Short Book Reviews: Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao (1958), Kit Reed’s Fort Privilege (1985), and John Shirley’s Transmaniacon (1979)

Note: My read but “waiting to be reviewed pile” is growing. Short rumination/tangents are a way to get through the stack before my memory and will fades. Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.


1. The Languages of Pao, Jack Vance (1958)

3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)

Since I started my site in 2011, I’ve soured a bit on Jack Vance’s brand of planetary adventure in richly realized and exotic worlds. I doubt I’d currently rate novels like Showboat World (1975) or The Blue World (1966) as highly as I did back then. One of more appealing elements of having a single project for so long is my ability to track my evolving views on genre. That said, I’d classify Wyst: Alastor 1716 (1978) and The Languages of Pao (1958) amongst his most conceptually ambitious novels I’ve read so far and worth tracking down. For a full list consult my index. Note: I read but never reviewed Dying Earth (1950).

The inhabitants of Beran’s home planet of Pao are a “homogeneous people” who speak the same language, do not follow “religion or cult” (6), and exhibit no “great variations of feature or physique” (5). At its core The Languages of Pao suggests that language “is more than a means of communication, it is a system of thought” (45). The novel argues that language creates societal conduct rather than vice versa (46). Pao’s passive language promotes passivity. Popularly called linguistic relativity or the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, Vance posits that language “imposes a certain world-view upon the mind” (81). Learning new languages transforms perception and thought.

The story traces the coming of age of Beran, the new Panarch, after the assassination of his father. Due to the political ambitions of his uncle Bustamonte, Beran ends up in exile on Breakness where wizards, think post-human cyborgs devoted to learning and fierce theologies of individuality, train him in their language and way of life. He slowly comes to grips with his unique perspective as a Paonese trained by Breakness. Bustamonte, the usurper, and Palafox, Beran’s Breakness master, have their own plan for Pao. They will force certain groups of Paoese to learn new languages in order to cast of their passivity. Beran must both liberate his people and provide a new path forward.

I found the ideas in The Languages of Pao elevate the story above its banal plot and muddled action. Recommended for fans of early social SF.


2. Transmaniacon, John Shirley (1979)

3/5 (Average)

Last year I read and enjoyed John Shirley’s second SF novel City Come A-Walkin’ (1980). I praised the work as a “surreal and earthy paean to diverse urban community and punk rebellion” but pointed out that “Shirley struggles to pull the reader into the mechanism of the hackneyed political corruption plot.” Intrigued but not completely convinced, I immediately tracked down copies of Eclipse (1985), Three-Ring Psychus (1980), and his first SF novel Transmaniacon (1979). The plot follows the somewhat immoral/antiheroic professional irritant Ben Rackey in a decadent proto-cyberpunk far future as he attempts to steal The Exciter in order to destroy The Barrier, a defense mechanism erected to protect the US from nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare.

Transmaniacon (1979) feels like a first novel. The ambition is present. A swirling nightmare kaleidoscope of images flash by at breakneck speed. It’s bizarre. It’s violent. Information overload on steroids. Ideas are layered on ideas and then cast off never to reappear. As with City Come A-Walkin’ (1980) Shirley excels at INTENSITY and MOOD but I found this freshman SF novel too surface to dive into.

Recommended only for John Shirley completists. Check out Eclipse (1985) or City Come A-Walkin’ (1980) first if he’s new to you.


3. Fort Privilege, Kit Reed (1985)

3/5 (Average)

Kit Reed’s short fiction cuts and cauterizes. The themes she explores in short work forms a laundry list of Joachim Boaz favorites–paranoia, post-apocalyptic landscapes, youth gangs, dislocation, drugged cities, mechanical toys, sinister retirement communities, rural ritual, and the power of media. Check out my review of Reed’s collection Mister Da V. and Other Stories (1967) for a demonstration of her talents. Her novels have proved a bit more hit and miss. I enjoyed her antiwar fable Armed Camps (1969)–“all about characters constructing narratives and conjuring visions in order to keep the aphotic tides of societal disintegration at bay”–but I found Magic Time (1980), while an occasionally humorous metafictional romp through a theme park, middling at best. Fort Privilege (1985) ranks more among the latter in quality.

Fort Privilege, a satire of the upper classes, imagines a New York City completely transformed by white flight to the suburbs and extraordinary rates of crime. Only the ultra wealthy, able to conjure the funds to create oasis within their fortified mansions, remain in Manhattan, mostly oblivious to the world outside their choreographed lives. Bart feels a compulsion to return to the Parkhurst mansion, where he spent his earliest years before his parents fled from the city. But the New York he knows has mostly disappeared. The streets are crowded with abandoned cars. The buildings boarded up. But the Parkhurst still looms above it all. The Parkhurst’s residents are protected by Abel, a modern Lord of the Manor, who refuses to concede that world he remembers has long since disappeared. The story follows the inhabitants of Parkhurst who must confront the forces that seek to destroy the final abode of the ultrarich and conquer their own personal demons.

Regardless of a few missteps, Kit Reed deserves to win the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award which aims “to honors underread science fiction and fantasy authors, with the intention of drawing renewed attention to the winners.” I’ll read another collection of her short fiction, perhaps Killer Mice (1976), next.


For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

15 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao (1958), Kit Reed’s Fort Privilege (1985), and John Shirley’s Transmaniacon (1979)

  1. i know you gave an explanation of each rating in parentheses but do you have a page where you layout what your ratings mean and how you use them? Just curious.

    And that cover to Transmaniacon is cool looking. I’d probably have picked it up based on that alone back in the day.

  2. I recall being very excited about the linguistic conceit of « The Languages of Pao » when i read it some years ago. But i even more vaguely recall that the idea itself played little to no role in the story, apart from the setup of crafting different class consciousnesses through different languages??

    • I think it has a bit bigger role than you might remember. The various groups of Paoese who are taken to Breakness to learn their new languages develop and hone a creole (called Pastiche) of all their languages. This of course suggests that they are creating their own path through these various prescribed ones designed by Breakness. In parallel, the character of Beran also is a combination of the cultures created by both the languages of Breakness and Pao. So the creole language is the culminative consciousness that will propel Pao forth. I did find elements very confusing. The uncle Bustamante does not fit the Paoese mold — he desires the throne for himself, he acts like any other individual desperate for greatness willing to sacrifice his own people…

  3. I also went off a lot of Vance’s books several years ago. But I enjoyed a recent read of the Cadwal Chronicles, I still like the Alastor Cluster books, and while I thought the first book of the Demon Princes series was weak the second was much better.

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