A Dystopian Masterpiece: Jack Vance’s “Wyst: Alastor 1716”

Notes from the Baron:

The following review by Thomas Bertonneau discusses Wyst, one of the finest novels written by the late Jack Vance.

Long-time readers know that my nom de plume is taken from Jack Vance’s work — not from a character in his fiction, but from an imaginary writer, scholar, and commentator named Unspiek, Baron Bodissey, who provided the (sometimes lengthy) disquisitions on history, sociology, and political economy that appeared as footnotes in the novels.

The cover of Wyst shown below is not from the currently available version of the book, but from the original published by DAW Books, the first printing in 1978. I scanned it from my own Vance collection, and then de-yellowed it.

A Dystopian Masterpiece: Jack Vance’s Wyst: Alastor 1716

by Thomas F. Bertonneau

Towards the end of a long life, the American genre writer — and merchant seaman, jazz-man, and master of many trades — Jack Vance (1916-2013) produced an amusing autobiography entitled This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009); the book also carried a parenthetical and apologetic subtitle, Or, More Properly, This is I. In the subtitle Vance takes a jocund swipe at grammatical pedantry, and therefore at pedantry and Puritanism generally speaking, but he also affirms his passion for order, of which grammar is the linguistic species, without which (order, that is) freedom and justice, both of which he held as dear as anything, would be impossible.

There are a number of scholarly anthologies devoted to Vance’s authorship and at least one book-length single-author study of his fiction, Jack Rawlins’ Dissonant Worlds of Jack Vance (1986). It is a pity, however, that no intellectual biography of Vance exists. This is Me gives the essential details of its writer’s curriculum vitae, but it is largely bereft of information concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation. So is Rawlins’ study, although it remains otherwise useful. If only, like Henry Miller, Vance had written his version of The Books in my Life! Concerning Vance’s artistic-philosophical formation, however, one might plausibly infer and arguably surmise a few probabilities. A writer is liable to be a reader, a prolific writer a prolific reader. A merchant seaman, as Vance remarks in his autobiography, finds himself with a good deal of time on his hands. Vance, who had briefly studied English at the University of California Berkeley, spent long stretches at sea during the Second World War, with a good deal of time on his hands. Two plausible guesses in respect of books that would have impressed themselves profoundly on Vance as he passed his time in their company are The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père and The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler.

The Count of Monte Cristo would have supplied Vance with a plotline, that of righteous and carefully plotted vengeance against arrogant and powerful offenders, which he used in his own brilliant way many times. Two books of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, Trullion (1973) and Marune (1975), are vengeance stories, as are all five volumes of The Demon Princes (1964 — 1981).

As it did for F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and the science fiction writer James Blish, among innumerable others, The Decline of the West would have deepened Vance’s sense of meaning and large-scale patterning in history; and it would have stimulated his interest in the comparison of cultures. In Spengler’s theory of the Great Cultures, as he called them, each Great Culture has a distinct physiognomy (Spengler’s term) that imprints and flavors its institutional manifestations and pervades the mental outlook of its every individual. A major element of Vance’s fiction is to establish through detailed description the distinct physiognomies — or as he calls it in a coinage of his own, the esmeric — of his fictional worlds and their societies. The Decline would also have honed Vance’s sensitivity to the crisis of European civilization, just as it had for Fitzgerald and Miller. Once again, the breakdown of social structures and the descent of civilization into renewed barbarism interest Vance almost obsessively. Vance’s authorship contains many other signs of Spengler’s background presence, not least in its tendency to insert extended philosophical discussions, sometimes as footnotes, into the unfolding story. In Vance’s later work, commencing with The Demon Princes, references occur to a certain “Baron Bodissey,” who seems to have been the Spengler of the settled cosmos, or the “Gaean Reach,” in the long-colonized solar systems of which, and among immensely old societies, Vance’s stories tend to occur. Spengler saw his Great Cultures as living entities. Vance’s Ecce and Old Earth (1991) quotes Bodissey’s study of “The Morphology of Settled Places,” in which he argues that “towns behave in many respects like living organisms,” a decidedly Spenglerian proposition.

Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978), the third installment of Vance’s Alastor trilogy, falls somewhat outside the vengeance pattern of its two precursor installments although its denouement entails an act of supremely satisfying justice. Part of Wyst’s interest lies in the fact that it instantiates Vance’s knack for dystopian satire, the object of the satire being in this case the phenomenon of socialism, with its cult of egalitarianism. Before getting into the details, however, of Vance’s Spenglerian critique of the welfare state, a bit of context urges itself. The Alastor trilogy takes its overall title from its cosmic setting — Vance’s “Alastor Cluster.” As Wyst’s prefatory chapter explains, “Alastor Cluster, a node of thirty thousand live stars, uncounted dead hulks and vast quantities of interstellar detritus, clung to the inner rim of the galaxy with the Unfortunate Waste before, the Nonestic Gulf beyond and the Gaean Reach a sparkling haze to the side.” Of the thirty thousand solar systems that constitute the Cluster, three thousand are inhabited. The word alastor, not at all incidentally, stems from an ancient Greek name for an avenging spirit. The protagonists of Trullion and Marune indeed act as agents of retributive desert, but in matters of private offense. In Wyst Vance invokes justice rather than vengeance. In the early chapters of the novel, Vance’s protagonist and point-of-view character Jantiff Ravensroke functions as a perceptive visitor to and observer of the planetary “Egalist” society of Wyst. Readers gain their sense of Wyst’s cultural physiognomy through Ravensroke’s experiences, as he attempts to assimilate himself in a new and in many ways shocking environment. In the later chapters of the novel, while becoming increasingly involved with his new acquaintances, Ravensroke functions as a responsible citizen of the Cluster who feels the moral compulsion, at rising risk to his life, to report to the highest authority about wicked machinations unfolding on Wyst concerning which he has apprised himself. Ravensroke’s visit to Wyst, which he had undertaken for artistic reasons, becomes an ordeal and, pitting himself against a murderous conspiracy, he discovers his capacity for heroic action.

