Araminta Station by Jack Vance
I have been looking forward to reading Jack Vance’s Araminta Station for quite a while now. I first read the book in 2002 and absolutely loved it, the only problem is the book ends in the most cliff-hangeriest way possible and at the time I couldn’t get the rest of the trilogy which caused me endless amounts of frustration! Fortunately now with the whole trilogy on hand, I cheerfully waded back in to Vance’s erudite prose and colourful universe, and found that neither 16 years of waiting, nor the shadow of an unfinished plot had diminished the books appeal for me.
Cadwal is a planet settled not by a greedy corporation or group of explorers, but by The Naturalist Society who have made the planet a conservancy (essentially a giant wildlife preserve).
Araminta Station itself is a settlement on Cadwal where adherence to the original charter over the centuries has lead to a society of formal genetic aristocracy, where a person’s status is determined by their genetic closeness to the original family lines outlined in the charter as conservancy staff.
As the story opens 16 year old Glawen Clattuc is about to receive his status index, his determination of genetic lineage which will be an indication as to whether he will be able to stay on Cadwal after he reaches majority at 21, something which seems unlikely if Glawen’s odious great aunt Spanchetta and his cousin the slimy Arles have anything to do with it. The story then follows Glawen through the last few years of school, his work with Bureau B, Araminta Station’s police, his travails with the Bold Lions, a loutish drunken boys group including his cousin which he must infiltrate, and eventually his involvement in dangerous investigations with wide reaching political implications that will take him far from Cadwal to distant worlds across the Gaian reach.
One thing about Araminta Station which will immediately become evident, is its rather unique writing style. In the beginning the book is half represented as an academic narrative which Vance uses as a scope for adding character side stories, background details, or explanations of odd aspects of Cadwal’s culture or ecology. Vance also presents most discussions of characters actual thoughts or motivations or matters of perspective in the same way almost as asides or digressions. The main thrust of the narrative is a rather sardonic description of the book’s settings and action, detailing conversations almost in the manner of a cold but not quite entirely impartial observer rather than from a specific perspective. This is even born out in the rather judgemental and often slightly snide depictions of characters’ physical appearance.
Normally this would make a book a little too impersonal for my liking, however Vance’s world is so colourful, and asides so sardonically funny that I found it far more engaging than I usually find such styles.
Sarcasm indeed makes up a large part of the book and contributes markedly to its appeal. Where many books which contain a large amount of conversations (especially as setup), tend to often slow down, here all conversations are witty, verbose and usually contain a cutting amount of snark, sly insults and verbal byplay that frequently had me laughing out loud (really this is a world where nobody could be dull if they tried).
Of course, this continual snark is something of a two edged sword. On the one hand it makes the book hugely entertaining to read, and often contributes a good amount of interest to characters who in other hands would appear one dimensional. On the other, there is no denying it did make a lot of the book feel somewhat artificial and much of the conversations read more like carefully crafted stage dialogue than like an actual representation of people talking in a potentially realistic world.
Speaking of character, one issue I did notice is that the book is rather dated in its gender relations.
Vance very much represents the world of Araminta Station as one of almost formalised flirting and assignations, one where boys (even Glawen), are rather more forward with romantic requests than we might expect (I was surprised how quickly Glawen moves on to stealing kisses from girls), and where girls laughingly alternate between denying romantic intentions and indicating they’re pleased with them, and where describing a girl as “saucy” is held to be complementary.
Fortunately, Vance’s propensity for witty banter means that the book’s female characters certainly aren’t lacking in the brain department. The beautiful Cecily, a teenaged girl who in other hands would have come across as so stereotypically sweet as to be nearly bland is given more than enough edge to be engaging and personable thanks to Vance witty dialogue, despite her being almost a typical Juliette (she even has an overbearing mother).
Unfortunately, with the books other female character Wayness, Vance’s tendency to write girls in this rather old fashioned sense of “flirty” makes her appear cold and manipulative, for example when she allows Glawen to admit he has feelings for her and tells him her mother is pushing another young man’s suit, without revealing her own feelings on the subject, then invites Glawen to a party where said potential marriage partner is present seemingly just to see sparks (or should that be snarks), fly between them.
The book is also a little dated in the position of female characters in its plot. Despite being a Cadwal native Cecily still manages to fall foul of some unpleasant local fawner (from which Glawen of course saves her), while Wayness faints during an attack on her life.
The worst of these rather dated gender depictions was the section, later on in the book where Glawen Kirks his way into a one night stand with a sweet, gentle (yet still curiously verbose), girl in a dangerous situation, then escapes said situation while thoughtlessly leaving her behind to face the music. Indeed, this one night stand is doubly problematic given that it is the only sexual experience Glawen apparently has in the entire book, and yet apparently he’s an experienced lover at that stage, likely a slip on Vance’s part writing the then twenty year old Glawen as far older and more experienced than he should be.
