The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, by Jack Vance – part 2

My previous post on Jack Vance mentioned his dedicated following, culminating in the production of the authoritative Jack Vance Integral Edition (VIE). The VIE is the product of the work of over 250 volunteers, who digitized, proofed, post-proofed and otherwise brought into being the complete works of Vance, a process taking around six years, finishing in 2005. This process brought together an international group of diverse talents, including computer neophytes (their term) under an evolving team of leadership. All well before the advent of Indiegogo, Patreon or Kickstarter.

Given Vance’s hostile view of bureaucracy – as embodied in the corrupt powers “The Man From Zodiac” – it’s interesting to read about the shifting leadership team of the VIE. Of course, these people were volunteers motivated by a common passion for the long-term survival of Vance’s artistry.

My tour through the 1986 collection The Augmented Agent and Other Stories with a look at two more pieces from the early 1950’s. As I read through these stories, I grew interested in some of the traits shared among the protagonists with the other heroes of the collection so far, so I will be referring to my comments about “Shape-Up”, “The Man From Zodiac” and “Golden Girl” in an earlier post.

….

thrilling_wonder_stories_195110

Alex Schomburg cover. http://www.isfdb.org

“The Planet Machine” is a 1951 novelette first published as “The Plagian Siphon” in the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories.* The story also appears in another collection under the generic-sounding “The Uninhibited Planet.” An unfortunate aspect of hunting down Jack Vance stories is the existence of all of these variant titles.

Marvin Allixter, an accomplished but initially nondescript technician, is spending his off-hours in a bar trying to pawn off a trinket to the proprietor. This being a Vance SF story, the trinket is from a distant planet and Allixter travels to his assignments via an interstellar transport system known as “the tubes.” He gets summoned to a job by his superiors, and sent off to the planet Rhetus. The head of the company, The Chief, is curiously cautious about Allixter’s destination in this routine job, and compels him to bring along extra equipment. This includes a anti-halogen Type X spacesuit, a Conceptualizer that rapidly learns alien languages, and a Jar (a potent ray gun).

The rapid conversations that open this story forces us to learn about Allixter through the reactions of these secondary characters. For example, The Chief believes he can absolve Allixter’s concerns about the job without divulging the full truth of its nature:

Allixter frowningly looked through the window, across the misty reaches of the Great Slave Lake. “There’s something strange here. That’s a new Mammoth and they work well within our system tolerance.”

“True.”

Allixter shot a narrow glance at the Chief. “Sure it was Rhetus?”

“I didn’t say that. I said the code was six minus four minus nine.”

“Got a reading on that code?”

The Chief wordlessly tossed him an oscillograph pattern.

For the headmaster of a company of mechanics, The Chief sure hands over the raw data pretty easily. Getting Allixter on that tube to Rhetus with the extra equipment seems to be more important than demonstrating who’s the boss, here.

Once on Rhetus, Allixter meets the diminutive natives, who are in genuine fear of the random explosions occurring all over their planet’s surface. Methodically working with the Conceptualizer, he estabishes a rapport with the apparent leader, whom he calls Joe, and learns that the planet’s central automated defense system is destroying the transport technology left their by another alien race. These aliens, the Plags, have tried to stop the process, but the machines in charge kill them in their tracks.

Allixter develops a genuine concern for Joe and his kind**, and eventually develops a plan for dealing with the crazed machine. What’s interesting about Joe’s approach is his patience and restraint – he’s not willing to open panels and turn knobs without first understanding why the area is covered in dead Plags (and not corpses of Joe’s less sophisticated people). This is in obvious contrast to the methods employed by the heroes of Heinlein and Asimov, who triumph through aggressive courage or superior technical intelligence.

Vance manages to describe Allixter’s sagacity in crisis while keeping the story moving with intrigue. The destructive defense circuits of the machine are only a danger when the rest of the systems sit idle, so Allixter finds ways to keep the computer occupied. This is a clever mirror to the way Allixter’s bosses manage him: he is paid a monthly retainer, and they hate to see him idle. His collector’s eye for abandoned trinkets also uncovers a clue to the presence of the Plags – and indeed, himself – on the planet:

He picked up one of the instruments. My God, thought Allixter, there’s some fine equipment here. It’s worth a fortune — if I could reproduce this little pocket winch, I could buy Buck’s bar.

But this technicolor appliance. . . we’ve got the same thing on Earth. Same design, identical — strange. One of these odd coincidences, when you run back and forth world to world . . .

In typical 1950’s genre style, this story resolves quite rapidly. We ultimately learn the true reason for Allixter’s mission, although the ending is not done with the tidiness of “The Man From Zodiac.” Nonetheless, it’s a worthwhile story and characters like Allixter demonstrate why some SF fans consider Vance a level above his contemporaries.

….

thrilling_wonder_stories_195102

Earle Bergey cover. Galactic Central

“Crusade to Maxus” is a 1951 novella originally published as “Overlords of Maxus” in Thrilling Wonder Stories.*** It is a grim and serious tale, as it deals with the consequences of a family falling victim to human-trafficking.

