Although Jack Vance’s most famous fictional setting is the Dying Earth, that was not his most extensive series; far more expanses was the mass of material he wrote set in the Gaean Reach, a vast realm of human-colonised worlds. The Reach has no heavy-handed central authority ruling affairs, except in some presentations of the setting where a body called the Oikumene exerted some interstellar enforcement – largely relating to necessary regulation of interstellar trade and the currency used for such rather than intervening in planetary affairs.
Between this lack of a heavy hand from Earth and the fact that each planet’s individual quirks and local conditions will tend to have an effect on the people and societies living there, the Gaean Reach is a fantastically diverse place, with humanity finding nigh-infinite different ways to live. In truth, the Reach is largely a default for Vance rather than reflecting a united future history which ties all the novels in it tightly together; Vance was largely interested in depicting curiously eccentric cultures and people’s responses to them, having a diverse cosmos like this where each world can run its affairs more or less as it likes serves that well.
As a result, the material from this setting is a bit of a mixed bag, and is often listed in Vance’s bibliography as a bunch of separate standalone novels or shorter series, rather than representing a tightly connected overarching sequence. Some of the books of the Gaean Reach are well-regarded; The Demon Princes is a widely-praised series, and I consider Vance’s 1996 Night Lamp to be his final truly great work. Others are less so; I felt that Vance’s talents were failing him with the Cadwal Chronicles, and that his final books, the Ports of Call duology, may as well have been written on autopilot.
One series based in the setting which had eluded me until a chance find in a charity shop was the Durdane trilogy. Durdane is a world of the Gaean Reach. Its original founders were extreme individualists, not keen on the compromises needed to live in Earth society, and so sought the most distant world they could find to settle in order to stave off, for as long as possible,. the time when the progress of human settlement would leave them surrounded; at the time of the trilogy, they are still a little way outside the wider human sphere of influence. The individualism and parochialism already strong in many planets of the Reach are turned up to 11 here…
Lucky folk of Shant! In sixty-two cantons sing praise! How can evil flourish when every act is subject to the scrutiny of the GLORIOUS ANOME?
The first book in the trilogy is a coming of age story, covering around 15 years in the life of Gastel Etzwane; by the end, he’s gained sweeping but secret power over the destiny of his homeland of Shant, but at the beginning he is a little boy, asking his mother whether the Faceless Man is real. It might not be original to have a small child ask the questions a confused reader might ask when confronted with an unusual society invented by a fantasy author, but Vance manages to pull it off well, partially because the growth to adulthood of Gastel is as clear and firm a statement of a major theme in Vance’s work as I’ve seen anywhere.
It’s always dangerous to try and pin down an author’s political beliefs from their writing, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that Vance was something of a cultural and social libertarian; his books in general, and Gastel’s story in particular, espouse the idea that everyone should have the freedom to examine their own society and culture, adopt those standards and ideals they find beneficial, and, provided that they aren’t harming anyone by doing so, reject those cultural impositions, restrictions, and attitudes which do not serve them.
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