The highest authority in Alastor Cluster resides in the office of the Connatic. In the Connatic, Vance has taken a somewhat preposterous stock figure from pulp-era science fiction — the sovereign of a stellar empire, as in Edmund Hamilton’s Star Kings or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy — and reinvented it in his own masterful way. The Connatic, who rules the Cluster from a towering architectural complex at archipelagic Lusz on the planet Numenes, incorporates traits from Shakespeare’s Henry IV and from the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius. Like Henry IV, the Connatic sometimes goes in disguise among his people in order to discover their disposition. Like Marcus Aurelius, the Connatic is a philosopher who is nevertheless prepared to act, having at his command an immense and super-competent diplomatic corps and the “Whelm,” a potent military force. In the opening chapter of Wyst, receiving four representatives of the Egalist society in his tower, and being criticized by one of them for his “position of unnatural privilege,” the Connatic replies: “I am I, who by reason of events beyond my control am Connatic. If I were someone else, I would not be Connatic; this is indisputable.” In that hypothetical case, however, “He, like I, would ponder the singularity of his condition.” The irascible ambassadors know not what to make of it. They take up again their crass demands on behalf of their world. The Connatic, whose name implies the cognitive faculty, knows these petitioners for precisely who they are. Vance bestows on the Connatic an encyclopedic knowledge of the planetary societies that he oversees and a near-instantaneous and deeply penetrating intuition in respect of character-nuance and political implication. He, too, is practiced in the Spenglerian art of physiognomic tact.

That Ravensroke should come to the attention of the Connatic partakes of the inevitable. Vance has endowed on Ravensroke artistic percipience, curiosity, and openness to experience so that, in a novice’s way, he resembles the Connatic in his talents. Ravensroke originates on the many-islanded largely aquatic planet Zeck at a place called Frayness, where custom dictates that those entering on adulthood declare a profession and begin to fashion themselves to live by it. (In other words — the usual way of life!) Ravensroke finds that he cannot declare for any customary profession, although his family would like him to do so, but he knows himself to possess a contextually eccentric talent for landscape and portrait and he would like to cultivate it. One night, in order to escape the tension with his parents and siblings, Ravensroke appropriates the family houseboat and steers it to a remote place. At dusk, while “water moths fluttered among the leaves,” Ravensroke hears from the sea “the sound of quiet voices in measured discussion.” The “sea-voices” elude clear audition: “The meaning… always just evaded intelligibility.” These susurrations haunt Ravensroke, to use Vance’s verb; and his acknowledgment of them indicates both his attunement to the world and his talent for attentive, non-egocentric awareness of his environment.

It is during his solitude that he learns fatefully of Wyst. Someone has left a copy of The Transvoyer, presumably a newspaper, on the table in the houseboat’s kitchen. A front page headline refers to “THE ARRABIN CENTENARY,” Arrabus being the inhabited continent of Wyst, and the story having been filed from Uncibal, “the mighty city beside the sea.” According to the story, which in hindsight appears to be rank Egalist propaganda, the people of Wyst live in a “dynamic society, propelled by novel philosophical energies.” As for the Arrabin goal, the article describes it as “human fulfillment, in a condition of leisure and amplitude,” which the society has achieved “by a drastic revision of traditional priorities.” On the other hand, as readers later learn, Arrabins not only disdain but anathematize anyone who “wants to do something… extraordinary and individualistic.” That would be “non-mutual” and “mutualism” is a major tenet of Egalism. The extravagant ideological claims of the journal article exercise less compulsion on Ravensroke, however, than the article’s reference to “the remarkable light of the sun Dwan,” under the luminosity of which “every surface quivers with its true and just color.” The aesthetic allure wins him over. He resolves to travel to Wyst to refine his skills as a painter and photographer.

From the moment of his arrival at the Uncibal spaceport, events begin to call in question, at first more for the reader than for Ravensroke, the journalistic blandishments concerning a “dynamic society” with the goal of “human fulfillment.” Ravensroke arrives at his destination with a will to do as the Arrabins do and not to second-guess the customs and institutions of a world foreign to him, but entirely familiar to itself. Yet merely to disembark, pass through immigration, and find a meal, Ravensroke must negotiate with petulance and incompetence. There is a long walk from the spaceliner to the terminal building across unkempt and muddy landing field. “From the direction of Uncibal drifted a waft of odor, oddly sour and heavy, yet half-familiar, which only served to emphasize the strangeness of the world of Wyst.” Once in the terminal, Ravensroke hears “a droning voice [that] addressed the newcomer.” The voice directs arriving passengers to separate themselves into three queues, one for “commercial representatives and tourists intending brief visit,” a second for visitors intending to remain on the planet for “less than a year,” and a third for “immigrants.” The voice also announces that, “the import of foodstuffs is prohibited,” the reason for which soon becomes apparent. Vance has, in fact, foreshadowed the immigration and foodstuff issues. When the embassy from Wyst visits the Connatic in Chapter I, the ambassadors — the “Whispers” — complain to him about their immigration problem. “Everywhere in the Cluster live jackals and interlopers, by the millions; they consider Arrabus a charitable hospice, where they flock by the myriads to batten upon the good things which we have earned through toil and sacrifice.” The complainant wants the Connatic to exempt Wyst from the right of Cluster citizens to relocate at will.

