Culture or Madness? How Jack Vance’s Worldbuilding Redefined “Adventure”

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Author Jack Vance was such a driven world-creator that I’m beginning to suspect it was less of a talent and more of a compulsion. For a timely example of Vance’s relentless societal construction, take the Planet of Adventure quartet of novels, the middle two books of which are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this year. The books have already been summarized quite well on this site, but I’ll give you the quick version: Space explorer Adam Reith arrives on the planet Tschai, and discovers that four alien races already call it home. The reptilian Chasch arrived thousands of years ago, followed by their enemies, the pantherlike Dirdir and the hulking amphibious Wankh. There’s also a mysterious race called the Pnume who are indigenous to Tschai. And there are humans—lots of them.

The Dirdir, it turns out, gathered up some neolithic humans when they visited earth tens of thousands of years ...