Jumping the Shark On a National Trust Planet

by Arthur B

Arthur reviews the Cadwal Chronicles series by Jack Vance, and makes a case that this is where Vance lost it.
In 1988 Jack Vance took a break from writing his classic Lyonesse Trilogy to begin a new science fiction series, the Cadwal Chronicles. The series is notable for two reasons: it is the last group of non-standalone novels Vance wrote before the mediocre Ports of Call duology, and to my mind represents the point where Vance's output jumps the shark. While 1996's Night Lamp did represent a return to form, I can't help but consider it a swan song; the ending of the Cadwal Chronicles reminds me nothing more of the disappointment I felt reading Ports of Call and Lurulu. In this article, I'm going to review each book of the series and painstakingly reconstruct Vance's shark jump.

Approaching the Shark: Araminta Station

The first book of the series is Araminta Station, in which Vance exercises all the techniques and modes common to his work which would not quite fit in the Lyonesse trilogy, and uses them to excellent effect. I get the impression that he really wanted to take a break from fantasy before tackling Madouc, the last book of Lyonesse, and he does show by producing one of the most subtle and nuanced novels of his SF output. Vance has not reached the shark yet here; he is still at the top of his game.

This book introduces us to the planet Cadwal, a place discovered not by a government or corporation but by a conservationist group, the Naturalist Society. Home to a rich and varied ecosystem (with several species which, it is hinted, have developed almost human-like intelligence), the planet was declared a Conservancy by the Naturalists, and a Charter was established to provide a legal framework for the administration of the planet. Araminta Station is a small city, one of only two settlements permitted by the Charter, and his home to the six Houses responsible for managing the Conservancy (the other settlement, Stroma, is home to the Naturalist Society members who select from amongst themselves the chief administrator). Located on an island in the ocean is Yipton, the third settlement, an illegal enclave and home to the Yips. The Yips are descendants of runaways, fugitives, criminals and illegal immigrants, who over the centuries have developed a highly divergent culture which makes any interaction between them and the outside world difficult. The members of Bureau B, Araminta Station's policing branch, maintain constant vigilance to prevent the Yips from colonising the mainland, since once such colonies are established it will be impossible to prevent them from spreading, and the Conservancy will be wrecked.

The tension between the desires of the Yips, who wish only to have space to live out their carefree lives, and the people of Araminta Station, who want to maintain the Conservancy (and let's remember, there's native sentients whose lives will be wrecked if the Conservancy fails), is central to the series, and - as presented in Araminta Station, it's a dilemma where there's no easy answers. Matters are further complicated by the fact, established early on, that the Yips are dominated by the Oomphaw, who uses criminal and violent means to maintain control over them, and the presence of the "Life, Peace and Freedom" movement, members of the Naturalist Society at Stroma who seek to weaken the Conservancy in order to grab power, land and prestige for themselves (some of them have more charitable motives, but the leaders are undeniably power-hungry).

The hero of Araminta Station is Glawen Clattuc, a young man who develops from adolescence into maturity over the course of the book - at its heart, this is a coming-of-age story. Joining Bureau B, Glawen is faced with various conflicting problems over the course of the book. His childhood sweetheart is murdered in a shocking crime (unusually violent and grim for Vance's work), and this murder mystery hangs over Glawen's head for most of the book. Meanwhile, a series of accidents and odd incidents suggests that the Oomphaw is stepping up is efforts to break out of Yipton, and Glawen is compelled to pose as a tourist in order to infiltrate Yipton and find out what is going on. Vance has won awards for his mainstream crime novels, and so the detective aspects of the story are more than competantly presented.

Adding to Glawen's woes is his efforts to gain full status within House Clattuc. Numbers within the six houses of Araminta Station are limited; as such, people who do not gain a certain level of prestige by the time they reach adulthood are given "collateral" status, and must either accept lower-status jobs or leave the planet for pastures new. The cruel Spanchetta Clattuc who has bourne a grudge against Glawen's father ever since he spurned the advances of Spanchetta and her sister Simonetta, works as hard as she can throughout the novel to deny Glawen his status; meanwhile, in the course of his various investigations Glawen comes across traces of Simonetta, who, having failed to gain full status in House Clattuc, left Cadwal to embark on a decades-long quest for revenge. The double act of the murderous, constantly (for this novel) off-camera Simonetta and the ever-present, apparently law-abiding Spanchetta are one of the best features of the novel - sadly, Spanchetta drops out of sight for the rest of the series. (She appears once at the beginning of Ecce and Old Earth to hiss and be evil, and once at the end of Throy to get arrested.)

