and a strong and unusual acknowledgement that cultures are latent repositories of destiny.  In The Last Castle a comfortable ruling class is suddenly face with the fact that their servants have become more powerful than they and because thought was never given to them as more than labor, any basis for negotiation is completely unknown.

Vance seemed to write most eloquently about the days just before declines begin.  A last Indian Summer played out sometimes across galactic stages.  He was never less than grand.

The impact of an artist can be seen in his or her heirs, those who internalize their vision and produce new works.  Gene Wolfe paid homage to Vance in his Book of the New Sun even as he did something wholly his own and in some ways superior.  Vance was certainly not the first to try to combine science fiction with fantasy, but he was one of the most successful, and writers like Roger Zelazny, Lin Carter, and Michael Moorcock benefited from the results.

There is a bit of Tolkein to be found strewn throughout his prose, but Vance began publishing before Tolkein’s epic appeared, so the apparent influences are coincidental only.  They shared, if anything, a sense of the vastness of time and the importance of even forgotten history.  Vance’s stories are weighted with the awareness of pasts.

Vance retired from writing several years ago.  Eyesight failing, health precarious, he withdrew.  Now he has gone.  Other writers of his generation—Heinlein, Asimov, de Camp, Silverberg, Williams—seem to have garnered more attention.  At least more vocal advocates.  But each of them held Vance in high regard and the enormous body of work Vance has left us seems to be tenaciously inspiring new works and reassessments and gaining new readers.

“There is your home; there is Saponce.  Do you wish to return?”  

She shook her head.  “Together we have looked through the eyes of knowledge.  We have seen old Thorsingol, and the Sherit Empire before it, and Golwan Andra before that and the Forty Kades even before.  We have seen the warlike green-men, and the knowledgeable Pharials and the Clambs who departed Earth for the stars, as did the Merioneth before them and the Gray Sorcerers still earlier.  We have seen oceans rise and fall, the mountains crust up, peak and melt in the beat of rain; we have looked on the sun when it glowed hot and full and yellow…No, Guyal, there is no place for me at Saponce…”

Guyal, leaning back on the weathered pillar, looked up to the stars. “Knowledge is ours, Shierl—all of knowing to our call.  And what shall we do?”

Together they looked up to the white stars.

“What shall we do…”


Veering Into The Present

An attractive pitfall of popular history is the Pivotal Moment.  The writer centers on an event or an idea that signals a shift in the course of history, leading somewhere other than where it had been heading.  The Donation of Constantine, the First Crusade,  the invention of moveable type, Galileo’s confrontation with the Church, Newton’s codification of the law of gravity, things like that.  The point being made is that these events are so tectonic that Everything Changes.

The pitfall is not so much that they are wrong but that they are taken as solely responsible, isolated moments, forks in the road.  It is easy to ignore or forget everything else around them.  Focusing only on the Emperor Constantine can suggest that without him, Christianity might not have become the official religion of Rome and thus history might have taken a different course.  (Personally, I think Constantine’s moving the capital of the empire east was far more significant as something he alone could have done, or caused to be done.)  It overlooks the fact that Christianity had become a tremendous movement by then.  Had Constantine been of a mind to resist it, he might have delayed its ascension for another emperor, but it would have become what it did in any event.  Constantine was being politically astute.  (After all, he left Rome to the Church even as he moved the center of imperial power to the new city of Constantinople.  It’s telling that he chose to isolate them geographically.)  The Crusades were important as expressions of political currents leading to a contraction of Rome’s vision of itself and certainly set the stage for subsequent events in the Levant, but not even the death of Richard the Lionheart changed all that much in even British history.

Newton might be arguably more important, at least for the calculus, but such things were in the wind.  Leibniz, rival and competitor to Newton, invented a calculus, and while the debate goes on as to who was first and which was better, such a mathematical tool was going to emerge.

Picking pivotal events, therefore, is a challenge.  Placing them in context is a duty and one it is often tempting to underplay.  It makes a better story if the singular event is the hero, as it were.  But it can sometimes make for bad history.

Stephen Greenblatt avoids that problem admirably in The Swerve: How The World Became Modern.  Even though the title is a bit hyperbolic and suggests the kind of history more consistent with a tabloid approach, what one finds within it first-rate history written for a general audience about a rather arcane subject:  the way ideas can change entire cultures.

The story is about the discovery of a manuscript, De Natura Rerum, an epic poem by the Roman Lucretius (99 B.C.E. to 55 B.C.E.), an acolyte of Epicurean philosophy who died just before Rome became an Empire instead of a Republic.  De Natura Rerum—“On the Nature of Things”—is a a surprising work in that it espouses ideas which we think of now as wholly modern.  That the universe is composed of atoms, that time and space are unbounded, that life evolves, that matter is all there is.  If one squints, one sees the foundational ideas of contemporary physics in all this.  Physics and cosmology.

