Coupe de Grace reviewed

Just to give some idea of my own taste where Vance’s work is concerned, I thought I might reprint a review of a Jack Vance sampler published by the VIE back in 2001 that I wrote for Locus. While the review is four years old – and was part of the background reading and prep. for the Treasury – my views haven’t changed much since then. I should add that the review lead to the longest response to any review I’ve done, a four page disagreement by Paul Rhodes published in the VIE magazine, Cosmopolis.

Coup de Grace and Other Stories, Jack Vance (The Vance Integral Edition)

When stories first began appearing under the byline ‘Jack Vance’, science fiction was largely a place of transparent prose, plainly spoken characters, and bug-eyed monsters with an inexplicable preference for Earth women. Vance’s early stories, characterized as they were by rich, stylized prose, mannered characters, and drawing-room plots must have seemed both refreshing and unusual to the readers of Thrilling Wonder Stories and Super Science Fiction. His stories weren’t about the latest gadget or technological doodad – instead they focussed on strange, alien cultures that allowed him to indulge in the often satirical social commentary that would prove characteristic of his entire body of work.

Despite the undoubted importance of his contribution to the field — his first and most famous book, The Dying Earth, transformed the field, laying the groundwork for works like Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun — Vance’s popularity in his native United States has waned in recent years and much of his work is now out of print. However, like many of the jazz musicians he admires, this decline has been accompanied by an increasing popularity in
Europe. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Vance Integral Edition – an ambitious attempt by a group of readers to bring ‘preferred’ versions of his work back into print – should be headquartered in France. The VIE intends to produce a 44 volume set of Vance’s collected works. In advance of that, however, they have released Coup de Grace and Other Stories, a seven story sampler intended to act both as an introduction to Vance and as a design test for the full set of books.

The collection opens with “Alfred’s Ark”, a minor piece from the mid-60s that originally appeared in New Worlds. Convinced that another great Flood is coming, Alfred Johnson, a local grain-and-feed merchant, decides to build his own Ark to protect his loved ones. Initially treated with derision by his neighbours, their attitudes change markedly when the rain begins to fall. While firmly in Vance’s tradition of conservative social commentary – in many of his stories he seems far from impressed with his fellow man – it lacks the richness that characterizes his best work.

“The Moon Moth”, on the other hand, is not only classic Vance, it is one of the finest stories in the history of the genre. It details the efforts of Edwer Thissell, a planetary consul on the distant world of Sirene, to capture an assassin who is on the run from authorities. Thissell’s task is made immeasurably more difficult by the complex and complicated social strictures of Sirenese society. Every person, no matter their social stature, goes masked in public and accompanies any speech with one of many carefully selected musical instruments. While the story circles around a locked-room plot that Agatha Christie would have recognized, its heart lies in the strangeness of Sirenese society and Thissell’s attempts to navigate it. Any modern reader of science fiction encountering Vance for the first time through this story, as I did, will be struck by how successfully Vance walks the edge between mannered farce and incisive commentary.

The editors have chosen to follow “The Moon Moth” with “Coup de Grace”, another locked-room mystery, this time featuring Vance’s aristocratic private investigator, Magnus Ridolph. A man is murdered on a distant space station and Ridolph, who is vacationing there, reluctantly assists the station’s management with uncovering the murder. While the difference between an Agatha Christie story and “Coup de Grace” is little more than set dressing, it is nonetheless an entertaining distraction.

“Flutic”, the opening section from 1983’s picaresque Cugel’s Saga, is the first of two selections from the ‘Dying Earth’ sequence to be included here. It details the arrival of Cugel the Clever, one of Vance’s most enduring characters, at Flutic, where he is employed by Master Twango to help recover the scales of a fallen demon from a muddy pit, which are then sold for enormous profit. Cugel quickly realizes the hopeless inequity of his employment and seeks to escape. “Flutic” is a vicious piece of satire on the nature of labor that, along with the next selection in Coup de Grace, “Dodkin’s Job”, stands as engaging counterpart to the ruminations on work in Paul Di Filippo’s recent collection, Strange Trades. That said, “Flutic” doesn’t stand alone particularly well, and probably is best read as part of Cugel’s Saga as originally intended.

“Dodkin’s Job” originally appeared in Astounding in 1959 and, more so than most of the stories here, seems rooted firmly in the time and place of its publication. The story details the travails of Luke Grogatch, a disgruntled man working in a distant future City organized around the principles of the Theory of the Organised Society. Grogratch, who is a determined individualist, has fallen almost to the bottom of the stratified, class conscious City, when a seemingly ridiculous labor order drives him to challenge the faceless bureaucracy he lives within. His determination to overcome this order leads him to a situation that seems far from surprising to the modern reader. The 1950s, as can be seen equally clearly in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, was the era of the Company Man, and Vance satirizes that era mercilessly. However, much of the satire seems obvious and heavy-handed today, and the story seems much less convincing than it probably did in 1959. “Green Magic”, on the other hand, is a fantasy originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963, which details the desire of Howard Fair to gain knowledge of so-called ‘green magic’ and the price he pays for gaining that knowledge. As editor Paul Rhoads states in his introduction, the story deals with the intertwined themes of the power of language and art, and the limitations of mortality.

Coup de Grace closes with “The Murthe”, the second story from the ‘Dying Earth’ sequence, this time featuring Rhialto the Marvelous. The story details an attack on the sorcerers of the 21st Aeon by an immensely powerful witch, the Murthe. The Murthe embodies the feminine principle and it is up to Rhialto to defeat her, thereby defending the masculine principle. The sexual politics underlying “The Murthe” are, like the politics underlying most of the stories collected here, disturbingly conservative and even reactionary.

The seven stories collected in Coup de Grace paint an interesting picture of Jack Vance’s oeuvre that is at once richly detailed, satirical, playful, witty, and deeply conservative. While it may fail as a ‘Best of Vance’, omitting classics like “Abercrombie Station” and “The Last Castle” in favor of several minor stories, Coup de Grace succeeds admirably as a warts-and-all portrait of a major writer – a sort of ‘pocket’ version of The Essential Ellison. It is also the only English-language collection of Vance’s fiction currently in print and, if for no other reason, is worthy of recommendation.

3 thoughts on “Coupe de Grace reviewed”

  1. I do not agree with the characterization of The Murthe. Evidently any depiction of the so-called battle of the sexes that does not result in equivocally female victory is now to be considered pro-male.

    My understanding of the message of The Murthe is that that neither sex is complete without the other.


  2. seeking copy of Jack Vance story, “Dodkin’s Job.”

    Have sought for long time, without full title. Discovered title today. How can i get a copy??

    I am located in Kansas City.


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