“Gift of Gab” and “Rumfuddle” by Jack Vance

Wrapping up my three-part overview of Chateau d’If and Other Stories, the Underwood-Miller collection of Jack Vance pieces, this article covers the two best-crafted entries: “Gift of Gab” and “Rumfuddle.” Both are novellas, but unlike “Chateau d’If” they both feature plots and settings that feel appropriate for the word length.

They are also two examples of “gadget” stories, Vance’s own term for the instances where his fiction features a future-science aspect (the gadget) instead of integrating it into deeper thematic material. They enjoy popularity among fans of Vance, but not universal support as examples of his first-rate material. They also feature the plain-spoken style Vance employed in his early career as a pulp writer–which is not a surprise for the 1955 story “The Gift of Gab,” but “Rumfuddle” first appeared in 1973.

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Frank Kelly Freas cover for Street & Smith. isfdb.org

“The Gift of Gab”

“The Gift of Gab” (1955) was first published in Astounding and was featured with an ornate and impressive Frank Kelly Freas cover. It is a blend of mystery and SF, with an ecological theme and easily identifiable, but unorthodox, villain.

Exploitation of natural resources is, to my understanding, the most common method by which a population pulls itself out of poverty. Chrystal’s ambition pushes this exploitation to an unsustainable level, indicative of the whalers of the 19th Century and the protected fishing industries since then. He is not part of some soulless corporation, however, but an independent operator–clearly, Vance ties the abuse of nature to something intrinsic within certain individuals, and not necessarily a product of business. It’s also a trait in our history that we’ve shown little sign of abandoning.

“Gift of Gab” begins with a seasoned corporate fisherman (having the obscurely significant title of “assistant superintendent”), Sam Fletcher, preparing his boat for a day-long shift on the waters. He is part of a commercial business exploiting the resources of a primitive, aquatic planet, in a area called The Shallows. Whatever marine life his company Bio-Minerals draws out of The Shallows is processed into chemical compounds: rhodium trichloride, tantalum sulfide and so on. Also, the “barnacles” of this alien planet are trapped and turned into fuel.

Fletcher and his peer Carl Raight, who supervised the preceding shift, are competing over some informal wager:

The gross tonnage, by Flecther’s calculations, came to 5.31–an average shift. He still led Raight in the Pinchbottle Sweepstakes. Tomorrow was the end of he month; Fletcher could hardly fail to make off with Raight’s Haig & Haig. Anticipating Raight’s protests and complaints, Fletcher smiled and whistled through his teeth.

Raight should be on the raft for the shift change, but Fletcher discovers that he is nowhere to be found. After searching the vessel and questioning the crew, Fletcher takes a small launch vessel out to a barge where the harvest is evidently stored. Along the way, we learn that there are aquatic animals in The Shallows, but they are regarded as food:

Mahlberg came into the mess hall. “Where’s Carl? I want to order some more teeth for the bucket.”

“He’s gone fishing,” said Agostino.

Mahlberg laughed at the joke. “Catch himself a nice wire eel maybe. Or a dekabrach.”

Dave Jones grunted. “He’ll cook it himself.”

“Seems like a dekabrach should make good eatin’,” said Mahlberg, “close as they are to a seal.”

“Who likes seal?” growled Jones.

“I’d say they’re more like mermaids,” Agostino remarked, “with ten-armed starfish for heads.”

The deck of the barge is empty of people, so Fletcher concludes that Raight must have fallen overboard. In the barge’s cabin, he tells the crew about Raight’s likely fate, but insists on keeping on schedule. This exchange, separating the protagonist/sleuth Fletcher from the rest of the characters, might be directly inspired by Vance’s days on the merchant marine:

Murphy whistled. There seemed nothing to say. Finally, he asked, “Any idea how it happened?”

Fletcher shook his head. “I can’t figure it out.”

Murphy licked his lips. “Maybe we ought to close down.”

“Why?” asked Fletcher.

“Well–reverence to the dead, you might say.”

