Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Anderson Goes Viking While Vance Goes Pao

If you’re hungry for more shield-shattering goodness, take a gander at The Silver Key, where Mr. Murphy has posted his review of Poul Anderson’s Hrolf Kraki’s Saga. This isn’t an original tale by Mr. Anderson, but rather a retelling of the life of one of the greatest Viking heroes.

Speaking of reading the classics, I’ve been trolling my local used bookstores for novels by the authors often mentioned as inspiration for Gygax, Arneson, and the other greats who started the RPG hobby. Jack Vance, of course, is high on that list, and I’d never read anything by him (or, at least, I can’t recall ever having read anything, though it’s likely I’ve come across a short story or two). My last visit to the used bookstore turned up The Languages of Pao. This is a science fiction tale that has nothing to do with “Vancian magic” or the fantasy genres in general. Still, I hoped it would be an interesting start into exploring his work.

“Interesting” is a bit of an understatement. Here’s the short review: if you’re into sociology-porn, if the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is the sort of thing that gets you all hot and bothered, sure, look this one up. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth your time.

Ok, that’s the short review. The longer review follows, only I’ll warn you that I may slide into matters of personal political philosophy. I’ve done my best to banish such things from Trollsmyth, which I see as a haven from all that sort of stuff. So if I get a bit strident, please forgive me.

The “hero” of the tale is Beran Panasper, whose father is Panarch of Pao. The Panarch is the absolute ruler of the world, and his rule is facilitated by the culture of Pao. The people of Pao number in the billions, and all share a unified culture. The dislike change and violence, and prefer conformity and stasis. Their idea of a national sport is to gather in huge crowds and perform “drones”, chanting for hours in unison. When faced with adversity, the Paonese response is passive-aggressive. This makes it easy for the Panarch if, for instance, he has to murder a few million of his subjects in order to stave off an impending famine.

Beran’s uncle decides he’d make a better Panarch than Beran’s father, so he murders the current Panarch. The visiting techno-wizard Palafox spirits Beran away before he, too, can be murdered by his uncle, and hides him on the world of Breakness. Beran is enrolled in a course of education on Breakness while his uncle faces a passive-resistant revolt on Pao, and then invasion by a neighboring world of warriors. In desperation, he turns to Palafox for help.

The prescription suggested by Palafox is a remolding of the Paonese culture. Palafox designs a program to transform the Paonese from passive, bucolic serfs centered around changing their language. He creates three languages for Beran’s uncle, and they set about using these languages to create three new cultures on Pao. One, speaking Valiant, are warriors who are eager to die for glory. Another language is created for engineers, which inspires them to build and design and improve. Finally, a third language aimed at cogitation and planning (and based on the language of Breakness) is introduced to inspire the creation of a supervisor caste. Entire populations are uprooted and moved around as territories are marked out where only the new languages are to be spoken. It’s impossible to read about this massive social engineering program and not think of the Cultural Revolution. And, indeed, millions are displaced and hundreds of thousands die in the chaos the results. Beran hears about these horrors and, as the rightful Panarch, feels some obligation to “set things right”, which, to his mind, means returning things back to the way they were. Thus begins a three-way conflict between Beran, his uncle, and Palafox, who has his own megalomaniacal plans for the Paonese.

Now, I suppose we’re supposed to root for Beran because he’s the viewpoint character, but really, he’s extremely hard to like. The fact that he wants to be an absolute tyrant over a world of listless ciphers hardly makes him loveable. You can’t root for his uncle because, in addition to being a murderer, he’s singularly incompetent, and behaves stupidly throughout the book. And Palafox is a manipulative bastard. If the book wallowed in the wickedness of the characters, that might have been a fun read, something like a sci-fi sociology-porn version of Karl Wagner’s Dark Crusade. Unfortunately, I was never quite able to dislodge the feeling that Beran was, in fact, meant to be a hero, and not an anti-hero. Maybe I’m dense and missed the intended satire? As our three main characters clashed in their attempts at social engineering on a grand scale, the primary emotion I felt was tepid revulsion at their banally vile behavior.

So I really can’t recommend this book, unless the idea of using language as a tool in massive social-engineering projects tickles your fancy. Otherwise, there’s little here to enjoy in The Languages of Pao.


thanuir said...

I'd also recommend the original Icelandic sagas; they are quick to read and good material for roleplay. It may take a few pages to get used to the use of language, though.

trollsmyth said...

I was lucky enough to take a class in Germanic Lit in college, so I got to read The Poetic Edda and The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson in college. Great stuff, and I use themes from those books frequently in my games.

Unfortunately, the employers of the world are not exactly falling over themselves to hire folks with degrees in the liberal arts, so I really can't recommend that sort of thing to you younger readers out there. Unless you've got a solid plan that can incorporate a BA, best to get some training that's easily translated into a job and read this sort of thing in your spare time.

- Brian