Archive for September 1st, 2014

Jack Vance – Nightlamp

Monday, September 1st, 2014

In the later years of his writing career Jack Vance started to writing longer books and used this to spend more time with his characters and to present the worlds he created in greater detail. He also began to do some things somewhat differently. Nightlamp (1994) is a standalone science fiction novel, set in his favourite universe for this genre and in this review I will mostly take a look at the changes he made.

Nightlamp has, to my recollection, the slowest story of all the Vance novels. It is perhaps inherent to the setup of the plot. He has to provide a proper introduction of several characters and how things came to be as they are all essential to the plot. The story thus spans quite some years with periods where there is a story to tell and periods in which he has to run things forward. It is not that he hasn’t used this before but to me it didn’t work that well. The small events that have to be mentioned are not that interesting or exciting. It is unfortunately something that plagues the first half of the novel. There isn’t happening much and the characters do not have the lustre or shear fun I am used to. To be honest, they are all rather dull. The main protagonist is again set in Vance’s favourite mold and this version lacks the spirit of the previous incarnation. Only later in the novel he is given more spine. This is however would be a momentary change as he would fall back to his sullen performance of before.

So the plot, especially the first half, is hardly exciting and the characters fail to truly connect, eventhough Vance has plenty of time to do so. It is not poorly written and the read goes easy enough. It just can’t make much of an impact. There certainly are a number of developments and the slow pace of the plot doesn’t help to move these forward, as they seem to be fairly obvious. So what about the second half?

Nightlamp contains several stories within stories. A shocking but convenient event heralds in a big change. A background story follows not long after. This story is rather lengthy and it to me it is one of the highlights of the novel as it is actually a classic fastpaced Vance story with all the action and adventure he is famed for. It is shortened in, of course, and I am actually disappointed that it did. Now that I look back I think the novel should perhaps have been told with the narrator of that story as the main protagonist. This would have allowed the long first half to be shortened a lot as it has less relevance and be moved to the middle section. Many of the dull characters wouldn’t have needed to play such a large part.

Once this long background story is finished the story quickly takes off to the goal the reader has been waiting for. The final part of the novel develops in unusual and surprising ways. Things do not seem to happen the way Vance normally does. It does again lack action and the peculiar setting does not help. Things end in a minor tone. For once it doesn’t conclude in a way that is totally satisfactory.

Yes, this is a rather grim Vance novel. The overall mood is dark and gloomy. One could compare it somewhat to The Dying Earth although that novel has a mythical atmosphere that made the dark tales rich. There is no enriching element here. Many of the events that occur have a bad streak in them. It is almost depressing. This does make this a very different type of novel than one normally finds with Jack Vance. It is unique and holds many interesting elements that steer away from the way Vance likes to tell his stories.

I do not think Nightlamp will ever be one of my favourite Vance novels. The first half takes too long and the characters do not resonate. The plot has some weaknesses and one will end the novel in a not very positive mood. It leaves one to contemplation, which the novels rarely do as Vance aims to entertain and present wonderous places. Escapism to its fullest. The long background story does provide much of this however and it compensates a lot for the lesser parts. It is all in all a typical Vance novel in which he tries some different approaches. He is not entirely successful and one cannot expect such a productive writer to be at his top all the time. To be frank, this is one of his last novels and all of those show a certain decline one some parts. I should be happy that he kept on writing as long as he could and enjoy the things where I can find them.