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Vance, Jack – “Men of the Ten Books” (1951)

02/14/2013

Betty and Ralph Welstead, space prospectors, discover a hitherto-lost but human-colonized planet, sparsely populated with “wide low cities, very different from the clanging hives of Earth, lay under the greenery like carvings in alabaster or miraculous snowflakes.” Things on the planet are just as utopian as that description would lead you to believe, but the natives nonetheless tell the Welsteads (speaking “the language of Earth” with an archaic pronunciation) that they have been anxiously waiting for two hundred and seventy-one years for someone from Earth to bring them “deliverance.” Engines capable of traveling interstellar space, it seems, are discoverable only through serendipity, not reason, and so the people of the planet require the Welstead’s knowledge to escape. Ralph, in particular, is bewildered by their insistence on leaving the planet – he sums up Earth with the peevish “Wars? None to speak of–not since the Hieratic League broke up. The government still governs, uses lots of statistical machinery. There’s still graft, robbery, inefficiency, if that’s what you mean. Science–that’s a big subject. We know a lot but we don’t know a lot more, the way it’s always been. Everything considered it’s the same Earth it’s always been–some good, a lot of bad.”

The original colonists, part of the “Era of the Great Excursives” when humanity first scattered themselves across the universe, crash-landed on this planet, and the only books that survived the crash were the ten-volume “Encyclopedia of Human Achievement.” These books, which Ralph is convinced must have been written by an ad agency copywriter, so oversells its subjects that the colonists are convinced that their own works can never measure up to the perfection of Earth (” Shakespeare wrote good plays–sure, I concede it. But I’ve never seen ‘fires flickering along the words, gusty winds rushing through the pages.’”).

Where Ralph is a protagonist straight out of a Ray Bradbury story, complaining about mediocre hacks and commercial artists and musicians who “make their living reeling out sound, sound, sound–any kind of sound–for television sound-track,” Betty is a bit more optimistic, and a bit more trusting of the colonists’ ability to make decisions for themselves, and helps their leader stow away on the ship.

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