Friday, April 21, 2017

Appendix N Review: Planet of Adventure by Jack Vance

The review series continues! This time we're taking a look at an honorable mention on the Appendix N list, Planet of Adventure by Jack Vance! The reason I call this an honorable mention is because, while it is not expressly mentioned on the list, it does say "Eyes of the Overworld, Dying Planet, et. al." and this I took to mean that the rest of Jack Vance's work is de facto included in the list. So for the purposes of this review, we're going to treat it like it's on the list. Yes, it's science fiction. Yes, Gygax's intention with the rules of D&D was a sort of fantasy world based loosely on medieval Europe. No, it doesn't precisely fit in with the rest of the list. But with a list as diverse as to have H. P. Lovecraft sitting next to Fritz Leiber sitting next to Micheal Moorcock sitting next to Tolkien, I figure that a little bit of fudging based on the "et al." is well within the acceptable spirit of the rules. That, and part of this book directly influenced a Mazes & Perils campaign that I'm going to be DM'ing, so I figure that helps it make the cut. At least in my estimation.

Now as I get the vast majority of my reading done through audiobooks, I'll start this out by going over the audio version of this particular story, available on Audible. The narrator, Elijah Alexander, does a serviceable job. Usually I judge a narrator on a few points, these being actual voice, performance, whether or not the narrator attempts to put on different voices for different characters, and flubbed lines (although that's more the fault of the editor than the actor, but it's one of those things that sticks in your mind).

Mr. Alexander's voice is perfect for this type of story. He sounds like a 1950's radio drama narrator, and as such is able to give this story a certain feel that few narrators would be able to bring to the table. His performance is acceptable. He isn't that proficient with putting on voices, apart from Anacho, but he enunciates properly and there was no part in this book that I was confused about the words of the text. Also the editors did their damned job on this audiobook, and there were no flubbed lines anywhere that I'm able to remember.  It's not an amazing, groundbreaking performance, but it's perfectly serviceable and fits the story very well.

As to the story itself, well frankly I don't really know what to do with this. Like Nethereal, it has several elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror in it. This is one of those Appendix N stories that just said, "lol fuck genre, this is COOL,"  and ran with it like a kid with scissors. It is also actually four novels in one anthology. City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, and The Pnume, are the names of the individual novels, but the story flows together so seamlessly that, if you threw them all together with no divisions between the novels, you'd never be able to tell them apart. It really does feel as though Vance wrote them all at once then almost arbitrarily decided to cut it up into four different books.

The basic plot is simple enough. Adam Reith is an astronaut sent to a faraway planet with a team of researchers to investigate mysterious radio signals that emanated from it at one time, but stopped as mysteriously as they began. The way the beginning of this plot plays out should tell you all you need to know about the books that follow it. In the prologue of City of the Chasch, the team is introduced, Reith's job as a scout (which we will come back to later) is described, Reith and Waunder (another scout) are sent to the planet, and a missile strikes the mothership, killing everybody except the two scouts. And as if that wasn't enough, in the first three pages of the first chapter hostile natives chop off Waunder's head while he's unconscious right in front of Reith's eyes!

Yeah, it's that kind of book.

While Reith quickly finds himself alone on the planet, he just (or nearly just) as quickly finds himself a new comrade in Traz Onmale, the young chieftain of the Emblem Men, who are a tribe of human descendants that are ruled by the emblems they wear on their hats which decide their actions and their personalities. Traz leaves the village with Reith, and it's pretty much all downhill from there. To avoid spoilers I'll keep the rest of the plot to myself, apart from isolated reveals of details about the setting that are too interesting to not talk about. But trust me, you'll want to read this one.

So where do I even start after the plot? This has to be the most incredibly dense science fiction story I've ever read. I'm fairly used to new scifi, things like Firefly, or Trek, or Star Wars. You know, gigantic, galaxy-spanning settings with huge governmental entities controlling everything they can get their hands on, and rebellious small factions taking them on. Or even something like Farscape wherein the rebellion is like eight people + 1 starship, or Stargate where the main characters have no ship but thanks to the gates they travel all over the universe. Nothing in my previous experience with science fiction really prepared me for a four-novel scifi story that takes place completely on ONE planet.

Because the saga of Adam Reith takes place almost wholly on Tschai. He is incapable of leaving the planet, despite how hard he's trying to. And Tschai is BIG. I mean really big. Immense. YUGE. The biggest, believe me.

