Saturday, January 5, 2008

So, what is "Asi achih!" anyway? A bit about Jack Vance

My favorite writer is Jack Vance. Tragically, throughout his extensive career he has flown beneath the literary radar due to having worked in genres that get no respect---science fiction, fantasy, mystery. However, I believe that he is one of the great literary stylists of the English language, bar none, no qualifications. The only other writers I can think of that I'd put in the same category are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. I'm not saying he's the "best writer", although he'd be on my personal short list in that category too. He goes in the elite company in which I place him because those three authors have this in common: each has the ability to make my smile and occasionally chuckle out loud with delight at the cleverness of the way they say things. In just about any Vance work once he hit his stride (i.e., just about any of his numerous books or stories from the mid-60s on) one can pick a page at random and be assured of finding some clever turn of phrase or exceptionally witty dialogue. And in his use of language Vance is unparalleled. I've got a huge vocabulary, but Vance regularly surprised me. Many words that I thought were made up have turned out to be real (albeit obscure) words, used with great precision.

One of the great experiences of my life was being involved in production of the Vance Integral Edition. The VIE was an unprecedented project, made possible by the rise of the internet: a group of Vance fans from around the world pooled their efforts to produce a definitive edition of Vance's complete works. Because much of Vance's work was published in pulp magazines or cheap mass-market paperbacks, the editorial hand was often heavy and intrusive---much of his work was modified (in some cases, mangled) between his pen and publication. So one of the things the VIE volunteers did was to go back (to the extent possible) to the original sources and return the texts as much as possible to what Jack intended. In some cases the original manuscripts were preserved; in other cases the task involved comparing various different published versions and trying to discern which was closest to the original. And against all odds we did it: the VIE published a 44-volume set of Vance's complete work.

Through my work for the VIE I had the chance to actually work with some of the original manuscripts, which are collected in the Mugar Library at Boston University. That was a thrill, although Jack's writing is nearly unreadable. He wrote his initial drafts in longhand on whatever paper was convenient---including letters from his publishers or his son's math homework---but a lot of them were written on the back of typewritten drafts of earlier work. Reviewing some of the manuscripts at the Mugar, I discovered on the backs of some, partial manuscripts of books that everyone had thought were lost. Based on those discoveries, the VIE added an additional supplemental volume including the "lost" texts. That was extremely gratifying. (The whole story of Volume 14bis has more to it than that; perhaps I'll elaborate one day.)

Anyway, my work on the VIE gave me a heightened familiarity with Vance's work. When I was thinking about a title/theme for this blog, a certain passage came to mind. I've quoted a little bit of it above, but here's the full passage:

From Peoples of the Coranne, by Richard Pelto:

The Darsh espouse each other only through calculation. The women judge the weight of the man’s duodecimates; the men taste the woman’s cooking and test the comfort of her dumble: so are Darsh marriages made. The two probably will not engage in sexual congress; both will surely go out on the moonlit desert to pursue their amatory affairs.

The marital relationship is formal and cool. Each party knows what is expected of him or her and, even more keenly, what he or she expects. If thwarted, the woman retaliates with rancid ahagaree or scorched pourrian; the man in his turn will throw less duodecimate upon the table, and spend his time at the beer-gardens.

In the morning, an hour before Cora-rise, the woman awakes the man who sullenly dons his day-clothes and goes to look at the sky. He utters a phrase of rather hollow optimism, in loose translation: “It will be good!” and sets off to his sift. The woman looks after him with a dark phrase of her own: “Go to it, fool!”

Late in the day the man returns. As he steps under the shade he takes a final glance around the sky and says, again in rather hollow tones: “Asi achih!” which means, “And so it went!” The woman, watching from the shadow of her dumble, merely chuckles quietly to herself.

Much of that may be obscure, taken out of context, but the general thrust is apparent. Ah, the Darsh of Dar Sai, one of Vance's most piquant creations! A culture remarkable for their sour disposition and horrific food. Actually in Darsh use "asi achih" has a fatalistic sense to it, as Vance explains further into that chapter in a footnote:

A Darsh expletive of fatalistic acceptance: “So be it!” or “That’s the way it goes!” The Darsh do not gracefully or philosophically accept misfortune; they are good grumblers. ‘Asi achih’ indicates the final recognition of defeat, or, as in this case, the inexorable force of destiny.
I do not intend my blog to constitute "final recognition of defeat", but I liked the image of the man returning at the end of the day, declaring, "And so it went!" to the bemusement of his mate. Fortunately my wife only occasionally manifests the characteristic Darsh malevolence.

The foregoing quotes are from Vance's book The Face, one of five books in his "Demon Princes" series, which trace the quest of a man for revenge on the five criminals who destroyed his family. Certain things make more sense if you read all five stories in order (starting with The Star King) but any can be read independently. You could do worse than The Face or any of the other Demon Princes books as an introduction to Vance, but I avidly recommend the following:

Maske: Thaery
Lyonesse (
aka Suldrun's Garden)
Araminta Station
Night Lamp

Lyonesse and Araminta Station are the first volumes of trilogies, but if you are susceptible to Vance you will, upon getting into them, give thanks that there are more volumes to come in each story! Maske and Night Lamp are stand-alone novels.

If you are interested, a lot of VIE information is archived here.


Barry said...


41 volumes?

Chuck said...

45 volumes, actually. The basic set was 44 volumes and then an additional volume with the "lost novel" was added later.

Tim Stretton said...

It's good to see another blog extolling the virtues of Vance,and in prose which suggests the reader's opinion is worth listening to.

And incidentally, The Face was the first Vance I ever read. It was enough to hook me!

Mike Aimer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Aimer said...

Did you know that a Dumble is one of the most rare and desirable guitar amps ever hyped beyond belief?

Geoff Schmidt said...

Thank you for this helpful post, fellow Vance fan. I linked to it here: