City of the Chasch

City of the Chasch - Jack Vance _The Chasch_ (originally published as _City of the Chasch_) is sort of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars as envisioned by Jack Vance. It is an entertaining Planetary Romance tale (or Sword & Planet if you prefer that designation) that describes the adventures of Adam Reith, Earthman and sole survivor of the Explorator IV a starship that is destroyed by unknown forces while in orbit above the planet Tschai. Reith is a Scout, meaning that he is a Jack-of-all-Trades uniquely equipped for survival in a hostile and alien environment. Good thing too, since Tschai is a world in turmoil that will throw everything it has at Reith.

Once the basics of mere survival are attained Reith begins to explore this strange new world and finds a menagerie of aliens and apparent humanity locked in endless and fruitless struggle. Vance displays his typically deft hand with the painting of bizarre cultures that spell out the various ways in which human (and alien) nature can be twisted by convention and assumptions into nearly unrecognizable forms. The planet seems to have once belonged to the mysterious Pnume and their insane kin the Phung in ages past. Now these creatures are rarely seen and only then as shadowy figures in the distance watching the current denizens of the world from their underground tunnels. The Chasch, who apparently ‘conquered’ the Pnume, are lizard men of three varieties: Old, Blue and Green, who war amongst themselves as much as with everyone else. The final waves of conquest were led by the Dirdir, a race of warlike, though apparently highly cultured aliens, and the Wannek (in the original publication the unfortunately named Wankh) an as yet unseen group of aliens. Each of these alien races displays varying degrees of high technology (they are apparently still space-faring) mixed with elements of antiquated, even barbarian culture (swords, armour, monarchical governments, etc.) Mixed in with these alien races is an innumerable array of human offshoots: some are client races to the existing aliens, thus the Chaschmen, Dirdirmen, Pnumekin and Wannekmen who seemed to have been genetically and cosmetically modified to display some of the physical characteristics of their masters and who each think that they are the ‘true’ human race derived in some way from their ‘parent’ alien race. In addition to these client human races are the various ‘barbarians’ who give fealty to no aliens, but tend to live in very degraded circumstances. All of these races on Tschai are seemingly intent upon killing each other, though none of them wish to upset the current balance of power and thus restrict themselves to small battles and bandit raids…none of the races is quite powerful enough to completely overpower the others and each of the aliens is capable of dealing a death blow to the planet should anyone attempt to overrun them.

Reith is the wild card thrust into this scenario. A typically competent and dry-witted Vance hero, he is both perplexed and aghast at the existence of so degraded an example of humanity on this planet and while he initially intends only to find his stolen space boat and return to earth he soon becomes embroiled in the local conflicts and decides that he must help his estranged and enslaved kinsmen. Along the way he will of course fall in with some allies who are impressed by his competence, technological know-how and ability to lead and meets the requisite alien princess in need of his assistance. I especially enjoyed Vance’s various cultures (esp. the fascinating Emblem Men whose culture is determined by the totemic signets they wear and which give the men a unique identity and motivation, the reality of these emblems is left somewhat mysterious…is it real or only a figment in the minds of the people enslaved by this ideology?) Vance’s signature ornate language was on somewhat less display than I had expected, and had hoped for, though certain characters did exhibit it. All in all this was an enjoyable adventure story with a little bit extra, but I wasn’t left gasping for more at the end. I will likely eventually continue the “Planet of Adventure” series, of which this is the first book, but I still think that Vance’s “Lyonesse” trilogy is his best work.