Fletcher grinned crookedly. “We might as well keep running.”

“Just as you like. But we’re low on the barnacles.”

“Carl loaded a hold and a half–” Fletcher hesitated, heaved a deep sigh. “I might as well shake in a few more shelves.”

Murphy winced. “It’s a squeamish business, Sam. You haven’t a nerve in your body.”

“It doesn’t make any difference to Carl now,” said Fletcher. “We’ve got to scrape barnacles sometime. There’s nothing to be gained by moping.”

This is characteristic of a Vance hero: resourceful and patient, and with a goal of getting his work done. There are observations about how his company Bio-Materials might be promoting a callous regard for the ecosystem that it’s harvesting, but we see that Fletcher is merely doing his job.

Fletcher learns to respect the native fauna quickly, when a long tendril, disguised as a deck rope, wraps his ankle and tries to drag him overboard. He immediately concludes that Raight must have been killed, and suspects the curious-looking dekabrach creatures swimming alongside the boat. The dekabrach are not only intelligent, he finds, but actively fighting someone who poses a new threat to them.

This leads to an investigation of both the dekabrach and a enterprising ship captain named Ted Chrystal, who had been a Bio-Materials scientist. Fletcher learns of Chrystal’s reckless and secretive research, and suspects that he discovered something about the dekabrach that caused his departure from the company. When he takes an exploratory journey to the sea floor in a man-sized submersible, Fletcher discovers that the dekabrach inhabit an entire colony, hitherto unseen by mankind.

Fletcher and the current ship scientist, a methodical older man named Damon, conclude that they could capture a dekabrach and attempt to establish communications with it. They do so by trapping one of the creatures in a tank and using a projector system to communicate visually. This projector technology of knobs and lights is the “gadget” of the story, which gradually builds a parlance between man and dekabrach (as well as trust between Fletcher and Damon). It is vaguely described, but given the discoveries of time about whales and dolphins communicating with each other, does not seem wildly implausible.

Less impressive is Ted Chrystal, who despite his talents as a scientist, seems to be a reckless businessman and particularly terrible at covering his tracks. This could be due to the fact the Chrystal really doesn’t believe that he’s doing anything wrong in The Shallows, or at least not going beyond the moral guidelines set up–however implicitly–by his former employers in Bio-Materials. Vance would create far more clever antagonists in his later work, but it does seem that Chrystal more or less stumbled into wearing the black hat here (admittedly, it’s easier to make that conjecture for a story written before 1960). Overall, this is an inventive crime story with a believable working-class hero.

“Rumfuddle”

“Rumfuddle” was first published in the 1973 anthology Three Trips in Time and Space, edited by Robert Silverberg. I believe it was commissioned for this anthology, which also contains novellas my Larry Niven and John Brunner. I’d have to get my hands on a copy to understand just what Silverberg had asked of these authors.

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Ivan Seresin cover for Hawthorn Books. isfdb.org

“Rumfuddle” is a story about the consequences of a technological leap into a future universe, almost beyond our imagining. Through the manipulation of gateways into parallel universes, the population has been gifted with private planets and even histories. This was accomplished by a benevolent genius named Alan Robertson, whose Memoirs and Reflections is excerpted at the beginning of each chapter.

The first chapter starts with Robertson’s warning that although “the old evils are gone,” people in a post-scarcity universe must “resolutely prohibit a flamboyant and perhaps unnatural set of new vices.”

The protagonist worker Gilbert Duray possess no such flamboyance. He lives on a private world, inhabited by only his family. His three daughters go to school via wormhole to a more civilized place, but home is where he and his wife Elizabeth make their life. Alone with Gilbert and their cups of coffee, Elizabeth makes an odd reflective comment:

Elizabeth sipped her coffee and mused a moment, following some vagrant train of thought. She said, “I never liked growing up. I always felt strange–different from the other girls. I really don’t know why.”

“It’s no mystery. Everyone for a fact is different.”

