What’s to be said about Jack Vance that hasn’t already been said? The man is simply one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century. His sci-fi fantasy styled adventures are deceptively simple, but the complexity of being human hides just below the surface, rearing its head in profound fashion in the middle of all the humor and fun. Vance’s 1966 The Blue World is no different.
Our hero, Sklar Hast, is an assistant hoodwink living on Tranque Float. Not a con or charlatan, Hast literally winks the hoods — in more complex Morse Code fashion — of the communicator devices located on the floats of their lily-pad archipelago, passing news between themselves. At the outset of the story, Sklar’s life is relatively simple. He sits in when the master hoodwink is away, teaching apprentices at other times. Tranque Float’s ancestors, having escaped their home planet in Pilgrim fashion two centuries prior, traded one oppression for another. The world they crash-landed on, the unnamed Blue World, is covered in water, habitation possible only on the giant lily-pads. And if survival isn’t difficult enough, for food they have to fight the kragen — water dragons submerged just beneath the waves always looking for a meal. Now internal politics are drawing to a head as Hast’s close-knit community is experiencing a reprisal of the oppression it once escaped from.
Hast proves himself a typical Vancian hero. Dissatisfied with the offerings he and his community are obliged to provide the largest of the water dragons, the great King Kragen, Hast sets about finding a way for the people of the archipelago to free themselves of the supplicatory burden. Barring his way are the intercessors, men whose caste responsibilities include overseeing regular offerings of delicious sponge to the King. The disagreement which unfolds between Skarl and the intercessors comes about in a fashion only Vance can describe. The comedic, over-formal dialogue that is his trademark, though toned down compared to THE DEMON PRINCES or TALES OF THE DYING EARTH, remains a force. The direction Hast and his followers’ convictions take them, developing as possible only in fantasy, will have readers smiling in appreciation of Vance’s superior storytelling skills.
Though The Blue World will never be accepted by academia, the parallels to history and literature are numerous. Reading of the hunt for King Kragen, visions of Moby Dick spring to mind. Even in the beast’s name, Norse and Icelandic myths come to life — mysterious sea creatures who appear from the depths, attacking helpless mortals. Furthermore, the doctrine Barquan Blasel and his fellow intercessors propound runs an eerie parallel to dogma the propagandists backing the Crusades must have spun. And lastly, there is a book within a book, one which survived the ancestor’s crash landing on the planet. Treated with profound reverence, it is called the Analects. Quotes like “Whoever is willing to give will never lack someone to take” put the reader firmly in mind of Confucius and his brand of one-line wisdom, yet spun as only Vance can.
In the end, The Blue World is more great stuff from Vance. It is fantasy adventure as best it can be. The unique imagination, comedic dialogue, Campbellian hero, brisk plot, detailed motifs, and storytelling all exist in spades. Paralleling the fun is Vance’s keen eye for human virtue and vice in their simplest yet most affective forms, not to mention the inability of humanity to escape the cycles of civilization and disarray which mark the passage of history. Readers who love Vance but have not read Blue World, don’t be afraid; this is more great stuff. Readers who are unaware of Vance will find this one of many great entry points into his oeuvre.