There are about six races on Tschai, five of them major players in the events of PoA, and two of those are divided up into sub-races. There are the Chasch, which are divided up into Green Chasch, Blue Chasch, and Old Chasch. They're an old and decadent race that is on the cultural down slope, and if it weren't for their advanced technology someone would've bulldozed them a long time ago. The Dirdir are feline/reptile creatures that are partially feral, but at the same time have an interest in high cultural pursuits and consider themselves to be superior to the other races of Tschai, an attitude which filters down to their slaves. The Wankh (or Wannek, if you're playing GURPS: Planet of Adventure) are secretive and isolationist, not even speaking the common tongue of Tschai, as well as being the only race to maintain space travel and an airfield for their spaceships. The Pnume are underground dwelling, insect like creatures that have little or nothing to do with the other races of Tschai except for their slaves, maintaining vast tunnel networks and a rigid social hierarchy. The Phung are crazy lone wanderers whose actions make little sense, perhaps even to themselves. The men are divided up into perhaps hundreds of sub-races, including the Emblem Men, Chaschmen, Dirdirmen, Wankhmen, Pnumekin, and other less common variants.

Now just for some perspective on how dense all this is, each of these groups has their own languages written and spoken, customs, technology, social hierarchies, histories, religious practices, and so on and so forth. Now the languages don't come up all that often, except in a certain section where the written language of the Wankh has to be translated. But the cultural practices definitely do, and the entire series is basically Reith experiencing culture shock over and over again after recovering from the worst case of jet lag you've ever heard of. I would reveal more, because this book is completely engrossing if for nothing other than the sheer cultural anthropology of the world Vance has brought to life, but half of the fun of this book is discovering all these different cultures and races, and the mysteries behind them.

So far as gaming, like I said, this book is a masterclass in world building, and for the aspiring GM looking to spice up his game and get tips on fleshing out the different races for his setting, this is a blessing straight from Gygax himself. The different areas of Tschai, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the different races are definitely gameable, as show by that GURPS rulebook I mentioned before. Because yes, that does exist. But if you're not a fan of GURPS, or are just looking for a way to spice up your world, Planet of Adventure is the place to find it. For example, the feral hunting practices of the Dirdir would map very well onto a non-Tokienesque version of elves. I've even adapted the idea of the coin in trade in the land being gathered from one particular very dangerous place into a campaign I'm designing.

There's also the matter of the Scout class, which seems to be a catchall for everything from fighting man to thief. The only thing Reith doesn't do is use magic, because magic doesn't exist on Tschai. To my understanding it was adapted into another role playing system apart from the GURPS adaptation of this setting, The Traveler game. This is a thing that I could see being difficult to map into a rule set as a custom class, but it is doable. I'm just not experienced enough to do it myself, unfortunately.

But getting back to the literary portion of the review, the overall tone of this book series blew me away. It feels much more like Drizzt Do'Urden and his friends blowing through a fantasy setting rather than a science fiction novel. There's not a lot of hard scifi here, but the story doesn't suffer for it. At heart, Planet of Adventure is an adventure story. Shocking, I know, but that really is the focus of it. Vance doesn't waste time explaining the physics of Tschai, or the principles on which the weapons used work, or even the intricacies of space travel. This is about one man, stranded on an alien planet, desperately trying to get home and warn his people about the danger facing them. Reith swashbuckles, lies, cheats, steals, murders, and valiantly saves the day over the course of this story, giving it a feel much closer to what I've heard of John Carter of Mars or even Conan than what Brian Niemeier calls Big Men With Screwdrivers science fiction. Reith uses his smarts and sword arm (figuratively) to get him out of jams far more than he uses his knowledge of advanced scientific concepts.

And the way that the world is developed and laid out, the aliens feel more like ogres and elves instead of your classic wacky space aliens. Apart from the Wankh, of course, who are a completely other animal that nobody will expect. There are also the different slave tribes of human, each viewing the other as freaks and oddities, not true men. They also each have their own idiosyncrasies as well, which are gathered from their master races. The Dirdirmen are very prim and proper, believing themselves to be above everybody but the Dirdir themselves. The Wankhmen are very secretive and devious, and interact with their 'masters' in a completely unprecedented way compared to the way the rest of the slave races interact with theirs. The Chaschmen, in a spectacular turn of Vance's, actually have a religious belief that they are destined to become Chasch themselves!

All in all, Planet of Adventure absolutely floored me, and I could not stand the moments where I had to pause the audiobook, or wait until I was back at work, so that I could get to the next damn part of the story. The prose races along at a breakneck pace, and it is a story that is so much fun to 'read' that I could barely contain my excitement on realizing that science fiction could DO THAT.

I highly recommend this series. If you're not into audiobooks, that's fine, you won't be missing anything that you'd want on your bucket list. It's not like we're talking about the audio adaptations of The Witcher stories, here. But the actual story of Tschai and Reith itself is so incredibly engaging, interesting, and so much damned fun that you won't regret picking this up in any of its incarnations. The audio version is available on Audible under the name Planet of Adventure, and you can find a Kindle version on Amazon under the name Tschai. You should absolutely buy this one, it will open your mind to possibilities in scifi that, given what I've read in the genre from Heinlein onwards, is completely unprecedented and mind blowing.

Music is Ourobouros by Kevin Macleod:

Ouroboros Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License


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