(Darrell Sweet’s cover for the 1975 edition)
Even though I’ve previously read only three of Jack Vance’s lesser known works, The Showboat World (1975), The Blue World (1966) and City of the Chasch (1968) I’ve come to appreciate his world building and solid story telling abilities. Marune: Alastor 933 (1975), although not the best of his Alastor trilogy, is no exception. I recommend the work for all fans of space opera, “fantasy in space,” and fans of Vance’s more famous works who haven’t yet tracked down other works of his substantial catalogue.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
This work of space opera takes place in the Alastor Cluster, a node of thirty thousands live stars, ruled by the mysterious Connatic from his palace on Numenes. On the planet of Bruse-Tansel, Alastor 1102, a man arrives at the spaceport with no knowledge of his past, his own name, or shred of memory. The doctors suggest that he take a journey the hospital on Numenes. However, unable to pay for the fair he works at a labor camp and is referred by the name Pardero (given to him by the superintendent of the spaceport), a famous sports figure on the planet.
On the planet of Numenes the hospital is unable to treat his condition. Instead, he’s taken to the facilities in the Connatic’s palace – a massive multi-domed structure rising from the ocean. His reactions to a vast variety of subjects (art, music, women, sounds, etc) are documented a profile computer. The computer’s conclusion: he’s a native of the unusual planet of Marune, where a vast number of moons, other planets, and stars modulate the color and intensity of light on the surface. Night comes infrequently to Marune.
The culture of Marune is varied as well. The Majar, the original inhabitants of the planet, reside in a decaying town. The Rhunes, the colonizing species, of which Pardero is a member, live in palatial complexes away from the spaceport (Port Mar) in the hills. The Rhunes engage in ridiculously complex rituals, esoteric activities, highly regulated warfare with each other, and have no appreciation for music (except in its mathematical properties – I suspect the Rhunes would adore the player-piano works of Conlon Nancarrow).
Rhunic men learn metallurgy and spend their time cataloguing gems or writing histories of their own families while women learning to mix scents (among other similarly time consuming and esoteric activities) which are unleashed in unusual combinations as entertainment and relaxation. The only time the Rhunes engage in carnal relations is during Mirk, the Marune’s infrequent nighttime. During this time, the men dress up in breastplates, man masks, without trousers and run around their castles and their neighbor’s castles while the women either bolt their doors or wait for the men to come… Their “marriages” or trisme are for political purposes only. Many aspects of Rhunic culture are inspired by European chivalry (although it was never practiced in such a codified manner) – Vance takes great enjoyment highlighting the more absurd elements and extent to which the Rhunes adhere to them.
The third race is the mysterious Fwai-Chi. They live in the mountains and go on pilgrimages to their holy places. They are ascribed various pseudo-magical powers (the ability to discern that a crime has happened, magical properties to their shag, etc). They are of paramount importance to the narrative by reside off in the background – heightening their mystery.
When Pardero, our amnesiac hero, returns to Marune he comes across various friends of his in Port Mar. From them he realizes that he’s the Kaiark Efraim, the ruler of one of the many realms of the Rhune. He couldn’t have returned at a more opportune time as a new Kaiark was just about to be installed. He attempts to regain his inheritance amongst the continuous plotting and intrigue of his enemies. And, looing over his head, is the quest to find who drugged him, removed his memory, and shuttled him off planet. Of course, with no memory of the complicated Rhunic customs, he must relearn his previous ways. But, with knowledge of the outside world, he is more inclined to bend the rules.
Marune: Alastor 933 is an engaging read throughout (I read it in one sitting) due to the fascinating world of Marune. Unfortunately, our hero Pardero (a la Efraim) comes off as rather bland. Yes, he doesn’t ascribe to Rhunic customs, yes, he experienced the outside worlds and the “passion” of Port Mar but there was something less than convincing about how he re-integrated himself in his previous home. The plot itself is straightforward and predictable which always isn’t major problem considering the seductive nature of Marune and its mysteries. Vance is at his best developing the societal ramifications derived from the nature of a planet that is seldom dark and often decked in a variety of different colors due to the confluence of planets and stars. There are moments in the narrative when the world feels vibrant and alive, unfortunately, most of the characters do not.
(David B. Mattingly’s cover for the 1981 edition)
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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Marune: Alastor 933, Jack Vance (1975)”
Great review that echoes my own sentiments about both this story and Vance’s strengths in world- and culture-building. The plots tend to exist to showcase the setting and the protagonists are typically a bit on the bland side (this is not true of his best work though). Yet somehow these shortcomings rarely seem to matter in light of the cleverness of the setting/backdrop.
I wish the Big Planet novels (The Big Planet, The Showboat World) had more interesting characters. I really enjoy that sprawling, sparkly populated, anarchic world….
I read this book as it was first serialized in one of the SF magazines (Amazing, perhaps). I recall that it was good, not great–similar to your conclusion.
There’s great promise in the world he creates — but the action/characters don’t fully flesh out the experience. The work feels more like an interesting world building exercise than novel.
“our hero Pardero (a la Efraim) comes off as rather bland” <– It is only at the very end of the story that Efraim regains his memories.
"not the best of his Alastor trilogy" <– I wonder if Marune was written in a rush for Amazing Science Fiction. Too short, no appearance by the Connatic.
Seems about right. But still, Efraim does integrate himself extraordinarily quickly into that society even without having his memories…. That aspect seemed rushed, uneven, etc. I’m reading Wyst: Alastor 1716 at the moment, it’s great fun.