Archive for June, 2013

Bricks, Water, Steel & Concrete

June 23, 2013 2 comments


I was in Mumbai on Friday, presenting at an event for customers.  After staying the night, I drove back home, leaving a bit before 9 and arriving back home in Pune a bit after 1.  Traffic was very heavy, and the trip took an hour longer than the usual 3 – 3.5 hours.

One reason is the Mumbai streets, an example you see above.  I was in Chennai for a short time day before and something that instantly struck me was the streets there – all smooth concrete.  Admittedly I didn’t see much of the city – only went from airport to hotel and back – but still the contrast was striking.  The Chennai streets were smooth riding and allowed slow but continuous speeds.  Mumbai streets … well, you may get up to 30 kph for 15 seconds or so, then you hit a rough patch so you slow down, then you try to accelerate and then you hit – guess what? – a speed bump.  Anyway, Mumbai may be the richest city in India, but its roads are terrible.

I guess it is no wonder the roads are made with brick.  Brick-making is ancient in India.  Doubtless when the Israelites were making bricks in Egypt, so too were the Aryans and other races making them here.  In my car-travels I have seen many brickworks, like this one:

Brickworks in India

Looks to me methods in India today are not all that different from the Israelites’ time: Mold bricks from sand, mud and straw, stack them in a big pile, then build a fire underneath and let the whole thing heat up.  The resulting bricks look like this:


These particular bricks are piled up outside the car-park at my flat, to be used in some new walkways.  These bricks are more baked than fired; I easily scratched deep into one with my fingernail.

Sadly, there are other parallels here with the Israelites of Moses’ time: Many workers at these brickworks are slaves, working to pay off supposed debts incurred by their parents, grandparents, or even earlier antecedents.

While some streets, or parts of streets, in Mumbai (Pune as well) are concrete and asphalt, 90% are this mix of brick, concrete paver, poured concrete, and dry, crumbly asphalt.  As you drive around you can’t help having an archeologist’s attitude, as you see erosion exposing layer upon layer and the attempts of different construction methods.  For the most part brick does not make for even roadways.  Even on the best of footings individual bricks settle differently from those nearby … and the footings here are anything but the best, even for roads bricks are set on dirt.  One good sluicing monsoon rain and it is a surprise these roads don’t wash away.

Tragically, that very thing this past week happened in Uttarakhand, where close to 600 persons have perished in floods:

Flash-floods in Uttarakhand

Uttarakhand is to the north and east of New Delhi.  Here many rivers flow, with sources in the Himalayas, down through Uttarakhand, then through Uttar Pradesh, finally reaching Kolkatta and the Bay of Bengal.  The Ganges, sacred to Hindus, is one such river.  This time of year brings many pilgrims to Uttarakhand.  The Ganges Basin is one of the oldest settled regions on Earth, and near to the river are many places dedicated to Lords Shiva, Vishnu and Krishna.  One of the oldest is Haridwar, 200 kms from New Delhi and just where the river emerges from the high barrier of the Ranipur Range.   Haridwar is one of the places where the celestial bird Garuda dropped the elixir of immortality.  To bathe in the Ganges here is an experience sought by all devout Hindus.

The ingredients of this tragedy are not hard to perceive.  Many things are built quickly here.  Tea stalls, shops, and even “hotels” – modest hostels – can appear overnight, which when pilgrims come in large numbers, is exactly what happens.  The pilgrims come for the river, so things are built near the river, then a flood comes … all the sadder because of the predictability.

Back to my drive from Mumbai, the going was so slow I had ample time just to look at scenes and at people.  It was early in the day yet and while people were on the way to their jobs, work for the most part had not begun.  Here some road-repair was in progress:


No workmen were in evidence; they may have left their patching from the night before.

My way through Mumbai took me underneath the elevated metro being constructed here.  One of the planned lines goes to the airport, which my hotel was near.  The scenes of this part of the trip were not the best, many places resting up against the giant concrete pylons were piles of festering trash.  Looking up through the car windows at the 20 meters or more elevation of the railway, I had to wonder what it will be like, when train riders whisk back and forth to the airport, while below slumdwellers eke out a living in their shadow.

This is not all bad for these groundlings.  Some actual “slumdogs” living in this area are becoming real millionaires, by selling the hovels they purchased before the airport came into being.  One man bought two hovels 50 years ago for Rs. 40; going by average rates back to the 70s, that was about $1.50.  He now is selling these for Rs 1.4 crore (14,000,000 rupees), or nearly $250,000.  Such is the value of real estate close to the airport in this wealthy city.

