"Araminta Station" has a large cast of spirited characters, a plot with enough complexity to match "Dune", an array of bizarre human and alien behaviors and a tone that's one hundred percent Jack Vance. This adventure takes us to the planet Cadwal, which was permanently placed under the control of the Naturalist Society to preserve its great natural beauty. The official charter limits it to 240 inhabitants and their families, divided into six bureaus and structured on a rigid social system. Everyone knows their place, or at least is supposed to. But as usual, problems develop. A young officer named Glawen Glattuc finds himself dealing with family feuds, dangerous rivalries, political intrigue and a major crime spree while also swimming through the confusing currents of adolescent life, which remain quite similar on any planet.
Any detailed discussion would rob you of the delights of discovering this novel's twists and turns for yourself. I can, however, hit some of its main strengths. Of course at 554 pages in hardback, "Araminta Station" is longer than a typical Vance outing. Vance makes good use of this space. The plot is full of surprises, as entirely new aspects arise at the most unexpected moments. Moreover, Vance fully incorporates everything in the story. For instance we have the Yips, a race living on a remote island who perform the menial labor on Cadwal. They have a society packed with Vance-style weirdness (celebrating the foul odor known as the "Big Chife" and charging tourists money to see women doing the laundry) but also a role in the story. Yip maneuvers pop up to complicate life for the Clattucs at the most inconvenient times. (The Yip element also provides a surprising degree of relevancy in an age when we Americans all claim to hate illegal Mexican immigrants yet willingly enjoy the cheap labor that they provide.)
Dominating it all, however, is the unmistakable Jack Vance tone. Unmistakable, I say, yet who can really pinpoint precisely how Vance makes his voice so unique? We can say this much. In "Araminta Station", as in any Vance book, the heroes are a small handful of tough, intelligent, resourceful and clever individuals. Arrayed against them we find all manner of inferiors: murderers, criminals, con artists, ostentatious braggarts, political loons, religious fanatics, the petty, the weak and the stupid. A decently large chunk of the book shows us the good guys dealing with this scum. Vance's heros, if not sarcastic, are at least single-minded in the way they push through the rabble to do what must be done. The wit and wisdom of Vance lies in communication. How do people at cross purposes interact with each other? What happens when conversation becomes more like a battle? Almost every page of "Araminta Station" produces a notable quote. Here are a few:
"Whatever you have heard about me, dismiss it. I do not regard my class as a confrontation between the clear light of my intellect and twenty-two examples of sloth and willful stupidity. The exact number may be only half that, if we are lucky, and of course varies from term to term. Despite all, I am a kindly man, patient and thorough, but if I must elucidate the obvious more than twice, I often become gloomy." (p. 228)
"You are a willful young devil. If insolence were bricks and insubordination were mortar you could build a great palace for yourself." (p. 351)
Glawen said, "I believe that safety is important. It is better to arrive alive than dead."
"This is exactly my point," said Bant. "I have explained this to Esmer: what is the value of thirty minutes, more or less, to a corpse? He is already late and no longer in a hurry. The time is more useful on this side of the veil, such is my belief." (p. 491)
"The theft of this cloak from Arles' room will cause consternation but no surprise, and Arles will learn to dress more modestly in the future."
Kirdy gave a dry chuckle. "Arles might even volunteer his cloak, were he asked."
"Possibly, but when one asks permission, one often gets no for an answer. As it is, Arles has not specifically forbidden us the cloak, which is good enough for me." (p. 250)