Languages of Pao, The by Vance, Jack, 1958

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I have made no secret of the fact that I generally do not like fantasy. With the exception of a few books I generally only like it if it is mixed with SF, and very little of the pure stuff appeals to me at all. I am also not fond of much of the the New Weird stories either. But one of the crossover authors that I somewhat enjoy is Jack Vance. This week's review is of his novel called The Languages of Pao. It's a bit of a roller coaster ride in terms of plot, but the characters and themes are incredibly well done.

The Languages of Pao tells the story of an enormous social engineering program to remake the citizens of the planet Pao. Pao was long ago colonized by men from Earth. The planet's population grew very quickly and at the time of the story there were fifteen billion of them. Pao itself was in a very stable orbit, had no seasons, and other than frequent earthquakes, caused virtually no problems for its population. Life was peaceful, calm and pleasant, and the planet Pao held few surprises for its people. The people of Pao were themselves as plain as the planet. Their culture was homogeneous, they had one language, they did not anger easily, they wore bland clothes, and they were mostly civil servants. The model for this culture was clearly China during its most recent cultural revolution, though the government was nowhere near as totalitarian. It was however controlled by one individual, and the right of leadership descended by birthright.

Early in the story two things happened that changed Pao's fate for good. First, the leader, called The Panarch Aiello was assassinated by an unknown assailant. Command was seized in the moment by The Panarch's cousin Bustamonte. Bustamonte wanted to cement his right to the throne, so he plotted to kill The Panarch's son Beran. Beren was saved at the last minute by Palafox of the planet Breakness and taken to Breakness for education. Palafox was on Pao at the time of the Panarch's death to negotiate a contract with the Panarch to rid him of a horde of interstellar barbarians from the planet Batmarsh. Prior to all this Pao bought all of its military equipment from a planet called Mercantil, but Mercantil had a better customer in the barbarians that threatened Pao, and Pao therefore was getting second rate product from the Mercantil.

The second big happening was that the barbarians, a warlike tribe called the Brumbers from the planet Batmarsh landed on Pao and without spilling one drop of blood, took it from the largely disinterested Paonese. The Paonese were so docile and so unwilling to fight that the Brumbers quickly became disgusted with their conquest and decided to leave, but before they did so they exacted a tribute from Bustamonte, which he agreed to pay, and told him that they would be back yearly for more. Within a few years of conquest other warrior tribes from Batmarsh began making demands on Bustamonte as well, so Bustamonte turned as Aiello did to Breakness for help.

Palafox agreed to help Bustamonte, but he attached some stringent conditions to the deal. This story is about how those conditions played out. Palafox proposed that Breakness completely remake the people of Pao into different groups with different foci. The primary tools for remaking the population were to be forced migrations, and vocational retraining that was accomplished with language training. Palafox advised that since a small expeditionary force of 10,000 barbarians defeated a planet of 15 billion, something must change in the psychological make up of the Paonese. Merely retooling and retraining the population would never be enough. They just did not have a fighting spirit in them, and Palafox believed that to be a function of the Paonese language:

Words are tools. Language is a pattern, and defines the way the word-tools are used.....Paonese is a passive, dispassionate language. It presents the world in two dimensions, without tension or contrast. A people speaking Paonese, theoretically, ought to be docile, passive, without strong personality development - in fact exactly as the Paonese people are. The new language will be based on the contrast and comparison of strength, with a grammar simple and direct. To illustrate, consider the sentence, "The farmer chops down a tree." (Literally rendered from the Paonese in which the two men spoke, the sentence was "Farmer, in the state of exertion; axe agency; tree in the state of subjection to attack.") In the new language the sentence becomes "The farmer overcomes the inertia of the axe; the axe breaks asunder the resistance of tree." Or perhaps: "The farmer vanquishes the tree, using the weapon-instrument of the axe."

