Book Review: Tschai (Planet of Adventure)
Tschai is a science fiction series made up of 4 books written by Jack Vance in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These 4 books are: City of the Chasch (or the Chasch), the Dirdir, the Servants of the Wannek (or the Wannek), and the Pnume. I first read these books 30 years ago after reading Vance’s Moon Moth and the Last Castle in a collection of Hugo Award-winning stories. I’m a big fan of the series and have read it multiple times, though this is the first time I’ve read the series in its entirety in well over 20 years. The books, which have been in and out of print, are now available digitally either as separate books or as one volume. In the past, the series has been published as one volume under the title ‘Planet of Adventure’, the digital version is simply called Tschai.
At its core, Tschai is essentially a “Planetary Romance” or “Sword and Planet” story. This genre generally features a lone individual from Earth engaging in various adventures on some far away planet. Weapons and cultures tend to be a mix of the primitive and high tech. It’s not unusual for such stories to include an attractive female (not necessarily human!) who needs rescuing. Tschai features such elements but Vance being Vance he uses these elements in unique and original ways.
The series opens with Earth explorer Adam Reith stranded on the distant world of Tschai after his ship and his companions are destroyed by a missile from an unknown adversary. Reith quickly finds out that the planet is home to four alien-races: the reptilian and cruel Chasch, the amphibious Wannek, the predatory Dirdir, and the mysterious Pnume. (The Pnume are actually indigenous to Tschai but were driven underground long ago by other alien races.) Reith is also surprised to find humans on Tschai whom he surmises were taken from Earth in the distant past. Each alien race has its own servant/slave human population known respectively as the Chaschmen, Dirdirmen, Wannekmen and Pnumekin. Some of these servant humans are surgically or genetically modified to resemble their master race. Though many other humans live free, all are intimidated in some way by these alien races. Not being the dominant species on the planet has affected the psyche of humans on Tschai, they are used to playing the victim and would never dream of rising up against the other ‘superior’ races. Reith obviously has a different mindset which serves him in good stead while trying to find a way home.
As mentioned, there are a number of ‘planetary romance’ elements in these books. Technology is a mixture of primitive and high tech – it is implied that aliens make sure that the human population on Tschai is kept technologically deficient to keep them from becoming a threat. There is a princess to be rescued but in typical Vance fashion he turns this planetary romance element on its head. The grateful princess is saved by Reith and they become lovers. However, as Reith journeys to take her back to her country of Cath, she knows her love for Reith – an outlander – will bring shame and dishonor to both her and her house. This inner conflict eventually drives the princess to violence and suicide! (One can see why George RR Martin thinks so highly of Jack Vance.)
The rest of the series details Reith’s encounters with the various alien races and humans that make up Tschai as he tries to find a ship that will take him to Earth. His adventures take him from ruined cities where terrifying Phung lurk, to the dreaded Carabas where Dirdir hunt and eat men, to the tunnels of the Pnume where he avoids being added to their Museum of Foreverness. Along the way, Reith often causes drastic changes to the status quo.
Tschai is overall a great read. It also may be the best introduction to Jack Vance out there. The series is imaginative, the dialogue is vintage Vance, the action is essentially non-stop, and the protagonist is actually sympathetic. That’s not too say there are no issues with the books. Reith himself is a fairly underdeveloped character. We never find out anything about his life before he’s marooned on Tschai except that he is not currently in a relationship. We never hear about his life on Earth and no family or friends are mentioned. The story itself has some issues: it seems way too easy for Reith to get away from the Pnume when he rescues Zap 210, for instance. Still, for me at least, these complaints are mostly quibbles. I give the series a 4 out of 5, highly recommended.