Monday, October 10, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: City of the Chasch

Reflecting on the primary literary inspirations of Dungeons & Dragons, one does not often hear Jack Vance's "Planet of Adventure" series mentioned. This is odd, as Gary Gygax frequently made mention of these stories in his recollections of his Greyhawk campaign. Indeed, he makes explicit reference to the stories in the Dungeon Masters Guide and notes that they could be used as models for adventures by the enterprising referee in his own campaign. The series began in 1968 with the novel, City of the Chasch, and continued through three more books published between '68 and 1970.

City of the Chasch tells the tale of two scouts sent from Earth to investigate a mysterious signal sent from a world some 200 light years away. When the scouts arrive at their destination, their spacecraft is attacked by a torpedo from the planet's surface. The scouts, named Adam Reith and Paul Waunder, escape the destruction of their craft in a smaller vessel, which is itself damaged in the attack. Nevertheless, they manage to eject from the smaller vessel and land in a forest on the world below.

To their surprise, Reith and Waunder discover that the planet is inhabited by humans of a primitive sort, some of whom are attracted to the crash site. While stuck in a tree and unable to get down, Reith watches these humans arrive and kill Waunder, as well as the arrival of not one but two other groups of human, both of which seem to be slaves of different alien races, the blue-skinned Chasch and the tall, thin Dirdir. The wreckage of his ship hauled away by the Chasch and their "Chaschmen" slaves, Reith is eventually "rescued" by Onmale Traz, whose own tribe of humans makes him a slave.

While among this tribe, Reith learns a little more about this strange planet, which is called Tschai. Tschai is home to several alien species, each of which uses humans as slaves in their seemingly-eternal war against one another for dominance. Reith becomes convinced that these humans had been kidnapped from Earth some time in the distant past and, therefore, the aliens pose a threat to his home. Fortunately for him, Traz comes to like and trust him and aids him in escaping the tribe before its magician-leaders castrate him as punishment for his lack of docility.

Once free, Reith and Traz join a caravan that is traveling across Tschai, going from city to city. This enables the pair to visit many strange locales and meet many people, thereby pushing the story forward, as Reith attempts to find his stolen ship, repair it, and escape from Tschai. Of course, things are not quite so simple, as Reith soon learns, and it will in fact take several more books his adventures are resolved. Of course, like most Jack Vance stories, City of the Chasch is a picaresque; the journey is more important than the destination. And also like most Jack Vance stories, the tale is told engagingly, filled with exotic vista, bizarre situations, and fascinatingly quirky characters. It's a very fun read that reminiscent of many earlier sword-and-planet stories and yet still possessed of its own unique flavor. I heartily recommend it and its sequels if you've never had the chance to read them.

20 comments:

  1. I have this and the two sequels in an omnibus edition, "Planet of Adventure." They're wonderful stories.

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  2. It's a very enjoyable series, and great inspiration, especially if you want to inject space adventure into your fantasy campaign, or vice versa. The notion that Tschai is a kind of neglected borderland between three empires (not counting Earth) makes the whole thing click.

    There is also a well-done GURPS sourcebook: http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/planetofadventure/

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  3. Never heard of this one. Thanks for the input

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  4. Thank you, added that to my santa list..!

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  5. It's a splendid series, the epitome of picaresque planetary romance. The second volume has always held a special place in the hearts of British fans for its title: Servants of the Wankh.

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  6. I just read the first three Tschai novels for the first time over the past few weeks---they're very enjoyable, and I see a lot of D&D's "episodic adventureness" in them.

    James: when you get a chance, can you please comment a bit more on how you see the Tschai novels as picaresques?---they strike me as much less satirical and more straight-forward than the Dying Earth novels (but it has been quite awhile since I last read the latter).

    Thanks!

    Allan.

    Allan.

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  7. I thought I'd share the following passage from 'The Dirdir' describing games played at the town adjoining the Dirdir hunting grounds where prospectors face dangerous conditions looking for valuable 'nodes' (pp 48-49 of the Daw paperback edition):

    "...The Gambling houses showed brighter lights and more fervent activity. Each seemed to specialize in a particular game, as simple as the throw of a fourteen-faced dice, as complex as chess played against the house professionals.
    They stopped to watch a game called Locate the Prime Purple Node. A board thirty feet long by ten feet wide represented the Carabas. The Forelands, the savannas, the streams and forests were faithfully depicted. Blue, red, and purple lights indicated the location of nodes, sparse along the Forelands, more plentiful in the Hills of Recall and on the South Stage. Khusz, the Dirdir hunting camp, was a white block with purple prongs rising from each corner. A numbered grid was superimposed over the board, each controlling a mannikin. Also on the board were the effigies of four lunging Dirdir hunters. The players in turn cast fourteen-sided dice to determine the movement of all the mannikins across the grid, as each player elected. The Dirdir hunters, moving to the same numbers, endeavored to cross an intersection on which rested a mannikin, whereupon the mannikin was declared destroyed and removed from the game. Each mannikin sought to cross the lights representing sequin nodes, thus augmenting his score. Whenever he chose, he left the Zone by the Portal of Gleams and was paid his winnings. More often, promted by greed, the player held his mannikin on the board until a Dirdir struck it down, by which he lost the totality of his gain. Reith watched the game in fascination. The players sat clenching the rails of their booths. They stared and fidgeted, calling hoarse orders to the operators, yelling in exultation when they won a node, groaning at the approach of the Dirdir, leaning back with sick faces when their mannikins were destroyed and their winnings lost..."

