The Blue World – Jack Vance (1966)
Vance’s heroes tend to be dour, practical realists, who don’t suffer fools gladly and are often cynical opponents of the hypocrisy of dogma, particularly in relation to politics or religion.
Sklar Hast is no exception. Sklar is a hoodwink, i.e., one who winks the hoods of semaphore-esque lamps which are the means of communication between the communities who exist on archipelagos of giant lily pads on a water-covered world.
The inhabitants of this world are the descendants of survivors of a prison ship which (the reader is led to believe) was taken over by the prisoners whilst on its way to a penal planet and crash-landed in this watery paradise. Though the descendants carry their ancestor’s felonies as caste names – the hoodwinks, the larceners, the hoodlums, the incendiarists etc – the people of the Blue World have no idea as to the collective nature of their ancestral roots.
Vance loves these small details of society, and is one of the few authors who goes to great lengths to create functioning societies, in that hierarchies are defined, customs, trade, industry, professions etc., sometimes, it has to be said, to the detriment of character. Vance’s dialogue is often a little mannered, but somehow it generally melds in with the exotic backgrounds and the richness of detail.
Vance makes important points, though. He’s an author very aware of the human capacity for religious need and the human capacity for exploiting that need. In many of his novels the hero sets out to expose a religious leader or figure, who is manipulating or controlling an all too gullible populace for political or financial gain.
In this novel, interestingly, Vance looks at a religion-in-the-making. The populace are being encouraged to think of King Kragen – a large semi-intelligent tentacled crustacean – as a form of benign god. They are thus encouraged by the Intercessors – a group of men who have set themselves up as middle-men between the populace and the sea-beast who keeps their settlement free of lesser Kragen in return for tributes of food.
It’s a short, but clever novel, funny and intriguing, and yet masks a serious examination of society, hypocrisy, religion and the fallibility of tradition and our deepest beliefs.