The collection The Augmented Agent and Other Stories (1986) is made up of early short fiction by the SF Grandmaster Jack Vance. Vance (1916 – 2013) happens to be one of my favorite authors, having turned out several series’ worth of memorable SF adventure novels. He was famous for his unique style and frequent neologisms, but his stories always maintained a consistent readability.
Vance still has a dedicated following, with multiple websites and the publication of the Jack Vance Integral Edition. Although his fantasy stories won him the most fame and recognition, I always preferred the complexity and brooding characters of his SF. I can recommend several Vance series in particular:
- the Alastor series (3 books)
- the Durdane trilogy
- the Tschai series, also collected as Planet of Adventure (4 books)
- the Demon Princes series (5 books)
I also remember enjoying The Dying Earth, The Languages of Pao, To Live Forever, and especially, Big Planet. Any one of these books or series would make a fine introduction to the work of this much-loved talent.
As for The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, I intend to summarize and comment on the collection over multiple posts, a few of Vance’s pieces at a time.
“Shape-Up” (1953) is the first story in the collection, first published in the short-lived pulp Cosmos Science Fiction. The setting is typical Vance – a crowded city on some planet with multiple suns in its sky. Out of work space traveller Jarvis reads a classified advertisement* in the paper:
Shape-up: Four travelers of top-efficiency. Large profits for able workers; definite goals in sight ... see Belisarius at the Old Solar Inn.
He arrives at the address, encountering a crowd of other hopefuls, whose various sizes, shapes and ages are richly described. An elderly servant eventually enters the lobby and informs them that only four men are needed. Most of the hopefuls are then excused on the basis of age and size, to a field of eight.
Jarvis is among these finalists, of course, and he is asked to yield a blood sample, eat a strange banquet meal (on this planet, merchant marines have to have table manners, perhaps) and show off his concealed weapon. Vance gets to show off his ability to provide an endless stream of strange little details for his alien world:
Next came glasses of frozen red punch, then braised crescents of white flesh, each with a bright red nubbin at both ends, swimming in a pungent sauce.
. . .
The host looked around with a pained expression. “The dish, I see, is not popular.”
The round man said plaintively, “Surely it’s uncommon poor manners to poison us with the Fenn swamp-shrimp.”
At this point, Jarvis realizes that this rigamarole is not actually a audition for a spot on a spaceship. “Shape-Up” turns into a mystery story in a SF setting, although with elements that could only work in such a setting. Vance’s bibliography includes several mystery novels, and he also contributed to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Here, an EQMM-type of plot twist is used in a SF setting, but the SF elements are essential to the plot – it’s not just a transplant across genres. It’s a solid and brief story featuring plenty of Vance things without being very complicated.
“The Man from Zodiac” (1967) is a novella first published in Amazing Stories. The bones of this tale are familiar for a Vance story – it features a hero – in this case a clever but unambitious corporate man named Hack – sent to a planet, where he must contend with the leaders of a barbarous frontier culture, for the sake of his career. The rudiments of free trade and contract law are involved, and getting from place to place is a nontrivial task.
Hack is sent by the two controlling scions of his company – The Zodiac Corporation – to a planet dominated by two cultures. Zodiac provides government services to countries who have money but ineffective ruling systems. This planet is quite a ways from Hack’s home planet of Earth:
Hack took leave of Earth almost as soon as he has arrived, riding the Black Line packet to Alpheratz, thence by Androemda Line to Mu Andromedae . . .
. . . to the F6 star Martin Cordas, Andromeda 469 and its seventh planet Lucias Cordas; thence by Cordas transfer to Ethelrinda Cordas and the west coast city Wylandia.
Vance packs a lot of names and routes in a short space to communicate both the vastness of his setting and the remoteness of Hack’s destination. Zodiac is scrambling for contracts, to the ends of the contacted universe.
Hack lingers in Wylandia and other locations within the civilized and peaceful culture of Ethelrinda Cordas, but its benevolent ruler Dibden has no need for Zodiac’s contracts. In fact, his bosses have already signed on to manage the affairs of the reviled Phrones, who raid Dibden’s borders incessantly, as well as carrying on a perpetual war with the equally repugnant Sabols. Securing a ride to, Grangli, the frontier capitol of the Phrones requires negotiation (and trickery) with the sole air-car driver willing to go there:
The pilot turned to look and Hack, stepping forward, touched a DxDx against the back of his neck. “Sorry, but I don’t care to walk. Please take me down to Grangali.”
