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Dream Castles cover

Dream Castles is the second of Subterranean's Early Jack Vance collections, but it's not entirely clear what "early" Vance entails. The stories in Hard Luck Diggings (2010), the first volume, were published between 1948 and 1959; at least two of the stories in Dream Castles were written before this period ("Golden Girl," 1946, and "I'll Build Your Dream Castle," 1947), but the collection also contains the Miro Hetzel stories. which were published in the mid- to late- 70s. Vance has had an exceptionally long career, but some of his best known work was published before the Hertzel stories. In any case, I'm not sure any author three decades into his career could still be considered to be producing early work.

We're also given no particular reason why these stories, in this order, have been chosen for inclusion in the collection. It's obvious that they haven't been ordered chronologically. Nor does there seem a particular focus on putting linked works together. Dream Castles gives us both of the Miro Hetzel stories, "The Dogtown Tourist Agency" and "Freitzke's Turn." Yet "Abercrombie Station," the first of two stories featuring Jean Parlier, is in Hard Luck Diggings while its sequel, "Cholwell's Chickens" (published the same year), is here. Some of these stories are set in the Gaean Reach, others are not. The contents of both the preceding and succeeding volumes in this series seem (chronologically, at least) a lot more coherent. Terry Dowling and Johnathan Strahan's introduction to the collection throws no light upon the matter, though it contains some interesting insights into Vance's appeal as a writer. I'm forced, then, to read it as a random selection of Vance's lesser known works.

Much of Vance's science fiction is set in his Gaean Reach, and this includes the longer pieces in this collection. The Gaean Reach is the set of all planets within the same fictional universe that have been colonized by humans over time. As a result, these stories are in the main about humans, though truly alien creatures may show up from time to time. The Miro Hetzel stories and "Son of the Tree" each work in a way to expand this universe. "Son of the Tree" has its Earth-born hero Joe Smith travel from planet to planet until he has reached a part of the universe where Earth itself is so far away as to be a myth. Vance chooses not to dwell on this, but the mere fact of it gives context to the sheer scale of Joe's journey and of the Reach itself.

In "The Dogtown Tourist Agency" Miro Hetzel travels to the planet Maz, right at the edge of the Gaean Reach. Here we hear for the first (and last) time of the two non-human races with which humanity must share its borders, the Liss and the Olefract. Neither of these races plays an active role in this story, but their presence provides hints of an interspecies galactic diplomacy that makes the universe of the Gaean Reach seem vaster and more complex and I'm sorry that Vance never returned to them.

Vance wrote mysteries as well as SFF, and many of his stories combine the two genres. Among them are these two Hetzel stories, which are thoroughly entertaining as a result. In "The Dogtown Tourist Agency" an investigation into a dubious corporation brings Hetzel into contact with another of Vance's alien races, the Gomaz, whose mating rituals alone ought to have bought them more space within Vance's larger body of work. "Freitzke's Turn" is a shorter, slighter work, made significant by the premise with which it opens (a man has misplaced his testicles) and by its hunt for a villain who remains unseen for most of the story. Hetzel in these stories takes on the role of the private detective, but his "profession" is (literally) that of a general accomplisher of things—he describes himself as an "effectuator." "Son of the Tree"'s Joe Smith (surely the most Everyman-ish name conceivable) is another of Vance's super-efficient heroes; when he arrives on the planet Kyril he immediately sets about proving that he's a better engineer than anyone on this planet. Competence and cleverness are always rewarded in these stories: "I'll Build Your Dream Castle" tells of the success of a brilliant young architect who finds a novel way to provide his clients the houses they want. "Sulwen's Planet" has an argument between academics won by the most cunning among them.

Vance has a limited set of traits for his heroines, and in an anthology like this one it becomes particularly obvious that they all follow a particular physical type. "The Dogtown Tourist Agency" features Janika, "a pretty, dark-haired girl with melancholy eyes" (p. 30), who looks "slight and frail, but . . . could bear up very well under a bit of playful rough-and-tumble" (p. 31). Jean Parlier of "Cholwell's Chickens," we learn at the beginning of the story, "still had her elan, her fey charm" (p. 203). Later the character sits contemplating her own looks, as women in fiction are so often wont to do, and sees "a very pretty girl with heavy black hair cut short, a skin like a pane of ivory with golden light behind it, a wide pale rose mouth in a delicate jaw structure, black eyes that might be wide with excitement or long and narrow and veiled with heavy lashes" (p. 219). Elfane of "Son of the Tree" is "dark-haired" and "sapling-slender" (p. 300), "a vivid creature with a rather narrow face, dark, vital as a bird" (p. 302). Readers familiar with Vance might recognize Wayness Tam of the Cadwal Chronicles in these descriptions, or Tatzel of the Lyonesse books.

