Friday, August 9, 2013

FFB: Space Opera - Jack Vance

Pyramid Books (R-1140), 1965
1st paperback edition
Like most people who might see Space Opera on a shelf I figured the title was a nod to that denigrating phrase used to describe science fiction books filled with epic battles in outer space, populated with a variety of bizarre aliens and extraterrestrial creatures and larger than life heroes and heroines. The publishers of the first paperback edition commissioned Jack Vance to write a book using the phrase as his title thinking the same thing I bet. Vance fooled them. He decided to use the term literally. Space Opera (1965) is a about an opera company that tours the galaxies as "musical missionaries" and cultural ambassadors of Earth with the hope of enlightening and teaching the numerous alien life forms just how artistically rich is life on Earth. I think Vance meant it to be a comedy but it leans towards the melodramatic in the final chapters.

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.

Underwood-Miller, 1984
1st hardcover (limited edition)
The book is really not a novel at all. It comes across as a series of short stories slapped together with the unifying framework of a space journey to the mysterious planet Rlaru from which a company of performers travelled to Earth, did their thing, and then apparently vanished. Seemed like a good premise for an additional mystery novel element but it's almost immediately forgotten about as Dame Isabel and her company of singers and musicians travel the universe spreading the gospel of highbrow art.

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.

Captain Adolph Gondar is the only person who has travelled to Rlaru and is very evasive about talking about the planet. He keeps wanting to take detours which continually delay arriving at the tour's intended destination. Gondar's behavior is so strange and secretive many of the crew suspect their captain is losing his mind. Dame Isabel won't stand for it; she insists they stick to their plan and make Rlaru their final destination. A romantic subplot involving a stowaway woman named Madoc Roswyn who is bewitching the male crew members and Dame Isabel's nephew Roger Wool with her charm and sex appeal in order to achieve her own secret plan is yet another incident that derails the book's main plotline.

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.

12 comments:

  1. Good choice and review, John. I have never read Jack Vance before but now I have plenty to choose from this week's FFB. Mystery or sf? Tough choice for a beginner.

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  2. Nah. Jack Vance wouldn't've been fooling anyone, much less commissioning editor D. R. Bensen (where'd you read about it being commissioned, btw?)...but I haven't read this one. I'll believe it's minor Vance, but as such, you shouldn't judge his ability by it.

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    1. Must I admit I found that info about the book being commissioned in a Wikipedia article? I know, I know. I should go sit in the corner. I only used it because there is an implication that source was Vance himself ("He has stated that the title was not his choice..."), but it wasn't footnoted. Have no idea in what interview or article or book he mentioned this. You can read it for yourself here.

      I'm not judging his ability really. I'm sure his varied output and the fact he has both a Hugo and a Nebula attest to that. Plus, he was a genre-crosser which is something I always admire in any writer of fiction. That his imagination knows no bounds is very evident in this book. I just couldn't buy into anything related to the professional company of performers on tour. None of it rang true -- even for sf or fantasy which is what SPACE OPERA mostly resembles.

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  3. Vance would've been writing the linked stories of THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD at about this time, some of his best work, and the sequel of sorts to THE DYING EARTH, one of his first...the later work, contemporary and earlier work all feature items I suspect you'd enjoy more.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Todd. He made me laugh out loud twice and I enjoyed two specific scenes for the eerie pictures he painted. I have to admit I was impressed with the way he switched from near farce to more serious drama in the last three chapters. I'll be looking for more of his work.

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  4. If you'd like to read mysteries written by Vance, I recommend the three that he wrote as by Ellery Queen -- The Four Johns, A Room To Die In (a locked-room mystery with a really interesting solution) and The Madman Theory. He also wrote three that I really enjoyed as by John Holbrook Vance: The Deadly Isles, The Fox Valley Murders and The Pleasant Grove Murders -- scarce but well worth your time and attention if you can track them down. Vance manages to construct sensible plots and imbue them with a real sense of increasing menace.

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  5. Just like the title, this sound like a real oddity. I'll give it a miss for the mo though ...

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  6. I haven't read this, so I can't really weigh in as to how much of a clunker the ending is, but I've read some stuff lately that might make me glad to not have to endure another 'To Serve Man'-esque ending.

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  7. Oddly enough, there's another science fiction novel about humans performing opera for extraterrestrials, "Narabedla Ltd." by Frederik Pohl (1988). Like a lot of his late work, it's really not bad, without being anything groundbreaking (as I remember it). I guess he got the idea from the Vance book.

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  8. Vance is one of the classic SF authors that I've not read much from. Mostly short stories, I believe. If I get back into SF-mode, I'll probable look for some of his later work.

    Great review! I love your parting line: "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. "

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  9. First, a question: you say "denigrating phrase used to describe science fiction books filled with epic battles in outer space, populated with a variety of bizarre aliens and extraterrestrial creatures and larger than life heroes and heroines." Why denigrating? There's absolutely nothing wrong at all with an outer space adventure filled with battles and aliens, it's superb entertainment, and for we long time (back to the late 1940s, please) science fiction readers it's meat compared to the dark gritty political urban failing world stuff, or the practically horror shoot-em-ups in SF guise that fill the shelves at your book purchase location of choice. I'd rather read a Heinlein, Poul Anderson or Larry Niven space opera than most of the current books. So why denigrating?

    Now, about this particular books, it's a fun idea without much substance that I think Vance wrote for the paycheck, whether it was commissioned or just dashed off and sent out. Certainly a weak effort in the Vance bibliography. Interesting cover, though.

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    1. I wrote "denigrating phrase" not denigrating genre, Rick. I'm talking about the title. I happen to think that "space Opera" is a slang term that has a negative connotation. Same thing as calling a western a "horse opera." Both phrases are used to insult each genre, I think.

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