The Blue World

by Jack Vance
Reviewed date: 2017 Sep 15
Rating: 4
190 pages
cover art
cover art
cover art

On a water-covered world, fifty thousand people live on floating pads in the placid ocean. There is no dry land, anywhere. No one in living memory has seen the ocean floor. The people live in the Home Floats, which are made of hundreds of giant floating lily-pads. Floats can be hundreds of feet across and can support homes and small villages. Food consists of various plants grown on the floats, of sea sponges grown on submerged arbors, and fish. Lacking stone, metal, or hard wood, the folk build everything from relatively soft material harvested from the float-plants. The hardest objects in existence are human bones.

This water world is calm--storms appear to be unheard of. It's a paradise. The only threat is from kragens: large, semi-intelligent sea monsters that eat sponges and destroy home-pads. But the folk are protected from kragens too. One especially large kragen, named King Kragen, protects the Home Floats by driving off all the lesser kragens. In exchange, the folk feed King Kragen. Many worship him.

Sklar Hast is an Eleventh, that is, an eleventh-generation descendent of the Firsts who crashed their Space Ship onto this water world. He is a Hoodwink from Tranque Float, and his job is to communicate with other Floats by means of winking lights, using a sort of visual Morse code. Sklar wants to marry Meril Rohan, the daughter of Master Hoodwink Zander Rohan. One particularly bad day, after Meril rejects him and announces her intention to marry Semm Voiderveg, Sklar's home-pad is attacked by a small kragen. Annoyed that King Kragen is not present to protect his property, Sklar announces his intention to kill the kragen.

Semm Voiderveg objects. As an Intercessor, it is ostensibly his job to summon King Kragen whenever he is needed. In practice, the Intercessors worship King Kragen and use his authority to cement their own positions as exalted priests. Voiderveg warns Sklar not to kill the lesser kragen. King Kragen considers all matter of the sea to be his domain, and if Sklar sins by killing a kragen, King Kragen will punish everyone of Tranque Float.

Sklar captures the kragen but is unable to kill it. King Kragen shows up, kills the lesser kragen, and systematically destroys Tranque Float as punishment. Dozens of people are drowned. Sklar Hast is put on trial, but careful inquiry reveals that Semm Voiderveg summoned King Kragen to witness Sklar's attempt to kill the lesser kragen. Given that Voiderveg's actions precipitated the tragedy, Sklar's guilt is mitigated. He is permitted to return to Tranque Float and help rebuild.

Sklar Hast has gotten a taste of something, though. He argues that the folk are not free. They feed King Kragen, who eats more and more each year, taxing the resources of the people. The bargain the Firsts made, that King Kragen would protect them from lesser kragens, seems less a bargain than a burden. King Kragen often does not show up in time to drive off the lesser kragens, and furthermore, King Kragen refuses to let the folk travel freely on the water. He destroys any coracle that ventures away from the Home Floats. Sklar proposes to kill King Kragen.

Many people agree with Sklar. Back in Tranque Float, they construct a new hood-wink tower to replace the tower King Kragen destroyed. The tower is of a new design. It's tall, top-heavy, with overly large winking arms. It's held up by guy-lines. It's a ruse: the top-heavy tower is a weapon. They lure King Kragen near the tower, then cut the guy-lines and tip it over. The sharpened winking arm just misses its mark. It glances off King Kragen's tough hide. King Kragen responds violently, destroying Tranque Float once again, and several other Floats as well.

Put on trial once again, Sklar Hast again escapes the death penalty. He and a thousand of his followers decide to leave the Home Floats and search for a new home. They wait until King Kragen is at a distance, then set out in their coracles. After days of travel, they find another line of floats as plentiful as the Home Floats. They construct a new home.

At the New Home Floats, the folk quickly develop a system to capture and kill kragens. The kragen bones and hide are tough and very, very useful. Further, the folk learn a great deal from reading the ancient journals of the Firsts. They start extracting copper and iron from various animal and plant sources. They generate electricity. They manufacture acids. They make glass. All these things they turn into weapons: bows to shoot flaming arrows at attacking boats; harpoons to spear small kragens. And most deadly of all, a giant harpoon taser powered by a boatful of batteries. With this, they spear and paralyze King Kragen, immobilizing him just long enough to pry the protective dome off his eye-turret and rip out his brains. King Kragen is dead.

Now freed from service to King Kragen and from the tyranny of the Intercessors, the folks of the old Home Floats are reconciled with the folk of the New Home Floats. Sklar Hast looks forward to a bright new future.

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