The Blue World - Jack Vance

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

The Blue World
Jack Vance
Gollancz SF
ISBN 0575073489

I don't have carefully ordered bookshelves; the read, the to-be-read, the started-but-not-finished and the reference books all live together happily. Except for one shelf. One shelf alone is reserved, designated For Emergencies, only to be approached on those days when you need to read something good, something which will sweep away the bad taste of recent disappointing reads, something which is almost guaranteed to make up for a poor return on a gamble on an unknown author. The Blue World was one of the honoured novels on that shelf, and it deserved its place.

The Blue World is not one Vance's better known novels, though admittedly he was prolific. I've seen it described as one of his lesser novels and so I wasn't expecting a masterwork like Emphyrio. Happily for me, The Blue World turned out to be among the most satisfying of his books that I've read.

As you might have guessed from the title, The Blue World is set on a water planet. An unnamed world with no land masses known, it is home to three major forms of life; a small community of humans, the native kragen, terrible sea creatures, and the Floats, ocean plants similar in form to monstrous lily-pads on which the humans live.

The humans are atypical Vance; although the society is, of course, stratified into castes, and arranged into small communities, the physical situation on the planet means we don't get the trademark journey through foreign cultures. The castes in this society are amusing; the planet's human population was founded by The Ship of Space foundering, and the castes are revealingly named: Anarchists, Procurers, Bezzlers, Incendiaries, Advertisermen, Malpractors, Smugglers, and my personal favourite, the Hoodwinkers.

Early in the novel someone muses on which came first, the Hoodwinkers, or hood-winking? Hood-winking refers to the practice of operating giant semaphore towers on each float; these are central to Float society, linking the communities together. Hoods are arranged over grids of lamps, and winked to generate signal patterns.

A typical use for the hoodwink towers is to warn of the approach of a kragen; the Floats protect their lagoons, stocked with farmed sponges by the Blackguards, with nets maintained by the Hooligans. However, despite all their efforts the native kragen can do serious damage to a community - they can grow to terrible size, and with their impervious hide and hints of intelligence, they cannot be killed. Certainly not on a world where the best material for weapons is human bone... the human community has no access to metal on their watery world.

To protect themselves from the predations of the kragen, the people of the Floats have made a Devil's Bargain - the Intercessors, a pseudo-priesthood, are responsible for placating King Kragen. In return for feeding rights, King Kragen will supposedly drive smaller Kragen out of his territory.

Our hero is the Assistant Master Hoodwink of Tranque Float - Sklar Hast. In typical Vance fashion, he is in love with a woman who views him only with disdain, and whom he finds impossible to court gracefully, lacks respect for the technical abilities of his Master, and is only starting to realise he is dissatisfied with his place in society, and perhaps with his society as a whole. All Vance's heroes are basically the same character recycled, and yet I never tire of the template.

Things come to a head quickly - the womanly object of Sklar's affection, the wilfully iconoclastic Meril Rohan, daughter of Sklar's Master, accepts an offer of marriage from the Intercessor, Semm Voiderverg. Sklar's frustration boils over when a kragen attacks the float, with King Kragen nowhere to be seen. Sklar loses patience waiting for the Intercessor to summon King Kragen, an ability he doubts exists, and does the unthinkable to save his float - Sklar tries to kill the kragen...

What I enjoyed most about The Blue World is the wonderfully neat structure; in addition to Vance's trademark mannered society, and baroque wordplay, we have a central SF idea carefully paced to last a novel - on a world without metal, how do you build a society, and how could that society kill a giant sea serpent? This SF plotline is wrapped around a more Vancian thread - the man of action breaking free from his place in a stratified society and Doing Something, oh, and Getting The Girl too of course. Sklar's taboo attempt to kill the kragen, and later to challenge the tyranny of King Kragen, sparks off a religious conflict, with the society tearing itself apart - the Orthodox on one side, led by the Priesthood and its paramilitary group, faced by the progressive, scientific Heretics.

The constrained geography of the unnamed planet, and its small community of descendants of marooned space-farers, mean that the conflict is always in sharp focus, always personal. There are no clashes of armies, no giant battles where soldiers can become faceless. On a world where nothing can be lost to the sea - not the bodies of the dead, not ash, not food waste - war is more destructive than ever. A battle can destroy a float while can years to cultivate back using nothing but the raw materials the plant itself provides.
This small sphere of action ensures that the personality conflict between the rebellious Sklar and the charismatic Intercessors leading the Orthodox is always central, and there is plenty of intrigue and politics involved before open battle commences.

It's not all great though - the rebels quest for a weapon against King Kragen centres on metal, almost unknown on this water planet. Sadly, one of the central key inventions requires the same misunderstanding of lenses that Lord of the Flies showed, and after some quick checking, their proposed solution to the metal shortage seems wildly optimistic too. In another place, a comment is made that bows and arrows were not used as no suitable materials are available - a jarring comment from the author intruding on the characters' world. Still, these are minor problems, and I am willing to overlook them in a piece of vintage SF-adventure. The writing is, naturally, excellent and huge fun to read. Vance's use of words is terribly precise, and somehow manages never to seem pretentious or overblown even when requiring the reader to keep a quality dictionary to hand. Personally, I think my vocabulary is well developed - it is my proud boast that I have even recognised some of the words that Gene Wolfe reuses in his novels - but I always feel like I would sound like an oaf compared to the meanest ruffian from one of Vance's awfully polite societies!

The Blue World is a perfectly polished gem of a novel.

Posted: Fri - August 15, 2003 at 03:25 AM