The Blue World by Jack Vance was published in 1966. I read the 1977 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover artwork. Frankly, of all the editions of this novel, I like this artwork the best. Anyway, this novel was nominated for the 1967 Nebula Award. It is the fifth novel by Jack Vance that I have read.
This was an average-rated read for me. It falls right in the mix with To Live Forever and Big Planet. I have definitely seen Vance do better. Though there are numerous things to like about this novel, it just does not reach the level of greatness that The Languages of Pao and Star King reached. Like Big Planet, this is an adventure novel. In the past, many readers have considered it an example of a novel about social freedom, some suggesting that it be considered a Libertarian novel. I think that making such an assertion about this novel can be supported by some evidence, but I think it is too strong an assertion. Just because there is an individual who disagrees with some of the fundamentals of the social society he finds himself in, does not mean he falls under some category of social system. In other words, because one character questions society and has moments where he champions freedom I do not think this is some special novel, nor do I think it is a prime example of Libertarian doctrine.
Blue world is a waterworld. Its inhabitants are descendants (beyond tenth generation) of humans who arrived on the planet via “star ship.” The writings of the Firsts (those who came on the ship) are treated as pseudo-religious/philosophical texts and much of what the inhabitants know is derived from such texts. One of the main circumstances of this planet is that there is no metal ore. So, the dwellings, clothes, tools, and other artefacts are made largely from items from the sea. Living space is confined to the “lily pads” of giant plant stalks that rise from the bottom of the sea. Food is derived from the sea and drink from plants. It seems like every possible use of the plants and sea creatures is utilized to its maximum.
Also living on this planet are kragens. Kraken? Anyway, these sea monsters are something like huge octopi or kraken of old sea-stories. Society has developed on the Floats in such a way as to reverence these kragen – one in particular, nicknamed King Kragen.
True to all of Vance’s novels, the architecture, props, and mechanics are the highlight of the book. I really like the idea of the setting: a waterworld wherein resources are limited and scientific knowledge is at a minimum. One of the things that this society developed is semaphore communications. Basically, a structure of some sort is setup on each of the main lily pads and using a signalling system, news and information can be relatively quickly sent along the Floats. There is a class system in this society, each class is assigned to a specific labor. Those who maintain this semaphore system are the “Hoodwinks.” Throughout the novel, Vance also treats the reader to explanations and descriptions of various mechanics and scientific experiments. He won’t just tell you that they built a weapon – the reader is going to build it alongside the characters. And this can be annoying to some readers, but once you get used to Vance, you come to expect this emphasis on building and mechanics.
This is a straightforward storyline. The main character, Sklar Hast, decides that he has had enough pandering and submitting to the idea that one of these kragen can consume so much resource from the Float society. He decides there is nothing “religious” or “superstitious” about these kragen – they are merely destructive sea beasts. Of course, Sklar’s ideas at first cause surprise and curiosity in the Floats. Then there is a division among the people. Finally, the dissenters are sent away. Yet, we see the development of retribution and jealousy. Finally, there are instances of tyranny. However, all of this is somewhat overstating the plot of the novel. The characters are very face-value and the storyline is not very imaginative. More or less, what you think is going to happen, is what happens.
The pacing is quite slow and the storyline is a bit repetitive. Afterall, while setting the novel on a waterworld provides a neat challenge for characters, it also limits the possibilities for the author, too. For a writer who doesn’t focus on character development, Vance seemed to write himself into a corner in places with this story. One of the things that I noticed many times was that the Float scholars had language skills (i.e. had signifiers and signified) but an odd distribution of this knowledge. Float members struggle with words like “glass” or “protons” but they comfortably use words like “electricity” and “engine” and “iconoclast.”
I would suggest this book to people who want a really low-key, low-excitement novel. Also for Vance fans. But I think others may safely skip this novel.