Fiction Reviews

Night Lamp

(1996/2015) Jack Vance, Gollancz, £9.99, pbk, 381pp, ISBN 9787-1-473-20892-6


Jack Vance wrote many, many books and one of the things that made them so enjoyable was his inventiveness and the detail with which he fleshed out his worlds. This book is no exception. First published in 1996, it is one of his last novels and has just been republished, complete with a short introduction to the author and his works by Adam Roberts.

Hilyer and Althea Fath, from the world Gallingale, are visiting the planet Camberwell when they come across a young boy being severely beaten by a gang of youths. Rescuing the lad, they take him to local doctors who treat his wounds but, because of something dreadful in his mind, have to excise much of his memory. Despite their researches, no-one is able to identify the boy, other than the opinion that he is from off-world and therefore of little interest to the locals. Returning home, the Faths adopt him and bring him up as their own. Young Jaro proves to be very intelligent and an able student at school but, like his adoptive parents, cares little for the hierarchical system of clubs and societies that dominate life on Gallingale.

We follow Jaro through his school and college days and his growing desire to discover his past, to find out who his real parents were and what happened to them, and, indeed, where he truly comes from. He becomes intrigued by his parents’ new friend Tawn Maihac, a musician and spaceman, and through him arranges part-time work, away from his studies, as a trainee mechanic at the spaceport, under the supervision of the tough and difficult-to-impress Gaing Neitzbeck.

Whilst attending a cultural event on the planet Ushant, the Faths die in an explosion that kills all present. Although deeply upset at this loss, Jaro is now free to pursue his desire to discover his past. At this point, Tawn Maihac returns to Gallingale and reveals himself to be Jaro’s real father and that, having located him after many years of searching, he had befriended the Faths in order to see his son; furthermore, Gaing Neitzbeck is his old shipmate and business partner. Teaming up with Tawn and Gaing, along with Skirlet Hutsenreiter, an old school friend who has fallen on hard times, Jaro sets off for the star Night Lamp and its planet Fader. There they confront Asrubal of Urd, he who had killed Jaro’s mother and tried to kill his father as well as steal their monies.

And there you have the bones of the story and it really is not much with which to fill nearly four hundred pages. In the hands of many writers this book would simply be full of meaningless padding to fill the space between the covers - but this is Jack Vance! Whilst the pace is slow and there is in truth very little excitement, and not a lot in the way of the main story, there is an absolute wealth of details of the many and very different cultures and societies mankind has developed on the many worlds where he has settled. How better to see and understand them than to follow the lives of those who live in them? By immersing ourselves in their day-to-day events we see in detail how these societies work - and there are so many of them and so much detail to enjoy. Jack Vance again demonstrates his inventive powers and once more proves himself a supremo.

This book is not about the story; it is a vehicle with which to explore these other worlds so lovingly created by a Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. His is a title well deserved and this book most assuredly belongs in Gollancz’s list of SF Masterworks. Read and enjoy the many worlds of Jack Vance!

Peter Tyers

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