In a passage reminiscent of those in books from the 1920s and 30s that narrate the experiences of perspicacious Westerners (not dupes) who visited the Soviet Union, Ravensroke swiftly discovers that a combination of incompetence and the martinet mentality pervades the Egalist order. When, after a long wait in line, he at last presents his landing pass, a white card, to a clerk behind a window, she declares it precipitously as “not correct” and demands to see his “green clearance card.” Ravensroke responds that the white document was all that had been issued to him as he exited the spaceliner. The clerk commands him to cease “obstructing the line.” He points out to her that the white document clearly indicates itself as constituting both “landing pass and clearance card.” Reluctantly she accepts it, excusing herself because the white card represents a new development and she, not having worked the terminal for many months, knew only the obsolete green card. In Arrabus, under Egalism, no one works a steady job, but everyone obliges himself “to drudge” thirteen hours a week by a system of more or less random assignments. No citizen of the Egalist order has competent knowledge of anything; all jobs are badly done, or not done at all, by irritable bunglers. Real work, such as running the civic infrastructure and obtaining raw materials, the Arrabins out-contract to non-citizens and offworlders.

Vance deftly exploits food as a symbol for the pettiness and paltriness of Egalist society, beginning with the loudspeaker announcement to the effect that importing edible items violates local law. When the Whispers visit the Connatic, they pester their host about the food that he has politely served them, the cuisine of their home world, until he licenses them to try the great range of local eateries on his ticket. The Egalist society knows only three menu items: Gruff, deedle, and wobbly. “We all eat alike,” as an attendant tells Ravensroke when, leaving the space port, he orders his first meal on Wyst at the lunch counter of the Traveler’s Inn. The attendant places a covered tray before Ravensroke. Lifting away the cover, Ravensroke “found four cakes of baked brown dough, a mug of white liquid and a bowl of yellow paste.” The flavors are bland or astringent, but, while not repellent, also not appetizing. The lunch-counter, in the assessment of Ravensroke, overcharges absurdly for the fare, considering its jejune quality. When he finds his way to the convenience after his meal, he discovers that the “cavernous bathroom was shared by both sexes, personal modesty having succumbed to Egalism.” The two incidents — of the lunch counter and of the convenience — link themselves in that, later in the novel, sturge, the raw material for gruff, deedle, and wobbly, turns out to be reprocessed waste. The Arrabins quite literally consume their own excrement, to which the color of the baked dough is no doubt a reference. From salvaged portions of their daily feeds, they brew a bucket-fermented drink called swill, on which they enjoy getting drunk. The discussion will later return to the theme of food.

The authorities have assigned Ravensroke to temporary housing. Vance’s description of the bleak apartment buildings in which the Arrabins dwell will remind informed readers of descriptions of mid-Twentieth Century Soviet apartment towers in Moscow and elsewhere. The very architecture aims to crush individual expression and, through the humiliation of its interior arrangements, to obliterate all differences among people and, along with them, the last traces of individuality. The great blocks have officially only numerical designations, but their residents dub them with nicknames for easier reference. Ravensroke will dwell in the building whose inhabitants call it “Old Pink,” in accord with what Ravensroke assesses as the “eczematic color” of its façade. When Ravensroke locates his apartment on an upper floor, the prospect fails to inspire him, notwithstanding that he accepts his circumstances stoically. The furnishings appear improvised. It falls out that he must share a bedroom with his roommate, a woman named Skorlet. The room contains “two cots separated by a flimsy curtain.” When Ravensroke arrives, he finds Skorlet entertaining her friend Esteban, the father of their nine-year-old girl-child Tanzel, but Egalism not recognizing marriage, the two live separately. Tanzel also lives separately, in a crèche. As Ravensroke explains to his parents in a letter that he writes to them later in the evening: “Egalism refuses to recognize sexual differences,” such that “one person is considered equal to every other in all respects.” Ravensroke adds that, “For a girl to primp or show her figure to best advantage is called ‘sexivation’ and is considered a serious offense.” On the other hand, as readers infer, copulation is more or less obligatory on request and a type of heartless promiscuity obtains. In a passing comment that must make readers wince, Skorlet tells Ravensroke that Tanzel, the nine-year-old, finds copulation tedious.

Skorlet and Esteban propose to show Ravensroke around Uncibal, collecting Tanzel on the way. The citizens of Uncibal travel about their city by means of large moving ways reminiscent of those in Robert A. Heinlein’s story The Roads Must Roll (1940). Vance borrows the device because it enables him to convey the thronging, dissolvent character of the otherwise characterless cityscape. To mount one of the moving roads is to be “carried away.” The passive voice implies no authorial laziness. On the contrary, it cannily suggests the conformism and degradation of the Egalist dispensation, which foster everywhere the lowest common denominator of everything. Vance writes how, when Ravensroke and his guides “moved across to the faster lanes,” the visitor “discovered an odd effect,” namely that, “when he looked over his shoulder to the right,” and again when he “looked back to his left,” the innumerable faces that his eye encountered merged in a “blur.” In either direction the “anonymous beyond” prevails. Although at first Ravensroke struggles to perceive the individuality of his Arrabin acquaintances, readers might react less patiently. Arrabins appear alike in their infantile egocentricity and their petulant narcissism. Their liability to covetousness Vance makes deliberately to stand out. Just before leaving Old Pink, Ravensroke wonders out loud whether he should bring his camera with him. Esteban advises vehemently against it. He rationalizes that Ravensroke should “wait till [he] know[s] the ropes.” During the tour, Esteban suddenly claims to remember important business and goes off on his own. Skorlet too disappears, leaving Ravensroke with Tanzel. Readers begin to grasp the hypocrisy of Egalism and its institutions. For example —

