Jack Vance's classic Moon Moth short story retold as a terrific graphic novel

Moon-MothI haven't read much by science fiction author Jack Vance, but the one or two books I read, long ago, I enjoyed greatly. One thing that stood out about Vance's writing was the way he occasionally used fancy words combined with a deadpan delivery that would be very hard to imitate ("The Green Chasch loped up on their massive beasts, holding yellow and black flags afloat on their lances, signifying truculence and bellicosity. -- Planet of Adventure")

I'm not sure why I never read more of his work, but I've stored a mental note for years that said, "Read more Vance." Last week, I got the chance when I received this graphic novel adaptation of a classic Vance short story called "The Moon Moth," beautifully adapted by Humayoun Ibrahim.

The story takes place on a planet with a post-scarcity society in which everyone wears elaborately constructed masks appropriate to their social status. The inhabitants also carry a bunch of different musical instruments with them, because instead of talking to each other, they sing and play a particular instrument suited to the content and context of the conversation. (Ibrahim begins the graphic novel with a two-page spread describing a dozen or so of the musical instruments used on the planet Sirene. I referred to the spread several times as I read the story.) The characters' word balloons are rendered in a way that makes them look like they are being sung with a particular emotion.

"The Moon Moth" is about a man (I think he's from Earth), who gets sent to Sirene as a kind of emissary. He isn't prepared to live in this society, where a minor social gaffe can easily result in an instant beheading by the offended party.

"The Moon Moth" is the name of the story, but it is also the name of the low-status mask the Earthman ends up wearing. Initially he chose a high-ranking mask but was warned he would be killed quickly because he wouldn't know how to comport himself like a person worthy of such a mask. The society's paper-thin layer of over-the-top politeness, covering a draconian code of honor and punishment, reminds me of the Samurai culture (at least the way I understand it from reading James Clavell's Shogun.

From what I've read about Vance as an author (there's a good good forward in this book about Vance by Carlo Rotella), he's not interested in elaborate plots. Instead, he is able to create very weird, but completely believable, worlds, and write about them in such a way that you feel you are in them. This comic book version of "The Moon Moth" did that for me, and it also had a very satisfying conclusion. I'm not going to wait to read more Vance -- I bought Tales of the Dying Earth, an omnibus volume with four Vance novels: The Dying Earth, The Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rialto the Magnificent.

Buy The Moon Moth on Amazon


  1. The Dying Earth series is Vance’s best-known work, and deservedly so, but my preference is for his Lyonesse trilogy (Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden; The Green Pearl; Madouc). They don’t make ’em like Vance anymore: ornate language, eerie settings, high adventure, and a sense of humour that sneaks up on you.

    1. Those are the only true fantasy I think he’s ever done. I loved them too- and I got lucky, because Madouc was re-released shortly after I finished the first two- prior to that a ratty old copy was well over a hundred bucks. But yeah- this series is way up at the top of the list as far as favorites for me- it’s definitely his best (least despicable) female carachter of all time.

  2. I would have to re-read “The Moon Moth” before taking in the graphic novel, because the language is what made the story for me and I’d want to have it fresh in my mind so I could make a good comparison.

    The Dying Earth books are a good place to start.  I suspect about 90% of Vance readers started with those stories. The magic system of Dungeons and Dragons is based on the magic in these books!

    I recently finished reading a giant anthology of Dying Earth / Jack Vance tribute stories, Songs of the Dying Earth. Really wonderful stuff that nailed the baroque flavor of the Dying Earth stories.

    Vance occasionally does elaborate plots. The two that stand out  are the last two books of the Demon Princes five-parter. The Face and The Book of Dreams. The former is probably Vance’s funniest book. Dry, dry, dry funny. The latter pits the hero of the series against a bullied, dreamy nerd turned galactic super-villain.

    1. > Really wonderful stuff that nailed the baroque flavor of the Dying Earth stories.

      I thought the Neil Gaiman one really stood out – he really nailed just how cruel Vance stories are beneath that beautiful language.