"I offered to let you be my lover."

Joe eyed her with exasperation. "I'd like to . . ." He recalled that Kyril was not Earth, that Elfane was a Priestess, not a college girl.

Elfane laughed. "I understand you very well, Joe. On Earth men are accustomed to having their own way and the women are auxiliary inhabitants. And don't forget, Joe, you've never told me anything—that you loved me."

Joe growled, "I've been afraid to."

"Try me."

Joe tried, and the happy knowledge came to him that, in spite of a thousand light-years and two extremes of culture, girls were girls. Priestesses or co-eds. (p. 359)

The above exchange is likely to make most readers (including myself) wince. But while Vance's male protagonists are a little more diverse than his women, there's an essential same-ness about his human heroes and heroines across the Gaean Reach, and in "Son of the Tree" there appears to be some debate about how much this has to do with human nature itself. Joe (who has traveled enough that he ought to know better) has earlier been cautioned against assuming all human life looks the same. "When you're dealing with any creature or manifestation or personality on a strange planet—never take anything for granted!" (p. 342) "Son of the Tree"'s setting, with its three very different planets in close proximity to one another, seems ideal for a conversation of this sort, though Vance doesn't go into it in depth. But when we're told that, after having traveled distances huge enough that they are able to disregard Earth as a myth, the druids of Kyril "are very close to us physically [and] correspond to the ancient Caucasian race of the Mediterranean branch" (p. 324) it's hard to see humanity as a particularly fluid thing.

And perhaps Vance simply prefers to deal with human beings and the diverse (and often absurd) forms their interactions can take. An unusual piece in this collection is "The Narrow Land," told from the perspective of its non-human protagonist (named "Ern"; why not?), a creature born with three crests on his head where all around him have one or two. This isn't a traditional Vance story—though the Ones and Twos live in societies with ornate social rules that seem very familiar—Vance's science fiction often throws up gleefully weird aliens; but Ern's perspective here is, at first, genuinely alienating. "The Narrow Land" was to be the first of a series, and the introduction to Dream Castles suggests that it was a fading interest in the "truly extraterrestrial" (p. 14) that prompted its abandonment.

An interesting aspect of these stories, though a familiar one to Vance readers, is the frequency with which certain names are repeated in different contexts across the author’s larger body of work. "The name has to be important at the unconscious level" (p. 12), Strahan and Dowling quote Vance as saying, and they draw our attention to the title character of "Golden Girl," an alien woman named Lurulu. "Golden Girl" is perhaps the earliest of the stories featured here, though it wasn't published until 1951. But Lurulu would surface again as the title of Vance's last novel (2004), serving there as it does here, to stand for something desirable and never quite attainable. But there are other, less profound seeming examples of this—the villain of "The Dogtown Tourist Agency" is named Casimir, like the villain of the Lyonesse trilogy. And though the two have almost nothing in common there's the undeniable similarity in sound of "Sulwen's Planet" (collected here) and Suldrun's Garden (1983).

Some of the shorter pieces collected here seem rather inconsequential, and it's easy to see why they're among Vance's lesser-known works. "Golden Girl," first published in Marvel Science Stories in 1951, has an alien spaceship crash in Des Moines, with only one survivor. The alien woman, Lurulu, has golden skin and hair, comes from a utopian planet devoid of war, crime and non-vegetarianism, and ultimately cannot live among a people she has trouble seeing as human (or whatever her equivalent for that might be). The whole thing ends with a dubious analogy equating the difference between Lurulu's planet and 1940s America with that between a 19th Century Englishwoman and the "savages" (her words) of an island off the coast of Africa. The most one can say of it is that it's of its time. "A Practical Man's Guide" also feels dated, but its book-within-a-book is surprisingly powerful, even though its context is comical (the story even comments on this book's "flair; a compelling, urgent style" [p. 249]).

"I'll Build Your Dream Castle" is the story from which this collection takes its name. This is something of a gimmick story (as Dowling and Strahan describe it here), but it's an entertaining one. The dream castles of the title are private asteroids, each custom-designed to the whims of its owner. If I started this review complaining about the lack of cohesion in this collection, perhaps this image of hundreds of separate, free-floating, individual worlds is the best title its editors could have chosen.

This review has been published as part of our 2013 fund drive bonus issue! Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.


Aishwarya Subramanian lives in the North of India, teaches English at a law school, and writes about children’s books, fantasy, space, and empire. She's on Twitter as @ActuallyAisha.
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