A couple of years ago I was at the Readercon convention listening to a panel on fantasy, where one of the panellists declared that Michael Swanwick was the greatest living fantasist, to general murmurs of agreement. Then one of them said, “Wait, isn’t Jack Vance still alive?” More murmurs of agreement, and a modification that Michael Swanwick was merely the greatest living fantasist still regularly writing.

At the time of writing, Jack Vance has been dead for a few days. I never met him. I haven’t even read much of his work, though coincidentally I was reading one of his Demon Princes novels this past week. But some of what I’ve read has been spectacular, none more so than today’s story.

Thissell is a representative of an interplanetary government, taking up a post on Sirene. The local language is simple to learn, and though he’s read that musical instruments are played during speech, he thinks this won’t be too difficult. In a similar way he sees as quaint the custom of always wearing masks that refer to their myth cycles, and that they have no currency beyond a form of personal prestige called strakh.

His complacency is mistaken. These customs are taken seriously, and his predecessor was killed in a duel over them. Only the three offworlders on the planet are willing to give him any leeway and teach them what he needs to function in the society.

For example, musical accompaniment is a fundamental part of their language. If you merely speak, they will literally not register that you are making sounds with connotations. In fact there are many different instruments, all small enough to be played one-handed, each for separate purposes: Only slaves sing without accompaniment. I suggest that you learn the following instruments as quickly as possible: The hymerkin for your slaves. The ganga for conversation between intimates or one a trifle lower than yourself in strakh. The kiv for casual polite intercourse. The zachinko for more formal dealings. The strapan or the krodatch for your social inferiors—in your case, should you wish to insult someone.

Another offworlder lends him a couple of slaves and a houseboat where he can practice his instruments. But even after three months Thissell’s grasp of the language and customs is rudimentary at best.

Then he receives news that forces him to leave the safety of his houseboat. Angmark, a notorious criminal, is en route to Sirene, and Thissell is to apprehend him or lose his position.

But things go wrong, he almost gets into a lethal duel, and by the time he reaches the rocket Angmark has already disembarked. Worse, the criminal has lived on Sirene before and is fluent in its language and customs.

One of Vance’s strengths is the vivid worlds and societies he creates. The rules and customs of Sirene are presented as being labyrinthine without ever feeling arbitrary. The masks, the music and the obligations all give the impression that this society is fully functional and explicable to its inhabitants, while still feeling like a nightmarishly complicated maze that Thissell (and therefore the reader) is not practiced enough to navigate.

The setting is such that there’s almost no need for an antagonist; Thissell versus society provides more than enough drama. But Vance escalates this nicely into a seemingly impossible position for Thissell: how can he ever hope to find Angmark in a world where everyone not only wears masks, but changes them regularly? The answer is clever and plays fair with the rules of the world, none more so than at the very end.

The Moon Moth by Jack Vance

Availability: print, free audio available

Word count: 12,500

First published: Galaxy, Aug 1961

Where to find it: An audio drama is available for free from Seeing Ear Theatre at SFFaudio here (a little way down the page)

There is also a free unabridged reading by Starship Sofa in two parts: part 1 and part 2

Modern Classics of Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, 1993, St Martin’s Press

The Road to Science Fiction Volume Four: From Here to Forever, edited by James Gunn, 2003, Scarecrow Press

The Jack Vance Treasury, collection, 2007, Subterranean Press

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume IIB, edited by Ben Bova, 2008, Tor

It has also been adapted as a graphic novel, illustrated by Humayoun Ibrahim

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