“If I were not an idealist, you would not have tricked me so easily,” grumbled the pilot. “You are as devious as the Phrones.”
“I hope so,” said Hack. “You need not fear for yourself, or so I hope; they will welcome our arrival.”
“Yes, indeed; they will expropriate the air-car.”
“If you have such fears, put me down in the center of the city, discharge my luggage and leave before they can come to any such decision.”
“Not easy . . . I will swing in as low to the ground as possible, so that they do not shoot at us while we are yet aloft. Be prepared to jump from the car with your luggage.”
Once there, Grangali and the Phrone ruling class prove to be as much of a disaster as feared; Hack has to consistently work at attaining a minimal sense of control, despite the fact that he represents a paid service. Perhaps Vance is reflecting on situations that he witnessed in his travels all over the pacific as part of the merchant marine, but it’s interesting to see a middleman be the hero in the story, limited as he seems. His company’s fate appears to be doomed in the face of the impossible task of modernizing this Dark Age culture of marauders.
The story turns on Hack’s discovery that Zodiac’s competitor, an even more desperate company, has a contract with the Sabols, and that the Phrone and Sabol contracts are identical. He then hatches a plan to resolve his issues with the Phrone elites, as well as all other principals of the story.
The title, The Man From Zodiac, is a curious one: a “Zodiac Man” is a scheme for dividing the human body into sections assigned to the signs of the zodiac. It forms the basis for medical astrology, a practice that was phased out of Western civilization during the Middle Ages, at least among professionals. Vance might be referring to the backward ways of the Phrones and Sabols, but given that Hack is the Man from Zodiac, could the reference be for something else? Maybe the one-sided commercial arrangements that American and European companies used to exploit less developed cultures – a situation the lasts as long as the side with the natural resources is kept in relative ignorance?
Even if there isn’t a deeper cynical theme, this is a decent Vance fiction that shows his various devices in good form. No one else writes like Vance did, and this is another story that his fans would enjoy.
“Golden Girl” (1951) is a short story first published in the pulp Marvel Science Stories. I get the sense that Vance may not have earned a lot of money in his early career from these obscure periodicals. This particular issue might be interesting for its early pro versus con debate about Dianetics (with Theodore Sturgeon taking the “center” position).
“Golden Girl” begins with the titular character being rescued from a burning shipwreck site somewhere in rural America. She appears to be a young woman like any other on Earth, except that she has uniformly golden skin. After a predictable series of conversations with the local who rescues her, government agents and members of the New York high society (since she is soon a popular sensation), the Golden Girl comes to the realization that she is alone among people far more primitive than her home society. There are mentions of ongoing wars around the world, crowded cities and meat-eating that confirm this. It’s a very short, melancholy story of the kind I might expect from Ray Bradbury, although the golden girl’s name Lurulu shows up elsewhere in Vance’s bibliography.**
The chief theme of “Golden Girl” is that of posthumanism, the notion that a more advanced species beyond homo sapiens sapiens is possible. It’s an idea also explored by the much longer, and far stranger, 1954 Philip K. Dick story “The Golden Man,” although that was not his original title. Both stories have a decidedly Darwinian message to them; the post-human character’s fate critically depends on their ability to adapt to the world they find themselves in, as opposed to their inherently superior traits.
The three stories summarized in this post provide some introduction to the featured characteristics of Vance’s SF. Maybe they do not all have the satirical bite that I suspect is present in his novels (at least, in his SF), but the demonstrate his use of novel terms, theme of confrontation between cultures and everyman-style of hero.
* Classified advertisements were the physical newspaper-version of craigslist postings, back in the 20th century.
** In an explanation of Lurulu’s ultimate choice of action, Vance alludes to an 1839 book titled Strange Tales of the Seven Seas, which appears to be fictional. In doing this, he deliberately links his science fiction story with a genre of a previous age, that of the “Sea Tales.”