Construction like the metro is everywhere here.  Another thing impeding my progress home was road construction, like this:


This pic, snapped through the car window, shows the steel skeleton of a flyover support.  Flyovers are very common here, they elevate the roadway so a crossing way can pass underneath without impeding the main flow of traffic.

Most major structures here are made like this: A steel skeleton is built, concrete forms are constructed around the skeleton, then the forms are filled with concrete.  Judging from what  I see around me this is the easy part; the metro areas of Pune and Mumbai are dotted with the concrete frames of flyovers, apartment blocks, tech centers and more.  Anyway, with India growing so quickly, it is no wonder some of the big fortunes here have been built on steel and concrete.  India is the world’s #4 steel producer and its steel industry is the fastest growing in the worldIndia is the #2 cement producer, after China.

On the road to Pune I had another experience with steel.  Not quite on the main highway, we were on a major road where traffic should have been making 50 kph or so.  Instead we were stuck, inching forward.  After a few minutes we encountered part of the explanation – a dog, one of millions of feral dogs that live here, dead on the pavement, its neck askew.

10 or 15 meters further on we saw a large bus, a “luxury coach” as they are called here, stopped at the side of the road.  Coming abreast of it I saw its windshield and part of its front was caved in.

Then the story became clear.  Just ahead of the bus was a Maruti WagonR, a kind of small minivan.  It was crushed, accordioned to half its normal length.  Apparently the WagonR had hit the dog, slammed on its brakes, and the bus smashed it from behind.  People milled about, talking on cellphones.  No ambulances were in evidence so I believe – and hope – there was no major injury.

At least we reached the highway and had swift driving the remaining 110 kms or so to Pune.  The day was fine and I saw more evidence of the rains in the many small waterfalls running down the hillsides, like these I snapped in the distance:


There were many clear flowing streams right by the roadside.  We passed a car of people who stopped at one; a young Indian woman was laughing and rinsing her long hair in the falling water.

On this part of the trip you often see langurs:


They come to cadge food from people who stop at the scenic overlooks.

At speeds of 90 kph or so there were no more close up sights to see.  I dozed a bit, chatted with my driver a bit, then at last reached the flat, ending the tale of this ride from Mumbai.  I saw a bit more this time than I normally do, just a few stories out of the hundreds I’m sure play out every day on this roadway.

Now, it is evening, and outside my flat the wind is faintly howling.  Earlier, late afternoon sunlight filtered through clouds showed me a light but steady rain, each raindrop a streak of light bent half-over by the wind.  Typically here, with sunset the winds quiet, but the rain continues.  I expect the morning will show us clean streets, and pilgrims of myriad kinds will continue their journeys, hopefully to happy endings.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures

Coming of the Rains

June 15, 2013 4 comments

Clouds over Pune

Here in Pune the monsoon has begun.  After 10 months of unrelentingly clear skies, the air dry and dusty, and, in past few months, heat exceeding 40 degrees C, now every day is like this … Thick clouds overhead, rain every other day, and cool nights where you can sleep without the rattle of the AC.

Green things now are springing up everywhere; vacant lots of dirt and rubble dotted with trash are turning into grassy, weedy fields.  The tree that lives in our courtyard seems especially glad of all the water:

Gulmohar tree

This tree I believe is a gulmohar, in English called the Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant.  Its flowers are very attractive, and it has a wide canopy and wide, pinate leaves that make for a lot of shade.  I expect the sweeper ladies who attend to our society don’t care for it, since these flowers drop in abundance every day, which they must sweep up.

The monsoon is one of the anchors of the culture here; people look forward to it like US kids look to Christmas, but more so.  Here it is no cliché that water is life, and in the faces I see around me everyone seems somehow happier.  To be caught in the rain here is no hardship.  It is a blessing.

The monsoon expresses itself in art and culture here in a thousand ways.  Endless Bollywood movies make use of it, such as the 2001 multi-national production, Monsoon Wedding.

A very famous image of the monsoon is the Cloud Messenger, a 5th century sanskrit poem.  The poem begins:

On Rama’s shady peak where hermits roam,
Mid streams by Sita’s bathing sanctified,
  An erring Yaksha made his hapless home,
Doomed by his master humbly to abide,
And spend a long, long year of absence from his bride.

  Some months were gone; the lonely lover’s pain
Had loosed his golden bracelet day by day
  Ere he beheld the harbinger of rain,
A cloud that charged the peak in mimic fray,
As an elephant attacks a bank of earth in play.

