Book Review: Showboat World, Jack Vance (1975)

4/5 (Good)

Big Planet is populated by Earth’s misfits.  The massive landmass and low human population of the planet results in small settlements populated by drastically different cults/beliefs/social structures isolated from each other. Showboat captains ply the rivers of the lower Vissel basin offering entertainment to the disparate communities — carefully navigating local customs in order to extract maximum profit.  Enter an assortment of rogues, reinterpreted bizarre renditions of Macbeth, glass legged water walkers, grotesques, museum ships, taverns, and shapely mime girls….

Showboat World is solid adventure in a well-realized and vividly described world by one of the masters of science fiction and fantasy, Jack Vance.  Although this novel takes place in the future on a colonized planet, the plot and society is solidly in the realm of fantasy.  The tone throughout is light-hearted and witty and the ending highly contrived.  Overall, the work lacks any forward plot movement (which is fine considering the general river meanderings these showboats perform) but is great, inventive, and peculiar fun.

Plot Summary (limited spoilers)

Apollon Zamp owns one of the top two showboats of the lower Vissel River, the Miraldra’s Enchantment, replete with contortionists, mime girls, grotesques who perform entertainments “characterized by brisk pace, flair, sudden shocks and impacts” emphasizing “farce, mummery, prestidigitation, eccentric farces and reenactments of notorious atrocities.”  His bitter rival and the owner of Fironzelle’s Golden Conceit, Garth Ashgate, specializes in rather more elaborate dramas performed at a leisurely pace.

The first half of the work follows Zamp’s journeys up and down various rivers performing at unusual locals and competing (often nefariously) with Ashgate.  At a competition, Zamp is declared to be the winner and the representative of the lower Vissel to a competition at the court of a distant king.  Ashgate sabotages his vessel and Zamp is forced to find aid elsewhere.  And of course, there’s a blonde appropriately named Damsel Blanche-Aster who refuses the entreaties of the various showboat captains and pursues her own secret agenda.

Zamp, with Damsel Blanche-Aster in tow, eventually meets up with Gassoon and his museum ship, the Universal Pancomium.  In order to reach the court of the distant king, Zamp agrees to resurrect (with various ammendments) the ancient Earth drama, Macbeth…. but first they must brave the savages of the steppes and reach the Bottomless lake…

Final Thoughts

Although never exactly entering the realm of outright comedy, the work maintains a lighthearted tone throughout.  I feel that the great world Vance has constructed would be best served with a more serious plot….  However, that’s my personal preference.  All in all, the work is great fun, the world interesting and original, and anything with floating museum ships is worth reading.  And the final descriptions in the last third of the novel of the reinterpreted Macbeth is worth the price alone…

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Showboat World, Jack Vance (1975)”

  1. To all: you will love The Demon Princes Series and Night Lamp by Jack Vance. Both great stories to read! As a fan I just thought it would be appropriate to mention these on your wonderful blog. I’m still hoping that one day someone buys the movie rights to the Demon Princes Series…

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