    2. To give the tyros a taste of his savory words,  here is the opening paragraph of  “The Moon Moth”:

      The houseboat had been built to the most exacting standards of Sirenese craftsmanship, which is to say, as close to the absolute as human eye could detect. The planking of waxy dark wood showed no joints, the fastenings were platinum rivets countersunk and polished flat. In style, the boat was massive, broad beamed, steady as the shore itself, without ponderosity or slackness of line. The bow bulged like a swan’s breast, the stem rising high, then crooking forward to support an iron lantern. The doors were carved from slabs of a mottled black-green wood; the windows were many sectioned, paned with squares of mica, stained rose, blue, pale green and violet. The bow was given to service facilities and quarters for the slaves; amidships were a pair of sleeping cabins, a dining saloon and a parlor saloon, opening upon an observation deck at the stern.

      Such was Edwer Thissell’s houseboat, but ownership brought him neither pleasure nor pride.

  3. The other (mostly) lost art that Vance was a master of is footnotes.  Reams and reams of footnotes describing everything from the insect paste on the appetisers to a culture’s sociological context for the colour “orange”.  Only Iain Banks comes close.

    I always had a soft spot for Zap-210, the Pnumekin from Planet of Adventure and the Pnume themselves were a great invention: a race of alien Aspergers.

    1.  Yes – I started on the _Planet of Adventure_ series when I was a kid, so they’re burnt into my brain. I had such a crush on Zap-210 when I was ten years old.

  4. The ‘Anome’ trilogy is also very good. I read them first from Bedford library years ago. The cover some similar ideas, including the importance of music, wandering minstrels, and so on. People wear a ‘torc’ around their necks with colored stripes denoting status, and this is also the means of control – break the law and BOOM.

  5. I have to second or third the Dying Earth novels.  Fantastic stuff with an eerie and poignant feel to them all.  I love his short stories best of all…  wish he would write more of them!  Cugel is fun, but not as exotic and heavy with the perfume of a world on the edge of oblivion.  Songs of the Dying Earth is also worth a purchase imho.  

    You may also enjoy The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale Of Henghis Hapthorn by Matthew Hughes.  Definitely an homage to the master.  Another even better/weirder author (and great friend and protege of Jack’s) is Terry Dowling from Australia.  His short story collection Wormwood, Rhynosserus/BlueTyson series are all wonderful (a future where aborigines rule the world due to their ability to tune into the strong AI spirits and powers, just try it…)  I think he typically writes short stories, so it isn’t a huge investment of time to give it a go.

    I had the pleasure of meeting Jack Vance a few years ago at Borderlands in SF (great bookstore btw).  Also met Michael Moorcock there at a book signing and thanked him for a lifetime of enjoyment.

  6. Cugel the Clever is one of my favorite characters of all time. The writing in the Dying Earth novels is so lush and infectious. Just a giant smile on my face the whole time. Need to read more of his work. Thanks for this post!

    “Is this the conduct of a ‘sly and unpredictable villain’?”

    “Decidedly so, if the villain, for the purposes of his joke, thinks to simulate the altruist.”

    “Then how will you know villain from altruist?”

    Cugel shrugged. “It is not an important distinction.”

    1. The humor in the Cugel stories in these contentious arguments is a thread running through a lot of Vance.   There seems to always be some tendentious innkeeper, planetary tourist agent or local princeling disputing the minutiae of rental charges, regulations or style of appropriate dress.

  7. Vance was very interested in curious ways to communicate, and loved to make new languages, not all of the spoken word. Sprinkled throughout many of his books are various scribblings by the mad poet, Navarth, a wonderful creation. His fantasies are some of the best ever, and delightful reading. His older work stands up well, mostly for his wry humor.

    1. I’ve noticed he’s popped up in more than one series. It was this (among other things) always made me feel like  it was all one place- his stories were scattered all over time- but the universe was the same.

  8. Footnote for the Vance collector: He also dipped into the mystery genre and, seemingly effortlessly, picked up a number of awards there.  His ultra-creepy story “Bad Ronald” was made into a TV movie.