A yaksha is a kind of demon, generally (though not always) good.  The yaksha of the poem has deserved some punishment, and so Kubera, King of the Yakshas, has sentenced him to a one-year exile.  The yaksha waits in exile some months, until the onset of the rains.  Then, missing his wife, he enlists a cloud to convey messages to her:

O cloud, the parching spirit stirs thy pity;
My bride is far, through royal wrath and might;
  Bring her my message to the Yaksha city,
Rich-gardened Alaka, where radiance bright
From Shiva’s crescent bathes the palaces in light.

After providing lengthy instructions on how to reach Alaka, the City of the Yakshas, the cloud is instructed to send this message:

"Thou art no widow; for thy husband’s friend
Is come to tell thee what himself did say–
  A cloud with low, sweet thunder-tones that send
All weary wanderers hastening on their way,
Eager to loose the braids of wives that lonely stay."

And so the poem goes.

It would be a worthy cloud indeed that could depart the Deccan Plateau, cross the Arabian Sea, Africa, the Atlantic, and make its way to Arlington,  Mass.  Of course, now I have to ponder on what message to send …

Categories: Expat life, Pictures

Don’t be Evil … at least for some definitions of “Evil”

June 9, 2013 1 comment


Decisions, decisions.  Grow the infrastructure of a police state – which history and experience tell us will eventually get used to its fullest extent at the expense of our fundamental freedoms – or, let the terrorists “win” – by which most people understand to mean that a self-renewing body of fanatics will have free rein to commit atrocities upon us.  In comparison to these, the third alternative of a powerful oligopoly of global corporations using technology to harvest money at ever greatest rates seems almost puckishly amusing.

Past week or so has seen the exposure of two programs run by the US National Security Agency, or NSA – often euphemistically called “No Such Agency” due to its penchant for utter secrecy.  The first program, reported by the Guardian, involves the retrieval of cell call records for millions of Americans.  Initiated on April 25, and due to continue till July 19, the program presumably was initiated to aid investigation into the recent Boston Marathon Bombing.  These actions were taken under provisions of the Patriot Act put in place in the last Bush Administration,  but this is the first time the Obama administration has used these powers.

The second revelation, also broken by the Guardian, is about an NSA program called PRISM, which gives government access to user data from major tech companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook.  PRISM is probably not an acronym, but it does have a creepy logo:

It is unclear how PRISM works.  Despite the statement on a top-secret Powerpoint slide that says PRISM collects “… directly from the servers of … U.S. service providers …”, what seems more likely is that there is, as the New York Times reports, a system of “locked mailboxes” where tech companies deposit requested data-sets in a way the government can see only that data.  All the usual billionaire suspects, from Cook to Page to Zuckerberg, deny there is any “back door” in their servers that is open to the government.

To add to this unsettling stew are many other ingredients.  One is that these revelations come close after stories on apparent abuses of government power: how the IRS targeted certain political groups for extra screening prior to being approved for tax-free status, and how the US Justice Department used phone records of Associated Press reporters to look for leakers of sensitive information.  Then, there’s the trial of Bradley Manning, who faces a possible penalty of life in prison for releasing 1,000s of classified documents to WikiLeaks including a notorious video of an Apache helicopter crew killing civilians and journalists in Baghdad.  Finally, we have the uncertainty of whether PRISM has ever actually stopped a terrorist attack, the expected alignment of the ACLU and the EFF against this surveillance, and an unexpected alliance of Bill Maher, Jack Welch and Lindsey Graham in support.

Whew.  What to do, what to do? Almost makes one long for the 60s, doesn’t it?

What seems most likely is the political part of this will, as it always does, run its course – committees will be convened, reporting will be done, and a new baseline of public belief and expectation will be established.  How grounded in truth that will be is hard to predict, but I have my hopes.  Maybe the best face I can put on it is to say this is an opportunity for Mr. Obama to “show his quality”, as Samwise Gamgee would say.

More troubling to me is the thesis put forth by Julian Assange – controversial founder of Wikileaks – in a recent NYT op-ed.  In it, he takes to task Google and two of its leaders, CEO Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas, Jared Cohen.  His article, entitled The Banality of Evil, blasts Schmidt and Cohen’s book, The New Digital Age, as a “startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism”.  Assange writes:

The authors offer an expertly banalized version of tomorrow’s world: the gadgetry of decades hence is predicted to be much like what we have right now — only cooler. “Progress” is driven by the inexorable spread of American consumer technology over the surface of the earth. Already, every day, another million or so Google-run mobile devices are activated. Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

In Assange’s view, Google and the other big techs are not outraged by government expectations of surveillance – to them it’s the price of doing business, and business means knowing everything about you not so you can be put in jail, but so you can be sold stuff … lots and lots of stuff.  His warning is about how we will come to consider loss of privacy, and of freedoms, as benefits rather than losses.