Snergery. On returning to Old Pink, Ravensroke finds his closet looted and his camera and all of his paints and painting implements absconded. When he reports the theft to Skorlet, as Vance writes, “She snapped at him in an unpleasantly harsh voice.” She says to her roommate, “This is an Egalistic country; why should anyone have more than anyone else?” The reply is classic Vance — morally to the point: “I have been over-egalized… to the effect that I now have less than anyone else.” Sometime later, Ravensroke rediscovers his camera in Esteban’s apartment in another building. Esteban claims the camera as his. When Ravensroke exhibits his very name engraved beside the serial number in “Old Mish,” the alphabet of Zeck, Esteban utters “an incomprehensible sound and turn[s] his back.”

The Arrabins call theft snergery. They justify it as being a “direct remedy against the accumulation of goods.” Not only has Esteban snerged Ravensroke’s camera; Skorlet keeps snerging his pigments. Snergery is apparently one of the means by which Egalism, in the words of an official announcement, “must fulfill both needs and aspirations, and provide scope for human genius.” And yet the Arrabins have neither artistic expression nor meaningful learning. In a situation where law forbids one to individuate, the words aspiration and genius hardly apply. When Ravensroke objects to Skorlet’s constant pilfering of his art-supplies so that she can daub her decorative globes, she replies, “Jantiff, you’re a very small person.” Ravensroke retorts, once again, in classic-Vance mood: “And you’re very large — with other people’s belongings.” On other occasions, Ravensroke’s acquaintances casually admit to stealing materials from their “drudge,” whatever offers itself to casual misappropriation and whenever an opportunity arises. In this way Skorlet has acquired the material for her decorative globes, which she intends to sell privately for “tokens,” the Arrabin currency, at the market-fair. (See below: The Disjerferact.)

Incompetency Revisited. Early in the story, when Skorlet proposes to Ravensroke the tour of Uncibal, she tries to call Tanzel on her “screen,” Vance’s prediction thirty-five years in advance of the cell phone. Skorlet’s screen frustrates her by its non-functionality. Ravensroke offers to look at it. Examining the inner works, he finds that someone has previously incompetently repaired (so to speak) a simple connection, which he plugs back into its proper slot. Skorlet tells Ravensroke, “The maintenance fellow studied his instruction book for two hours and still couldn’t do the job.” From that moment, friends and acquaintances of Skorlet and Esteban, who was present to observe Ravensroke’s technical savvy, pester the offworlder to restore their devices to functionality. “When I do these favors,” Ravensroke writes to his family, “do they thank me?” He follows up, “Verbally, yes, but there is a most peculiar expression on their faces,” which he classifies as a mélange of “contempt, distaste, [and] antipathy.” Arrabins resent expertise, so he resolves to stop assisting them without compensation. A bit later, Esteban shows up with his friend Olin in tow. Olin’s screen has gone non-functional and he expects Ravensroke to do him a favor. The “fixer” refuses but offers an alternative. He says: “Suppose I conduct a seminar on small repairs, at a charge per session, say, of fifty tokens a student. Everyone… can learn all I know, and then you can do your own repairs and also oblige those of your friends who lack the skills.” Esteban rejects the idea in heated phrases of Egalist dogma. “Capability,” it seems, contradicts the “beatific view of life.” When, in the first chapter, the Whispers visit the Connatic, they complain that their civic infrastructure is breaking down. The idea of repairing it never occurs to them because that would entail work and expenditure. They want a new civic infrastructure gratis, courtesy of the Connatic.

Food Revisited. Arrabins, as the server tells Ravensroke at the Traveler’s Inn, “all eat alike,” except that they can occasionally arrange to eat differently and satisfyingly, and they scheme constantly, like the gluttons they really are, to do so. They call Egalist fare wump and non-Egalist fare bonter. One way to acquire bonter is to go “foraging.” The word is euphemistic: Foraging entails leaving the city limits and venturing into the near part of the “Weirdlands,” the vast and sparsely populated wilderness of Arrabin — which, until one hundred years previously, had been Wyst’s productive agricultural provinces. Egalism, with its promise of easy living, drew the billions to the cities, leaving only a few hardy farmers and nomads to inhabit the abandoned regions. A foraging party is simply an attempt stealthily to plunder the scattered farms; it is (badly) organized large-scale snergery. The foraging expedition that Ravensroke accompanies out of curiosity goes badly. Farmers chase and beat several of the party. One member of the group goes missing, but the others make no effort to find him and they return without him. Ravensroke says, “I just don’t feel right stealing from others.” No one understands his attitude. It is also possible, if one has connections, as Esteban has, to arrange a “bonterfest.” This activity requires aerial transportation more deeply into the Weirdlands, where gypsies will arrange a multi-course meal of savory dishes for a hefty price. On the occasion that Vance narrates, it becomes clear that the price includes a human being whom the hosts will kidnap into involuntary servitude or worse. Esteban has in mind Ravensroke, but due to miscommunication with the gypsies, they take Tanzel — of whom no more is heard. As far as Ravensroke can discern, Skorlet and Esteban remain unmoved.

