I was excited to see this 1960s series by Jack Vance get a facelift and be brought onto the market. I knew going in that it would carry that 1960s sci-fi feel, far different and distant from what we’re used to reading from books published in the last 15 years or so. So in that regard, I wasn’t disappointed. “City of the Chasch” is the first of a four-book series called “Tschai, Planet of Adventure” (each volume of which is far slimmer than what I’m used to reading, both in length and plot). Bare-bones plot details: a manned spaceship from Earth is dispatched to a star system 212 light years away to track down a mysterious signal (no particular reason is provided as to why it was deemed necessary to send six or so humans into space over that distance).
Upon arrival, the protagonist (Reith) and a colleague (no need to recall his name, he’s not around more than five pages) are sent in a scout ship to take a closer look at the planet where the signal may have originated. While descending toward the planet, the mother ship is destroyed by a weapon fired from the planet, killing the remaining crewmembers. Reith and the unnamed colleague, for reasons still not clear, decide to eject from their own ship, rather than try to land it on any of the numerous safe locations. Reith survives; the other is decapitated by a band of very human-looking individuals who have gathered at the crash site of the scout ship.
No need for a spoiler alert for the previous two paragraphs – that’s the first ten pages, in a nutshell. The rest of the book is all about Reith being enslaved, then teaching his captors all about technology and using his savvy wits to get him out of scrape after scrape, always outwitting the dull aliens. Think back to an America in 1968, and I think you get the idea of what Vance was drawing from.
I enjoyed reading Vance when I was younger; this less-than-sophisticated offering is probably something 12-year-old Doc would have gobbled up with a fork and spoon. It’s a painless affair to read, and not without its moments of excitement, but it’s been done before. It’s highly reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “Mars” series – substitute John Carter with Reith, and toss in a little era-appropriate innuendo (still decades away from what we’re used to today), and you’ve got yourself a tetralogy. Months from now, I might think back on this book and tell myself that picking up the second, third, and fourth books in the series might be a worthwhile effort, but for now, there are far too many books on my to-read shelf to afford this collection any more attention.
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, Doc gives it a solid C+. Doc may have graded on a curve, though – I like Vance, and I like the era this writing came from. If your exposure to 1960s science fiction is limited to writing from the likes of Harlan Ellison, you may be quite disappointed. Approach with care.