Assange is not exactly a well-considered, all-sides-of-the-issue kind of guy.  Also interesting is that Schmidt and Cohen interviewed Assange in 2011, as research for their book; apparently Assange was not too happy with the result.

I have the book in my Kindle, queued up to be read.  But it seems hard to conclude Assange is totally wrong.  The American people elected Obama, and they can elect his successor out, if that’s what they want.  No one elected Eric Schmidt.

If you read Assange’s piece on NYT, you may encounter the same ironic ad-juxtaposition that I did:


Google really is everywhere.

Categories: Internet, Technology

A Butcher

June 8, 2013 2 comments

Pune Butchershop

While you can get meat at Western-style supermarkets here, local people in India prefer going to a traditional butcher.  There are many such shops here, at different scales; the smallest are streetside stalls where passersby risk spatter from the butchering activities.  This picture is of the shop our driver Rupesh brought Kim to and that I visited first time last weekend.  Here you can get goat, lamb, chicken, plus an assortment of fishes.  On this day I got boneless lamb, which the butcher hacked off a hanging leg, then cubed for me with authoritative whacks on top of the stump cutting board. Price for 1 kg was Rs. 580, or just under $5 / lb.

Categories: Expat life, Pictures Tags:

Jack Vance, August 28 1916–May 26, 2013

June 1, 2013 4 comments

In Memoriam

Amiante said to Ghyl in a voice Ghyl would never have recognized, “Take the papers. They are yours. Keep them safe.” He went into the square and sat upon a bench.

Ghyl hid the portfolio under the roof-tiles. An hour later welfare agents came to take Amiante away.

When he returned after four days, he was bland, easy, indifferent. A month later he fell into a dull mood and slumped into a chair. Ghyl watched him anxiously.

Amiante dozed. When Ghyl brought him a bowl of gruel for his lunch, Amiante was dead.

I first read these words over 30 years ago.  Since then I have re-read them … 10 times? 15?  They are from Emphyrio, one of my favorites of all the works of Jack Vance, who died this past Sunday.  The book tells the story of Ghyl Tarvoke.  Inspired by the legend of the hero, Emphyrio, and by the courage and lonely death of his father, Ghyl overthrows the “lords” who economically and spiritually oppress his world.  His weapon: Truth.  Along the way Ghyl experiences love, loss, the infuriating futility of religion, the bleak helplessness of totalitarianism, and a whole host of human weaknesses.

One reason I enjoy the words above is because of the author’s control.  Up to this point we know the young Ghyl has tremendous respect and love for his father, Amiante.  Yet Vance spares us the tortured outpourings of feeling so typical of today’s writing, instead choosing to make his message with the very starkness of the scene.  Later in the book we reflect on the life of Amiante in one of the ironic twists Vance is so famous for.  In Ghyl and Amiante’s society, duplication (or “duping”) of any kind is forbidden; the social and economic rule of this planet is that duplicates are inherently worthless and only unique handcrafts command enough value to trade with.  Amiante is a wood-carver; earlier in the book we see him execute a carved wooden screen he names “Remember Me”; for this work he receives a pittance, what we would call minimum wage.  Later, when Ghyl escapes the planet and travels to other worlds, he comes upon his father’s screen in a shop:

The screen had been carved to represent a lattice festooned with vines. Hundreds of small faces looked earnestly forth. Remember Me, read the plaque. Near the lower right-hand corner Ghyl found his own childhood face. Close at hand, the face of his father Amiante peered forth.

He entered the shop; a clerk in a black and white robe of a mercantile functionary approached him. “Your will, sir?”

  “The screen in the window — the price is four hundred and fifty bice?”

  “Correct, sir. Somewhat costly, but an excellent piece of work.”

  Ghyl grimaced in puzzlement. Going to the cabinet, he inspected the screen carefully, to learn if it might have been damaged or misused. It seemed in perfect condition. Ghyl peered close, then all his blood turned cold and seemed to drain to his feet. He turned slowly to the clerk. “This screen is a reproduction.”

  “Of course, sir. What did you expect? The original is priceless. It hangs in the Museum of Glory.”