The most powerful strand running through the book, however, is one of jealousy and competition. As part of his investigations Glawen joins the Bold Lions, a club of teenage boys that happens to include Glawen's great rival, with whom Glawen competes both for the affection of the opposite sex and for full status in House Clattuc. It turns out that more than one of the Bold Lions has reasons to dislike Glawen, however; the novel ends not with the resolution of one of the murders, or the destruction of one of the Oomphaw's plans, but with Glawen confronting an individual who - it becomes clear in retrospect - has had it in from him from the very beginning.

Far less straightforward than much of Vance's SF, Araminta Station is a mature and well-crafted novel, and I'd recommend it to anyone. It is a shame the same standard was not maintained throughout the series.

The Skis Leave the Water: Ecce and Old Earth

This one was written in 1991, after Vance concluded the Lyonesse trilogy in 1990. This book may as well have been called Old Earth and a Little Bit of Ecce. Ecce, the second (and, in theory, uninhabited) continent of Cadwal, features only in the first quarter of the book. The rest of the novel deals with the efforts of Wayness Tamm, Glawen's love interest, to locate the missing deeds to the planet Cadwal, which have been stolen from the Naturalist Society. Vance depicts an Earth centuries - possibly millennia - in the future which has slipped into decadence, and Wayness is in constant danger. While she's usually capable of taking care of herself, in the climactic confrontation Glawen has to save her, although to his credit Vance manages to do this in a way which doesn't render irrelevant Wayness's previous detective work, and Glawen himself is almost killed by the attacker.

Most of the joy in this book is to be found in the depiction of Earth, a place of quiet museums, rotting mansions, casual violence and occasional lechery. By the conclusion, several apparently-unrelated elements of the story are drawn together to tell a second tale, about an unscrupulous archaeologist's plot to manipulate psychic children to help him find artefacts. However, these additional elements don't quite hide the fact that this is a more straightforward story than Araminta Station; the coming of age element is lost, Spanchetta is forgotten about leaving Simonetta as the sole member of the double act, the murders and crimes have less impact than the brutal slayings of Araminta Station, and in general the well seems to be running dry. While not every plot element is resolved in this book, the Cadwal concept is rapidly running out of steam by the end. Those of you who read and enjoy Araminta Station will doubtless enjoy this one, so long as you don't expect too much. I don't advise reading further, however...

The Shark Is Jumped: Throy

Again, this book is misnamed; a tiny fraction takes place on Throy (the third continent of Cadwal, where Stroma is located), and the rest takes place all over the Gaean Reach. Whereas the previous two books hinged on mysteries, there's only one real mystery in Throy, and the solution of that is really no surprise; the book hinges instead on the manhunt for a bunch of criminals identified in the previous books, and also a neat solution to Cadwal's central dilemma, leading to a happy end for the Conservancy and the Yips alike.

The book once again partakes of the planetary tourism of Ports of Call, although at least this time there is a point to it. Nonetheless, the manhunt outstays its welcome (it lasts for around 200 pages, but could really have been resolved in 50), and the solution to the Yip problem is slightly too neat. On the whole, the book lacks the multiple layers that characterised Araminta Station and Ecce and Old Earth; each book of the Cadwal Chronicles, in fact, loses some of the complexity (moral and otherwise) of its predecessor. It is too straightforward, too simple, and certainly not what I usually expect from Vance.

The most frustrating thing about this book is that there are occasional glimmerings of Vance's previous talents. The destructive confrontation between the LPF and the criminal conspiracy that rules Yipton reveals the futility of their alliance; the LPF members don't really regard the Yips as human beings, and the Yip leaders are violently insane. In the end, the LPFers and the Yip leaders realise they hate each other more than they do the Conservancy. (There's a fabulous scene where the LPF leaders, on trial for a murderous attack on Yipton, defend themselves by claiming that according to the very Charter they despise, Yipton was an illegal settlement, and therefore legally speaking nobody was living there and the LPF was perfectly within its rights to bomb it.) Also, the romance between supporting characters Chilke and Flitz is genuinely touching.

