There’s one more aspect of the Jack Vance Integral Edition (VIE) that I wanted to mention – not only did Vance’s entire oeuvre get digitized, re-edited and published in authoritative hardbacks, but the contribution of one Paul Allen enabled copies of the VIE to be donated to dozens of libraries. It’s no surprise that Jack Vance is represented in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame inside the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) in Seattle, which Allen founded. The MoPOP is a very unusual looking building but I like it. It’s a recommended destination: what better focus for a museum, than things that people like?
My series of posts about The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, a 1986 compilation of short fiction published by Vance in the early stages of his writing career, comes to end with three more pieces from the 1950’s. I’m following my pattern of detailing the setup of each story, and leave it to you to find out what happens in the end. The stories reviewed in my earlier posts, here and here, have been worthwhile reading.
“Three-Legged Joe” is a 1953 comedic short story, originally published in Startling Stories. It also resides in the VIE volume Gadget Stories. It tells the story of two naïve and bumbling space-prospectors, Paskell and Miilke.
P. & M. begin the story by seeking a third man for their prospecting expedition, asking the locals along Bang-Out Row in Merlinville. They seek the natural riches of a notorious planet named Odfars. The locals greet them with shrugs and derision, joking about their guaranteed failure at the hands of a mysterious Three-Legged Joe.
On the way back, Milke said bitterly, “It’s always the same; when these old-timers have a laugh on strangers, they play it all for it’s worth…”
“But who or what is Three-Legged Joe?”
“Well,” said Milke, “sooner or later, I suppose we’ll find out.”
Recent graduates of Highland Technical Institute, they set out undaunted for Odfars, carrying out last-minute research over its atmosphere along the way. Having not made adequate plans for their trip, they debate every step with each other (although they always quickly decide and move forward), and pretty much lurch from one crisis to the next. When Three-Legged Joe shows up and proves to be an indestructible and insatiable destroyer of equipment, the prospects for the two heroes look dim indeed.
However, these two have their redeeming values: they’re trusting friends, and are used to the idea that they must change their approach to every problem. This adaptability was sorely lacking for poor Lurulu in “The Golden Girl,” who needed only to survive her own alienation. The cagey technician in “The World Machine” also demonstrated the flexibility lacking in his alien predecessors on a hostile planet. In the end, “Three-Legged Joe” is another Vance tale of pulling an unlikely success out of a series of setbacks, this time with more emphasis on the humor and irony.
“Sjambak” is a 1953 novelette about a professional stranded on a strange planet with a pre-modern culture. It was first published in the pulp SF magazine If. In the VIE, it is in the large Gadget Stories volume, but you can find a free version of it on Project Gutenberg. For that reason, perhaps “Sjambak” is – or eventually will be – one of the better-known examples of Vance’s short fiction, outside of his core audience.
Wilbur Murphy is a producer of a documentary television show called Know Your Universe! Good and experienced at his job, Murphy is nonetheless in a professional crisis. The show is on its last legs, suffering a dwindling audience and stuck in a creative rut.
In an attempt to rejuvenate their enterprise, Murphy is sent by his superiors (Frayberg and Catlin in this quote) to a remote planet to film a report about an unlikely but novel local legend:
Sam Catlin curled his lips. “I got just what you want.”
“Yeah? Show me.”
Catlin reached deep into his waste basket. “I filed this just ten minutes ago. . .” He smoothed out the pages. ” ‘Sequence idea, by Wilbur Murphy. Investigate ‘Horseman of Space,’ the man who rides up to meet incoming spaceships.’ ”
Frayberg tilted his head to the side. “Rides up on a horse?”
“That’s what Murphy says.”
The planet Cirgamesc is settled by a blend of Javanese, Arab and Malay peoples, who have been forced to blend their cultures in confined areas: their world lacks a breathable atmosphere, so the population lives in sealed-off mountain valleys. However, there are outlaws – sjambaks – who have devised a way to fly above the planet’s surface without the aid of a pressure suit, thereby become the mythical Horsemen of Space. Nobody in Murphy’s company has visited this world (they all have their own pronunciations of it), but they are already envisioning the story told by their production.