The Disjerferact. Food belongs to the Disjerferact, a permanent seedy carnival in Uncibal near the river. With a sufficiency of tokens, people can buy grilled seaweed on a stick and eel pies, neither of which is intrinsically appealing; it is simply that they are other than gruff, deedle, and wobbly. The outstanding and outstandingly grotesque attractions of the Disjerferact, however, are its five “Pavilions of Rest.” As Ravensroke describes them in a letter home, “To the Pavilions of Rest come Arrabins who wish to die.” The Pavilions make a free public spectacle of suicide, with the suicides paying the fees and the crowd gratifying its ugly instinct to witness death. Frequently, the crowd jeers the self-immolating victims, who customarily make ornate speeches before undertaking their final act. At “Halcyon House,” one of the five Pavilions, as Ravensroke writes, “the person intent upon surcease, after paying his fee, enters a maze of prisms” where “he wanders here and there” until “his form becomes indistinct among the reflections and is seen no more.” Corpses go to the sturge plants outside the city, where the contractors mix them with sewage to make the slurry that is the basis for wump. When, in Wyst’s first chapter, the Whispers confer with the Connatic, they complain that Egalism attracts one thousand immigrants a week to Arrabus. The Connatic replies: “A thousand a week? Ten times as many Arrabins commit suicide,” presumably also every week. So much, then, for the “beatific view of life”!

In the foregoing paragraphs I have concentrated on the sociological and psychological details of Vance’s imagined world and its people, avoiding too much discussion of the book’s story so as not to spoil it in advance for anyone who might feel motivated to read it. I will limit myself to divulging that Vance’s plot entails Ravensroke’s discovery of… well… a plot, an insidious one, the plotters’ discovery of Ravensroke’s knowledge of them, and Ravensroke’s flight for his life and frustrated attempts to inform Alastor Centrality of the pending mischief. As readers will have warmed to Ravensroke, their identification with his peril will be high. An Alastrid agent on Uncibal informs the Connatic just at the moment when the Whispers arrive at Lusz on Numenes: “Events are flying in all directions here, to my great distress and consternation. Specifically, I fear for poor Jantiff Ravensroke, who is in terrible danger; unless someone puts a stop to it, they’ll have his blood or worse.” The Weirdlands phase of Wyst faintly resembles Vance’s frequent Count of Monte Christo plot and includes Ravensroke’s rescue of a young “witch” from her persecutors. As I asserted earlier, however, Wyst is a justice novel, not a revenge novel. In his study of Vance, Rawlins writes of Wyst that in it, as in other Vance stories, the author “embraces the luxury of the deus ex machina openly,” a reference to the ability of the Connatic to intervene. Rawlins also finds the Weirdlands phase of the story meandering, but I would disagree on both counts.

In the Arrabus chapters of Wyst, Vance gives his readers the sordid details of a committed suicidal society which, in effect, has no culture (Arrabins are urban savages) and that has descended from an ideological insurrection in the recent past that aimed at an impossible reconstruction of reality. The germ of that insurrection can only have been resentment against the fact that reality is so constructed as to demand from conscious beings that they labor for their livelihood and that they espouse responsibility and morality. If the Egalist society of Arrabus were a revolutionary society, which it is, it would also be an infantilized society, one in which the sole motive of life is to avoid responsibility, so as to labor not at all, and so as to slip the constraints of morality. In the Weirdlands chapters of Wyst, Vance gives his readers the refreshing details of an adult individual, Jantiff Ravensroke, who, in danger of his life yet determined to exercise responsibility, labors against his own impatience in order to achieve his ends. In the Weirdlands, a fugitive, Ravensroke can do nothing but attune himself to the structure of reality. As for the Connatic, he embodies the reality principle so that one might justifiably call him a deus ex machina without the phrase implying any weakness in Vance’s story telling ability. Ravensroke’s motive for visiting Wyst, after all, was to discover the life’s labor to which he would then dedicate himself. And very much, he discovers it. Rawlins quotes Wyst to the effect that out in the Weirdlands, Ravensroke feels “truly alive” for the first time, and that is the case. The contrast between the youthful but responsible individual and, to borrow Rawlins’ description, the “smarmy” Arrabins opens up like a yawning gap and it constitutes Vance’s moral point.

There is a passage from Spengler — not from The Decline but from The Hour of Decision (1936) — that champs at the bit to apply itself to Vance’s Egalist society. Spengler writes in respect of democracy, egalitarianism, and socialism: “Thus is born Nihilism, the abysmal hatred of the proletarian of higher form of every sort, of culture as its essence, of society as its upholder and historical product. That anyone should have ‘form,’ master it, feel comfortable with it, whereas the common person feels fettered by it; that tact, taste, a sense for tradition, should be things that belong to highly civilized beings by inheritance; that there are circles in which a sense of duty and renunciation are not absurd, but lend distinction — all this fills the Nihilist with a dull fury which in earlier times crept away into corners and there foamed at the mouth in the manner of Thersites, but is now widely diffused in the white [i.e., the Western] nations as an actual world-outlook.” It is, asserts Spengler, the “vulgar mob” that now “gives the tone.” Spengler adds that, “not only tradition and custom, but every kind of refinement — beauty, grace, taste in dress, easy good manners, elegance of speech, control of one’s limbs, education and self-discipline — irritate the vulgar till its blood boils.” Spengler might well be writing about Skorlet and Esteban and the whole stench-permeated milieu of Uncibal and the other Egalist cities.

