Book Review: Wyst: Alastor 1716, Jack Vance (1978)

July 21, 2012 § 10 Comments

(Eric Ladd’s cover for the 1978 edition)

4.25/5 (Good)

Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978), the second book of the Alastor Trilogy I’ve read, is more involving, satirical, and thought-provoking than Marune: Alastor 933 (1975).  Each book takes place in the same star cluster so there’s no need to read them in order.  As with every Vance book I’ve had the pleasure to read, the world is vibrant, detailed, and believable.  And also with every Vance book I’ve had the pleasure to read, an unoriginal political intrigue-driven plot is grafted with varying degrees of success onto the world.

A Description of Wyst

The Alastor trilogy takes place in the Alastor cluster, a dense collection of stars ruled by the Connatic (who makes a brief appearance in this novel) from his palace on Numenes. Wyst, Alastor 1716, is comprised of the urban center Uncibal in Arrabus where the egalist utopian society resides, large rural regions with small communities, and the estates of contractors who do the more complex work for the city.

The central tenet of an egalist society is a rigorously applied rule of equality (hence one’s private property can be stolen by others to maintain egalism).  The leaders are selected by lot.  Because it would be “elitist” to have specialists in any profession, jobs are assigned by lot.  Everyone works two hours of “drudge” a week at randomly allotted jobs.  See the pattern?  Because one stays on one job for more than one block of drudge one learns from the previous workers.  Vance has a wonderful satirical passage describing the effects:

“I drew a shoe machine last week; it’s really rather amusing once you learn which handles to pull.  Halfway through my stint the circuits went wrong and the shoes all came away with funny big toes/  I sent them on anyway, in hopes of launching a new style.  Think of it!  Maybe I’ll be famous!”

“Small chance.  Who wants to wear funny shoes with big toes?”

“Somebody had better want to wear them; they’ve gone into boxes.” (29)

Because there are no specialists and no one wants to do any work besides the minimally allotted drudge, food is derived from recycled sludge.  For additional cash, individual citizens are drained of various bodily fluids (hormones, etc) and the like, once a year for export.

Because work is seen as the antithesis of the individual’s egalistic goal, the inhabitants of Arrabus busy themselves spending their cash from drudge on small pieces of overpriced “bonter” (real non-sludge natural food).  The Arrabins often raid the surrounding regions looking for bonter.  They find no problem with stealing (which they call “snerging”) because it prevents elitism and makes everyone more equal.  Other than the constant quest to procure “bonter” the Arrabins occupy themselves with an unusual game called “hussade” in which the good luck token (in this case a young woman) is defiled by a twelve-foot tall wooden contraption if the team loses.  The Arrabins also produce little in the way of cultural production, any “master” at an art would be an elitist!

The central hypocrisy of the Arrabin culture concerns their treatment of the contractors — outsiders who live in the rural areas of the planet and do most of the work for the urban population.  They are ridiculed by the egalists as barbarian elitists failing to realize that the society depends on their “elitism” — in this case specialized for the most pressing and complex work which a bare two hours of drudge by anyone selected by lot would be unable to accomplish.  As a result, the contractors have carved up the landscape forming feudal-type properties outside of the city.

Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

Jantiff Ravensroke is a young artist who hasn’t figured out exactly what to do with himself on his homeworld of Zeck, Alastor 503.  In the meantime, he chooses to visit the planet Wyst which is renowned for its favorable light.  When he arrives in the city of Uncibal he’s assigned roommates and is forced to quickly integrate himself in an egalistic society.  His paints are “snerged”, his friends constantly ask him for money in order to procure “bonter”, and he is constantly branded an elitist.  Often, such statements are only attempts to off-load duties and obligations (of which the Arrabins have very little) onto him.  After multiple adventures, including raiding the surrounding areas for bonter (a practice Jantiff is reluctant to engage in), and a love affair with Kedidah (who becomes the good luck token for a hussade team), Jantiff begins to suspect that his roommates are planning something nefarious.

Concurrently with Jantiff’s arrival on Wyst, the Whispers (the leaders) are planning a monumental Centenary to celebrate the founding of the society.  They journey to Numenes to convince the Connatic, the rule of the Alastor Cluster, to visit.  Of course he’d have to put away his elitism for a time…  Vance spends little time with the allusive figure of the Connatic but at least he makes a short appearance in the very beginning of the novel.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, the plot and the world do not always feel organically linked to each other.  In this case, the main action of the narrative only rears its head in the last third.  The first two thirds are much more successful when our hero attempts to understand and operate within the “utopia” of Wyst.  When the inklings of a plot to overthrow the Whispers is uncovered, Vance retreats to the realm of pulp plotting/action/and tidy interpersonal relationships.

The world of Wyst is spectacular.  Jantiff and all his naivete is believable and relatable.  Plot issues aside, Wyst is a fantastically inventive read with a nice vein of snarky satire (one has the feeling that Vance is critiquing the communes in the US).  World-building at its best…

A must (along with the rest of the Alastor Trilogy) for all sci-fi fans — and if you’re a Vance devotee, track this one down as fast as possible.

(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1979 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1980 edition)

(David Mattingly’s cover for the 1981 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

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