Jack Vance – The Five Gold Bands

In an earlier review of a novel by Jack Vance, The Dogtown Tourist Agency, I mentioned that even his weakest work can be considered to be on at least an average level of quality. I put this claim to the test with The Five Gold Bands (1950), which I have reread for the first time. It is one of his earliest works and a fairly short novel compared to his usual books.

Let me start with the weaknesses of the novel first, because there are plenty to mention. Although Jack Vance has written many science fiction novels most of them have been character driven and any technology usually only plays an indistinct role in the story. The settings usually allows him much freedom in the level of technology available. In The Five Gold Bands he had not yet reached this stage yet. Technology forms a major plot element. The setting is not the far distant future, but a relatively near one so that much is more relatable.  Two concepts give the reader the greatest unease. Vance introduces many technological ideas. Of course he wrote this book in 1950, but even back then there were plenty of authors who could use future technology in such way that even today it still seems science fiction. Vance’s technology feels extremely outdated and relatively simplistic. The other concept, which I won’t detail on, is an evolutionary premiss that is far too extreme. It feels like he wants to use something alien but had a poor explanation for it.

The plot itself wobbles a bit on these weak foundations. I also found myself having guilty prejudices towards certain approaches. For the last decade technology has changed society so much that I project concepts on other things where they cannot be. To be honest, few SF authors predicted something like the internet before the 80ies. The actually wobbling is caused by the main protagonists. Although Vance starts with one male protagonist he adds a second female one. The latter is a good choice, to be honest, because the main protagonist is a rather annoying character and not really likeable. He is a very limited character and had nothing of the typical Vance roundness that one is used to. He is very flawed and it is a surprise that he manages to reach his goals.

That said I should switch to why this novel still holds sufficiently qualities. As said the main protagonist is unusual. He is very different from the typical Vance fare which is a reason for fans to read this. It is also, in a way, refreshing that such a flawed character can pull so much off by pure improvisation and some luck. His female sidekick, who is also quite different from the usual Vance fare, is rather his opposite. She is smart and knows what to do. She is portrayed like a modern and strong female who has to put up with primate-like male partner. As the story progresses it is rather shocking to see that the male protagonist manages to drag her down to his level. It is an amusing development. There is much unusual stuff going on.

Despite the technological and evolutionary ideas that will fall poorly on today’s reader Vance does show his strengths with the alien humanity he introduces. Here we see his gift for unusual cultures and societies that we would exploit to great effect in his later novels. Here they are not fully developed yet. We get a limited view of these and a number of fantastical settings. Now time is too short to spend much time here. It is still his quality that allows the reader to imagine these things with so few words where so many other authors can barely create something with far more.

As the novel is not very long, the pace is quite fast and Vance puts in a lot of events within a limited amount of pages. This limits the space he has to develop his characters to some extend. The main development is found the female main protagonist who undergoes and unusual change in character. This is still very old-fashioned science fiction and far below the high levels of grandmasters of those times. Vance would later change his approach and focus on his strengths. Here we still see a rough and inexperienced Jack Vance, despite the fact that in the same year he would write his first classic The Dying Earth, which of course was fantasy, not SF.

So can I still uphold my claim regarding the works of Jack Vance? One problem of course is that especially his old SF, like many other SF of those days, is very outdated. One has to read it with as little prejudice as possible and see the ideas for the future as they are presented. The core premiss that fuels the story still holds very much true. I had to check it, but it at least predates one classic SF novel by Isaac Asimov who also makes use of it, of course to far greater effect. I am not such an SF expert to be certain Vance was the first. Someone else will have to refute that. Besides that the novel introduces some great settings, although we don’t see that much of it and the two main protagonists are rather unusual, certainly for those days. This may be one of Vance’s weakest novels but there is still enough to enjoy that can stand on an average quality among the works of science fiction.

 

 

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