Wyst belongs to the mid-1970s, but its relevancy has only increased with the decades. Modern Western societies resemble Vance’s Egalist society ominously. The entitlement mentality fostered on the one hand by the welfare state and on the other by the universal project of affirmative action for special classes has lately blossomed in the malodorous weed of the Social Justice Movement, whose warriors, as they call themselves, are visibly unemployed and therefore must be subsidized in their activities, are invariably uneducated, but like the Arrabins conceive themselves as engaged in a struggle to realize a type of “beatific vision.” That this vision is self-contradictory — diversity and equality being mutually exclusive of one another — means that it fails to qualify as beatific. Beatification in being a type of elevation immediately establishes a hierarchy. The SJW vision is fundamentally nihilistic. Egalism too is fundamentally nihilistic, as symbolized by its public suicide spectacles, but it is likewise sacrificial. Resentment drives the urge to sacrifice, to find the one who, for the collective, most inspires its resentment, so that, in acting collectively against him, the collective might reinforce its own perpetually disintegrating unanimity, or its illusion thereof. That is the function, by the way, of political correctness in Western societies: To protect the metaphorical rainbow of the oppressed from disintegration of its colors by feeding to its fractious and voracious solidarity an endless supply of victims who have profaned the sacred idols. Arrabin society is politically correct. The Arrabins have a constabulary of “Monitors” who seek out “non-mutual” activity such as “sexivation” and see to the punishment, which can run to the severe, of the perpetrators. Denunciation appears to be the rule. Friendship has degenerated into convenience. Everyone hates everyone else.

The difference between Vance’s imaginative world and our world is that his possesses a Connatic who can intervene and ours, regrettably, possesses none.

Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books,Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website. For his previous essays, see the Thomas Bertonneau Archives.

19 thoughts on “A Dystopian Masterpiece: Jack Vance’s “Wyst: Alastor 1716”

  1. Fascinating. This is, I think, only a slight tangent; why did one form of totalitarianism, Soviet Communism, produce worthwhile original art (among the propaganda), while National Socialism failed to? It can’t only have been due to the exclusion of Jewish artists.

  2. The outstanding Soviet-era artists were in fact Russian artists, deeply Russian, and dissident in their orientation. The two stellar examples are Dmitri Shostakovich and Alexander Solzhenitsyn; but it is possible to name others. Solzhenitsyn was also a religious man, rooted spiritually in the tradition of Russian orthodoxy. Not so much Shostakovich although he believed himself to have, distantly, Jewish ancestry, in the Polish-Jewish community of the Czestachowa ghetto. A tentative reply to your very provocative question is that while the USSR was progressive, Russia and its people were traditional. In Germany, almost all genuine religiosity had vanished into bland secularity well before the National Socialist advent. One might ask again whether, in music, let us say, the USA produced anything close to the symphonies and string quartets of Shostakovich; or whether Aaron Copland and Roy Harris were pretty much on the same level as officially approved German composers such as Ernst Pepping and Werner Egk. My answer would be Copland and Harris never rose above Pepping and Egk and that Shostakovich is so far above them as practically speaking to be in another cosmos altogether.

    It is significant that Vance makes his protagonist and POV character essentially an artist. Spengler, for his part, regarded politics, especially the politics of diplomacy, as more akin to art than to science. Once governance begins to think of itself as a technique, it has become soulless and will soon prove ineffective.

    • Once governance begins to think of itself as a technique, it has become soulless and will soon prove ineffective.

      That is bureaucracy in a nutshell. What non-Leftists are beginning to call the lawless Deep State. It may be deeper and more lawless in socialist countries. Hard to change course at that point.

      • Indeed. When the governors become technocrat-experts by their own light, the governed become for them, under the same light, a mere “resource” or “material” to be manipulated and organized according to sociological and economic formulas. At the college where I teach, every g– d—— politically correct task, such as the innumerable online “training sessions” with which one must comply, originates in the Office of Human Resources. These sessions are idiotic, propagandistic, and a colossal waste of time. They assume stupidity, while themselves being extraordinarily stupid. There is also about it something cold, humorless, and inhuman. The science fiction writers especially, as K from Germany writes, were warning us about these trends a century ago.

  3. Oh, the memories! I read this when I was probably too young to understand all the ramifications. Should try to rebuild the collection, and this time in original language (had everything in translation back then). There are so many gems in “good old” science fiction. “SF” actually is, and always has been, “Social Fiction” more than anything else. The rest is mostly just decoration. The idea was to inspire reflection on all the political experiments on Earth at the time, to explore all the possible consequences. And it worked brilliantly, even if you don’t remember many details later on. It just doesn’t make your life easier when the result is that you feel like a political homeless from early on, and makes you forever suspicious of “going with the flow” because you’ve seen where it all leads. And decades later I’m beginning to suspect that this is the main reason our elders were always so dead set against consuming all this “junk” as they called it. Their huffing and puffing always just made me want it more. Great call to present it in this context here. Maybe not everybody will understand the why at once. There is so much more out there than “1984”.

  4. Reading fiction is probably the single most civilized activity. It is also the activity that, as you suggest, most deeply informs the intellect and widens the horizons of perception and understanding. When the mainstream novel (that is a preposterous term, but you will know what I mean) went with the nihilistic flow in the middle of the last century, the genre novel replaced it as the vehicle for serious examination of the social, cultural, and political situation.

