At risk of dating myself, I remember Jack Vance’s “The Moon Moth” from its first publication in Galaxy magazine. (I admit it — I was a science fiction geek, with subscriptions to Galaxy, Analog, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. On the upside, I got first crack at a lot of great stories by science fiction’s legends.) It’s always been one of my favorites among Vance’s stories, although perhaps the golden glow of memory has made it more than it was.
The story takes place on the planet Sirene, the inhabitants of which have developed a fairly complex and, to an outsider, arcane culture. Everyone wears masks, which denote their status, called in the local parlance strakh, which serves both as a measure of social standing and as a currency — a merchant’s strakh is enhanced if those of high status avail themselves of his goods, and so on. And speech is never plain — the Sirenese sing their way through encounters, accompanying themselves on a selection of small musical instruments chosen to fit the circumstances of the conversation.
Into this milieu is unceremoniously dumped Edwer Thissel, the new consul from Earth, an indifferent musician with no status among the Sirenese — being a consul from a foreign power wins you no points. And so, on the advice of a sympathetic expatriate, he adopts a lowly Moon Moth mask and tries to stay as inconspicuous as possible. That is, until he receives an urgent message: a notorious assassin, Haxo Angmark, is en route to Sirene, a planet he knows well, and must be intercepted asap. Of course, Thissel receives the message too late to do him any good, so now he has to find Angmark, who of course is already masked and undetectable by any normal means. Fortunately, Thissel is a resourceful man, when he has to be. As it turns out, he’s also quick on his feet, and manages to turn what could have been a fatal mistake into a triumph.
Adaptation of a work from one medium to another is fraught, as they say. On the one hand, if you stray too far from the original, purists will berate you for it (there was outrage in some quarters at the excision of Tom Bombadil from the film of The Fellowship of the Ring, if you recall), while, if you stick too close to the source, you’ll catch it from the other side (as witness the disdain for the first Harry Potter movie for being a literal translation to film). I find that adaptations are best judged on how they stand on their own — is it a work that does what it purports to do? In short, does it work?
Although I don’t have the text of the original story to hand for comparison (nor can I see any reason why that would be necessary), Humayoun Ibrahim’s adaptation of “The Moon Moth” seems to fall into the “literal” category. It just reads that way — a short story illustrated and published as a separate work. I can’t quite allow myself to remove it from the realm of illustrated story, even though there are short sections of visual narrative — the flow is dependent on the words, and the wordless passages do little more than set a scene.
The drawing itself is idiosyncratic, exorbitantly detailed, and somewhat static. There’s a breathless quality to it, as though the art had been crammed into the page (and that may very well be the case: if Ibrahim followed normal practice, the original art would have been 22 by 28 inches; it is now 6 by 8½ and feels very crowded).
The book also contains a forward by Carlo Rotella that gives an overview of Vance’s life and career, informative and succinct.
(First Second, 2012)