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Dated and rather superficially plotted
on 22 February 2012
My main conclusion on having read this set of four books is that SF really has advanced a long way since they were first written. I was surprised on investigating to find that the last book was published as late as 1970: I would have guessed it twenty years older. The stories have plenty of "adventures" in the form of fights, escapes and plans, but there is no depth to any of it; nor is there any overall plot other than Adam Reith's endeavours to leave the alien planet and get back to Earth. Reith and his local companions Traz and Ancho form a carefully balanced but rather static triad: Reith is good at plans and at beating people up, Traz is intuitive and understands the wilderness, Ancho is at home in Tschai's version of civilisation. The world in which Reith finds himself is pretty awful--humans are enslaved and deceived in huge numbers--but he doesn't distinguish himself morally: the first book ends with the slaughter of an entire alien city's population, and throughout the series murder and robbery are crucial tools in all his schemes. To me the most interesting sections are those dealing with the gangster Aila Woudiver in books III and IV: he is Vance's best character, constantly flattering others and harping on his own pitiful condition, while behind the protagonists' backs manoeuvring them into profitable games of his own. Women in the story seem there only to get captured and be rescued, or as what in Dungeons and Dragons would be called "non-player characters": hotel-keepers and the like. I gather from the Wikipedia that the series was originally commissioned as juvenile fiction, and I think it might have been more suited to that market.