Published on June 19th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
The Houses of Iszm – Jack Vance
Now and again, I whimsically pick up books that amuse me.
The Houses of Iszm by Jack Vance is one such book.
It was upon hearing of Jack Vance’s death that I decided to rush this one onto the reading list, in order to experience this so-called visionary author.
The novella centres around the Iszic, a race of plant-like aliens who live on the planet Iszm, a very rich but segregated planet whose fame for the Iszic house seeds has led to large amounts of attempted criminal activity from outsiders to retrieve a “female” house seed to sell and germinate around the universe in order to make big bucks.
The Iszic however exhibit almost Nazi-like control on tourism to their planet and are very untrusting of visitors. “It was assumed as a matter of course that visitors came to Iszm with a single purpose: to steal a female house”.
The seeds are incredibly small and theoretically ought to be easy to smuggle, but the Iszic’s ruthless systems manage to keep loss to a minimum.
Sounds just like an invitation for danger then.
Aile Farr is a Botanist coming to Iszm to see some of the unique and prosperous houses and falls under the scrutiny of the Iszic.
After many checks Farr is finally allowed to wander Iszm however a fresh attack on the planet by some mercenaries means trouble for Farr and his “holiday”.
Initially the character of Farr appears to be a professional who is a little disgruntled by the obvious and unapologetic behaviour of his hosts, however there’s a curious change in personality with him as soon as the attack happens. He becomes morally ambiguous, rebellious and cynical, which immediately led me to believe there was some form of twist involved.
One of the most pleasant surprising aspects of the book is the casual and yet somehow serious approach to the narrative.
Considering that the cover of the book gives a sensationalist 50’s monster-sci-fi effect and that there are plant aliens involved means that the tone comes as somewhat of a surprise. It doesn’t feel cheesy at all, even the adopted devil-may-care attitude of Farr’s doesn’t reek of the usual sci-fi self-indulgence and he feels likeable and genuine, whilst also being rather interesting and changeable enough to keep the spirit of mystery and intrigue.
The fact that a lot of the main arc of the book’s plot involves the secret plans of the Iszic and some unknown force give it a kind of espionage-feel, twinned with the main character’s personality and the story is a hard-boiled thriller which leaves a distinctly James Bondy taste after reading.
The novella is well written with rich descriptive language, small use of imagery and well set characterisation, if someone asked for a sci-fi novel to show that is a good piece of literature, this would be in the innings.
Although only short, The Houses of Iszm is a satisfying action-sci-fi with some great use of averting conventions and a good sci-fi concept as a hook.