Ecce and Old Earth by Jack Vance

Rating 8.2/10
This would be a really bad book if it weren't so good

Following the sixteen year hiatus in reading the Cadwal Chronicles, after reacquainting myself with the events of Araminta Station it was finally time to break some new ground. Needless to say, if you’ve not yet read the first book, don’t continue with this review since I will be freely discussing Araminta Station spoilers.

I’m relieved to say that the book begins by unhanging the particular cliff which had been bothering me for the past 16 years and telling us what actually has happened to Glawen’s father Scharde Clattuc. As the title suggests, he is at Titus Pompo’s secret prison on Ecce, Cadwal’s savage tropical continent. Of course, despite a stern warning from his boss Bodwyn Wook, Glawen sets out straight away to rescue his father; reinforcing the Clattuc family’s reputation for recklessness). Meanwhile WaynessTamm has travelled to earth to seek the missing Cadwal charter, the document originally held by the naturalist society which confirms the planet’s status as a wildlife conservancy. Should the charter fall into the wrong hands, it could mean the end of the conservancy and thus the end of Araminta Station and the destruction of Cadwal’s environment.

One of the startling differences between the first book in the series and this second volume is its emphasis. Where Araminta Station progressed at a fairly leisurely pace and was as much concerned with painting a detailed portrait of Cadwal and its people as it was with suspense. Ecce and Old Earth is a straight up investigation story with very definite ends in mind.

The two main strands of the book each have their own goal and their own protagonist, which gives Ecce and Old Earth a very different pace and over all feeling.

This I admit took a little getting used to, particularly since Araminta Station itself and the majority of characters we knew there appeared seldom if at all, indeed I even found myself missing the drunken antics of the bold Lions and Glawen’s despicable cousin Arles.

Then again, while a differently focused story, Vance ability to create fascinating environments was on full display here. From an alien version of Devil’s Island complete with many nasty beasties to a myriad of locations on the slightly decadent yet still stately old earth, Vance’s setting is still as colourful as ever. While many science fiction writers can create fascinating and distinct alien planets, rarely have I seen a writer who can not only give an idea of the vast sweep of colonized worlds, but make each of the worlds we visit a distinct place in its own right. Each planet in Vance’s universe has various regions, from towns and cities to outland settlements and quaint customs which feel as different from each other as places light years apart. This is of course as it should be, after all if places in the same country; or heck in the same city can be so different from one another as many places are in reality how much more diverse would places across even one alien planet be, yet its surprising how often in science fiction each planet is said to be basically the same all over, something which is definitely not the case here.

I also liked the way that Vance’s cool sardonic style was able to pick out so much by way of detail. Though to an extent the descriptions of fashionable outfits (for both men and women), sumptuous meals, cool wines and little environmental flourishes made the book feel slightly dated, at the same time they gave me a real sense of immersion, making each environment bright and distinct with all the nuance of a real place, which made the diversity of environments in the book all the more telling.

That being said, as well as missing Araminta Station, I do wish Vance had lived up to the title of the book and given us as much of Ecce as he does of Old Earth. Sadly barely an hour and a half of the books 13 hours were spent there, while Old Earth takes up probably two thirds of the rest of the book, and the glimpses we get of Ecce with its steaming jungles, barbaric prison conditions and truly ferocious creatures were tantalising in the extreme, I was almost surprised how easy a time of it Glawen had there.

Old Earth however was certainly not lacking in its own charm, especially as Wayness’ investigation took her to such a variety of locations around the planet from Kiev to Patagonia, giving a good idea of a culture both in decline and yet still full of past glory, indeed I was quite surprised how much of a pang I felt when its revealed the Naturalist Society who administer Cadwal, a society revered in Araminta Station had dwindled to only the membership of a few old men, headed by Wayness uncle, the tired and socially outcast PirryTamm.

Vance’s style remains as urbane and witty as ever, though peppered here with far more by way of environmental colour, from clothes to custom to food which made much of the book feel far less staged.

This is also likely due to the change in emphasis of the plot since though this second volume certainly wasn’t free from its share of snubs, snark and snobbery, there was far less drawing room conversation or casual flirting, and far more by way of direct investigation.

One thing I will give Vance huge amounts of credit for, is that though perforce the plot does concern a legal charter, and Wayness spends considerable time examining bills of sale, society records and museum account books, things never grew dull. Part of this is likely due to Vance’s entertainingly adroit style, but much also is due to the fact that Vance doesn’t bog the reader down in procedure, but instead concentrates on each step Wayness must accomplish in order to chase the trail of the Charter.

These steps indeed had the addictive thrust of a mystery game, with each step along the ladder leading to another location, and each progressive piece of information requiring a different approach from Wayness or Glawen to acquire, and each leading to a different part of Earth or beyond; enemy agents close behind.