But it continued on to suggest that pleasure is the highest moral purpose, that doing that in life that increases one’s pleasure and the pleasure of those around us, is the primary aim of a moral life.

It’s easy to see how this might run afoul the kind of moral philosophy that has dominated Western culture since before the rise of Christianity.  But Lucretius was not advocating hedonism, but the more constrained program of Epicurus, the 4th Century B.C.E.  Greek philosopher who advocated philosophy based on the two standards of ataraxia and aponia, namely peace and freedom from fear (ataraxia) and the absence of pain (aponia).  To do this, one must lead a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends and occupying the mind with constructive and pleasing contemplations and treating the body to that which brings pleasure.  Though the name has been linked to self-indulgence, hedonistic abandon, and all the ills of unrestrained pleasure-seeking, what Epicurus had in mind was something very different, and defined by moderation.  The kind of self-indulgence we assume attends such a life he did not see as peaceful, pleasurable, or free from pain.

He also believed that when we die, nothing survives.  The soul is an aspect of our physical existence like anything else and fades to nothing once the container ceases to function.

Lucretius wrote a poem of purportedly great beauty in support of this philosophy.

It is a common misapprehension that the Greco-Roman world of that time would have embraced all this eagerly.  The fact is, Christianity rather easily took root in the Roman Empire because it bore much in common with ordinary Roman morality.  Epicurus was almost as disdained under the Caesars as his ideas were later despised under the popes.  Christianity succeeded largely because of its commonalities with pagan culture, a culture which found Epicurean ideas almost as off-putting as any later devout Catholic might.

A culture which fully embraced the spiritual side of attitudes toward the material world that relegated this life to a condition of transient, burdensome necessity, pain, and suffering which must be borne with the faith and dignity of an acolyte who seeks a better existence in an afterlife, fully convinced that nothing in this realm matters.  A culture that had no use for the idea of atoms, that believed the universe to be bound tightly in a very local set of spheres, and with a time limit on its existence that was easily comprehensible—a few thousands of years.  People wanted the comfort of believing existence to be closely bound, finite, with a way out.

Lucretius’ poem faded from memory.  Rome’s collapse was as much a result of neglect as of catastrophe, and by the 9th century, much of the written legacy was sequestered in monasteries, scattered, mouldering, often ignored, certainly unstudied.  It required that civilization rise back to a certain material level before interest in ideas, old manuscripts, and the past could matter.

Enter Poggio Bracciolini, Florentine, scholar, humanist.

Humanist meant something a bit different in the 14th and 15th centuries than it does today, but it is possible to see the connection.  Poggio was one of that group of avid collectors who scoured the monastic libraries for old books.  Most of them were copies of even older books, the remnants of a vast ancient world epitomized by the Library of Alexandria, most of which seemed to offer glimpses into a Golden Age.  Aristotle had long been seen as the basis for rationalizing certain troublesome aspects of Christian theology.  The flood of recovered books from the Reconquista has been both benefit to a slowly recovering European civilization and troublesome bane to a Church that saw itself as the final arbiter of what it was proper to know, to consider, to believe.

Poggio worked for a succession of popes.  In his “spare” time, he hunted manuscripts, and helped return them to circulation.  He found Lucretius’ tome in Germany, a 9th century copy.  According to Greenblatt, he may not even have realized what it was.  He’d only heard it mentioned with respect and some reverence in other ancient manuscripts.

The Swerve reveals the events surrounding the poem’s creation, loss, rediscovery, and subsequent dissemination throughout a culture that was on the verge of becoming something other than what it had been.  The ideas embraced in the eloquent lines are ideas with which we are more than familiar today.  Indeed, they are common coin in debates on the right and the good and resonate in the foundations of modern science.  Greenblatt suggests that it was this book—its reintroduction to a wide audience—that caused the veer into what has become a secular civilization.

He is careful, however, to contextualize his assertions.  Something like this, it seems, would have had to be invented if it hadn’t been found.  Its arrival at the onset of the Renaissance was fortuitous.  Coming along when it did—when science was beginning to coalesce out of the mish-mash of alchemy and reactions to Aristotelianism, when people like Bruno, Galileo, Newton, and many others were present to respond—hastened events, gave focus to certain schools of thought, fed the furnace that was recasting conceptualizations of nature and the universe.  It lent the weight of a more complete philosophical conception to the fragmented components of what would one day become the modern world.

