Jack Vance’s The Kragen; Thomas M. Disch’s The Voyage of the Proteus: A Eyewitness Account of the End of the World; Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories

You may recall that we here at GMR are extraordinarily fond of the small presses that publish so many of the things we discuss. We are fond of them because they bring us all-but-forgotten classics, exciting new works from important writers, and challenging new voices, all in attractive new editions — as witness the group of chapbooks that I have on my desk right now, representing successive “waves” in the history of speculative fiction.

Vance-The KragenThe first wave, from the Golden Age, is a reissue of a classic story by Jack Vance – The Kragen, first published in 1964. (And, at the risk of dating myself, I remember reading it when it first came out — I believe I still subscribed at the time to every science-fiction magazine I could find. I mean, we’re talking serious fan here.) The story has all the hallmarks of Vance at his best: an inventive setting, a stark if somewhat bizarre situation, a protagonist who tends toward nonconformism — and suffers socially as a result — and an entrenched power structure marked by a singular lack of intelligence. In this case, we are given the story of Sklar Hast, First Assistant Hoodwink of Tranque Float, one of the many settlements on a water world settled long enough ago that the realities of its colonization are lost. (A hoodwink is a member of the hereditary caste responsible for communications between the Floats, accomplished by means of lights and semaphores. Just so you know.) It’s a peaceful world, tideless, unchanging, and its people take after their world — until Hast makes waves. The trouble all starts when Hast kills a rogue kragen that is savaging his crops (underwater crops, of course). The Kragen, the king kragen that the people of the Floats have propitiated with offerings for generations, takes exception to this, destroying Hast’s home and most of Tranque Float. Given Hast’s personality and the circumstances, the rest is inevitable.

It’s a good story, one of Vance’s better ones, although I would have preferred to see “The Moon Moth,” my personal favorite from that period, which I happen to think is a better story. The Kragen is, however, classic Vance: the somewhat acidic tone, the diction one would expect more from a folktale than from a science-fiction story, the spiky and often difficult characters, the mordant satire are all there.

Disch-ProteusThomas M. Disch’s The Voyage of the Proteus is a very different kind of story. Disch was one of the major voices of science fiction’s New Wave of the 1960s and ’70s, and he’s still in top form. Imagine being somehow transported back to the age of heroes, on Agamemnon’s ship returning from the sack of Troy, and Cassandra — who among other things is available to every man on the ship, and who won’t take “gay” for an answer — is your constant companion. This is what happens to Tom, an otherwise nameless writer from the turn of the twenty-first century.

Disch is noted as a poet and critic as well as science-fiction writer, and has been openly gay himself since 1968, all of which leads me to believe that the character of Tom is more or less based on him. It’s a grubby, raucous kind of story, topical and blatantly satirical. It seems like an offside fantasy until the rather abrupt ending, leaving us ultimately with more questions than answers. In formal terms it’s an adventurous story -– I’m reminded of Robert Silverberg’s Star of the Gypsies by the excitement in the narrative, which I can only describe as an understated headlong rush, with commentary and insights sometimes spinning almost out of control, centered around the same kind of earthy, expansive characters.

Rambo-Vandermeer-SurgeonThe newest wave is represented in an effort by Cat Rambo and Jeff VanderMeer, The Surgeon’s Tale and Other Stories. It’s a somewhat problematic collection. I can’t resist the urge to quote a capsule summary of the entire collection, provided by the authors:

There was a surgeon with a terrible obsession who befriended a dead girl in a strange underground city from whence came the trolls that made the farmer’s cat mad, and which manifested itself on the surface in the form of both the heart of a dark and sinister enchanter and an eccentric, damned cafe. No one lived happily ever after, but some of them did, indeed, live.

The title story, a collaboration between the two authors, is marred by its length, which grows, I think, from the attempt at the kind of diction found in Defoe and Swift. What came to my mind was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: a distanced relating of events that must have been harrowing to have experienced, but somehow don’t affect us all that much in the telling. I don’t think that association was influenced by the use of body parts in both stories — it’s quite different, I assure you. The story doesn’t really sustain itself very well.

My hands-down favorite here is “The Strange Case of the Lovecraft Cafe,” credited to VanderMeer, M. F. Korn and D. F. Lewis. It’s comprised of menu selections and what seems to be a portion of a journal, it is totally outrageous, and I loved it. Of the remaining stories, all are entertaining, some are predictable but well executed, and the whole makes a nice collection under the category “post-genre fiction.”

(Subterranean Press, 2007)
(Subterranean Press, 2007)
(Two Free Lancers Press, 2007)


Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there. You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.

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