Speaking of the enemy, Vance took an interesting conceit with the book’s villains here. The Life Peace and Freedom party of Cadwal would usually represent the virtuous faction in most novels, a group who supposedly want to break the stultifying grip of the Conservancy Charter and open Cadwal to settlement by the Yips. Vance however shows the LPF to be only interested in Yip settlement as far as it will provide them with cheap labour and servants as Cadwal’s new ruling elite, not to mention the fact that they’re firmly allied with the psychotic and vengeful Titus Pompo. The fact that Vance could represent such a laudable goal with such a villainous slant is really quite refreshing, particularly with how so often in fantasy “tradition” is almost synonymous with evil.

One of the major problems however in Wayness following the investigative trail, is that for all she is undoubtedly the book’s secondary protagonist, Vance rather old fashioned assumptions about what sort of conflicts to write for female characters still showed through rather badly.

Sexual predation, like murder, violence and all other evils of course does have its place in literature and any book pretending at a degree of realism in its conflicts might well include it. However Vance seemed to assume that because Wayness is an attractive young woman, most of the conflicts she should encounter should involve unsavoury interest from men of one sort or another.

True, Vance’s adroit style and amusing depictions were able to give some of these less than pleasant conflicts a hinge of amusement, such as when Wayness is propositioned by a slimy collector of erotic art whom she then contrives to lock in his own office, however when Wayness was after the third or fourth link in the chain and yet again was having to avoid the unwanted attention of random males I was getting a little tired of the subject. This is not to say Wayness actually undergoes much by way of violence or rough treatment (much less abuse), and indeed some of the ways she extricates herself from dodgy situations are definitely amusing, still I did find myself wondering why exactly Glawen and Wayness Uncle Pirry seemed to be the only decent males on the entire planet.

it also didn’t help that when Wayness is not dodging harassment, the other conflicts she was involved in were rather traditionally feminine in nature, such as having to pose as a maid in a castle (a surprisingly Victorian castle to say this is the distant future), or take care of two psychologically disturbed children, which of course she is quite able to do despite the fact that she has previously shown no inclinations to being good with children at all.

Lastly in terms of gender and negativity, from the second that Wayness uncle patronisingly declared that tracking down the Cadwal charter was “a man’s job” and shouldn’t be undertaken by “a slip of a girl” it was almost inevitable that Glawen would turn up just at the moment Wayness inquisitiveness got her into really severe trouble.

This situation was not helped by Wayness character which descended rather too often into what I can only call “girlish hysteria" such as when she engages in random crying fits or wishes Glawen was there to save her (despite being less than forthcoming to Glawen about her feelings in the first book).

Glawen himself also remained the competent, grim, and actually rather boring hero we’d got to know, though being as most of the book focused on Wayness Glawen didn’t have as much chance to evolve as a character, plus of course unlike his position in Araminta Station Glawen here was essentially engaged in a long running police investigation, and other than his jaunt to Ecce to rescue his father he didn’t have much off duty time.

Glawen and Wayness aside however, the supporting players were a far more diverse and interesting bunch, indeed I was a little sorry that often Wayness or Glawen had to move on to the next stage in the investigation and leave characters behind. From a likable old con artist with a tempestuous love life, to two definitely strange yet problematic children. This Vance actually acknowledges, in a rather charming section later in the novel when Wayness toasts all those she’d met, but an appearance rather than a name check might have been nicer for characters we’d come to know and like.

Then again inequities in character aside, I can’t deny that this was a damnably good investigation story. I particularly liked the way that Vance managed to incorporate several seemingly random asides from the first book, turning them into quite major plot points and turns in the investigation, indeed the way he played with the reader, contrasting what we know, to what Glawen, Wayness PirryTamm and others know was quite astounding, especially when you add in misinformation and deliberate misdirection along the way.

Sadly one of the two final conflicts was unfortunately a little disappointing, since of course it involved Glawen running in the last minute to save Wayness from yet another rapist (not unlike a similar situation in the first book). Glawen then engaged said rapist in physical combat, and Wayness of course simply stood by until her hero was triumphant, rather than say cracking the bad guy in the head while he was distracted. Also fairly typically and unrealistically, this scene finished with Glawen and Wayness spending the night together.

That being said the actual finding of the charter, wrapped up as it was in the backstory of an old friend was surprisingly poignant. Similarly, the second final confrontation, featuring as it did the politics of the Naturalist Society and a genuinely tense moment worked extremely well. It is actually quite odd, and a testament to Vance’s skill as a writer that the manly fist fight over the fair damsel was far less engaging a climax than a room full of people taking votes.

Ecce and Old Earth is a very mixed bag indeed. Here the assumptions about gender and the sorts of conflicts Vance seems to believe are appropriate for female characters felt more of a constraint to the plot than in the first book, even if we make allowances for a writer who was married a year after the end of the second world war.

That being said rarely have I seen an investigation story, especially one with such a legal and political slant carried out so exquisitely, or across so diverse and colourful a tapestry of locations and cultures, with wit, finesse, attention to detail and masterful timing.

Though undoubtedly a wildly different tale to the first book, I certainly am glad I tracked Ecce and Old Earth down, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Vance will pull everything together in the third volume, especially if it gives us a chance to see some more of Cadwal and catch up with some old friends along the way.

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