Celebrating New Celebrations: Alexei Panshin's Anthony Villiers books
By Jed Hartman
24 March 2003
"I try to add my enemies by design, rather than accident." —Anthony Villiers
New Celebrations: The Adventures of Anthony Villiers, by Alexei Panshin, is a three-in-one ebook omnibus reprint from ElectricStory of Panshin's classic (and long out-of-print) Anthony Villiers books, originally published in the late 1960s. The books are short, funny comedies of manners in a far-future setting; not, perhaps, Panshin's deepest work, but definitely his most entertaining.
I should mention before proceeding, for those unfamiliar with his other work, that Alexei Panshin is far better known for three things:
- Heinlein in Dimension, a controversial critical study of Heinlein's work.
- Rite of Passage, a YA novel which can be read as a sort of critique of Podkayne of Mars (though it was actually written a little before Podkayne), with a more plausible young female protagonist.
- The World Beyond the Hill, a critical study of science fiction, written with his wife Cory Panshin.
But those familiar with Alexei Panshin's other work should be warned that the Villiers books are entirely unlike anything else he's written.
The three Villiers books (not technically a trilogy, but rather the first three books of a projected longer series; sadly, the fourth book in the series has been pending for thirty years now) are:
- Star Well (1968)
- The Thurb Revolution (1968)
- Masque World (1969)
They concern an impoverished but dashing young man, Anthony Villiers by name, who wanders the interstellar Nashuite Empire in the company of a woolly, toadlike humanoid alien named Torve. Villiers, it develops, is a remittance man: he doesn't get along with his family, so he is "requested to travel . . . and is provided with a reasonable amount of money [sent to him in installments as he travels] as long as he stays away from home." (Star Well, ch. 5) Unfortunately, the remittance doesn't always arrive at the expected place and time. The result is that Villiers can move in the highest of high society but never has quite enough cash on hand.
Over the course of the three books there are duels, and assassins, and bureaucrats, and syrupy children's-book authors, and incisive narratorial comments, and wry irony and wit, and laugh-out-loud funny bits. The whole series, especially the second book, is charming and highly recommended, especially at this price, especially given that the series is long since out of print and probably difficult to find anywhere else. (Though you can occasionally find copies of Star Well or Masque World at used bookstores.)
The plots and situations are entertaining, but the characters are the best part. There are, sort of, three characters who appear in all three books; I'll talk a little about each of them.
First, Anthony Villiers. Villiers isn't quite a rogue—he's too polite, and too well-bred—but he isn't exactly a gentleman either. He's a bit of a fop: "Villiers followed the old dictum, Live as you dress. He dressed well." (Star Well, ch. 2) (These books, especially the first, pay far more attention to clothing than most science fiction.) He's adept at the High Culture (about which more later), but is also adept at being direct when directness is called for:
"I flatter myself . . . that I have some knowledge of the standard passes of social dealing. When you wish to insult a man—the Cut Direct. When you wish to snub a man—the Cut Indirect. The Studied Insult, the Pertinent Reflection—to be overheard, of course—even the smiles available for twelve separate effects." (Star Well, ch. 4)
Villiers travels in the company of one of my favorite aliens, Torve the Trog. The Trog race has been confined to two star systems since their defeat in a war; only a few of them are officially allowed to travel. Torve is not one of those few, and yet he manages to get through customs everywhere he goes.
Torve's philosophy of life has to do with "lines of occurrence." As the narrator puts it:
Perhaps, if our minds were trained to accept the idea and our language permitted, it would be altogether better not to believe in causality. Perhaps lines of occurrence in which events are not caused but occur of their own volition would be more satisfactory. (Star Well, ch. 8)
Torve doesn't believe in causality. He takes some odd circumstances for granted, and is surprised by others. For example, at one point, he's helping hammer nails, but keeps getting distracted:
Torve was bemused by the way a nail would retreat into the wood after it had been hit on the head. (Thurb, ch. 5)
The third major character, in a sense, is the narrator. The narrator definitely has a personality, and frequently pauses to chide characters (and readers), or to hold forth on various philosophical points. For example:
Learning, playing and loving, and combinations thereof, are a good way to spend a lifetime. Admittedly, a difficult regimen, but nonetheless not beyond attainment. (Thurb, ch. 8)
If you are going to be what you wear, you should try more than one style before you settle. As an experiment, try on something strange and wild. What sweet whirling thoughts unsettle the mind? Think about them. Now, who are you? (Masque World, ch. 1)
The narrator's comments on characters' flaws are often in a dry ironic tone, casting aspersions on characters for things that most readers would consider positive traits (such as Villiers not behaving sufficiently like an aristocrat); the result is occasionally to make the narrator sound overly stuffy and aristocratic, though it's never entirely clear whether the narrator is meant to be taken seriously or with tongue in cheek. Probably some of both. Either way, the narrator is often funny:
"Oh, sir," she said, "no one can help me now. I am beyond all help." She languished delicately and with so much grace that any objective observer must needs approve, applaud and appreciate. (Star Well, ch. 3)
In addition to the philosophy and humor, the books manage to toss in a surprising (to me) number of sly sexual references in passing, without ever dwelling on them. There's a funny bit where a tourist resort's Accommodations Clerk, misunderstanding a request for privacy from one of the more straight-laced characters, offers to send in a variety of leather appliances; there's a couple of paragraphs about an order of holy prostitutes; there's a one-word casual mention of polygamy that's so subtle most readers will probably miss it; and there's momentarily a certain casual attitude toward homosexuality, in this brief exchange (with the other character's name removed to avoid spoilers):
"Have you ever loved a man?" [X] asked.
