“Abercrombie Station” and “Cholwell’s Chickens”, by Jack Vance

More famous for his many series of SF and fantasy novels, Jack Vance was also a prolific writer of short fiction. The two early 1950s novellas described here feature the same female protagonist, a daring and surprisingly remorseless teenager named Jean Parlier. Jean is not a stereotypical femme fatale stuffed into an SF plot; nor is she merely the female version of a more traditional hero. The technology of Vance’s distant future has given her a chance to defy the social order, but she has to tread the line between hero and villain.

This post is the start of a series on the novellas comprising the Underwood-Miller collection Chateau d’If and Other Stories. Unlike The Augmented Agent and Other Stories, which I reviewed last year, this book has no introductory essay. The eye-catching Ilene Meyer cover art oversells the surrealism of Vance’s stories, but I suppose many of the events experienced by his characters would be bizarre and disorienting.

ilene meyer 1990

Ilene Meyer cover for Underwood-Miller. isfdb.org

“Abercrombie Station” and “Cholwell’s Chickens” are apparently the only two stories featuring Jean Parlier, both published in 1952 issues of Thrilling Wonder Stories. They were also combined into a 1965 “fix-up” novel called Monsters in Orbit (a bad title). Like many, if not all, of Vance’s shorter science fiction, both stories are readily available in later collections, most recently in The Golden Girl and Other Stories.

“Abercrombie Station” (1952)

I introduced Jean as a teenager, rather than choosing between the terms young woman and girl, to emphasize something I’ve often found in Vance’s fiction. In past ages, teenagers were expected to take on the full role of adulthood, from being the head of a household and raising a family to taking over leadership of an entire kingdom. It’s only been in recent decades that the role of the teenager has been minimized; what seems the norm today is an aberration by historical standards. Vance is keenly aware of this and emphasizes the youth of many heroes, including Jean, when beginning his stories.

Jean is 17 years old, physically attractive by the standards of her native Earth-like planet, and apparently short of good opportunities to make her way in the world. Without family or profession, she answers an advertisement for what looks like a modeling or escort job. She sees a blonde girl leave the place, perturbed by the interview, and when her turn arrives, she’s greeted by instructions to take off her clothes.

The young man with the instructions is named Fotheringjay, and isn’t actually interested in Jean for himself. He is recruiting her as a part of a scheme for the massive inherited wealth of a scion named Earl Abercrombie. Earl is poised to inherit the entirety of Abercrombie Station, a wealthy interstellar depot where residents enjoy a lavish, gravity-free lifestyle. The nearly universal consequence of the Abercrombie lifestyle is an extreme form of obesity, which on the station means people float around as ornately decorated spheres.

Earl, only 18 years old himself, is genetically incapable of putting on the mass necessary to fit in with the society of Abercrombie Station, as all of the available women there are only attracted to spherical men. However, he is legally required to remain on the station in order to inherit his fortune. Fotheringjay, as he explains over an expensive meal, reasons that Jean could be the right match for Earl, as she is experienced in trading on both her looks and wit:

“You’ll have to use your brains too.” He hesitated, then said, “Actually, Earl likes–odd things.”

Jean sat looking at him, frowning.

He said cooly, “You making up your mind how best to ask the question, ‘What’s odd about me?’ ”

Jean snapped, “I don’t need you to tell me what’s odd about me. I know what it is myself.”

Fotheringjay made no comment.

“I’m completely on my own,” said Jean. “There’s not a soul in all the human universe that I care two pins for. I do just exactly as I please.” She watched him carefully. He nodded indifferently. Jean quelled her exasperation, leaned back in her chair, studied him as if he were in a glass case.

Jean cannot quite place her suspicions about Fotheringjay, and the fact that his interest in her is only practical. Offered a million dollars to seduce Earl and get married to him, Jean negotiates for two million once she’s aware of the scale of the take.