“Well, Wilbur,” Catlin began.
Frayberg interrupted. “What we can use, Wilbur, is a sequence on Sirgamesk superstition. Emphasis on voodoo or witchcraft — naked girls dancing — stuff with roots in Earth, but now typically Sirgamesk. Lots of color. Secret rite, sacrifices . . .”
“Not much room on Cirgamesc for secret rites.”
Once Murphy arrives on Cirgamesc as a rare off-planet visitor, he finds himself in the middle of forces in open conflict: the Sultan who rules over the local sealed-off valleys and needs to expand his domaine somehow, and the outside followers of Prince Ali, who roam the skies as sjambaks but lack weapons of any kind.
Unlike the rough equivocating done in “The Man From Zodiac,” in which a manipulative civilized culture is drawn onto a similar moral level as the barbarians on its borderlands, Vance pretty clearly chooses sides in this story. One of the first things Murphy sees on Cirgamesc is a sjambak trapped in a small cage, suspended above the Sultan’s city. The caged-man symbol* clearly paints the Sultan as the Oppressor.
Through some inventive falsehoods told to the local spies, and a pretext of taking a crew out to film some ancient ruins, Murphy manages to gain access to Ali and the sjambacks. This leads to a permanent physical change (again, I reference the collection’s introduction by Steven O. Gordesky) as Murphy breaks free from the trappings of both the Sultan and the terms of his employment.
Vance paints the dual cultures of Cirgamesc in a very brief space, integrating Murphy’s story into the setting with a very characteristic technique: he makes the hero’s true mission – Wilbur’s in this case – the understanding of his role as a stranger amongst the natives. As a means of powerful propaganda for the Sultan and a source of novel technology (i.e., weapons) for the rebellious Prince Ali. It’s not easy for me to be vested in the story of a cynical public relations agent, but Murphy is typical of a Vance everyman hero: someone who, by immersion into a peculiar culture, finds the resourcefulness necessary to accomplish his personal triumph.
“The Augmented Agent” is a 1961 novelette that appears to be a variant of the 1956 story “I-C-a-BeM”, which appears in the VIE volume Son of the Tree and Other Stories. It tells the tale of James Keith, a CIA-trained agent whose identity is subverted by bio-mechanical “augmentations” and plastic surgeries. Keith is in many ways an opposite figure to Wilbur Murphy of the previous story: his physical transformation at the start of the story separates him from his true self and destroys his sense of freedom. Keith is also disguised as an everyman, but under a mission that we only see in fiction – to stop the machinations of world tyrants, by killing a key political fixer, and adapting his appearance to operate in his place.
It’s really not a spoiler to divulge that this political figure, a corrupt North African diplomat named Tamba Ngasi, is easily intercepted and dispatched. Vance’s focus is on the conflict between the hero’s adopted identity, and his true self. Keith assumes Ngasi’s appearance, and what he believes to be the appropriate personality and flourishes, as he continues his mission in the ultra-modern, Soviet-financed, future African city of Fejo:
Into Fejo, at five in the afternoon, came James Keith, riding first class on the train from Dasai. From the terminal he marched across the bazaar to the Hotel des Tropiques, strode to the desk, brushed aside a number of persons who stood waiting, pounded his fist to attract the clerk, a pale Eurasian who looked around with annoyance. “Quick!” snapped Keith, “Is it fitting that a Parlimentarian waits at the pleasure of such as you? Conduct me to my suite.”
The clerk’s manner altered. “Your name, sir?”
“I am Tamba Ngasi.”
“There is no reservation, Comrade Ngasi. Did you –”
Keith fixed the man with a glare of outrage. “I am a Parlimentarian of the State. I need no reservation.”
“But all the suites are occupied.”
“Turn someone out, and quickly.”
“Yes, Comrade Ngasi. At once.”
So we see the abandonment of the Vanceian heroic principles of prudence and patience, leaving only adaptability – which is to be tested. It’s uncertain whether Vance drew inspiration from Robert Heinlein’s famous novel Double Star, in which an actor takes on the role of an interplanetary politician, takes on aspect of his subject’s personality and eventually settles into a lifetime role as the idealized version of the man.** While the actor of Heinlein’s tale benefits from the abandonment of his former self as an obscure thespian, an interesting 1950’s perspective on career advancement in its own right, Vance sets up Keith for tragedy.
