My introduction to a Jack Vance Book…RHIALTO THE MARVELLOUS

The following was written for an edition of Jack Vance’s Rhialto the Marvellous that apparently ran into some snags and didn’t come out. So this is for fans of Jack Vance. Many of us, me included, have a problem with certain of Jack Vance’s more radical (or backward) social ideas. But many of us also revere his fiction. I don’t know why marvelous is spelled marvellous in the book, but it is.

An Introduction to Rhialto the Marvellous
by John Shirley

“Now I wonder what it is you find in that dark pool to keep you staring so?” the stranger asked, first of all. “I do not very certainly know,” replied Manuel “but mistily I seem to see drowned there the loves and the desires and the adventures I had when I wore another body than this. For the water of Haranton, I must tell you, is not like the water of other fountains, and curious dreams engender in this pool.”
–James Branch Cabell, Figures of Earth

Curious dreams engender in Vance’s Dying Earth tales, just as a curious voice is used to narrate them. That distinctive voice in prose, nearly inimitable, is Jack Vance’s and his alone. It is present in his science fiction works in various respective concentrations; to a lesser degree it can be detected, so to speak, in his mystery works. But it is in his works of fantasy, the Lyonesse novels and the Dying Earth stories, including Rhialto the Marvellous that it becomes an extract, a distillation. Expressed in this literary voice is story development attuned to irony; is humor, a certain whimsical cynicism–and sometimes outright comedy.
The influence of James Branch Cabell on Vance was noted by Lin Carter; the influence of Clark Ashton Smith seems apparent, at least to me, both in tone and attitude. But over time, Vance developed a luxuriant voice and a tart, comedic approach–part and parcel of one another–that is close to unique. But there’s always more to unpack in this gift box: he brought to all his work a gift for ideas, for conceptual daring, that takes him well beyond Cabell.
I recently used the phrase “bravely flowing prolixity” to describe an aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s style. While Vance often uses relatively simple sentence construction, in the sense that a master carpenter’s cabinet is simple but exquisitely joined, he sometimes rolls out a gorgeous prolixity, a gem-like verbosity, constructed with a craftsmanship that could find comparison in Baroque classical music. It sings in the mind’s ear. Indeed, in his time Vance was both a musician and a carpenter–was even a ceramic glazier–and these skills seem to transfer to his writing.

Among my favorites of Vance’s Dying Earth fantasies are the picaresque adventures of that cunning wastrel Cugel the Clever, especially The Eyes of the Overworld. While Cugel is not a conventionally admirable person, astute readers find they enjoy spending time with him. He’s amusing, he’s the embodiment of the clever protagonist found in old school fairy tales–often tricking his way out of difficulties–and he makes us smile, even if it’s the sly smile of a guilty confederate. In The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel was enslaved by a sorcerer–and finds himself at odds with all sorcerers. But isn’t everyone at odds with a sorcerer? When is a genuinely trustworthy worker of magic found on the Dying Earth? Even when sorcerers are partnered, as in Rhialto the Marvellous, they enact devious schemes against one another.

Rhialto the Marvelous, a fine work of Dying Earth fantasy in itself, reminds us that we must distrust purely magical creatures as well as human sorcerers. Fanciful beings, exampled by the djinn-like sandestins of Rhialto, are devious, peevish, and treacherous, often wittily jeering at the mortals who employ them.

The magician Rhialto is ostensibly a more likable character than Cugel. Despite a heartfelt practicality, Rhialto does seem to have some compassion, and he shows gallantry and restraint with women–to one lady’s unspoken frustration, a paradox that is common in Vance–and on the whole he is more sinned against than sinning.

Another influence on Vance’s fantasy, in a manner difficult to clearly define, may be the humorist P.G. Wodehouse. If Wodehouse was not an influence, they at least have much in common. The Wodehousian tone of affectionate cynicism can be cited, along with Wodehouse’s tendency to tinker into being the maximum possible entertainment value of every passage. Consider this clip from the second part of Rhialto the Marvellous:
Stepping forward, Rhialto addressed the group…

“Creatures, men, half-men and things! I extend to you my good wishes, and my deep sympathy that you are forced to live so intimately in the company of each other.
“Since your intellects are, in the main, of no great complexity, I will be terse. Somewhere in the forest, not too far from yonder tall button-top, is a blue crystal, thus and so, which I wish to possess. All of you are now ordered to search for this crystal. He who finds it and brings it here will be greatly rewarded. To stimulate zeal and expedite the search, I now visit upon each of you a burning sensation, which will be repeated at ever shorter intervals…

Rhialto’s address in this passage is casually droll, starting with a blithe insult, as if he’s entertaining himself (the creatures he addresses are unlikely to get the joke). He goes on to employ understated but acerbic insult humor regarding the dim intellects of the assemblage, and silkily mentions the onerous and inexorable consequences of slacking on the job. It is the rare reader who won’t chuckle at this.
Vance’s fantasy is distinct from his science-fiction, with a separate internal logic, but sometimes his science-fiction offers a flavor of fantasy–a particularly clear example can be found in his acclaimed novella The Dragon Masters. And in his fantasy we find Vancean modes also found in his science-fiction, as when he’s delighting in satirizing the parochial, japing some provincial people’s unshakeable exaltation of their own customs:

The local folk, a small pale people with dark hair and long still eyes, used the word, “Sxysskzyiks” — ‘The Civilized People”–to describe themselves, and in fact took the sense of the word seriously. Their culture comprised a staggering set of precepts, the mastery of which served as an index to status, so that ambitious persons spent vast energies learning finger-gestures, ear-decoration, the proper knots by which one tied his turban, his sash, his shoe-ribbons; the manner in which one tied the same knots for one’s grandfather; the proper and distinctive placement of pickles on plates of winkles, snails, chestnut stew, fried meats and other foods; the curses specifically appropriate after stepping on a thorn, meeting a ghost, falling from a low ladder, falling from a tree, or any of a hundred other circumstances.

Vance was an able seaman with the Merchant Marine, for a time, and doubtless his visits to far destinations–each culture blessed with its own exaggerated sense of self importance–were grist for the mill of his humor.

I’ve emphasized the underlying humor in Vance’s fantasy, but he never strays far from an atmospheric awareness of life’s melancholies, even evoking grim extremes, so that fantasy is grounded by the earthiness of the grave.

In Rhialto the Marvellous a tribe of glib, self-justifying anthropophages feast for centuries on thousands of living humans plucked from their suspended animation in a nearby ruin. In another passage Vance describes an enormous battle, conveying it in a tone of sad resignation, and we come away with a sense of its tragic pointlessness, the waste of human potential, though also with a recognition of the courage of its combatants. Not all wars in Vance are depicted as meaningless–his Lyonesse books recognize that some nations are worth fighting for–but here we see them from the perspective of a magician who lives century after century, who flits through time and sees, in the big picture, the dismal recurrence of carnage.

The third part of Rhialto the Marvellous, centered on the fate of Morreion, a magician marooned on a world at the furthest edge of the universe, is shot through with melancholy but leavened with humor, however tart. Vance is a master of striking this balance. He had a gift for folding the dark in with the bright, for segueing seamlessly from the whimsical to the lugubrious. Yet even the doleful, in Vance, is beautifully wrought, and raptly entertaining. And so I commend you to this glowing, darkly glimmering clutch of magical journeys with the vainglorious, sardonically amusing, sartorially splendid Rhialto. Keep your eyes open, savor this delicacy, and do not trust a sandestin.

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