|Pyramid Books (R-1140), 1965|
1st paperback edition
In only a few days Dame Isabel Grayce, the tenacious former Secretary-Treasurer of a little opera company, contacts the world's greatest opera singers, gets them to commit to space travel for several months, and expects them to perform the world's most famous operas with little rehearsal. Dame Isabel has the kind of bravado and persuasive skills needed to pull this off and succeeds impressively. Yet by the midpoint in the story Vance shows he knows very little about opera singers and how a performing group on tour operates.
In one chapter Dame Isabel demands her company to perform no less than three operas -- one each by Rossini, Wagner and Alban Berg -- back to back with only twenty minutes rest period in between the three works. Three operas (two with huge casts), completely different sets and costumes, and radically different musical styles all performed in one evening. Will any reader, regardless of his or her opera knowledge, swallow such a concept? That the same performers can sing Italian bel canto, German Romantic and a modern atonal opera like Wozzeck? Never. And only twenty minutes rest between the two? Ridiculous! Never mind that Vance tries to point out the absurdity of such a Herculean marathon of singing and musicianship by pointing out that one violinist is in pain and has to bandage his fingers and one diva so exhausted refuses to go on. The truth would be that everyone would be exhausted. Talk about science fiction! These musicians would be superhumans -- aliens even -- who could perform three operas like those one right after other.
1st hardcover (limited edition)
Vance does a good job of showing how snobbish and intolerant Dame Isabel is when she encounters indifferent alien cultures who cannot grasp the magic of classical Earth opera. In one case she is convinced that Fidelio needs to be presented in an expurgated, re-written format so it won't offend the race of cavern dwelling rock-like beings that are the company's intended audience. In another scene one group of aliens believed that the company was actually a sort of travelling infomercial. At the conclusion of the opera a representative of the planet's denizens approaches Dame Isabel and says that they would like to purchase a few oboes and one coloratura soprano if they have any in stock. That was the first sign I thought the book was meant to be a satire.
When the story finally gets back on track and the spaceship lands on Rlaru I was ready for a kind of Rod Serlingesque surprise. Something like the twist in the "To Serve Man" episode of The Twilight Zone or a shocker like the one in Planet of the Apes. But it's an anticlimactic ending. I wanted to gasp and I merely shrugged. The secret of Rlaru is not at all shocking nor eye opening or even very interesting. I noticed that the planet's name is an anagram for rural and thought "Aha!" but even that didn't play out.
Vance has won a few awards for his science fiction. I'm sure he does better in his later work. This commissioned paperback original seemed like nothing more than a way to earn another paycheck with a lot of private jokes thrown in to entertain the writer. This reader found it to be like eating Crackerjacks and being disappointed when the toy prize promised inside never made it to this particular box.