“Perhaps. . . but Uncle Peter and Aunt Emma always acted as if I were more different than usual. I remember a hundred little signals. And yet I was such an ordinary little girl . . . do you remember when you were little?”

“Not very well,” Duray looked out the window he himself had glazed, across green slopes and down to the placid water his daughters had named the Silver River. The Sounding Sea was thirty miles south; directly behind the house stood the first trees of the Robber Woods.

So unlike Elizabeth, Gilbert has little concern or attachment with the past. This is odd, as he happens to be the adopted grandson of Alan Robertson, after his own parents had been murdered (by Apaches, in the 1870s). Alan’s son Bob actually rescued Gilbert as a boy, and took him to the great inventor’s house in San Fransisco.

Gilbert now works for Alan by bulldozing the abandoned tract houses and service stations of the Old Earth (Cupertino, California, specifically). The wreckage goes off-planet somewhere, leaving behind an arboretum of birches, gingko, Scotch pine, and so on. This also anticipates a trait of today’s coastal billionaires; a desire to price-out the rest of the population, and get them to live elsewhere. Isolation is progress.

At the end of his workday, Gilbert finds himself isolated in a different way: the gateways to his home planet have been sealed from the other side. He’s genuinely nonplussed by the situation, since he believes Elizabeth would not do such a thing. The interaction that came closest to a genuine conflict recently was Gilbert’s insistent refusal to participate in an annual gathering of Bob Robertson’s friends, which he calls rumfuddles. But plausible answers seem a scarce as people on the new Old Earth:

He trudged through the haunted Cupertino forest, preoccupied my the strange and inconvenient event which had befallen him. What had happened to the passway? Unless Elizabeth had invited friends out to Home, as they called their world, she was alone, with the  three girls at school. . . Duray came out upon Stevens Creek Road. A farmer’s pickup truck halted at his signal and took him into San Jose, now little more than a country town.

Gilbert consults Alan, who despite being the master of all wormholes, has little control over the mischief of his son. Bob’s rumfuddles have grown more elaborate each year, taking place in someone’s house–Vance uses houses as stand-ins for entire worlds in this story–and bringing in elements from other timelines for amusement. Neither Gilbert nor Alan approve of this decadent behavior, but Bob seems possessed with having them join the party. If he can pluck anyone from the history of mankind to use in his rumfuddles, why not Elizabeth from Gilbert’s Home?

The situation in “Rumfuddle” anticipates some of what we are experiencing today. The development of the (ahem) free Internet has granted so many of us with a seemingly limitless choice in information sources and social connections. The philosophy of the pioneers tends toward openness and liberalism; that is why our search engines and social networks are available to us without cost. Just as the denizens of Robertson’s new universe know no material scarcity, many of us have access to more information and entertainment than we could ever utilize. But when something is given to us for free, we become the resource. We upload our preferences, beliefs and relationships to the system like fish flocking to bait. Similarly, for the use of his own planet, Duray learns that his relationship with his wife and children has become the property of a group of elites–the so-called Rumfuddlers.

Has all of this access to information–and each other–led to a more enlightened, humanist understanding of ourselves? Nowadays, many of us self-select for those that appear to agree with us, and recreate power relationships. Why do the Rumfuddlers entrap others into their games? Because, even without the limitations of scarcity, that’s what people do.

In any case, and perhaps this is why a Goodreads review described this story as “rather loose,” there remains the mystery behind Elizabeth’s actions. She has apparently cooperated with Bob’s scheme to partake in the rumfuddle, for reasons opaque to Gilbert. It could be because Gilbert lost a true understanding of his wife over time–he’s clearly not on her wavelength at the beginning of the story–and his interactions with the alternate Elizabeths in other Homes (facilitated by Alan’s manipulations of gateways) do not bring him closer to the answer. It’s not even certain that he doesn’t actually belong on one of these other Homes, as a self-described “cognate” of another Gilbert:

He went to the door. “I’ve got to leave now. Good-bye.”