To try and sum up Emphyrio in a few sentences is as futile a premise as trying to “recover an elixir … inadvertently spilled in the sea”, to use another Vance image.  Rather than attempt either feat, I will instead essay a few observations on Vance and why I find him so engaging.  This seems to me a nervelessly easy task – ‘”Simplicity itself”, as Cugel would confidently declare.


No writer of SF&F can match Vance in the number and impact of his imaginings.  His earliest work, The Dying Earth, is an invention of incredible power: An Earth, billions of years in the future, where every possible achievement of science and magic has been made and forgotten countless times, and where the Sun is feeble and almost extinguished.  For many writers this would have been a career in itself.

But Vance’ well of ideas seems endless.  Consider The Moon Moth.  Just a short story, yet in a little space he crafts a wondrous society where communication is done via music and the medium of economic exchange is strakh, or prestige.  Again, for other writers this would be an entire franchise; for Vance it’s almost an after thought.

Then there’s Rhododendron Way, a sort of religiously-mandated system of prostitution instituted by the chillites, a sect Vance presents in The Anome, first book of the Durdane trilogy.  It is on Rhodenderon Way that Dystar the Druithine (a kind of philosopher-troubadour) encounters the indentured woman Eathre and fathers Mur, who later takes the name Gastel Etzwane.  Again in a little space Vance puts forth an idea that captures at once the full force of the hypocrisy of religious fundamentalism, and also the bittersweet nature of the human condition as well.

Vance’ ideas are not the mechanistic kind so often associated with SF; Vance has no equivalent of the 3 Laws of Robotics, for example.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s good; Vance’ ideas are not algorithms or scientific cleverness, they are reflections of human nature – as when he articulated the principle of magic in the Dying Earth, where the very words of a spell are so potent and fraught with power that a human brain can only recall a limited number at any one time.


Thinking of Vance’ characters here’s what occurs to me … Kirth Gersen, Cugel the Clever, the Mad Poet Navarth, Shimrod the Magician, Aila Woudiver, Madouc, Suldrun, Wayness Tamm, Magnus Ridolph, Rhialto the Marvellous, Viole Falushe, Lens Larque, Traz Onmale, Ankhe at afram Anacho, Iuconnu the Laughing Magician, King Casmir of Lyonesse, Hildemar Dasce.  In my mind is a picture of every one of these – should I meet any one of them I feel I know what they will say.

Any Vance reader can rattle off a similar list of names and I daresay can visualize their favorites just as I can mine.  This is because as effortlessly as he envisages new worlds, Vance creates memorable characters, each invested with style, substance and feeling.  Vance brings these people to life with actions, as when the boy Traz Onmale first saves Adam Reith – at the cost of his place as tribal leader – in The City of the Chasch; and with words, like these from The Palace of Love:

Gersen interrupted one of Navarth’s dissertations.  "Is it here we can expect Viole Falushe?"

"Where else but here?" demanded the mad poet, now somewhat drunk.  "Where the heart of Earth beats the thickest blood!  Thick, purple, smelling of must: like crocodile blood, the blood of dead lions.  Never fear!  You will see your man! … What was I discussing?  My youth, my squandered youth!  At one time I worked for Tellur Transit, investigating the contents of lost suitcases.  Here, perhaps, I gained my deepest insight into the structure of the human soul … "

Vance does get criticized for his female characters.  It is true he has no real female protagonists, but there’s no law that says a male writer must do so.  And the female characters he has created should not be discounted.  In fact it is female characters who lead all the action in the Lyonesse Trilogy: Glyneth, Madouc, Twisk, Tatzel, Melancthe/Desmei and, tragically, Suldrun; in a certain sense Aillas, Shimrod and Dhrun, the male leads, are errand boys following the paths set for them by the women.  Then there is Wayness Tamm, who has at least half the action in Ecce and Old Earth, where she takes the role of detective tracking down lost documents across a future Europe and South America.


Reviewers and critics often cite Vance as a “stylist”, by which they mean he uses long sentences and a lot of uncommon words.  Indeed, reading Vance you will find words like “opprobrium”, “encomium”, “inveigle”, “bathos”, “nuncupatory”, “tremulous” (one of his favorites), and “cachectic”.

Vance is also famous for the words he has invented: grue (an unknown, darkness-loving monster of dire potency), strakh (the currency of prestige in the Moon Moth), rachepol (an outcast with cropped ears), the whelm (name for a miltary force), or deedle, gruff and wobbly (kinds of bulk-processed food, terms adopted for  regular use in the Salazar household).

