The Houses of Iszm
Reviewed date: 2018 Jan 30
It was assumed as a matter of course that visitors came to Iszm with a single purpose: to steal a female house.
The Iszics of Iszm grow biological houses. With the proper breeding and care, these magnificent plants are formed into simple pod homes for workers, luxury mansions for the rich, sturdy houses for high-gravity planets, and armored watch-towers for feudal worlds. The Iszics carefully control their monopoly: houses are grown only on the planet Iszm. A single dealer on each world is licensed to sell houses, and the Iszics control the quantity and type of houses delivered to each dealer. Most critically, they never permit a seed, a sprout, or a female house to ever leave Iszm.
This is a story of tree-stealing.
The Treaty of Access doesn't allow the Iszics to completely isolate their planet, so they settle for subjecting visitors to intense scrutiny. When Aile Farr arrives he gets extra attention because he is a botanist on sabbatical from the University of Los Angeles. All his possessions, even his clothing, are taken from him, and the immigration agent injects him with a radiant that allows the Iszics to track his location while he is on the planet.
Aile Farr charters a boat to visit Tjiere atoll. When he arrives, he find himself in the middle of a brazen raid: a group of Thords in a heavily armored craft scoop up dozens of young house plants. The Iszics thwart the raiders, and while they sort things out, they throw Farr into a holding cell along with a captured Thord raider. Because of Farr's proximity to the event, the Iszics presume he is complicit. Farr is incensed. He's committed no wrong, and the rough treatment has caused him some minor injury--a cut on the head.
It's all sorted out in a day or so. The Iszics cannot prove their suspicions so they let Farr go, but they have him followed closely for the remainder of his visit on Iszm.
Meanwhile, we as the reader know that Farr is involved in trying to steal a tree--otherwise it wouldn't be much of a book would it? But because the narrative voice gives us a peak into Farr's thoughts, we are aware that Farr has no conscious intent to steal a tree. So how is he going to do it?
Spoilers: By the time Farr is back on Earth, it's clear that there's some sub-conscious impulse implanted in his mind. He's not aware of having stolen a house tree seed, but clearly he has. He has an irresistible compulsion to contact K. Penche, the licensed seller of houses on Earth. Farr offers the seed for sale (despite not consciously knowing that he actually has one), but Iszic agents are closing fast to prevent the sale.
Aile Farr was never involved in the plot to begin with. While in the holding cell after witnessing the Thord raid on Iszm, the captured Thord raider uses his psychic powers to implant a compulsion on him: to visit K. Penche (who financed the raid) and deliver the house seed. The house seed--actually a sprout--is growing on Farr's head, disguised as a gray hair. Farr sells the sprout to K. Penche for ten million dollars.
This being a Jack Vance book, the sprout turns out to be male and worthless. The Iszm house monopoly is secure.
The Houses of Iszm doesn't have the clever dialog and characters that some of his better works do, but I enjoyed it well enough.