Friday, March 01, 2013

The Moon Moth by Jack Vance and Humayoun Ibrahim

Jack Vance was the master of a kind of story hardly anyone else even attempted in science fiction: arch, wry, world-weary, filled with amazing words used as correctly as a scalpel, as concerned with language and status and presentation as action, set in a dazzling medium-future with humanity spread to the far stars and nearly speciated itself, written as if SF were a long-established literary tradition with deep scholarship rather than an upstart pulp genre. In his novels, the adventure plots reined in his less-genre impulses, and channeled them into stories of tough, laconic men battling their way through great odds across an indifferent galaxy. But, in his shorter work -- particularly in novelette and novella form, where Vance had space to develop complex ideas and yet didn't need to have one adventure plot carry an entire book -- Vance's greatness was most evident, in great stories like "The Dragon Masters" and "The Last Castle" and "The Moon Moth."

Vance's work -- so precisely written, with words absolutely correct and yet that no one but Vance could have chosen -- is not the first that comes to mind for transmutation into graphic novel form. And this particular story, in which all of the character's faces are completely covered at nearly all moments, reflecting the typically Vancean baroque social conventions of the planet Sirene, also doesn't seem to be carefully chosen to match the strengths of the genre.

And yet, this adaptation of The Moon Moth -- adapted, drawn, and lettered by Humayoun Ibrahim, whose work I'm not familiar with -- captures well the tone of Vance's best work, with Hilary Sycamore's bright, gemlike colors a particularly apt choice. The reader is nearly as disconcerted as young Edwer Thissell, suddenly thrown onto Sirene as the new consular representative of the core worlds after the disconcerting sudden killing of the prior representative for a breach of Sirene's intricate social code. Thissell can barely make himself understood on Sirene, where communication is done through song and accompanied by a bewildering array of small musical instruments, each to be chosen to express precisely the right emotional tone. And, of course, when everyone goes masked all of the time, it's difficult to know who one is talking to.

And so when the dangerous assassin Haxo Angmark arrives on Sirene and immediately slips into the crowd, Thissell is in an immediate bind. His job, his entire career hinges on capturing Angmark and returning him to justice. But he has no idea who Angmark is, and his outworld bumbling could easily led him to a fatal mistake of happened to his predecessor.

Ibrahim's lettering is exceptionally expressive for the Sirenese sung language, though perhaps it's too drab and blocky for regular speech and captions. He breaks the story into boxy panels with lots of medium shots -- it all works just fine, but one could hope for more verve and energy to match Vance's verbal flights. But this is his first graphic novel, and he stands up well to Vance's demands here, which a thousand other cartoonists couldn't have done.

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