It is perhaps surprising (and somewhat disillusioning) that the arguments spawned by De Natura Rerum are still being waged today.  Reading Greenblatt’s examination of the central ideas of the poem and the subsequent responses to it is itself a lesson in historical context, because we can look around and find exactly the same kinds of debates—and sometimes bitter battles—going on around us.

But it is also encouraging.  Ideas survive.  People keep them alive, even over centuries, millennia.  Greenblatt is, in his own way, continuing that fragile, necessary, and yet astonishingly powerful tradition, passing on to the future what is important not only for today but what has been important all along.

A Country Of Distant Voices

In the opening scene of his new novel, And the Mountains Echoed,  Khaled Hosseini shows an Afghan father telling his children a story. The story is about life’s fragility in the face of an unpredictable and unnegotiable universe, the loss of children, and the tenacity of memory. In the story, the father is offered a choice—having a lost child returned to him to live a life he knows will never be more than difficult, often harsh, or leaving the child in the relative paradise to which it had been spirited while the father is granted the gift of forgetfulness, so he might return home with no memory of loss. The father chooses the latter.

But all around him, when he returns, memory remains, part of the landscape, continually troubling his life with fleeting moments of doubt about something he cannot name.

He has left his memories far away, in the mountains.  But the mountains are always there.

So, it turns out, are the memories, recognized or not. The real mountains in the novel are the tectonic accumulations of intersecting lives, which in some ways seem to have no real point to their connections, but over time—generations, really—build into massively instantiating forms, repositories of meaning.  Some of these characters climb over them, others live at their roots, still others move away from them, trying to lessen their dominance. But every word they speak echoes back laden with the textures of their beginnings.

The novel begins with the story of Abdullah and Pari, brother and sister who share a deep bond. Pari collects bird feather in a tin box, feathers Abdullah helps gather for her, and their playground is the village of Shadbagh. Life is crushingly hard for their parents. The father is a laborer. His first wife, Abdullah’s and Pari’s mother, died giving birth to Pari. His second wife has given him another son, Iqballah. Her brother, Nabi, lives in Kabul, the personal servant to a man of wealth who is married to  a woman more at home in Parisian society than in her native Afghanistan. The necessities and desires of these people bring them into association with each other in the most unexpected way, resulting in the separation of Abdullah and Pari.

Thus the series of separations which are the echoes of the novel.

Pari is taken into her new home, much too young for the memories of her time spent with Abdullah to be retained in other than a lifelong sense of hollowness.  The woman who becomes her mother is a poet, herself severed from the connections to home and family that might supply a sense of welcome in the world through which she moves.  Talented, beautiful, she is nevertheless a refugee even in her own country.  When her husband suffers a stroke, she takes the opportunity to flee, back to Paris.  With Pari, who over time forgets almost everything and is left with a persistent feeling of separation she cannot quite explain or ignore.

The trajectories all these people follow seem at a glance to have little to do with each other, even though certain events lie at the start of their paths.  Their lives settle into orbits that are tethered by those events, and no matter how far they go or where they settle in, a constellation forms of which each of them represents the rough boundary of a country that, while it seems to have no place on any map, claims them as native.  The echoes from that initiating event form the borders.

Which makes And the Mountains Echoed an exploration of that country, through the eyes of its unwitting inhabitants, all of whom, regardless of their point of origin, are native to a specific topography, bound by common experiences—of loss, abandonment, and escape.  He takes us on an expedition of a place of which the only maps are in the psyches of its residents.  Along the way he works a variation on the old aphorism “You can never go home” by showing that, in profound ways, we never leave it.

On another level, there is a very real country at the center of these explorations. Hosseini is writing, as always, about Afghanistan—its wonders, its tragedies, its costs, and its possibilities.  It is, he seems to tell us, a land of incredible potential, but to date the only possibility to realize it is for those with the talents and will to leave it, go where their particular gifts—themselves—can manifest, beyond the overwhelming gravity of a past that too often has no history of a future, no memory of what could be different that is not bound up in forgetting.

Like the story Abdullah’s and Pari’s father tells at the start.

At least one of his characters recognizes the innate conflict:

It saddens me because of what it reveals to me about Mama’s own neediness, her own anxiety, her feat of loneliness, her dread of being stranded, abandoned.  And what does it say about me that I know this about my mother, that I know precisely what she needs and yet how deliberately and unswervingly I have denied her, taking care to keep an ocean, a continent—or, preferably, both—between us for the better part of three decades?

Hosseini writes with an unflinching clarity of what Afghanistan is, tempered by hope for what it could be.  It is not that this potential Afghanistan does not exist—it does, he shows us, just not there.  It exists in the imaginations of those who have left and are nevertheless citizens of the country of their heart. That country is nascent in the echoes that will some day return from their journey.