Travec is in pursuit of a slave-dealer named Arman, who has somehow gained possession of several member’s of Travec’s family. Arman transports them to the planet Maxus, where slave auctions are held in a compound called the Slave Distribute. Travec has arrived hours later than Arman, and faces the hurdles of permits, fees and complicated directions. Kin of the abductees are allowed to participate in the auctions, presumably to drive up market prices, but face long odds against the rich businessmen. Locals seemed to view Travec’s plight with amusement, like that of a desperate tourist.

Travec leaned forward, half-lowered his head. The guard leaned against the wall, laughed quietly, slapped a hand on the weapon against his black-clad leg.

“The gate is locked. Tear it down with your fingernails if you care to.”

Travec said hoarsely, “Where is the High Commissioner?”

The guard said, “The headquarters are in the Guchman Arch.” He motioned to the strip. “Go back the way you came, change at Bosfor Strall to the orange and brown. If you hurry you might still be able to make an appointment.” His mouth twisted in a cadaverous grin.

Travec eventually gains access to the auction of his captured sister, but is outbid by the wealthy Lord Erulite. Despondent, he follows them to seek out other family members, and his doomed sister points out a girl who he should try to rescue instead. At the sight of a collection of corpses – abductees culled for their lack of perceived value – that apparently includes his mother, Travec assaults Lord Erulite to begin a violent brawl. Soon Erulite and Travec’s sister lie dead, but Travec manages to escape the scene and actually win the auction for the girl, Mardien.

This unlikely sequence of events does scream pulp to me, but the trauma of seeing his family taken away emotionally numbs Travec. Any satisfaction he attained from killing Erudite is not described, but we can get the impression that Travec is willing to go to any lengths he has to take vengeance on Arman as well as fulfill his quixotic mission of taking Mardien away from Maxus. The first meeting between Travec and Mardien suggests that Vance is not setting up for a by-the-numbers rescue and romance:

She gave him a long cool glance that seemed to say, “You failed to help your own family — so I must be dragged away to soothe your ego.”

Travec returns to the High Commissioner (who actually had invited him back for a second meeting), where they discuss Arman. Arman turns out to be notorious criminal on Maxus, who escaped justice and returned “under the immunity of a visitor’s permit” to sell a shipload of slaves to the Overmen (rich locals of Maxus). Since Overmen never leave Maxus without the protection of a warship, the foreigner Travec is hired to bring Arman to justice. In the span of this short and frank conversation, Vance manages to explain the economic status and political vulnerabilities of Maxus, make Arman into an intriguing villain and motivate the actions Travec.

The High Commissioner also helps Travec get started on Arman’s trail by divulging details about the supplies he and his crew bought prior to leaving Maxus. This sequence of detective work by equipment list appears to be a favorite Vance device, since it brings in a mystery element as well as populating the futuristic setting. We’ve already seen this in “Shape-Up” (prospects for a “job” are screened, in part, by the weapons they carry), “Golden Girl” (the titular character is shown to have a sophisticated, effeminate lifestyle) and “The Planet Machine” (see above).

Travec, keeping his promise, releases Merdien on her home planet, which happens to be where Arman is gathering people into a cult. Yes, burgeoning cult leader is another one of Arman’s talents, and due to the unusual characteristics of the locals (including Merdien herself), these recruits lack the fear of death. Furthermore, they have bought into Arman’s announced plan to bring hundreds of them back to Maxus as slaves in order to subvert the Overmen in charge of the entirety of the interplanetary trade routes.

Arman’s ambition is matched only by that of Travec, and the two have their inevitable showdown. There’s no need to spoil the rest of the plot in this summary, but I’ll say that this feud finds its way back to Maxus. Travec proves willing to make the kind of sacrifices (almost countless lives of people, designated by their economic position) that Arman is. The scale of changes ultimately triggered by Travec, Armen and Merdien (who ends up making an impact, herself) on Maxus is suggested by the Earle Bergey cover art, where a needle on a spaceship is heading towards the planet as if it were lancing a giant boil.

This all seems typical of Golden Age SF, which given the date and format is understandable. The quality of the setup, multifaceted (if overly stoic) characters and rich setting all seem to deserve a better execution. It’s easy to see from “Crusade to Maximus” that Vance’s best SF work was to arrive in the form of multivolume series.

Arman is said (in this collection’s introduction) to anticipate the memorable villain Howard Allen Treesong of The Book of Dreams. He’s certainly an interesting character, and the plot of “Crusade to Maxus” is reminiscent of Vance’s The Demon Princes series of the late 1960s.

…..

These two longer entries in the collection are a good indication of Vance’s talent for settings and language. This series of posts will conclude with the last three stories of the collection.

* The story appears as “The Plagian Siphon” in the VIE volume entitled Gadget Stories.

** Back in “The Man From Zodiac”, the hero Hack acts in the well-being of the barbaric races he’s in charge of, the hated Phrones and the Sabols. The detailed introduction to the collection by Steven O. Godersky points this out.

*** This novella appears as “Overlords of Maxus” in the VIE volume entitled Son of the Tree and Other Stories. It looks like the hero’s name in the magazine version was Gardius. I’m not sure whether Gardius or Travec is the name used in the VIE (and therefore, most likely to be the one Vance would prefer).

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
This entry was posted in books, science fiction, short fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, by Jack Vance – part 2

  1. Pingback: The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, by Jack Vance – part 3 | gaping blackbird

  2. Pingback: “Chateau d’If” by Jack Vance | gaping blackbird

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