Dust of Far Suns

by Jack Vance
Reviewed date: 2017 Oct 9
160 pages
Originally titled Future Tense
cover art
cover art

I bought this book mostly because I like the title. Dust of Far Suns. It evokes a sense of wonder at the unfathomable vastness and ancientness of the universe. But Chekhov's title this is not: there was never any dust, no far suns. Still, I enjoyed the stories.

Dust of Far Suns
Previous entitled "Sail 25", and "Gateway to Strangeness"
Henry Belt takes six space cadets on a training mission. Using the solar lightship Sail 25, the cadets are to sail out toward Mars and then back to Earth. Henry Belt is an ill-tempered drunkard and a hard, unforgiving taskmaster. He's gone out on twelve previous training missions and never returned without casualties. But only Henry Belt is trusted to train new recruits. Space is unforgiving, see, and only someone as tough and unforgiving as Henry Belt can adequately prepare the cadets.

The cadets scramble to survive as a clearly suicidal Henry Belt sabotages their limited equipment. Crates of spare parts turn out to contain nothing but bottles of liquor. They miss their rendezvous with Mars, and their only hope is to swing around Jupiter. Belt sabotages them again, and they miss Jupiter too. One of the cadets suicides by jumping out into space. The others figure out a way to slow down and return. They make it to Earth, where Henry Belt gives the cadets their grades: two passing with high marks, two passing, and one failing. The sixth is dead.

Dead. He's dead because a space-crazy lunatic drunkard with a death wish spent the entire training mission locked in his cabin drunk out of his mind, only venturing out to sabotage vital equipment. Henry Belt should be in prison for murder, not entrusted with training Earth's best and brightest.

Ullward's Retreat
Overpopulation taxes Earth so much that most people can't even afford real algae to eat--they have to make do with the synthetic. But Lamster Ullward is wealthy. He owns a share in a patch of real algae. And he has a ranch: a quarter acre of open space, complete with an actual living tree, real fish in a real pond, and actual growing lichens. Viewscreen walls complete the illusion by making the space appear much, much larger. His only disappointment is that he lives above a factory, so the noise of heavy machines often intrudes on the illusion of solitude.

Ullward's greatest joy in life is hosting dinner parties for his friends, where he shows off his ranch. At one such party, a guest makes an offhand comment about an explorer who has just claimed an entire planet. Can you imagine so much space?

Ullward can, and he wants it. He tracks down the explorer and arranges to lease half a continent. He's so excited to show off his new, grander retreat. But his friends find the wide open spaces uncomfortable. They visit for a short time, but each makes excuses to return to Earth as soon as possible. Ullward finds that he, too, does not actually crave solitude and retreat. He returns to Earth and goes right back to doing what he loves: hosting dinner parties and showing off his oak tree.

Dodkin's Job
Luke Grogatch's life hasn't turned out the way he wanted. If he'd followed the Organized Society's rules and applied himself, he could have had a high classification, AAA Nutrition, and unlimited Special Coupons. Instead, he's a Flunky, Class D, Unskilled. His job is sewer maintenance and his tool is a shovel. Grogatch chafes at the job, with its bare minimum expense account and its meagre 16 Special Coupons a month. It's barely enough to keep him in food (basic Type RP Victualing) and sleeping (Sublevel 22 dormitory). But if he fails here, he'll be reclassified down to Junior Executive, which is unthinkable, and I love it. Junior Executive.

Grogatch tries to apply himself to the job of sewer maintenance. He really does. But then his boss hands down a new edict: to prevent theft or loss, all shovels must be checked in to a storehouse at the end of the day, and checked out again in the morning. Grogatch complains, but complies. The shovel check-in process takes 90 minutes, and Grogatch has had enough. He's going to get the edict overturned.

His boss says no way, take it up with my superior. His superior says no way, I got the order from my boss, take it up with him. So Grogatch follows the bureaucratic chain of buck-passers all the way up to the Chairman of the Board of Directors.

The Chairman says he'd love to rescind the order, but there's a metal shortage, and the order is a necessary belt-tightening measure. Lost tools cost money and metal to replace. He really can't help it, the data is all there, go take it up with the data analysts. Grogatch continues his quest, this time following the bureaucracy down through the data collectors and organizers, until he comes to Dodkin.

Dodkin is a nobody working a dead-end job: he tends the data collection and sends the reports up the chain. Occasionally, he notices something and adds his own interpolation to the report when he sends it up. Dodkin doesn't realize it, but his little notes get taken as gospel, and result in sweeping changes in policy and procedure. When Dodkin saw a lazy flunky throw a tool down in a gutter, he passed along a note about wastefulness. A few weeks later, the shovel check-in policy emerged.

Grogatch is no fool--he's just a Nonconformist at heart, that's all--so he sees the power that Dodkin unwittingly wields. Dodkin wants to retire, so Grogatch agrees to take the job. Now, all he has to do is decide how to use his power.

The Gift of Gab
On a water world, prospectors on giant rafts mine the oceans for minerals, mostly extracted from various sea creatures. Suddenly, the native dekabrachs begin staging sophisticated, coordinated attacks on the Bio-Minerals raft. The Bio-Minerals prospectors deduce that the dekabrachs are intelligent, and must be responding to an attack upon them. They suspect that one of the other corporations has discovered a use for the dekabrachs, and is harvesting them from the ocean.

If the dekabrachs are intelligent, harvesting them from the ocean is a crime. A quick undersea survey shows a massive dekabrach city made out coral, but even this is not proof. Insects make intricate hives but are not intelligent. They key is whether dekabrachs are capable of speech. They do not appear to communicate with each other, but not speaking and not being capable of speech are two different things. The prospectors catch a dekabrach and attempt to teach it a rudimentary language.

It works. The dekabrach learns to speak the invented language. The bad guy tries to kills the dekabrach with acid, to silence him so that the harvesting can continue. But the attack is thwarted, and the dekabrach is able to communicate well enough to identify the culprit. Their intelligence being proven, the dekabrach harvesting is stopped.

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