All reviews and site design © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner. All rights reserved. Book cover artwork is copyrighted by its respective artist and/or publisher.


Book cover art by Gene Szafran.
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.

From the "they don't make 'em like they used to" file comes this impossible-to-dislike exercise in world-building mixed with confident and funny character-driven storytelling. Alastor is a vast star cluster which is home to around 3000 inhabited worlds, all of which are under the protection of a centralized, benevolent ruler. Upon this elegantly simple hook, Vance hangs stories about ordinary men and women who lead slightly out of the ordinary lives. Through his marvelously quotable (and much imitated) dialogue and his unpretentious and easygoing plotting, Jack Vance could, like no one else, make stories about the far future and human colonies on exotic alien worlds seem quotidian and accessible. It's as if these futures are so natural they're immediately relatable. For all that SF is about speculation, extrapolation, and really cool futuristic shiny stuff, its best stories — like the best mainstream — are about people first.

Trullion is a mostly oceanic world with one huge continent populated by human natives known racially as the Trills. The Trills have a rigid class structure, but are a mostly soft and decadent people across all the class boundaries. Glinnes Hulden is the son of a respected but very middle class family who lives in a bustling archipelago along the continent's south shore. After spending ten years in service with the Whelm, Alastor's spacefaring military (whose main task involves the pursuit of the roving pirates — "starmenters" — that routinely terrorize the cluster's more sybaritic worlds), Glinnes returns home to find his family in disarray.

Both his father and possibly his eldest brother have been killed by the merlings, a semi-intelligent indigenous underwater species with a nasty habit of popping up out of the water like Jason at the end of Friday the 13th, dragging hapless humans down to dinner. His vain mother is neglecting the homestead in favor of futile social climbing. And worst of all, his twin Glay has sold a neighboring island owned by the family in a deal that is probably illegal and somewhat suspect, given the lack of certainty over the eldest brother's fate. Glay has taken up with a faddish, ascetic quasi-philosophical movement that rejects the Trills' decadence in favor of academic pursuits and an odd brand of social conformity (they all wear grey to show their repudiation of society's excess).

Glinnes determines to put the family fortunes back together by raising the money to refund the eccentric who bought the island and voiding the sale. To do this, he leaps professionally into a pastime of his youth: the popular team sport hussade, the entire goal of which is to strip a young girl naked. This may rub some folks PC-ness the wrong way, but it's presented entirely inoffensively, and in fact, hilariously as the story's most brazen depiction of how prurient and hedonistic life in Alastor has become. Here is a culture that places a high premium on the virtue of young women (the girl in question is actually a full team member called the shierl, who must be a virgin, and so many girls line up for the position that some are suspected of being not only non-virginal but young mothers), only to turn around and cash in that premium as the prize in one of the hottest spectator sports going. It's about as funny and devastating a satirical jab at the way so many cultures try to have their morality cake and eat it too as you're likely to find in all SF.

Anyway, the plot suddenly becomes gloriously complicated, utterly unpredictable, and yet never difficult to follow or infatuated with its own cleverness. Vance is simply doing multi-layered storytelling entirely right. Glinnes must deal with personal enemies, the confusing motivations of his remaining brother, financial difficulties and the future of his household, the manipulative love of his team's shierl, the sudden threat of the starmenters — Vance juggles several pins at once here and never drops a one. The story opens as an adventure, veers briefly into a love story and ends as a mystery. It's good entertainment, period. It doesn't matter that, say, the strategies of hussade are a bit obscure, or that the motives of certain characters aren't always perfectly outlined. This is the kind of story that surrounds you, envelops you in three-dimensional characters, an original (certainly by SFnal standards) plot, and great wit.

This may not seem like the most enthusiastic choice of adjectives, but Trullion is just interesting; you probably know the experience of turning on the TV and ending up finding a movie you never really meant to watch, but that just pulls you in the more you watch it. Trullion is that kind of story. I think so many stories try to be epic or innovative or cutting-edge or snarky or hip or whatever that they forget to be interesting. Vance never forgot that part. That's why he was, and still is as he enters his nineties (!), such a fine storyteller.

Tor has reissued the Alastor trilogy as an omnibus trade paperback. A story as effortlessly told and enjoyable as this one should never be allowed to go out of print. And I'm happy that, after many fallow years, a trend has arisen in SF publishing that has seen the work of so many great writers of previous generations reissued. There are still too many gaps — try finding anything by Clifford D. Simak these days — but as long as readers support the reprint efforts that are being made, perhaps we'll see them filled in sooner rather than later.

Followed by Marune: Alastor 933.