We really didn't need another Cadwal novel to cover that ground, however, especially not one which is only half the length of the previous two: it would have been better to fuse this book with Ecce and Old Earth. If Glawen conducted the manhunt of Throy at the same time that Wayness was hunting the Charter on Old Earth, and if Vance had found a way to tie the conclusion of both of them in with each other, Ecce and Old Earth could have become the equal of Araminta Station. Even if you enjoy the first two Cadwal Chronicles, I don't recommend moving on to Throy unless you are desperate to see how things are resolved.

Jump Analysis

As far as I can tell, the central flaw of the Cadwal Chronicles was that Vance posed himself a problem with the tension between the Conservancy and the Yips, and then felt a responsibility to keep writing until it was solved, even when the other elements of the setting had been exhausted. Furthermore, I get the impression that Vance was tired of Cadwal itself by the end of the first book - Ecce and Old Earth and Throy are almost entirely set elsewhere in the Gaean Reach. This is particularly frustrating, since the best parts of the first book were the parts where we were learning about the local culture of Cadwal. Possibly Vance felt that he'd exhausted the possibilities of Cadwal in the first book. Perhaps he felt an itch, as he seems to do in the Ports of Call series, to use a bunch of planet ideas he hadn't gotten around to using. Or maybe he wanted to bring in his perennial "travel broadens the mind" theme - the problems of Cadwal are in the end only solved by bringing in help from outside, after all.

Whatever the reason, locating the main action away from Cadwal meant that all of the fun subplots we had been enjoying in the first book are sidelined, and thus robs the series of much of its appeal. At the end of the day, I think I'll only be re-reading Araminta Station itself, since it is the only book of the trilogy which manages to be more than just a fun space adventure.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 09:29 on 2007-03-02
Oooh, pictures! Check you! It's so tragic when things jump the shark. I don't read 'serious' (serious is a bad word to use in this context but I don't know what else to use - basically I mean books that *don't* have an ex-prostitute gay wizard n the front) sci-fi/fantasy as much as I you do, or, indeed as I ought, so my only brush with Vance has been Dying Earth which I absolutely adored. Bizarrely, for one who tends to struggle with such things, I'm madly into the Dying Earth roleplaying game as well, I think because it's completely random and wearing a hat is important.
Arthur B at 13:13 on 2007-03-02
The Dying Earth RPG is excellent. I need to get the supplements for Cugel and Rhialto-level campaigns
Arthur B at 13:14 on 2007-03-02
Dang! That should be *re*reading Araminta Station itself at the end. Obviously I've read all of them, I wouldn't have been able to do the review otherwise.

I'd edit that, but it'd make the article disappear.
Arthur B at 13:17 on 2007-03-02
Double dang. The comment-eating bug is back. My first comment should have read "The Dying Earth RPG is excellent. I need to get the supplements for Cugel and Rhialto-level campaigns
Arthur B at 13:23 on 2007-03-02
It's the semicolon. It's the bloody semicolon. The comments box doesn't understand semicolons and hates people who do.

Anyway, what I was going to say was that I already have the book for Turjan-level stuff, and it does an excellent job of expanding the system without making it overwhelmingly complicated, as well as tweaking the atmosphere to make things more like the first book. The best thing about the Dying Earth RPG is that you could tweak it to make it a Lyonesse RPG, or a Cadwal RPG, or (if you're mad) a Ports of Call RPG, since all of Vance's worlds work on very similar ideas.
Wardog at 13:50 on 2007-03-02
Correction made! Rami's is in Brussels at the moment where they don't have technology but as soon as he gets settled he's going to be implementing a lot of cool stuff for Fb so we can all jump on him then with our ferocious demands for punctuation. And that would be why the Ferret never eats my comments, I'm not literate enough to use semi-colons in my comments.
Andy G at 01:22 on 2010-06-05
Ooh did you know this article is linked on Wikipedia? It shows up if you search Wikipedia for FerretBrain.
Dan H at 11:01 on 2010-06-05
Woo! Ferretbrain has *arrived*!
Arthur B at 19:07 on 2010-06-05
Woo! Ferretbrain has *arrived*!

[Citation needed.]
Dan H at 19:39 on 2010-06-05
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in February 2007