Jack Vance, “The Anome” (1973) – Vance was a master of building baroque worlds of stasis, decay, and a sickly kind of wonder. In the Durdane trilogy, he depicts the realm of Shant, a long-abandoned colony planet divvied up into cantons, each governed by a different cult rigorously pursuing one or another set of arbitrary rules. Overseeing all is the “Faceless Man” or “Anome,” who enforces the division and cultural stasis of Shant through the simple expedient of a device that explodes the heads of anyone he pleases. It’s implied this state of affairs has gone on for some time.
Vance never stints on the human element of what makes his societies go, mostly in terms of the personal dynamics of domination and collaboration. The canton the hero grows up in is run by a cult of misogynist male ascetics, who loll around on hallucinogens while forcing women and children to do all the productive and reproductive labor. The vanity of degeneration is one of the affects Vance is best at conveying, and it’s at its skin-crawling (and sometimes hilarious, in a harsh kind of way) best here.
Anyone who knows classic scifi knows what comes next- the individualist hero, a bold, moody young man with big dreams and a disregard for established mores, strikes out on his own. Gastel Etzelwane skips out on the cult (refuses to be a “Pure Boy,” which I kept reading as “Proud Boy”- I’m sure the canton authorities also frowned on masturbation lol) because they make him abandon his mom and are generally dicks. He has various misadventures out in the world, which to be honest are a little disappointing- I would have rather seen less airship shenangians and more depictions of different cantons with their own weird rules and cults, at which Vance excels. Shit gets real when barbarians roughly in the orc mold — the Rogushkoi, big, ugly, mean, rapacious — invade Shant, killing various extras and also Etzelwane’s mom. The Anome doesn’t do anything about it, presumably because organizing an army between all his weird little cults would be too disruptive.
Etzelwane has to find a way to prevail upon the Faceless Man to do something. But how to find a dude who is faceless? Is this rando who keeps popping up in his life to alternately frustrate or aid him the Faceless Man, or just a rando? Will all this mean that Etzelwane will have to take power himself, and then disrupt the shit out of this classic scifi backwards-irrational planet with some good old-fashioned bourgeois revolution? You know it will- in the sequels. ****