On the trip to Abercrombie Station, Jean has to fight off the advances of the pilot in a scene featured on the cover of Thrilling Wonder Stories. It is little to do with the main plot, but shows how Jean has to contend with a world hostile to the solitary female.

thrilling_wonder_stories_195202

Earle Bergey cover for Standard Magazines. isfdb.org

This hostility starts Jean on a path of manipulation and trickery on her way to the inheritance, but it’s hard to judge her harshly. The elite of the station float around between parties, indulging themselves and spending lavishly. Earl is not really attracted to Jean, despite his own slender build and consequent refusal by the available ladies of the station. He spends much of his time alone in his own living space, where he keeps a large private collection of bizarre specimens from across the known universe. Many of these specimens are alive and kept in some form of suspended animation. Hiding out in his study, Jean discovers that the young man is in possession of an irreversibly warped mind.

He made a decision, moved languidly to one of the cubicles. He pulled a switch.

Jean heard a faint musical hum, a hissing, smelled heady ozone. She heard a sigh of air. The inner door of a glass cubicle opened. The creature within, moving feebly, drifted out into the room…

Jean pressed her lips tight together; after a moment looked away.

Jean comes up with a scheme of her own, processing what she has learned about the Abercrombie family, inheritance law and the specimens kept in Earl’s study. She makes use of Fotheringjay as well as the pilot in this plot, figuring out for herself who Fotheringjay really is and why he knows the details of Earl’s legal situation. This part is readable enough, but lacks compelling characters beyond Jean herself. At the very end of the tale, Jean is once again ironically informed of her legal status as a minor. It’s a fine early effort from a writer still learning his craft.

Cholwell’s Chickens (1952)

“Cholwell’s Chickens” is a sequel of sorts to “Abercrombie Station,” where a pre-baroque Vance describes Jean in possession of a reasonable fortune, and looking for further adventure. Her legal guardian is a kindly accountant named Mycroft, who listens to her complaints about the men she encounters:

“Nothing’s like what I thought it would be,” said Jean. “Clothes…” She looked down at her green slacks, her black pullover sweater. “These are good enough. Men…” Mycroft watched her attentively. “They’re all the same, silly jackasses.”

Mycroft made a small involuntary grimace, settled himself in his chair. At fifty he was three times her age.

“The lovers are bad,” said Jean, “but I’m used to them, I’ve never lacked there. But the other ones, the financiers, the sharpshooters–they upset me. Like spiders.”

Mycroft made haste to explain. “It’s inevitable. They’re after anyone with wealth. Cranks–promoters–confidence men–they won’t leave you alone. Refer them to me. As your guardian I can dispose of them quickly.”

It’s a bit ironic, considering Jean’s role in Fotheringay’s plans in the preceding story..

THWRSTRSBC1965A

Jack Gaugan cover for Ace. isfdb.org

Mycroft happens to be meeting with a scientist named Cholwell that day, and he happens to arrive at the office when Jean is still there. This leads to an exchange dripping with ambiguity:

Cholwell came briskly into the room–a man Mycroft’s age, lean bright-eyed, elegant in a jerky birdlike manner. He had a sharp chin, a handsome ruff of silver-gray hair, a long sensitive nose. He was precisely dressed, and on his finger Jean glimpsed the golden orb insignia of the Space-Dwellers Association.

Jean looked away, aware that she did not like Cholwell.

Cholwell stared at Jean, patently amazed. His mouth fell open. He took a short step forward. “What are you doing here?” he asked harshly.

Jean looked at him with wonder. “I’m just talking to Mr. Mycroft…Does it matter?”

Cholwell closed his eyes, shook his head as if he were about to faint.

Cholwell is an interesting character, a peculiar string-puller of the kind seen frequently in Vance’s fiction. His reaction to Jean may be part and parcel of the hostility he always seems to encounter as a young woman on her own, or it may be an honest moment of shock from someone with much to hide.

Cholwell is in Mycroft’s office in an attempt to find investors for an agricultural venture, in which he claims to have already produced clones of an exceptionally efficient chicken. Apparently, Vance drew inspiration from the post-war boom in chicken farming, where the entire industry was reinvented to supply the nation’s supermarkets and fast food chains. Bioengineering superior breeds of chickens was promoted in the 1950 Chicken of Tomorrow contest; these early SF stories are great for reminding us of the massive changes going on in the post-war years.