    I am nominally a literature teacher at the college level. I write “nominally” because it is extremely difficult if not impossible to teach literature to people who either will not or, in some cases, actually cannot read. For a decade at least, the literacy of the entering freshman has been in drastic decline. That young people nowadays never read books explains, I believe, their lack of perception and their proneness to being propagandized by political manipulators. The decline of literacy is driven also by the rise of the cell phone, a device that is stupefying and infantilizing in its effect.

    A company calling itself Spatterlight Press is making Vance’s oeuvre available in very attractive “trade paperback” editions. I am making it my project to familiarize myself with the considerable number of Vance titles that I have not yet read, and to re-read some of the familiar ones.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my essay.

    • it is extremely difficult if not impossible to teach literature to people who either will not or, in some cases, actually cannot read. For a decade at least, the literacy of the entering freshman has been in drastic decline. That young people nowadays never read books explains, I believe, their lack of perception and their proneness to being propagandized by political manipulators.

      Victor Davis Hanson makes this same observation about the lack of reading skills in freshmen. He says it used to be that Remediation classes were offered in reading comprehension and math. But eventually, they were seen as non-P.C. and eliminated.

      Jordan Peterson has plans for these ignorant, disaffected students (mostly male). He’s devising some type of online learning that will reach them.

      I used to have a simple device for any boy ten years old or over who claimed he didn’t like to read (code for “can’t”). I’d give him my copy of Ender’s Game and promise a reward if he finished the first chapter. Without exception, they were pleased that the “reward” was allowing them to keep the book long enough to finish it. If they were from poverty-stricken chaotic homes, I’d allow them to keep it.

      Here it is on Amazon, with over 9,000 reader reviews.


      Amazing that it’s #5 in some category or other, considering it was written in 1985. Whatever his authorial flaws, Orson Scott Card can sink his hooks into any young boy’s mind. Girls, not so much – though I liked it, I never actually slept with it.

      That is true remedial reading.

        • Science fiction has always been aimed at men, young and old. Perhaps he was writing to his younger self…I sometimes thought that of R.A. Lafferty.

          I read Vance because I had the B’s guidance on what to read back when we met; only later did I realize he was in a class of his own. Left on my own devices, I’d never have moved from Jane Austen. The B liked the ‘harder’ science stuff, too. Greg Bear, perhaps?? I recall being less interested in him, more drawn to writers like Lafferty.

          I still think the hook for otherwise-deprived boys could be Ender’s Game. What boy would not self-identify with that poor child? Card’s strength was his ability to portray the fierce envies that can be generated only in sib groups – the Cain and Abel frame.

          RE Vance: what must you have thought when you saw Baron Bodissey had retired to GoV 😉 and taken on Bismarck’s visage?

          • As to your question, Dymphna — I naturally interpreted it as the symbolic confirmation of intuitive sympathy, at first glance, of the Baron’s website, whose physiognomy was instantly apparent and much to my liking.

            I came too late to Ender’s Game. I only read it when the movie came out about a decade ago so it simply could not have impressed me as it undoubtedly would have had I encountered it in the eighth grade. But then when I was in the eighth grade, it was 1967, and Card’s story was not yet written. I was a voracious reader from the third grade on, so I read the equivalent of Ender’s Game many times. It is also the case that I was, as an adolescent, a peculiar reader. I preferred stories whose characters were adults to those whose characters were boys and girls or teenagers.

            Vance is literarily light-years beyond most of his contemporaries. He is a genuine stylist, master of many moods from tragedy to comedy and even slapstick. He is a profound thinker — a kind of penetrating anthropologist and political scientist combined.

  5. I have a question for the Baron concerning the cover illustration on the old DAW Books edition of Wyst. The seated male figure is presumably Jantiff Ravensroke. Who, however, is the striding female figure? I would exclude the possibility that it is Skorlet, concerning whom Vance implies that she is plain. More likely it is Kedidah, whom Jantiff finds striking. Even in that case, however, a small problem remains. The sartorial style on Wyst is as bland as the food and the habit adopted by the striding female figure would certainly catch the attention of the Monitors as “sexivationist” and “non-mutual.”

    • I can’t remember her name, but she’s the one who eventually commits suicide in Disjerferact, if I’m not mistaken.

      The last time I read the novel was about five years ago, so the details have once again slipped away.

  6. I want to thank Bertonneau for his detailed and extremely informative precis of the Wyst novel. I remember reading it many years ago, but did not fathom the many nuances Bertonneau brought out in his description. Now, I have the choice of trying to dig the novel out of the dusty bookshelves of my ex, or spring for $6 to get the ebook edition to reread.

    I also thank him for the orientation towards Spengler’s Decline of the West, which I am attempting to read sporadically. I don’t know of a more difficult book yet within the realms of possible reading for me. An advanced book on, say, quantum mechanics, would be flat-out impossible, while “Decline of the West” is tantalizing. What Spengler does is take the details of, say, math, music, architecture and the like in the different civilizations, to show the radically different world views of each society as they permeate all the accomplishments of that society. Thus, the Diophantine equations of classical Greece denote an orientation towards integers and wholeness which is quantitatively different from the functionals and integrals of the pre-World War I era within which Spengler was writing.

    For someone like me, with the fuzziest notion of the math forms (and I don’t mean fuzzy math), it’s rough sledding.