Elizabeth jumped to her feet and came impulsively forward. “Don’t say good-bye. It has such a lonesome sound, coming from you. . . It’s like my own Gilbert saying good-bye.”

“There’s nothing else to do. Certainly I can’t follow my inclinations and move in with you. What good are two Gilberts? Who’d get to sit at the head of the table?”

“We could have a round table,” said Elizabeth. “Room for six or seven. I like my Gilberts.”

“Your Gilberts like their Elizabeths.” Duray sighed and said, “I’d better go now.”

Elizabeth held out her hand. “Good-bye, cognate Gilbert.”

This shows Elizabeth, as little as we know about her, to be at least more receptive to the reality of multiple existences than Gilbert. She is less apt to isolate herself in-the-moment, and the presence of Robertson’s gateways makes that distinction consequential. Perhaps that is why she and their daughters are at the rumfuddle–they don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with it.

“Rumfuddle” leaves a lot to interpretation: anyone who invests their attention to it will have their own understanding of what is happening in this story, and moral principles are challenged by it. The embodiment the conundrums that arrive with a post-scarcity reality is impressive.


The contents of Chateau d’If and Other Stories show Vance to be a builder of complex and interesting stories. Mostly known for his series of novels, he proves in this collection to be a significant author of short fiction. 8/10.

 

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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4 Responses to “Gift of Gab” and “Rumfuddle” by Jack Vance

  1. fredfitch says:

    While these don’t sound to be among the very best works of fiction you’ve reviewed here, this is one of your best reviews (the same thing happened to me, quite often–I’d be reviewing a fairly mediocre Westlake, and find there were unsuspected depths to plumb there–true of most interesting writers, I’d suspect).

    The writing is on target, and does a good job penetrating below the surface details of the plot, to what Vance is really saying. This is really how SF predicts the future–by taking a good look at the present, and at human nature. There was no internet back then, but there were plenty of ways people had to isolate themselves, avoid interacting with anyone different, particularly if they had money.

    The private planet thing sounds a lot like Mormonism, doesn’t it? And Mormons, who are mainly nice enough people, are often quite prosperous, and tend to be a bit exclusive. If I read this story, I’ll struggle to avoid hearing Mitt Romney’s voice when I read Gilbert’s dialogue.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fredfitch says:

      Afterthought–I’ve read shamefully little Vance. Admired him, but didn’t get obsessed with him, as I have other genre writers, and you need to be obsessed to get through most of his stuff, since he wrote so much.

      But I read enough to know he had a certain fascination with alternate forms of feudalism. The Dragon Masters is the obvious example. There was another one called The Killing Machine. Futuristic feudalism, over and over. He’s interested in how it works. And how it doesn’t. The goal is liberty, and one might say who is more free than the feudal lord–negative liberty. Nothing stands in your way to stop you from getting what you want–except other feudal lords. Best man wins. An attractive concept for frustrated male adolescents who then become frustrated office workers.

      Vance is never content with just wish-fulfillment fantasies. He’ll write them, but in his own way, with his own points to make. He believes in liberty, but he also knows there’s a price to pay for it. And many who desire it will fail to recognize that fact until it’s too late.

      Like

    • pete says:

      Well, you certainly hit on something about the Gilbert character in “Rumfuddle.” I didn’t include it in the quotes, but Gilbert’s original home–the one where his parents were killed–was in the Arizona Territory. Gilbert, Arizona is a town settled by Mormons fleeing their Mexican colonies during the Pancho Villa revolution in 1912: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gilbert,_Arizona

      It is now the largest “town” in the United States with over 200,000 people, but at the time of Vance’s writing it probably still had a population of around 2000. So, Gilbert Duray was pulled from his own time/place by Bob Robertson, and his ultimate response to that experience was to rebuild his life around competent technical work, a private settlement away from the rest of society and a nuclear family. That convincingly reflects the early history (as much as I just learned about it) of Gilbert, Arizona.

      The things we find when digging into these stories!

      Liked by 1 person

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