Cholwell’s chicken laboratory happens to be on Jean’s home planet of Codrion; this inspires her to make a trip there, in an effort to recover her own family history. She has Mycroft book her passage, without informing Cholwell–it’s unclear at the beginning how much Jean, Mycroft and Cholwell know about each other, but it is evident (though not elegantly portrayed–Vance gets much better at this) that the ties between them run much deeper.

On Codrion, Jean sets about chasing clues from her past, starting with her deceased foster father, a bar owner connected to criminals. Vance describes in a flashback chapter how his surly and abusive ways led to a violent confrontation. Immediately afterward, she meets another bartender, the “cocksure, flip and brassy” Gem Morales, and agrees to date him. With his abrasive and pushy personality, Gem seems to be a living substitute for her foster father:

Gem seized Jean’s arm, strode across the outside terrace, holding his aquiline profile pridefully out-thrust. Jean trotted along beside, half-amused, half-exasperated.

. . . A waitress in translucent black slid up on power skates. “Old-fashioned,” said Gem. “Lemon fizz,” said Jean.

Gem raised his eyebrows. “Gad! Take a drink! That’s what you’re here for!”

“I don’t like to drink.”

“Pah!” said Gem scornfully.

Jean shrugged. Plainly Gem considered her something of a blue-stocking … If she liked him better, it would have been fun letting him discover otherwise. But he was not only arrogant, but callow to boot.

Jean gets some key information about her father’s old bar from Gem, who also gets in a fight with a stranger over mistaken identity. On Codrion, Jean runs into several people who insist that they know her from the recent past, despite the fact that she hasn’t been there in years. From their recollections, it’s apparent that whoever her doppelgänger really is, she has shared in Jean’s amoral attitude as well as her good looks.

Jean pieces together her past from a photo album in the attic of the bar where she used to live, and eventually finds her way to Cholwell’s estate to complete the puzzle. Along the way, she demonstrates her vicious side in dealing with a loose end, but enough of her past has been revealed to show what motivates her actions. The true nature of Cholwell’s “chicken” enterprise is where the story takes a turn into science fiction, departing from the noir-inspired adventure to that point. It’s an uneasy transition involving some less than convincing character interactions, but the story is still an entertaining read.

The Jean Parlier stories are from Vance’s time as a high-volume pulp writer, and lack the ornate language and intricate settings of his signature works. However, they’re very readable and feature a character that shows some elements of the compelling heroes of Vance’s later series fiction.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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5 Responses to “Abercrombie Station” and “Cholwell’s Chickens”, by Jack Vance

  1. fredfitch says:

    Interesting–a writer like Vance can have a lot of odd little cul de sacs in his oeuvre. This reads a bit like sleaze without the endless sex scenes. That market hadn’t gotten started by the early 50’s, but it wasn’t far off, and those books often also featured daring young females using their bodies (and brains) to get ahead in a world determined to view them as sex objects (which they and the genre they’re in have no objections to).

    SF often bends genres, and probably there were a lot of less porn-oriented sexy stories about sexy young strivers on the make then, so just put one of them in space. Barbarella (the comic strip) is still about ten years off, and Vance isn’t going to go that far with it. But there’s just a hint of that kind of satire here, based on your description.

    Like

    • pete says:

      I should have added that the idea for “Abercrombie Station” actually came from the editor Damon Knight, whose Worlds Beyond ran out of money before the story could be published. So, your assertion was correct that Vance was writing-to-market here. He’s one of those great authors whose education consisted of producing story after story for the pulp editors.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fredfitch says:

        Damon Knight wrote some beautiful stories himself (have you ever read his “Backward, Oh Time”?), but as an editor, you’ve got to try and get those magazine sales up.

        Like

      • pete says:

        I recently picked up the Pocket Books anthology The Best of Damon Knight to complete my collection of that series, and that story is included. So I’ll get to it at some point …

        Liked by 1 person

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

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