Book Review: Son of the Tree & Houses of Iszm by Jack Vance #VintageSciFi

My first Jack Vance reading, I found these two fun, classic, scifi stories, each being quite different from the other but with a thin connecting botanical theme. Both soft sci-fi stories, these were creative and imaginative tales with some deeper political aspects I was pleasantly surprised by (given their brevity). Some quality vintage sci-fi (that I picked up for $2.50 in a second hand sale – win!).

I wanted to get at least one review into Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage Sci-Fi month that finishes at the end of January, and this certainly qualifies. Houses was published first in 1954, whilst Son was published in 1951. Classic pulpy American scifi, I can see why Vance has his adherents – these are a couple of well-written, well-paced, space operas, each with a touch of mystery whodunnit included for flavour.

Heads up though – I thought the characters and plot were far better in Son than those in Houses.


Son of the Tree & The Houses of Iszm: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a single tome with two short stories in it, bound in the tête-bêche style (thanks Wikipedia)- meaning it has two front covers and no back cover; once you finish the first story you flip the book over and read the other story which is printed with the reverse orientation. It’s cute, if a little gimmicky. Getting twice the cover art is pretty cool though.

The linking of these stories into a single volume makes sense when you consider the linking theme – Trees (or at least ‘Tree’).

Son of the Tree

A bright penetrating chime struck into two hundred minds, broke two hundred bubbles of trance.

Joe Smith awoke without drowsiness. he was constricted, shrouded like a cocoon. He tensed, he struggled, then the spasm of alarm died. He relaxed, peered intently through the darkness.

The air was musky and humid with warm flesh-flesh of many men, above, below, to right and left, twisting, straining, fighting the elastic mesh.

Joe lay back. His mind resumed the sequence of thought left off three weeks ago. Ballenkarch? No-not yet. Ballenkarch would be further on, further out in the fringes. This would be Kyril, the world of the Druids.

Son of the Tree by Jack Vance

Synopsis

The planet Kyril has a strict pyramid class system . At the bottom are five billion peasants – the Laity – the workers, the slaves. Two million Druids form the pampered and arrogant ruling class. And at the top, worshipped by all, is the Tree. Five miles wide and twelve miles tall, the Tree is the centre of the Kyril inhabitant’s religion and whole existence. Nearby are two other planets – the technologically advanced but militarily weak Mang, and the savage Ballenkarch, rapidly advancing under the control of a mysterious new ruler. This sets up a complex political environment of spies, sabotage and murder, as planets compete for the necessary alliances to ensure their survival. Into this our human hero, Joe Smith, is dropped as he searches the galaxy for someone called Harry Creath.

Review

This is a great read. It drops the reader (and Joe) on Kyril and launches almost immediately into a complex and mysterious plot. Within 10 pages Joe has met a spy and got a job, within 20 pages he is hiding a body. Joe plays an active role in this story, despite being a bit trapped by events – he still pursues his own agenda, and he still manages to take a lead in certain places. Generally speaking I liked all the characters here although it is unsurprisingly pretty dude-heavy. There is a single female character of any note, and she is principally a love interest.

Vance does a great job creating whole, interesting and unique cultures within a few pages. The planets and the regional politics make sense (from a sci-fi perspective). Each suffer a bit from ‘monoculture’ syndrome, there is little to no diversity within any race; the Druids all share the one religion, the Mang are clever, political, and a bit sneaky, the Ballenkarch are basically uplifted savages and tribesmen…but given this is only 130 pages long, it’s a forgivable shortcut.

Interestingly enough this book seemed action packed when I was reading it, but on reflection there is little in the way of overtly exciting activity. Rather the story carries forward quickly, racing the reader to the end in a tense but fun way.

Personally I thought this was the better of the two stories, and is definitely the reason I gave this book a 4 star rating.

The Houses of Iszm

It was assumed as a matter of course that visitors came to Iszm with a single purpose: to steal a female house. Cosmographers, students, babes-in-arms, notorious scoundrels; the Iszic cynically applied the same formula to all-microscopic inspection of mind and body and detailed surveillance.

Only the fact that they turned up so many house-thieves justified the procedure.

The Houses of Iszm by Jack Vance

Synopsis

Iszm – a planet made enormously rich by selling their amazing house plants. No, not indoor plants, but plants that grow into whole houses; cheap, zero construction requirements, sustainable and environmentally friendly homes. These grown houses offer a solution to an already desperately overcrowded galaxy, and offer amazing wealth to anyone who can steal a viable female plant. Our hero Aile Farr is a botanist (and therefore already automatically suspicious), but with genuinely no plans to steal any plants. But when he gets caught up on the edge of daring house farm raid, he finds himself drawn into a bizarre conspiracy, carefully monitored and urgently courted by Iszic and Human alike!

Review

This one was a solid story, interesting premise and reasonably ‘alien’ aliens, but it didn’t have the same fun factor as the Son of the Tree. Here is another mysterious plot that a random human is caught up in, but Aile Farr is not as capable as Joe Smith, nor as likeable. Farr seems dragged along  unwillingly by events, not really acting and generally without any agency. Actually, coming to think of it, none of the characters really engaged me – everyone is painted in broad brush-strokes with little subtlely or nuance to their characterisations.

I cannot recall even a single female character in this book, which is frankly astounding.

Vance did a fine job writing the planet, the culture, and I enjoyed the corporate espionage angle for this intergalactic whodunnit (and whatisit?), but still…meh. I thought the ‘mysterious plot’ was a dead easy guess – I got it almost as soon as it happened (very early) which meant there was just a little less reason to turn each page. Any attempted character subterfuge was transparent and in my view the only genuinely uncertain thing was the ending…which itself was a bit underwhelming.

Overall this was an OK short story, far weaker than Son. On its own Houses is a 3 out of 5 at best – it’s only because it’s packaged with Son that I’ve rated it a 4.


As I indicated at the top, I’m submitting this review into the Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge hosted by Little Red Reviewer. If you’re interested in checking some other vintage scifi reviews out, I suggest that you check out some of the links she has posted!

Cheers

KT

 

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