Jack Vance and Humayoun Ibrahim, The Moon Moth

From this week’s column. The Vance story in question is available here (though a chunk of it is repeated on that page, which is a bit bewildering if it’s the first time you’re reading it) and there’s an audio version that didn’t really appeal to me (warning: this version begins with sexual assault) here.

 

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A couple of weeks ago I reread Jack Vance’s short story “The Moon Moth” for the first time in years. The author’s death, at the age of 96, had just been announced, and to revisit this story felt like an appropriate homage. Particularly since I’d recently picked up a graphic novelised of the piece, with art by Humayoun Ibrahim.

“The Moon Moth” was originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction in 1961. It is set on a planet where the only currency is social currency. The people of Sirene never show their faces, wearing masks commensurate with their social status. Communication is done through a combination of song and a variety of musical instruments, with the instrument in question indicating the register or tone of the speech. For an outsider it is easy to give offence—to use the wrong instrument in the wrong social situation can cause anything from embarrassment to death.

Into this world comes Edwer Thissell, in his own world a man of prestige but here, an outworlder who can barely speak the language, is incompetent with the instruments he must play to communicate, and is only important enough to wear the modest mask of a Moon Moth. But soon after he arrives Thissell is ordered to hunt down a murderer. In a world where his own situation is precarious and where everyone around him wears a mask, this is somewhat difficult.

Vance wrote mysteries (often using the pseudonym “Ellery Queen”) as well as science fiction, and for all that it is set on another planet, “The Moon Moth” feels a bit like a classic detective story. It’s the setting that makes it memorable, and Vance’s prose.

Because for me the greatest pleasure from reading Vance’s work is in the language. Elegant, over the top, gleefully verbose, yet deadpan in tone and completely controlled. Almost as soon as the story opens Vance describes a houseboat as built “without ponderosity or slackness of line”; it’s almost as if we’re being dared to find slackness (there is none) in his prose.

When so much of what is appealing in his work comes from his use of descriptive language, Vance would seem a terrible candidate for transition into a more visual medium. It’s for this reason that I found myself a bit dubious about The Moon Moth, Humayoun Ibrahim’s graphic adaptation. Yet I was pleasantly surprised.

In part this is because it is such a visual story. A setting made up entirely of people in outlandish masks ought to be a gift to any artist, and most of the time Ibrahim takes full advantage of this. If there’s a complaint to be made it may be that he never really plays with the darker and more menacing aspects of this world; the cannibalistic “Night Men” who roam the shores at night or the sheer terror that an outsider might naturally feel at encountering a sea of blank, masked faces.

More importantly, the medium allows Ibrahim to depict the Sirenese language and Thissell’s failures at it in ways that even Vance could not. Speech bubbles are ornamented with patterns in the colours of the different instruments—a useful index at the front offers illustrations and explanations of each instrument –elaborate curlicues for more experienced practitioners, jagged lines for Thissell’s crude attempts. Even the lettering is cleverly deployed to show us where our protagonist stumbles. The reader is forced to focus on the central conceit of this story: language and communication and shifting social registers, in fact the entire question of the face we present to the world. And in the process we’re reminded that Vance wasn’t just (though it would be enough for me if he was) a stylish writer, but often a very clever one.

Forced to choose between this new version and the original, though, I’d still pick Vance’s prose over just about anything the artist could come up with.

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