    We have the question of nature versus nurture once again writ large. In Uncibal, individual competence and discrimination is not only not not reinforced, but is actively punished. Basic food and shelter is provided for everyone, although as a very low level of existence. Any deviation from the norm is treated as a guilty luxury, including the underground trade in edible foods. It reminds me very much of the r/K selection theory, where you have an environment of plentiful food and low selection pressures (r) versus an environment of scarce foods and environmental dangers leading to the active death of unfit individuals (K). The r environment leads to large cohorts of children, raised with almost no parental effort, and selected on the basis of the number of copulations an individual achieves. This seems to describe Tanzel to a ‘t’, whose parents let her tag along but in reality could care less what her fate is.

    My view is that you don’t simply have the malevolent environment shaping the personalities of the inhabitants, but the population itself changes.

    In fact, you begin to create that sort of environment-population interplay whenever you eliminate the selection pressures on the population through the welfare state or even a minimum “floor” of a guaranteed standard of living, and create a bureaucracy to implement that social objective. Bureaucracies, like the AIDS virus, exist only to grow and perpetuate themselves and to co-opt the fruits of productive organisms to benefit the bureaucracy.

    I would guess the existence of an actual connatic as an all-powerful intermediary, would be far more likely to be harmful than to be good. On the one hand, you have the dictators in Muslim countries, such as Sissi of Egypt and Assad of Syria, who represent the only hope for modernity of Muslim societies, and dictators like Juncker of the EU on the other, who represent the pinnacle of parasitic, bureaucratic self-perpetuation. A centralization of power will always attract the efforts of the vested interests.

    • Thank you, Ronald, for your comment. Spengler is a challenge to read, but perhaps not as daunting a one as he seems. I see it this way: The two volumes of the Decline are twenty short books, posing as chapters. You can read those short books sequentially, skipping one now and then, or you can read them out of order, as your interest or curiosity takes you. Either way, gradually, they form a whole on the basis of their heterogeneous contributions. I confess that I have never read the first chapter of Volume I, the chapter (precisely!) on mathematics.

      I think of Vance’s Connatic as Marcus Aurelius or maybe as Bismarck, whom Spengler greatly admired. I also think of him in Platonic terms as Vance’s “true myth” of a just ruler. He is an “ought” rather than an “is,” if you get my drift. If the Connatic’s “ought” were realizable, and we realized him, then, on being apprised of a Hillary or a Juncker, he would take notice and send in his Whelm to put things to rights.

      On the malevolence of Vance’s “Egalism”: It is definitely malevolent because it is fanatical and its basis is pure, unadulterated resentment of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. It is also, like Islam or Communism,or for that matter Liberalism, metastatic. When the Egalist embassy visits the Connatic, one of them shouts out that Egalism must spread itself throughout the Alastor Cluster. Your “Bureaucracy = AIDS” metaphor is, in this sense, quite accurate.

      Thank you for taking the time to read my essay.

  7. Thank you for the opportunity to read your enlightening and profound conversation…
    To Sci-Fi i was introduced to me at age 15 in Poland by reading a book “The Magellanic Cloud ” by S.LEM https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanis%C5%82aw_Lem
    I was “blow-away”
    Free at last…traveling thru the wast space of Universe among good and peaceful people…
    Reading books help me to forget my hunger,violence and cold i was surrounded..
    Books become the only real Friend..To get a “good book” in that time takes a lot efforts and sacrifices ..
    Reading a books in my Generation was a Big think..and very dangerous…Kafka,Orwell,C.S Lewis and others like were strictly forbidden and non accessible ..If same one was catch ,punishment was severe..
    I wasn’t lack enough to get a grip on Orwell..
    The first think i did when i arrived in Canada was going then to the movie theater and watch 1984..and read all his books..Habit of reading a Sci-Fi books in time of trouble and anguish habit remained ..
    Never heard of Vance before..Yesterday i went to local library and i ordered few books by him..

    • Stanislaw Lem is one of the great imaginations of the Twentieth Century. His Solaris is a novel of profound humanity; it is also an incisive critique of the Communist administrations of those nations left “behind the Iron Curtain” after WWII. Dissident Soviet-era Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky adapted Solaris as a film in 1972. The film, like the novel, is a resistance-monument commemorating those who opposed internally, at great risk to themselves, the anti-human, ideological regimes of of our historical era. If you are in Ontario or Quebec, we are close enough to meet sometime. Let us consider it.

  8. Dear Sir.
    Reading your conversation with others i was deeply touched..
    I wonder how my Life would looks like ,how my personality would developed if i have in Poland such a Teacher like you..
    I have to say ,students in North America are VERY fortune to have a tutors and guide in teacher of your caliber..
    In this World ,where what you have ,not who you are ,determinate direction & quality of Life ,people like You, Dymphna,Baron & other present here are dying species..
    You simply care.You are depository of Values..
    Values which are the treasures of Humanity and Thousand years of Human Civilization Achievement..
    I would sincerely say Thank You ,that you are…thank you for willing to share your Wisdom and Beauty of Human Soul..
    I disagree with some opinion presented here…But i/m coming here for the Light,Truth and Humanity..all this are the Food for my Soul i can,t find out there int this cruel and unforgiving World..
    ps. Right now i/m in Toronto to the end of May..
    Sure if you have spare time we can meet and have a coffee at Starbucks..
    ps2.For those who care : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtfrn5i-3CY

  9. A beautiful review of this masterwork. Admittedly I’m biased, for Vance has been my favorite author for several decades. Oddly, the points covered are those I retain as my mental picture of this book; the details and events remain fresh every time I read it (if I haven’t lost track, 7 times now… the problem with picking up any Jack Vance novel is that pretty soon I’ve reread the entire shelf.)

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