fantasy and science fiction book reviewsMagic Highways: The Early Jack Vance Volume 3 by Jack VanceMagic Highways: The Early Jack Vance Volume 3 by Jack Vance

Subterranean Press continues collecting the early works of Jack Vance with Volume 3, titled Magic Highways, which was released last month (the previous editions were Hard-Luck Diggings and Dream Castles). Magic Highways includes a 6½ page introduction by editors Terry Dowling and Jonathan Strahan and 16 “space adventures” which Jack Vance wrote during the decade from 1946 (when he was 29 years old) to 1956. Seven of these are Magnus Ridolph stories. The stories are:

  • “Phalid’s Fate” — (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1946) To get revenge on the aliens who killed his brother, a human man volunteers to have his brain transplanted into an alien body so he can infiltrate their spaceship. So he can fit in, he has the alien visual and language systems grafted into his human brain. This exciting novelette explores one of my favorite Jack Vance themes — how perception changes when the brain changes.
  • “Planet of the Black Dust” — (Startling Stories, Summer 1946) This space story shows us what happens when a dishonest cargo ship captain plans to falsely collect insurance on his cargo. It’s exciting, but lacks Vance’s characteristic humor.
  • “Dead Ahead” (aka “Ultimate Quest”) — (Super Science Stories, September 1950) A space captain is taking the first trip to circumnavigate the universe. Unfortunately his financer’s son, a new space navigator, is also going, and they have a disagreement about how to stay on a straight course in space. This story explores both the vast awesomeness of space and the delight of a warm safe place at home.
  • “The Ten Books” (aka “Men of the Ten Books”) — (Startling Stories, March 1951) An explorer and his wife discover a planet of humans who descended from a crashed spaceship 271 years ago. This colony has only ten books which exaggerate (in typical Vanceian style) the accomplishments of their forefathers on Earth.
  • “The Uninhibited Robot” (aka “The Plagian Siphon” or “The Planet Machine”) — (Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1951) A mechanic is sent to an unknown world to fix a malfunctioning machine which will kill him if its attention is ever unoccupied for more than three seconds. This is one of those stories (actually, it’s a novelette) that only Jack Vance could have written.
  • “Dover Spargill’s Ghastly Floater” — (Marvel Science Fiction, November 1951) A spoiled young man who has inherited his father’s fortune decides to buy the moon. This story features one of Jack Vance’s typical cleverer-than-he-looks protagonists who outwits those trying to cheat him.
  • “The Visitors” (aka “Winner Lose All”) — (Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1951) Three different life forms tangle with each other and fight for survival on a newly discovered planet. This one illustrates Vance’s talent for creating imaginative worlds and really weird aliens.
  • “Sabotage on Sulfur Planet” — (Startling Stories, June 1952) A greedy spaceship captain tries to exploit the resources of a planet of dumb creatures he discovered.
  • “The House Lords” — (Saturn, October 1957) Explorers from Earth discover a planet ruled by “House Lords” who speak English but have never heard of Earth. This one has a twist at the end that will make you go back and read the story again.
  • “Sanatoris Short-cut” — (Startling Stories, September 1948) Magnus Ridolph is out of money and his creditors are nagging (as usual) so he goes to a casino called the House of Doubtful Destiny. But, of course, Magnus Ridolph is too clever to gamble (“the gambler is one of an inferior lickspittle breed who turns himself belly-upward to the capricious deeds of Luck”). Instead he uses statistics to cheat the casino. And catches a notorious criminal.
  • “The Unspeakable McInch” — (Startling Stories, November 1948) Magnus Ridolph must solve a murder on one of Jack Vance’s most bizarre and most dangerous planets. But don’t worry. As Ridolph says, “I am, so to speak, a latter-day gladiator. Logic is my sword, vigilance is my shield. And also I will wear air-filters up my nostrils and will spray myself with antiseptic. To complete my precautions, I’ll carry a small germicidal radiator.”
  • “The Sub-Standard Sardines” — (Startling Stories, January 1949 In this very weird and amusing story, Magnus Ridolph investigates a bad tin of sardines. There is some imagery in this story that I’ll never forget.
  • “The Howling Bounders” — (Startling Stories, March 1949) After being cheated in a land deal, Magnus Ridolph tries to recoup his losses. You know he will, it’s just a matter of how.
  • “The King of Thieves” — (Startling Stories, November 1949) Magnus Ridolph needs money again. To score some coveted telex crystals he goes to visit a clan of thieves and tries to beat them at their own game.
  • “The Spa of the Stars” — (Startling Stories, July 1950) Magnus Ridolph is asked to rid a new resort of the dragons, gorillas, and sea beetles that have suddenly started killing the tourists.
  • “To B or Not to C or to D” (aka “Cosmic Hotfoot”) — (Startling Stories, September 1950) Miners are disappearing every 84 days from an otherwise uninhabited planet, so Magnus Ridolph is hired to figure out what’s going on. Can he solve the mystery before he disappears, too?

When you start a story by Jack Vance, you never know what’s coming, but you can count on clever characters, dry humor, and a plot that is truly original and usually bizarre. Nobody out-imagines Jack Vance and I know of no SFF author who can so thoroughly delight both my mind and my ear. The stories in Magic Highways are no exception — they’re typical Vance, and that’s a very good thing.

Magic Highways has a beautiful cover painted by Tom Kidd, one of my favorite SFF artists. His imagination and Jack Vance’s fit perfectly together. It’s always a pleasure to see his art on Vance’s books.

Publication Date: March 31, 2013 | Series: Early Jack Vance. The Ultimate Grandeur Fantasy and Science Fiction Grandmaster Jack Vance is very much a writer of the Space Age. His time ‘traveling’ the magic highways of his imagination spans the period bracketed by the final years of World War 2 and the Cassini Huygens probe reaching Saturn space in late 2004, the year he brought his magnificent career to a close. In those first thrilling, dangerous, heady days, science did seem to promise all the answers, and it was in a ‘double’ universe of the familiar workaday world and the utterly unlimited one of the imagination that the ever-practical yet romantic, diligently physics-savvy yet as often wildly improvisational Jack Vance worked. Even as he wrote tales set in the far future of his acclaimed Dying Earth, even as he produced mysteries and suspense stories of a much less fanciful kind, Jack s determined quest to become a ‘million words a year’ man saw him ranging a universe criss-crossed with busy interstellar highways: a network of flourishing trade and tourist routes leading to new frontiers, far-flung colonies, alien worlds, with ample room for exotic races, travelers, traders and scoundrels, even space pirates, ample opportunity for grand schemes of every kind. Magic Highways gathers sixteen of those early space adventures from that exciting first decade, spanning the years 1946 to 1956. In these frequently inventive, often surprising space operas, Jack takes us to vivid destinations along the vast interstellar highways of a future where anything is possible.


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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