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Lurulu by Jack Vance
Review by David Hecht
St. Martin's Press HCVR  ISBN/ITEM#: 0312867271
Date: December 1, 2004 List Price 23.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

What is Lurulu? To begin with, it is the title of the latest Jack Vance novel, the conclusion of the work he began in his 1998 Ports Of Call. But "lurulu" is more than a nonsense word: it is the ultimate desideratum, the object of our desires. As the characters in the novel discuss, lurulu is neither fate nor destiny: it is more a process than a result.

Lurulu concludes the adventures of Myron Tany, whose earlier adventures were chronicled in Ports Of Call. Myron is a fairly typical Vance protagonist: a scion of neither wealth nor poverty, but of the middling sort, somewhat withdrawn--perhaps even a social misfit--in large measure because he is drawn to the far horizon. Like most Vance protagonists, he is at once self-sufficient and self-aware, though--to be sure--he is not unconscious of those around him.

In Ports Of Call, Myron turns away from the safe but dull world of educational and financial advancement that his parents hope he will enter, and becomes the pilot of his aunt's space yacht. At one of their stops, the aunt succumbs to the blandishments of a confidence man, and, after an altercation, Myron is left stranded by his aunt. A resourceful lad, he convinces the skipper of a small tramp freighter to take him on as supercargo and general factotum.

In Lurulu, though there are some actual plot points - at one point, Myron is invited to assist the skipper in recovering the skipper's mother from a dangerous rogue - the ongoing travels of the ship and its crew and passengers are the real point of the story. In a subplot resolved near the end of the book, Myron is attempting to rescue his aunt from the clutches of the confidence man; but - as no dramatic tension has been built around it - the resolution is fairly subdued.

Myron returns to his home world, along with the skipper and crew of the merchant ship, to live at ease on the legacy of his aunt, but--in the end--finds that such a life is not for any of them. As the book ends, Myron and the crew re-board the ship and continue on their journeys: only in the process of so doing, it would seem, can they truly be happy.

As far back as Aristotle, philosophers have observed that man seeks happiness: all the things we strive for along the way--money, power, love, pleasure, and so on--are merely means to this end. Because we lack introspectiveness--and because we live in a largely materialistic and hedonistic age--we have lost sight of this, and often confuse the means with the ends.

As Commander Spock succinctly observed to his rival Stonn, "after a time, you may find that having is not nearly so pleasing a thing as wanting: it is not logical, but it is often true." We nod our heads emphatically, for who has not experienced a twinge of disappointment--or at least regret--upon completing a difficult task?

In 1991, social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this phenomenon in his book Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience. He conducted interviews with a broad spectrum of subjects, and discovered that they identified their moments of greatest satisfaction not at the achievement of some goal, large or small: but rather in the impeccable execution of the efforts required to achieve that goal. These efforts needed to be challenging, but not overwhelming: too challenging, and you experience anxiety and disorientation, not challenging enough, boredom and malaise. Since in any task we perform regularly, we improve incrementally, the tasks themselves must increase in complexity and sophistication in order to maintain the "experience of peak performance". He concluded, "The way to happiness lies not in mindless hedonism, but in mindful change."

This, in essence, is the message of Lurulu, the book: nor is it a new one from Jack Vance. All of Vance's longer works have an elegiac quality, and this one is no exception: but surprisingly in this one we are left with an optimistic ending. I remember with particular poignancy the melancholy experienced by Keith Gersen at the end of the Demon Princes pentology: after fulfilling his life's quest to hunt down and destroy the five Demon Princes who killed his family and enslaved his countrymen, he sighs and comments: "Alas! I am abandoned by my enemies: I am undone." In Lurulu, the ending is far more upbeat, in part because the protagonist is not quite as monomaniacal as Keith Gersen, Glawen Clattuc, or so many others we have met over the years.

Lurulu is a fine ending to the story begun in Ports Of Call, and should really only be read as a set: as a standalone volume, it's thin fare, both metaphorically and physically. Still, given that Vance is now nearly 90 years old and almost completely blind, it is an impressive work: one can only hope that, at his age, we will still be capable of such achievements!

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