Jack Vance, “The Brave Free Men” (1973) – I’m a sucker for a weird subgenre of story- those about someone organizing and leading a small, unlikely army and overthrowing one or another long-held societal arrangement. Bonus points if it’s ideologically simpatico — a revolutionary people’s army, say — but I’ll take it even if it’s just private kingdom building. What can I say, I like a good story about delegation! Usually the prose is disappointing in these stories and the dorks who write them — often frustrated wannabe (or actual) military officers — can’t restrain themselves from going on at tedious length about maneuvers across imaginary, indifferently-related maps. But I’ll still give them a look when I see them.
The second installment of Jack Vance’s “Durdane” series finds our hero, Gastel, organizing just such a force, the titular “Brave Free Men,” to repel a rapacious horde of not-quite-orcs, the Roguskhoi, from destroying Shant. He has his work cut out for him. Shant has plenty of aristocrats (and killers) but no military tradition. The descendants of religious and ideological enthusiasts dumped onto a colony planet millennia ago, the inhabitants of its Shant’s various cantons concern themselves with maintaining their various arbitrary cult rules and general societal stasis.
Anyone familiar with midcentury scifi knows much of what happens next. Gastel and the few men he can trust have to overcome the hokum and conservatism of their backward culture. They do this largely by freeing indentured servants and enlisting them in the titular army. There are various technical challenges to overcome, betrayals both suspected and real, people telling them Shant can’t change and the heroes telling them it has to, etc.
What distinguishes Vance’s take on this plot is skepticism of the enterprise. In the end, the mobilized people of Shant beat back the hordes. Gastel sets up a new government with a parliament (but with no house apportioned by population, I noticed!). But the big reveal in the end — where the Roguskhoi came from — reframes the whole existence of Shant. Without giving too much away, it’s revealed that the hordes that almost destroyed the planet were somewhere between a joke and a speculative venture by powers much bigger and colder than anything Gastel can conjure up. If Shant is nothing but a dumping ground or playpen for amoral interstellar empires, then what larger purpose does change serve? Well, presumably we’ll get some kind of answer in the third and last book. ****’