Minding the Stars: The Early Jack Vance Volume Four edited by Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan (book review).
With collections of short stories that may stretch across several volumes, the selection process may be a tricky one. Do you put all the best in the first collection or pace it so future volumes have a mix of strong and weaker stories? Ah, the pressures of book editing.
‘Minding The Star’s is the fourth collection of Jack Vance’s earlier short stories and it seems as though they haven’t saved the best for last. Even editors introducing the selection isn’t best pleased and gives what is best described as faint praise for the eight stories, as well as openly criticising one or two. It’s a shame as it starts the experience off on the wrong foot and is probably a good reason not to worry about other people’s opinion. Except for this review, of course…
There are eight stories in the collection with no real theme throughout. ‘Nogpalgarth’ involves an Earth scientist who is charged by an alien race to remove Nogpal from all humans or face extinction. Unfortunately, the Nogpal forms part of our everyday thoughts and emotions, adding to what we are or is it influencing us for nefarious reasons? The question of change versus extinction is put forward in this story that has a nice 1950s witch hunt feel to it.
‘Telek’ is all about the haves and the have-nots. Those with powers are keeping those without down and perhaps it’s time for a change.
‘Arthur’s Ark’ is the shortest story in the collection and centres around a man who believes that a flood of biblical proportions is coming and wants to build an ark to save two of every creature. At first, he’s ridiculed but when the rain starts his neighbours begin to believe. Quite short with a sharp twist and a fun read. Interestingly, there are few Science Fiction elements to this story, unless you count the Bible.
‘Parapsyche’ is the longest story in the collection and involves siblings whose believes put them at odds with each other. Echoing Steinbeck’s ‘East Of Eden’ with a paranormal twist, the sister sees an apparition with her boyfriend, sparking off a lifelong interest in the supernatural. Unfortunately, this clashes with her brother’s overly zealous religious beliefs. This soon turns into a struggle between science and religion that could consume them all. It’s interesting to read Vance’s view of religion in this collection. Perhaps realising it has a place in Science Fiction stories, religion gets a fair hearing but is ridiculed by other characters by proxy. These might be a man struggling with his faith, be it science or religion.
On the more light-hearted side, ‘Miss Universe’ charts the origin of the eponymous competition but is certainly more universal. This is one of the stories that the editors seem to dislike but while it may have dated, it’s still a bit of fun.
In ‘Milton Hack From Zodiac’, the titular Milton is hired by rich siblings to obtain weapons contracts from alien worlds. Flip-flopping between two planets, Milton finds himself playing both races off each other and hoping to come out on top. I love the little details in this story but I get the feeling this story could have been told in half the space and been just as entertaining.
‘Four Hundred Blackbirds’ is a fun tale of a research institute taken over by the military to help win a war. Despite being over 60 years-old, it hasn’t dated with clever mind control technology that I’m sure armed forces today would love to have. With a story like this, there’s always going to be a twist but it still manages to raise a smirk.
‘The World Between’ features a colony mission that finds a habitable planet close to home but in the jurisdiction of another race. Cue an ecological war as the two races exchange tit-for-tat victories over a planet that is eerily familiar.
As stated previously, this doesn’t necessarily represent the best of Vance but it’s still worth a read. Some of the stories may have dated slightly but that’s to be expected after 60 years or so. What matters here is the message in these stories and to me, they’re still relevant. I wouldn’t call this essential reading but worth having on your shelf for a rainy day.
(pub: Subterranean Press. 367 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-645-8)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com