  9. See, this is why I read boingboing.
    Jack Vance is my all time favorite author, I have an entire shelf on by bookcase dedicated to him- tons of old ace doubles, hard to find and out of print- some cheap dogeared paperbacks- I’ve bought people copies of Planet of Adventure so I’ll never have to part with mine. I dedicated my own novel to JV, as his books were the first books I truly loved- my father read them to me as a child, and I later re read them again, and again, and again. There’s only one or two I’ve never read- I’m saving them for a rainy day.
    Anyway- I just bought two copies of this, and I NEVER would have seen it without BB. Major props.
    Also, though the Dying Earth series is a close second, I still prefer Planet of Adventure. The protagonist is not as dastardly, but I think the story is more grand and sweeping. I suspect it would make the best movie of all of his stories, though none of them would be perfect- since his unique language is really what it’s all about.

    1.  Lucky you having a father who read Vance to you –  I had the familiar upbringing of well meaning parents gently suggesting I read a *real* book. The thought of being *encouraged* to read Vance as a kid…

      Planet of Adventure is also far and away my favourite, possibly due to it being one of the first things I saw when I came out of the egg. Were you aware that there was a French comic adaption of the whole series – two graphic novels per volume. I’ve got them – well, six of them – and I love them, though the artwork  is only fair. There’s no English translation that I know of, but it’s not as if you don’t know the story by now. The adaption is very fairthful.

      And thinking of the French – in a megabookstore in Paris I saw ten or twelve different Vance books (in French translation) on the shelves. Here in Australia the best I’d expect to see in a non specialist bookshop would be the Lyonesse series.

      1.  The FNAC in Paris – I was there when they had a Metal Hurlant (Heavy Metal) showing of original art. Awesome!! 

        1. That’s the one. Damn! Would have liked to have seen that show.

          I had a guy in a comic shop tell me that “En France Jack Vance est un bestseller”.

  10. I was weaned on the Demon Prince novels :) His writing conjures such vivid imagery it makes reality appear drab and washed out.
    About 12 years ago I was involved with the Vance Integral Edition, a remarkable worldwide effort by Vance fans to create the definitive edition of his collected works. The result was a 44 volume, limited edition, set. I’m not aware of any other author who has been honoured in this way, though doubtless there must be one or two who deserve it…

      1. Everyone should have a set! 

        One of the results of this effort was that a number of wealthy patrons donated sets to various libraries. I can’t decide if the lucky first time Vance reader stumbling onto such a trove would gorge themselves or have the self control to make it last… 

  11. I too was lucky enough to have a father who loved JV. As I and my sister did. We had so many arguments about who owned or had his books over the years,we ended up having 2-3 copies  of pretty much everything. What a marvellous writer. In addition to the usual suspects mentioned above, I’d like to recommend the Alastor books – Wyst in particular.

  12. For years, Jack Vance was the bestselling Science Fiction author in the Netherlands, with all his works getting excellent translations. I own most of them. 

  13. Gene Wolfe writes in Castle of Days:

    In the first volume of The Book of the New Sun, the old librarian, Master Ultan, says, “Such a child eventually discovers, on  some low but obscure shelf, The Book of Gold. You have never seen this book and you will never see it, being past the age at which it is met.”
       “It must be very beautiful,” says Severian.
       “It is indeed. Unless my memory betrays me, the cover is of black buckram, considerably faded at the spine. Several of the signatures are coming out and certain of the plates have been taken. But it is a remarkably lovely book. I wish that I might find it again . . .”

    For Wolfe, The Book of Gold is Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth.

  14. I too love Vance, though in some of his later works, he can be a bit too reactionary and misogynistic for my taste. I can also recommend some of his shorter stuff, like “The Narrow Land” and “The World Between”.

  15. Enjoying this thread.  Obsessed with Vance right now.  I like the newer works too.  The Cadwall Chronicles Trilogy is great, which has a lot of the deadpan contentious dialogue familiar from earlier works, as well as descriptions of multiple discrete societies with bizarre mores and fashions.  Night Lamp (1996) is good too.  His autobiography came out in 2009 which pans out to more than sixty years of writing?

  16. Vance’s short story “The Men Return” is a great surrealistic take on the end of the world.

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