Villiers absorbed the question. "In what sense?"
"Not yet. Why?"
(Thurb, ch. 11)
A modern liberal reader might nonetheless take issue with certain political aspects of the books: in particular, there are few female characters in the trilogy, and there's a hook-nosed swarthy villain in one book. But there's also a certain amount of subversion of reader expectations; for example, the narrator spends some paragraphs at one point discussing the paucity of female characters:
It has always been my conviction that a story with a young personable unmarried man ought to have an attractive girl as well, for companionship's sake. So far, there are half a dozen such young men in our story, and no attractive young ladies at all. Unfortunately, there are unlikely to be many. (Thurb, ch. 2)
There are some gender-related moments that may make a modern reader wince a little at first, but perseverance furthers, and Panshin knows what he's doing. Keep in mind that he wrote Rite of Passage and forgive him.
As for race, issues of human interaction with aliens are explored much more interestingly than issues between human races (which are largely ignored, though the influence of various non-European languages is clear in character names), and even the stereotyped villain is kind of an interesting character.
Another reason to forgive Panshin any minor political lapses is the care with which he dissects and skewers class and cultural issues. The action of the books takes place against the backdrop of a galactic empire, and Villiers and his friends are mostly from the noble class who rule that empire—and yet Villiers is in almost self-imposed exile from the center of the empire, due partly to his predilection for hanging about with confidence men and Trogs and other such uncouth beings. Throughout the books we catch glimpses of the High Culture that this ruling class lives by (which is as heavily mannered as various historical ruling cultures)—and yet, the narrator constantly deconstructs that culture:
The empire is a gallimaufry of cultures of which the so-called High Culture is only one. Cultures are media of expression, like languages. Most men know at least several fluently, shift easily among them, but are most comfortable in one.
. . .
Real unity is impossible—the universe is too large. The common experience of the opening of space ended forever the possibility of one common culture. Which is just as well. It would have been dull. (Thurb, ch. 5)
At the same time, the narrator informs us that it's not so difficult to get by in the High Culture (where "anything is proper if it is done with supreme confidence and ultimate style" (Masque World, ch. 6)), and that becoming a member of the nobility is more a matter of training than of breeding:
There are schools that can teach you to be a lord—if you are not one naturally—if they are given you in charge at a sufficiently early age. In sum, to be a lord is to be arrogant and selfish with such style that people are delighted to be of service to you. (Thurb, ch. 1)
And late in the books, the narrator even pokes holes in the assumptions you've probably made about what a Galactic Empire is, how it works, and how and why it was founded.
I'll close with a brief discussion of each of the three books.
The first book, Star Well, is an entertaining and intriguing adventure yarn, full of interesting characters and situations. It doesn't really transcend its genre, but it doesn't need to.
The Thurb Revolution, the second book, is brilliant: laugh-out-loud funny, full of action and philosophy and improbable entertainments. And in the background, almost unnoticed, Thurb begins to flesh out the universe glimpsed in Star Well: we begin to learn more about the citizens of the Empire, and a sinister plot against Villiers is set in motion which, unfortunately, we never learn the origin of. (There are hints that the as-yet-unwritten fourth book, The Universal Pantograph, was to have answered that question.) Thurb also introduces the notion of a pantograph, a "three-dimensional homologue . . . of the distribution patterns of the Empire" (Thurb, ch. 6), used by the Empire to model and predict behavior, albeit imperfectly. The idea of pantographs, and the notion of a Universal Pantograph that can predict everything, becomes increasingly important over the course of the second and third books, and presumably would have been even more important in the fourth.
Unfortunately, the third book, Masque World, doesn't quite appeal to me as much as the first two. It has plenty of interesting character moments and entertaining philosophical discussions, but its plot is relatively thin and feels mildly forced to me. It is, however, certainly worth reading as a continuation of the characters and story. Among other things, it reveals in passing the true identity of a character from one of the earlier books. And it provides a little more information about the Universal Pantograph, and sets up all sorts of intriguing hints for what was to have been the fourth book in the series.
"Some day," the narrator informs us in Thurb, "the Universal Pantograph will be complete and for the first time man will know definitely what is going to happen next." (Thurb, ch. 6) And perhaps, with luck, some day The Universal Pantograph will be complete, and for the first time we will all know definitely what is going to happen next to Villiers, Torve, and the others. Until that day, we'll have to make do with the original three books.
Copyright © 2003 Jed Hartman
Jed Hartman is Senior Fiction Editor for Strange Horizons.