Keith attempts to manipulate, and then intimidate, the Soviet agent Doutoufsky, with whom Ngasi had been dealing. To Keith’s surprise, Doutoufsky is not just a pasty clerk, but an augmented agent like himself. Nonetheless, Keith manages to infiltrate a legislative conference of the ambitious Socialist nation of Lakhadi. The president is selling the idea of Lakhadi’s growth in stature by means of importing foreign labor, and the buying of obsolete American nuclear devices:
… “With eighteen intercontinental missiles poised against any attack, we consolidate our position as the leaders of black Africa.”
There was another spatter of applause. Adoui Shgawe leaned forward, gazed blandly over the assembly. “That concudes my address. I will answer questions from the floor. . . Ah, Comrade Bouassede.”
Comrade Bouassede, a fragile old man with a fine fluffy white beard, rise to his feet. “All very fine, these great weapons, but against whom do we wish to use them? What good are they to us, who know nothing of such things?”
Shagwe nodded with vast benevolence. “A wise question, Comrade. I can only answer one never knows from which direction some insane militarism may strike.”
It’s pretty clear from which direction some insane militarism is most likely to strike. Vance is illustrating the sham pretensions of tinpot dictatorships, enabled by amoral commercial interests, that characterized so much of the Cold War. He is, of course, also darkly clairvoyant about the arming of small and dangerous despotic countries in the decades ahead.
Keith’s next target is a Lakhadi government minister Nambey Faranah, who is in charge of fulfilling President Shagwe’s promises by importing Chinese labor and developing the shoreline. During a boat tour to show progress to the national assembly, Keith drops an Unpopularity Pill into the Faranah’s coffee. This breaks up the scheduled tour and allows Keith to confer, as Ngasi, with the president himself. He is able to plant a listening device of Shagwe, and earn knowledge of the details of the plans of Lakhadi’s militarization.
This run of successes ends abruptly when Keith almost gets assassinated by remote device, and again when he is forced to kill his initial American contact. This other agent was driven to treason by Chinese circuits implanted into his brain, the forced abandonment of free will that is surely a dire fate in Vance’s universe. Just before events and Lakhadi spin out of control, Keith is allowed a last chance to self-reflect.
… So why did he, James Keith, American citizen, masquerade as Tamba Ngasi, risking his life and circuits inserted into the pain centers of his brain? Keith pondered. The answer evidently was this: all of human history is condensed into each individual lifetime. Each man can enjoy the triumphs or suffer the defeats of all the human race. Charlemagne died a great hero, though his empire immediately split into fragments. Each man must win his personal victory, achieve his unique and selfish goal.
Continuing his mission, Keith allows his role of Tamba Ngasi to take over more and more of his thinking – soon becoming wildly impulsive. Only actual history could match the strangeness of Vance’s protagonist, who finds himself in a position of power. The ending is a strange blend of SF and spy fiction, and makes “The Augmented Agent” the most memorable story of the collection.
“The Golden Girl” might be belatedly regarded as a classic short story by fans of Vance, but I saw his later stories as the stronger entries: “The Augmented Agent” in particular, but also “The Man From Zodiac.” For those familiar with Vance’s work, there are themes, devices, tricks and subtleties that anticipate the contents of his later novels. In this collection of mostly early works, it’s easy to understand where the enthusiasm for Vance arises. 7/10.
* The “caged person” is also seen in To Live Forever, a heavily symbolic novel about government control and the far-future pursuit of immortality. The caged beings in The Dying Earth seem serve as imagery, but then again I never read too deeply into fantasy books.
** Double Star is a recommended book. Even non-Heinlein fans seem to enjoy it beyond their skepticism, no doubt arising from the author’s later works.
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Note on the Double Star reference: that’s possible, but it’s more likely both Vance and Heinlein drew inspiration from the disguise-centered plots of Dumas (The Count of Monte Christo in particular) and Shakespeare.