    Published in 1969! How prophetic. Obviously wargames have existed a long time, but still rather amazing. Polyhedral dice even...

    really cool aliens from this series. See these great illustrations from Barlowe's guide to extraterrestrials:

    http://www.noosfere.com/JackVance/covers/Pnume_Barlowe.JPG

    http://www.noosfere.com/JackVance/covers/Dirdir_Barlowe.JPG

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  8. when you get a chance, can you please comment a bit more on how you see the Tschai novels as picaresques?---they strike me as much less satirical and more straight-forward than the Dying Earth novels (but it has been quite awhile since I last read the latter).

    You're absolutely right. The Tschai books contain a lot less overt (or even covert) satire than the Dying Earth series. When I made the picaresque comment, I was thinking more of the way that Adam Reith wanders around from place to place, seeing strange sights and meeting odd folk. Of course, by that broad definition of "picaresque," most adventure stories qualify, so it probably was a less than ideal choice of words on my part. On the other hand, I think there's definitely some subtle satire in the descriptions of the ways that the human slaves of the various aliens have adopted the ways of their masters, though maybe I'm reading more into it than is there.

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  9. I think you could look at the Planet of Adventure books as a sort of transitional series for Vance. Adam Reith is (at least at the start of the series) the quintessential 50's square jawed pulp SF hero - sort of a Don Draper in space. A lot of Vances earlier work has a main character like this. As the Planet of Adventure series continues it becomes less and less 50's style SF and Adam Reith becomes pretty complicated. I think it shows Vances development of a personal style and the expansion of what could be published in SF in the 60's.

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  10. I've always seen Planet of Adventure as Jack Vance's love letter to Barsoom- it even features flying "boats" and fierce giant green nomadic savages.

    I think the books are picaresque, but Adam Reith generally plays the straight man- various natives play the part of the rogue. Anacho the Dirdirman and Zarfo Detwiler are the best exemplars of the type in the series. A particular scene in Servants of the Wankh, involving a put-upon professional assassin, is side-splittingly funny.

    Planet of Adventure may be the best introduction to Jack Vance- the action is non-stop and the protagonist is sympathetic.

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  11. I've loved these books since I read them initially in about 1982. In fact I did write a lot of notes for BRP rules, and ran a campaign on Tschai for a bit, my notes are here:
    http://www.hemulen.demon.co.uk/tschai/tschai_elric.htm

    Mark

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  12. The entire concept of Foreverness was such a powerful one for me that it frequently makes an appearance in my space, superhero, and some fantasy campaigns. Planet of Adventure is probably my favourite Vance (followed by Dying Earth).

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  13. I had the chance to read these books only a few months ago and I totally agree with James: they're not only an entertainment reading but also a great template do model a sandbox Planet-and-Sword campaign (or just a pure Fantasy one, as Reith's wanderings through Tschai are a perfect mirror for you adventurer party, including taverns).

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  14. I really like the planet of adventure series. I was introduced to it from the GURPS book. I was in the playtest - always valuable to have a rules wonk who doesn't know the source and thus questions everything. But then I sought out the omnibus edition of the book and read it. It was really great stuff and I'm sad it ended after such a short volume.

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  15. I'm rereading these books again now. One thing that recently occurred to me about Vance - his books positively celebrate (in advance) the "grinding" aspect of RPGs that is mostly seen as bad design or GMing these days. He has no problem spending a chapter lovingly detailing a protagonist collecting sequins or SVUs, encounter by encounter.

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  16. If one is in a Vance setting, either one is bound to suffer a great deal on the bottom; or every single action you undertake to move up is a fascinating challenge, different every moment. Also, you get to make Vancean witty remarks, which is a great consolation for doing boring work and suffering at the bottom.

    If grinding were fun and witty and different every moment, it would not be grinding.

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  17. I always had a nagging feeling that I was the only person to have ever read those books. Seeing them written up here makes me certain that I wasn't imagining them.

    One of my favorite parts were the mad Phung (?), murderous death machines that often acted against their own best interests because they were mad. One of the most delightful things I've ever read was the encounter with the cave Phung in the Dirdir book, where it begins to sally forth from its cave to investigate mysterious sounds but returns for its cloak and hat.

    Wow.

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  18. When I made the picaresque comment, I was thinking more of the way that Adam Reith wanders around from place to place, seeing strange sights and meeting odd folk. [snip]
    On the other hand, I think there's definitely some subtle satire in the descriptions of the ways that the human slaves of the various aliens have adopted the ways of their masters, though maybe I'm reading more into it than is there.


    Both of those points are what I figured you were alluding to, James. Thanks for clarifying!

    Allan.

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  19. I loved those books. Have the omnibus edition and I've managed to collect the RAW editions of everything but "City of the Wanakh".

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  20. Big fan of this series. Publishing question for anyone who may know, did Bluejay Books finish the tetrology? I have their versions of Chasch and Wankh and am desperately hunting for the last two. I absolutely love the illustrations by Philip Hagopian and I want to see his interpretations of the Pnume and Dirdir.

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