It is also curious that though this is a future society, Vance still doesn’t have any women in positions of authority other than nuns and house mistresses (not to mention those overbearing mothers), indeed it is most odd that the police agency Glawen works for when he leaves school has no female members at all.
Then again, the society of Cadwal, though undoubtedly a far future one is in many ways more like 19th century colonial Britain, a world of house boys laying out gentlemen’s clothes, drinking sundowners in the afternoon, social snobbery based on family position and ancestry and dressing for dinner, therefore the gender inequalities might be as much due to the setting as to Vance’s inequities as a writer. We are also of course in Jack Vance dealing with a writer born in 1916, indeed had I not realized Araminta Station was first published in 1987 I would’ve assumed it to be 30 years older than that. So I am willing to give Vance the benefit of at least some doubt here on the gender issue for the most part (though Glawen’s callous treatment of his one night stand partner was less than pleasant).
Outside gender relations Vance is extremely clever in the way he presents even larger than life characters whose motivations change and evolve throughout the book. From almost the first page, Spanchetta is presented as a large histrionic woman with an overwhelming presence, and her son Arles an ignorant fop who quickly descends into actual malice, likewise Glawen’s father Scharde seems almost the stereotypical grizzled old detective.
On the other hand, Glawen’s fellow Bureau B trainee, the shy and awkward Kurdy Wook has a complex journey to undergo, and the truths revealed about the history of several main characters throughout the book very much change your perceptions of even characters like Scharde.
Glawen himself unfortunately is less interesting as a main character simply because a slightly grim loner who is good at his job and doesn’t really seem to have much interest beyond it other than courting girls and occasional yachting just isn’t a particularly engaging person.
Then again given the unusual narrative perspective, and the fact the world Vance creates is so rich with colour, attitudes, stereotypes and ideas, it is likely this was a deliberate choice on his part, for all it really doesn’t make Glawen feel much like a teenager, especially when he quite literally lays down the law to those around him or remains a little too unruffled from horrific events, indeed much like the narrator Glawen himself often feels somewhat cold and analytical, something which frequently robs emotive events of some the force they might otherwise have.
Another major aspect of Cadwal’s society, is the treatment of the Yips, a colony of not quite humans who have set up a settlement on a nearby atoll. In this time of refugee crises and endless political debates over immigrants, it is difficult to consider the yips dispassionately, a native population employed as servants, often deemed untrustworthy who wish to settle larger areas of Cadwal than the charter allows and whom the folk of Araminta Station wish to deport off planet.
The problem in attributing any sort of correlation between the Yips and any terrestrial race relations situation however, is that the Yips are repeatedly shown to be literally inhuman, just like the best fantasy race. Courteous, polite but utterly emotionless, often avaricious and frequently cruel, indeed the visit to their settlement of Yipton with its exotic customs, circuitous attempts to separate tourists from their money and frequent and spectacular atrocities is definitely a high point of the book.
Vance is also extremely clever in that he does not make the Yips homogeneous, for all he makes them impossible to relate to as people, and even as some sections of the story revolve around Yip intrigues or potential insurgencies, others involve Glawen’s investigations of unspeakable crimes committed against Yips (often with the connivance of the Yip authorities).
Speaking of crimes, with Glawen’s admission to the police agency Beureau B, a large share of the plot revolves crime and investigation, indeed this is one book where characters most definitely aren’t safe and where the status quo can at any point be broken. Here Vance’s style is masterful. Often he allows his adroit observation of conversations to reveal new details about an unravelling crime or character motivation, another reason why his frequent conversations do not bog the pace down as much as they might have. The way Vance peppers the plot with clues which can only be picked up second time around, as well as picks up seemingly random asides later in the plot and explains their relevance is nothing short of brilliant.
The only minor issue with progression is there are a couple of occasions where Glawen quite literally stumbles into conspiracies or crimes in progress, which did seem a little odd from a disbelief factor, and is one area where perhaps another character or two who could introduce such details might have been a good idea.
The books latter section does unfortunately slow down a little, and I was disappointed that after capturing the villains, such a long time was spent prevaricating over motivations. Then again as I’ve already indicated the cliff hanger is perfectly delivered and one which will definitely have you reaching for the next volume (even if it takes you 16 years to get there).
If you can overlook the slightly dated assumptions and occasional coldness of its characters, Araminta Station is definitely an sf classic. Full of fantastic landscapes, weird aliens, murder, intrigue and just a little romance all set against a background of banter worthy of P.G. Wodehouse.
This Araminta Station book review was written by Dark
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