All three people who read this blog probably already know that Jack Vance, author of The Dying Earth stories and so much more, died last month at the ripe old age of 96. If you are looking for the facts, the LA times can tell you what you need to know.
The first Vance book I remember reading was “The Gray Prince.” I remember finding the cultures Vance described as very interesting, and after I started reading the Dying Earth stories, I began to understand that Vance wasn’t just another science fiction/fantasy author; I think he was a social commentator in the style of Swift or Twain. In “The Gray Prince,” Vance presents us with fictional world in which numerous intelligent species claim to be the original inhabitants with a moral claim to primacy; by the end, we discover that nearly all of the sentient races of the world are the descendents of colonists who have been practicing generations of self deception and selective editing of their own history and the real ‘original inhabitants’ are the ‘morphotes,’ a race of bisexual savages that all the other species have previously agreed to collectively look down upon as utterly degenerate. Stories like Rhialto the Marvelous or the Cugel saga seem (at least to me) to have more in common with Twain’s “Roughing It” or Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” than the offerings from George R.R. Martin or other science fiction/fantasy genre authors. Maybe that’s why Vance isn’t as well known as most of his contemporaries; with it’s social satire elements, Vance’s work might have been too ‘highbrow’ for the science fiction and fantasy crowd who wanted pure escapist fiction, but, since it was also associated with the pulps genre fiction, it was too ‘lowbrow’ for the academic world. I don’t know if lacking the household name status of some of his near contemporaries irked Vance; to his credit, he didn’t seem to try to change his style or his content to pitch his fiction to a wider audience.
But I think Vance was, to a large extent, a satirist who happened to work in sci-fi/fantasy. Consider this humorous exchange from Vance’s “Cugel’s Saga:”
“The folk are peculiar in many ways,” said Erwig. “They preen themselves upon the gentility of their habits, yet they refuse to whitewash their hair, and they are slack in their religious observances. For instance, they make obeisance to Divine Wiulio with the right hand, not on the buttock, but on the abdomen, which we here consider a slipshod practice. What are your own views?”
“The rite should be conducted as you describe,” said Cugel. “No other method carries weight.”
Erwig refilled Cugel’s glass. “I consider this an important endorsement of our views!”
I also love Vance’s baroque prose and imagery. In any case, it’s been a while since I have read any Vance; now might be the perfect time to dig out some of his books and read them again.
There is a big flap here in Michigan about whether or not high school students in advanced placement English in the Plymouth/Cantor School district should be allowed to read books like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” Apparently some members of the local Tea Party in Plymouth have seized upon the issue as emblematic of “what is wrong with America” and want Morrison’s “Beloved” out of the schools. “Beloved” apparently has some salty language and some racy scenes, including rape, incest, bestiality, etc., but it is apparently set in the time when Americans owned slaves so I would argue that it can’t all be rainbows and unicorns or “Gone with the Wind.”
The controversy got me thinking about some of the books I read in high school that really interested me and helped turn me into a life-long reader. I was in an ‘advanced’ reading group in high school and many of the books I remember best were ones that challenged me in terms of the content. I made a list of some of my favorites from high school that I am now promising myself I will pick up again. I think if I still remember a book so many years after having read it, it is probably worth reading again.
Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: This book blew my mind, not only due to all the sex and violence (of which there was plenty), but also because of the ‘Nadsat’ language (look it up). Yes, there was rape, lots of drug use, lots and lots of violence, etc., but there was a point to all of that ‘bad’ content and even as a teenager I understood that Burgess wasn’t really encouraging us to want to be like Alex and his ‘droogies.’ I was told that when the movie version was released in 1971, it was given an X rating.
The Tenants by Bernard Malmud: Racism, violence, sex and mutually assured destruction follow when two very different writers (one, a liberal educated Jew, the other a militant and angry black nationalist) become friends after they discover that they are neighbors in this story. I remember that the level of hate that the two principle characters developed for the other was the most frightening thing of the book. The two men are both sleeping with the same woman and there is lots of ‘hate speech,’ sex, bad language, drug use, drinking, etc. It ends with one of the principles getting castrated and the other one getting killed. I just found out that it was made into a film starring Snoop Dogg, but the film was only screened once.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: Yeah, I don’t think it should be controversial either, but there is (if I remember right) some sex and betrayal, drug use and suicide. Plus the the main character in the book, eventually rejects everything that his society stands for and becomes a traitor and an outcast.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Sex, violence, insanity, more violence, more sex, sex while aliens are watching, masturbation, pornography, infidelity, a picture of a woman fucking a pony, lust, etc., are all in this book so I guess it belongs on the moral majority’s “this ought to be banned” list. It was one weird (and interesting) book — the film does not do it justice (but gets good marks for effort IMO). Definitely in my “Books you MUST read.”
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: I still can’t believe we read this book in high school. Yes, it is a book about a child molester that tells the story from his point of view (put it in the ‘disturbing but meant to be that way’ category). The book has great literary merit and reading it will not turn you into a child molester. Goes on the ‘Must read’ list.
Johnny got his Gun by Dalton Trumbo: The main character is a deaf, dumb and blind quadruple amputee war veteran without a face who survived an exploding artillery shell and now lays in his hospital bed thinking about the events that led to his current condition. When a nurse finally figures out that the amputee is attempting to communicate by tapping his head against his pillow, his communication with the world outside his own skull is briefly re-established. The patient wants to be allowed to die, but when the doctors don’t allow that, he asks to be shown to the public so they can see the true horrors of war. It was written between the two World Wars and is perhaps the most disturbing book of fiction I have ever read.