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Review time! with The Moon Moth

How can you resist? It’s “based on the classic short story”!

I’m one of the ignorant heathens who have never read anything by Jack Vance. According to the very nice foreword in this book (which is by Carlo Rotella from 2009), this makes me less than human, probably, because I have never appreciated the genius that is Jack Vance. Well, yes, I guess I suck. I apologize. If I were Joey Tribbiani, I would say that I wasn’t reading Jack Vance when I was 14 because I was too busy having sex. Alas, that’s not true either. Woe is me! I was reading Arthur C. Clarke and Roger Zelazny and Frank Herbert (not Dune, though, but his other stuff) and some Robert Heinlein (Job: A Comedy of Justice is one of my favorite books) and I missed Vance. But now there’s this adaptation of one of his short stories by Humayoun Ibrahim with colors by Hilary Sycamore. It’s only $17.99 from First Second, and it’s quite good.

The premise of the story is fascinating enough: an envoy, Edwer Thissell, is sent to the planet Sirene to be the new “consular representative.” There are a few problems with this assignment: The Sirenese always wear masks, and their language is very difficult to grasp, because it expresses the speaker’s mood rather than facts, plus it’s sung with various instruments accompanying it, all of which are used for very specific situations. There’s not even a unit of currency on the planet; each person possesses “strakh,” which is the word for “prestige,” and the amount you have determines where you live and how much you can take when you shop. Thissell is sent there, meets three other “off-worlders,” and is quickly embroiled in a murder mystery when a known assassin lands on the planet and, Thissell thinks, kills one of the off-worlders. Of course, he can’t be sure, because he’s never seen any of them without their masks. That’s … a bit of an issue.

Vance shows what a good science fiction writer can do with culture when he actually thinks about it; although the Sirenese are humanoid, their society is based on wildly different presumptions than Earth culture – there’s a reason why they wear masks, and it’s not just because Vance thought it would look cool. Thissell has a lot of difficulty navigating this society, and Vance and Ibrahim do a fine job showing how strange it is for him. He has a lot of interaction with the off-worlders, which allows him to speak instead of sing, and it’s quite humorous to see how he tries to get things done when he’s upset, because he forgets that there’s a certain way to communicate and people tend to ignore him. It’s a fascinating way to show how differently a society can evolve – it might sound strange to off-worlders, but everyone’s customs tend to be a bit weird when we look at them from the outside (I mean, yeast extract, Aussies? really?).

The murder mystery isn’t bad, and Thissell solves it cleverly, but it’s not terribly clear (at least to me) how exactly he figures it out. I mean, I get what he did, but because the book doesn’t spend enough time with the different characters, I didn’t think it resonate as well, because Vance and Ibrahim don’t get so far into the Sirenese society that I could see what the murderer was doing so clearly. It’s a clever way to use the Sirenese culture against the murderer (and I don’t want to give too much away, so I’m keeping it vague), but while it’s clear that Thissell has figured it out to his satisfaction, I’m not sure I understand the mistake the murderer made (Ibrahim does try to show this, but I don’t think he does a good enough job). That’s a bit of a minor quibble, but because it had to do with the actual solution to the murder, it bugged me more than it might have otherwise. It’s far more important how Thissell is able to escape the murderer (because he does – sorry for the spoiler), which also taps directly into the way Sirenese society is organized. It’s almost as clever as the way he discovers who the murderer is.

Ibrahim does a fine job with the artwork – it’s interesting that the one thing he seems to struggle with are faces, so the fact that everyone is masked is perfect! He creates a beautiful and weird world – the masks are strange and marvelous, but where Ibrahim really excels is in depicting the musical language. He creates a certain color for each instrument, then surrounds the word balloons when that instrument is being used with different shapes colored to match the instrument. He also changes the font for some of the sung language as opposed to the spoken language. Obviously, a lot of the credit has to go to Sycamore, who turns the Sirenese into a kaleidoscopic world of crazy colors and patterns and also makes the word balloons bright and beautiful, drawing our attention to the words that are sung and the instrument with which the person “speaks.” It’s a very inventive graphic novel, highlighting the cultural differences without making them too opaque for us to penetrate. Ibrahim gives us such a wide variety of masks that it ties back into the problem I had with the solution – he could have made it slightly more obvious, given his innovation with the kinds of masks the characters wear. Again, it’s just a minor quibble, but I think it could have been done.

The Moon Moth is a fascinating story that delves into the idea of identity and what it means and what happens when identity is subverted in some way or another. Thissell has a job to do, but because the assassin is an off-worlder, the Sirenese are unconcerned about him as long as he doesn’t offend anyone. As they base everything on “prestige,” they have no interest in helping Thissell, who lacks it. It’s a very interesting view into a society that seems different from ours but is close enough that we can detect echoes of our own. Plus, it’s a nice little puzzle box of a story, as how do you find a murderer when everyone is always wearing masks? Ibrahim does a nice job adapting it, and it’s definitely worth a look if you haven’t read the original story. Even if you have, it might be worth it just to see how Ibrahim and Sycamore bring this world to colorful life. So sure, I Recommend it. For whatever that’s worth!

7 Comments

Glad you enjoyed it. I liked it a lot more than I expected to. Airwolf moment for me: shopkeeper comes out singing in flaming text while playing a violin with a sword. Badass. Exactly the moment past which Ser Thissell ought to have backpedaled.

with a title like that, I’d have expected J. Caleb Mozzocco to review it!

All it takes is Gene Wolfe’s recommendation for me to read it. If you haven’t read, I highly recommend The Book of the New Sun. It’s my favorite book ever.

By the way, can you explain your yeast extract comment? What the hell is that about?

Seth: That was a cool moment. And I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, too!

JRC: Maybe Caleb figured out it wasn’t about the Mothman? :)

Pedro: Vegemite is made from yeast extract, and it’s disgusting. But Aussies eat it up like it’s going out of style! So I was just pointing out that even cultures on Earth that are very similar (American and Australian) have things that when looked at by outsiders might seem strange, so of course Sirene’s culture will look unusual!

Wasn’t the D&D magic system (pre-4E) based on that of one of Vance’s books?

If you haven’t read any Vance, you haven’t lived.
I highly recommend The Dying Sun cycle (four short, jolly novels), although there is the GRRM-editted Songs of a Dying Sun which might be easier to get. All crack, but in ink. It’s wild stuff.

And yes, the original D&D magic system was heavily Vancian.

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