Yet, Vance is more complicated than all this.  Take the spareness of Raymond Chandler, the whimsy of Wodehouse, the other-worldliness of Dunsany, the fantasy of L. Frank Baum, the settings and action of Hemingway, the sense of macabre of Clark Ashton Smith, and you will approach Vance’ style as a writer.  Which is not to say he is derivative – not more than any successful writer.  His synthesis is unique.

To me one of the best examples of Vance style is this, from Suldrun’s Garden:

In the garden the first day went by slowly, instant after hesitant instant, each approaching diffidently, as if on tiptoe, to hurry across the plane of the present and lose itself among the glooms and shadows of the past.

  The second day was hazy, less breathless, but the air hung heavy with portent.

  The third day, still hazy, seemed sluggish and drained of sensibility, yet somehow innocent and sweet, as if ready for renewal. On this day Suldrun went slowly about the garden, pausing at times to touch the trunk of a tree, or the face of a stone. With head bent she walked the length of her beach, and only once paused to look to sea. Then she climbed the path, to sit among the ruins.

  The afternoon passed: a golden dreaming time, and the stone cliffs encompassed the whole of the universe.

  The sun sank softly and quietly. Suldrun nodded pensively, as if here were elucidation of an uncertainty, though tears coursed down her cheeks.

  The stars appeared. Suldrun descended to the old lime tree and, in the dim light of the stars, she hanged herself. The moon, rising over the ridge, shone on a limp form and a sad sweet face, already preoccupied with her new knowledge.


Isaac Bashevis Singer famously said that the purpose of literature was “to entertain, and to instruct”.  The professor and great writer always put the two criteria in that order and when citing this dictum never failed to pause significantly between entertain … and instruct.  Yet for something to be literature, the two always go together.

For me, Vance in all his works never fails this test.  At his core he was a pulp writer, and I’m entertained by everything he did – from the mannered techno-comedy of Magnus Ridolph to the raw adventure of Tschai to the epic scope of Lyonnesse.  But Vance’ works stay with you because there is something more there, something beyond the images, the excitement, the invention.  His stories always have, in the broad, original sense, a moral.

The morals in Vance’ stories I am talking about are not always good things, or even terribly deep things.  They are ideas like: Liberty is better than bondage, Equity is better than duplicity, Self-reliance is better than dependence, Justice is better than cynicism.  As I said, not terribly deep, but still important … and they are there, which is more than I can say for most genre fiction today, which strives only to be shocking or superficially unique in its conceptions.  In The Durdane Trilogy, Gastel Etzwane strives to overthrow the oppressive rule of the alien Asutra, who act through though their puppet, the Anome.  In The Domains of Koryphon (published as The Grey Prince) and also The Cadwal Chronicles, the key question is, who is entitled to land, those who maintain and protect it, or an undifferentiated, unproductive invading populace?  Even in The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga there is a message – what goes around, come around.

Now, Vance I’m sure would disclaim any such significances – he was famous for denying any meaning in his works.  But he also said a piece should stand on its own and it is up to reader to discern these messages.  I discern in his stories a sentiment that comes from the best of America – for all Vance is loved in Europe he is truly an American writer – Strength, Fortitude in adversity, Adaptability, Exploration of the new, and Compassion for the weak.  All mid-century values and maybe a bit paternalistic, but to be valued nonetheless.

Last Thoughts

With his death there are many appreciations of Vance coming onto the web.  Some useful ones are here:

Also if your interest is piqued you should look at Foreverness and Cosmopolis, websites devoted to Vance.  A particularly affecting piece is Cosmopolis #41 which contains an article by Norma Vance, Jack’s wife of 62 years who passed away in 2008.


I have rambled on long enough, probably to little purpose – not very Vance-ian of me.  I wish I could end things cleanly, like Vance himself ended his Demon Princes series in The Book of Dreams.  The hero, Kirth Gerson, has spent his entire life from childhood on pursuing and dispatching 5 master criminals – the “Demon Princes” – who destroyed his home.  The Book of Dreams sees the demise of the last and most idiosyncratic of the Demon Princes, Howard Alan Treesong.  Vance ends the greatest of his space-operas quickly and cleanly, like so:

Alice put her hands on his shoulder. “And now, what of you?”

  “What of me, how?”

  “You’re so quiet and subdued! You worry me. Are you well?”

  “Quite well. Deflated, perhaps. I have been deserted by my enemies. Treesong is dead. The affair is over. I am done.”


Done indeed.  Till next time …

Visions of a Dying Earth

Categories: Books, Sundries Tags: