Jack Vance, “The Asutra” (1974) – The end of the Durdane series takes the hero, Gastel Etzelwane, far from home to figure out the secret of who’s been sending weird murderous aliens to mess with his homeland. Accompanied, sometimes, by a supercilious and self-serving historian from Earth, he first ventures to a distant continent and then is shanghaied to a faraway planet.
He finds out the truth, but one thing about Vance is that he’s a pretty strong skeptic of the notion that the truth sets anyone free. Enslaved on a faraway planet, Gastel finds that his world was little but a source of raw (mostly human) material and a site for experiment for two rival but symbiotic alien societies. The titular Asutra, brainbugs that exist parasitically on other species, and the Ka, a put-upon society from a gross swamp planet that used to be enslaved by the Asutra before turning the tables, have shaped the destiny of numerous planets in their efforts, mainly to dicker each other out of one crappy swamp world. The Asutra want the world because they had it before and think it’s nice (they have others); the Ka want the world because it’s their ancient homeland, and their entire culture is encapsulated in a 20,000-canto epic about how shitty it is but how much they love it. The depiction of the Ka is one of the better scifi depictions of wounded, small-nation nationalism I’ve ever seen.
Gastel, enslaved by the Ka, does his thing- looks for opportunities, and plays music (specifically, the Song of the Ka- the Ka reward slaves with leniency if they can learn bits of the Song). For the second time in three books, Gastel overcomes the inertia of an imprisoned people to lead a rebellion. For the second time, he succeeds. But for the second (and for the series, final) time, he finds that while rebellion improves his personal fortunes, the structures remain unchanged. After daring escapes and desperate battles, he and his fellow prisoners slaves are freed essentially as the result of an unseen negotiation process that didn’t have them in mind at all. He returns to Shant and the parliament he put in place is bickering. He — and his homeworld — are just as caught in the dynamics of history (not just human, but natural history too) as they ever were. The best he can do is take up music again.
The Durdane series (and much of his other work) places Vance squarely in the tradition of universal pessimism that runs like a black thread through speculative fiction. Unlike others in the tradition, like Lovecraft, he handles it with a light touch- inspired by that other great artist of the circular life, P.G. Wodehouse. He very cleverly uses the traditional tropes of pulp scifi — the individualist hero, the bold rebellions, the implementation of “progressive” change — to engage the reader in a bait and switch. It’d be easy to write the hero failing. But the hero succeeding, and for it not to matter in the face of a big, weird cosmos? And for the whole thing to be a lot of fun anyway? That’s what sets Vance apart and what makes the Durdane series more than the sum of it’s parts. ****’