Before reading a Jack Vance novel, there are some things you need to know. First, don’t read them for the plot. Vance re-uses the same pulpy storylines all the time. Quickly summarized, a young man is being wronged by devious people. The man grows up into a smart and competent adult, and returns to take revenge or to find out the truth about his past. Throughout the journey, he travels through exotic locales and strange cultures, meets witty, attractive women, performs funny tricks in the world of business and local laws, and finally gets his revenge. Night Lamp (1996) is such a story, and is somewhat similar to The Languages of Pao (1958), Emphyrio (1969), Maske:Thaery (1976) and the Demon Princes (1963-81) series.
These stories remain fascinating, though, because of Vance’s immense talent in conjuring up strange cultures and weird planets, and because of his dry, witty, elegant style. You read Vance to be delighted about strange societies that he invents and to snigger about his deadpan style. It is like sampling rich wine instead of gulping down a soda, and if you rush through the text to get to the next plot point you’ll end up with a headache and a sense of dissatisfaction. Instead, focus on the lines and the style.
As you probably gather from the list of novels I just mentioned, Vance has been writing for a very long time, and Night Lamp is one of his last, and perhaps his last great work. He was 79 at the time of writing and had a long career behind him. Night Lamp reads as an end-of-career novel as well, as it is a bit longer and slower than his earlier novels. Night Lamp takes its time and I suspect that Vance was simply enjoying himself in writing down an elegant, well-told story without rushing about; always searching for the right words at the right places. Vance grew into a style of elegance and dignity in writing that sets his work apart from the more mechanical and weakly-characterized hard science fiction and also from the grim, stark darkness of lots of modern day fantasy.
In the opening chapters, Vance treats us with a few humoristic societies, some of which he flings into the story in little notes. The society in which our hero grows up is one of the better and funnier of his work. People on this planet are obsessed about a system of gaining dignity and respect, which Vance lets them call “comporture”, and everyone is associated with societal clubs of certain levels of dignity that sound like fraternity clubs, like “The Lemurians” or “The Clam Muffins”. As our hero is an outsider who doesn’t take any of it seriously, it is funny to read about these people raving about the importance of joining certain invented social clubs. It is typical Vance to take things that people take very seriously, and create something absurd out of it in a very deadpan way. Add to that Vance’s talent in writing witty, posturing dialogue and inventing interesting names, and every society sounds like a farce in his hands.
Even though I said that you shouldn’t focus too much on the plot, Night Lamp does take an awfully long time to get going and honestly feels lengthy. After some eventful first chapters, the story slows down and meanders about, and only halfway through the book the story seems to pick up again. And even then, we dive into a series of subplots. The main drama of the story is narrated as a sub-story told by someone while everyone else is sitting on a couch. Compared to other Vance novels, the pacing and the structure is quite off. I wish that some of the action in the subplots were made part of the story of Jaro, the main character. I wish he left the planet and started investigating and exploring some of the things that we are later told about as part of other people’s plotlines.
In conclusion, although Jack Vance’s style is at the top, the story lacks tension and excitement. I rate this book quite highly but I would not recommend it to those who are unfamiliar with Vance, but mainly to enthusiasts of his style.