Paonese language was a tongue without comparatives, superlatives, or active verbs, and as a result of that, and the facts that Paonese society was a culture without classes, and because the planet never presented any real risks, the people wire without spark or drive. Palafox sought to change that - he wanted to create a driven society on Pao, and make the enormous numbers of people a force to be rekoned with in the universe. Palafox suggested that Paonese society be splintered and languages for every critical job be developed and differentiated, depending on the ideal outlook and personality type for people in those jobs:

All these languages will make use of semantic assistance. To the military segment, a "successful man" will be synonymous with "winner of a fierce contest." To the industrialists, it will mean "efficient fabricator." To the traders, it equates with "a person irresistibly persuasive." Such influences will pervade each of the languages. Naturally they will not act with equal force upon each individual, but the mass action must be decisive.

In exchange for all this Palafox demanded money, power and most importantly, hundreds of Paonese women per month. Palafox's plans for the women provided the unforeseen twist at the end of the story, and although it was hard to swallow, it was a very creative and unique twist. I'll not spoil it here, as it is not critical to the analysis of the major themes.

So the main theme of this book is linguistics, specifically the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in one of the purest applications thereof that I am aware of in the whole of fiction, and pretty much one of the first applications of linguistics as the central science in a SF book. Vance brought the hypothesis to life here in a very real feeling and believable way. I think that it was better than what Orwell did in Nineteen Eighty-Four, better than what Delaney did in Babel-17, and at least as good as what Chiang did in The Story of Your Life. The project was generations long, and though it reached its goals, the plan became muddied and fouled because of facts that could also have been predicted with the hypothesis. The men of Breakness were different in very important ways from the Paonese. Those differences were never controled by Palafox when he came up with his master plan, and as a result a character trait inherent in the Breakness psyche was inadvertently branded into the psyche of various of the new classes on Pao. You see, the Breakness teachers spoke their own unique language that accentuated and was infused with their natural tendencies towards solipsism.

You are Paonese; you do not understand us of Breakness. We are total individuals - each has his private goal. The Paonese word "cooperation" has no counterpoint on Breakness.

The important Breakness cultural value of solipsism therefore worked its way into the Paonese languages because Breakness scholars were the creators of those tongues. The results of this linguistic time-bomb were unfortunate, and provided Beren's character with another social engineering task, which was the re-equalization and partial re-homogenization of Paonese culture. Palafox also had a plot of his own going on involving the Paonese women, where he literally tried to out-breed the prolific Paonese. Those subplots, as well as a throw-away love relationship Beren had for several pages, were the only substandard elements of the book, I thought. It has also been said many times that just about any author who works with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has gone too far in their application of that thery to their story, and uses the theory in ways that are neither suggested nor supported by the science backing the theory. To them I say: So what? Vance was not using the theory to describe an individual's world view. He was using it as the backbone of a plan to attack the way a culture percieved itself, and for that reason I have always thought that there was some legitimacy there. Vance, as far as I can tell, is the only one who has ever applied this theory to an enormous mass of people; at least in literature. But also I think that those critics forget that the true power of science fiction is that it allows authors to explore social phenomena by opening a window to extremes. In other words, SF authors get to amplify problems because everybody accepts that the passage of time is probably going to amplify or multiply social problems. They understood in in the pulp era when instead of a Hitler to deal with, they had a "Mega-Hitler of the 9th Dimension" to prevent from stealing their women. For better or worse readers understand that when authors raise problems to an extreme and overblown level in SF that they are doing nothing more than drawing a metaphor for what we have now. If you forget that, then I say that you have turned your back on the real power of SF.

Stylistically Vance is not really my cup of tea. He definitely knows how to deliver pure-SF stories, but in his most prolific mood Vance preferred sword-play to space battles, castle-storming to invasions, and princesses to warlords, though he was not afraid of any of this. This book is pretty purely a SF examination of the science of linguistics, but the accoutrements of the tale were mostly fantasy. I did not mark it down for that, though I was not overjoyed to find it. In the balance, I think his was a petty good book. Give it a try if you have never read it before. Itís not as good as Vance's The Dying Earth sequence of stories, but itís up there in its neighborhood.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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