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Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance

1/07/2010. Contributed by Gareth D Jones

Buy Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance in the USA - or Buy Hard-Luck Diggings: The Early Jack Vance in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 294 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-301-3.

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Before I start I should point out that Jack Vance is one of my favourite authors, with his novels 'The Blue World' and 'Night Lamp' counted among my favourites. I love the way he wrote - the formal yet flowery language, the fabulous descriptive work and exotic cultures - so I was very excited to receive 'Hard-Luck Diggings'. This is a collection of early Jack Vance stories from the 40s and 50s presented chronologically. I don't recall ever having read any of his short stories before so I was interested to see what editors Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan had put together. I had high hopes for the book, which always leads to the worry that I might be let down.

The title story 'Hard-Luck Diggings' struck me as a good example of 50s stories rather than an example of Jack Vance's work. The story was imbued with that indefinable old-fashioned air of assumed human superiority and implied chauvinism that was common fifty years ago. Although it was lacking in Vance's trademark style, it was an interesting though fairly simple tale.

The fifth story 'Abercrombie Station' shows the first glimmer of Jack Vance's masterful invention of eccentric human societies. The eponymous space station is home to morbidly obese population or those who would be morbidly obese on Earth. In the low gravity of the station, they are as graceful as ballet dancers and their entire ethos and society has developed around their corpulence. As usual with Jack Vance, the trappings of this society form only the backdrop to the story but he manages to impart enough information to highlight its strangeness.

A highlight of the volume for me is 'DP!' both for the sheer scale of its central issue and for the style in which it is presented. I enjoy stories written in non-standard format and this is presented in the main as a series of news reports that highlight the development of the situation. Thousands of primitive troglodytes have started emerging in the Alps. No-one knows where they came from, what they are or what to do with them. The impersonal nature of the news reports only makes the developing crisis more powerful in its impact and resolution.

With 'Shape-Up' and 'Sjambak', we finally arrive at the kind of story I was expecting. Characters with quirky names, a galactic society of widely diverse planets and cultures and Vance's trademark concentration on sartorial and architectural detail. This particularly shines through in 'Sjambak' which is set on a Javanese/Arab planet where the costumes are magnificent and the culture exotic. Both also contain examples of technology outdated by even today's standards - a true test of whether a story can stand the test of time or whether it also renders the story obsolete. In both cases, the story wins through. Even though DNA profiling would make the whole of 'Shape-Up' pointless if written today, the craftsmanship of the writing makes it a joy to read.

The final story of the anthology is 'Dodkin's Job' a pleasurable and satisfying read whose basic premise reminded me of the old Isaac Asimov story 'The Computer That Won The War'. It also reminded me of a story that I've just finished writing that I thought was brilliantly original. Ho hum! In a future society of order and conformity, one worker tries to fight back against the impractical directives that come down from on high. His journey through the warren-like city to see an on-going series of bureaucrats is wonderfully wry.

As you would expect from a master of the genre, none of the stories in here are a disappointment. Certainly many of them are different in style from what I have come to expect from Jack Vance, but all are worth reading. Subterranean Press are apparently planning a further Jack Vance anthology and for any author with such a long and distinguished career, I consider this a valuable service.

Gareth D. Jones

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