Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, September 14, 2012

1958: The Languages of Pao (Vance, Jack)

Language bestows logic; with logic comes ethos (4/5)
From February 21, 2011

The art of language is often idiosyncratically pursued when one person finds themselves driven towards learning the mindset of a foreign logic, the lexicon of a distant land or the mode of thought of a "backwards" culture. Writing a science fiction novel revolving around the art of language seems like a recipe for disaster, where science and art meet, collide and fragmentize into a heap of rubble. Amazingly, Jack Vance pens a wondrous work where the two meet harmoniously. This isn't too far off beat from Vance's novelette "Dodkin's Job" (1959) where the resulting jarring synthesis of human relations, administration, and bureaucracy is as suitable as it is entertaining.

First page synopsis:
"On the remote, bleak planet of Breakness, far from his own people, Beran, heir to the Panarch's throne on Pao, was brainwashed.

Palafox, omnipotent Dominie of Breakness Institute, was the half-mad egoist responsible for the kidnapping and implantation of Breakness's totally alien thought-patterns into the mind of Beran.

Palafox planned far ahead. Beran's future was to be shaped to serve the Dominie's ends: total universal conquest.

But Beran, with the vestiges of Paonese, had his own ideas."

Against my hope for a better SF novel, The Languages of Pao starts off with an aristocratic and loquacious bang: the dignified king is disheartened by the purportedly unscrupulous transactions of the merchants, whom have been dealing bilaterally with the militaristic-prone neighbor which the king himself finds disconcerting. Admittedly, I like the wordiness of the noble speaking and I found myself quite enjoying the position of the ruthless dictator and, later, the benevolent overseer. Vance is really keyed into the reader who wants to see an easy overlord, rather than merely glorifying a king and bestowing upon him great, unparalleled powers or unchallenged rule (a lá Southeastern Asian monarchy or numerous science fictional kings of lore).

Being a bilingual person (nearly fluent in spoken and written Thai), I found the task of writing about an alien tongue to be most precarious. However, Vance found a way to keep it interesting through the mode of good-hearted child heir-to-the-throne versus conniving wizard of a, literally, overcast planet. Cheesy as it may be, assuredly, it works. It is epic to follow the progression of the awkward relationship of to-be-king Beran and wizard-extraordinaire Palafox from didactic simplicity to heroic brotherhood to enemy at the gates. With age comes reason, but with too much age comes senility.

Not only has the story a gripping hold, but the intricate life lessons of a learned man are brought upon the pages via insightful dialogue:
Page 96 offers an intuitive view into education saying, "Education is not achieved through the heart - it is a systemization of the mental processes [...] But I am something other than a mental process. I'm a man. I must reckon with the whole of myself."

Page 114 offers a delectable tidbit about trust: "A commitment is good only so long as it is advantageous [...] This is not always true. A person who fails one commitment is not often entrusted with a second [...] Trust? What is that? The interdependence of the hive; a mutual parasitism of the weak and incomplete."

This is brilliant stuff to some from a seemingly pulp novel full of everything but pulp. This novel deserves some serious respect. Poul Anderson dabbles in the realms of language in his SF novels (e.g. Brain Wave [1954], Planet of No Return [1956]) but fails to put it in the forefront like Vance has nobly done so here. However, the one area Vance fails in is climatic build-up. The climax is hasty, looked over. Hence, the ultimate conclusion is unsatisfactory. If only an additional twenty pages were added to The Language of Pao, the unfolding of the climax and conclusion would have been so much better... five-star better. If there's a better SF novel about languages and translations, I haven't found it yet.


  1. Alas, another Vance novel to put on my list.... In terms of other novels about language -- there's Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue, but it's 80s and not on my horizon to read.

  2. Plot never really was Vance's forte, and in some novels it really seems like he just stopped short because allotted space ran out. Somewhat ironically, The Languages of Pao was one of the first books I read in English, and probably did not understand much of it at the time, still loved it though, and have my copy (the same one whose cover you're showing) still.

    The first book that comes to mind re Science Fiction novels about language would of course be Delany's Babel-17, a comparatively early work which has all the dazzling brilliance of writing and concept that one would expect from that author.