"The Pictures of Pavanne" is a 1968 science-fiction novel by British writer Lan Wright, published as one half of an Ace Double, with the other side being The Youth Monopoly, with Ellen Wobig. Lan Wright was active as a science-fiction writer in the 1950s and 1960s, and this was his final work. Which is unfortunate, while reading this I was wondering if Lan Wright was a pen name for a better known writer.
The titular "Pictures of Pavanne" are a gigantic, mysterious alien artifact that cover most of the surface of a desolate planet. In the intermediate-future setting, they are a major tourist destination of almost religious significance, and they see a constant pilgrimage of tourists who wish to view them. The book doesn't describe exactly what they are--- on purpose, internally it says they are so sublime that they can't be described. Despite that, many painters have tried, with small success. The book starts by disguising the journey of one such painter: Max Farway, a talented painter and heir to a vast fortune who is nevertheless bitter because he has some form of painful dwarfism. His rich father has recently died, and him, his step-mother, and his art agent all go to Pavanne. On Pavanne, we meet Max Farway's foil: Jason Harkrider, who controls the tourist business on Pavanne. Like Farway, Harkrider is a shrewd operator, and like Farway, he is physically disabled, confined to a life support system due to his old age. Harkrider has a yes man, Rudolph Heininger, and a pair of sadistic twin daughters. Farway and Harkrider are a contrast because despite both being disabled, angry and sharp thinkers, Farway is honestly dedicated to art and is not purposely cruel, while Harkrider has no redeeming characteristics. When Farway lands on Pavanne, Harkrider becomes aware of it and dispatches his deputy to find out what Farway might know. Because, of course, the mysterious alien artifact might be more than it seems.
The book also does a good job mixing idealism and cynicism. The book has cruelty and corruption, but at the same time, it establishes that one of the greatest motivators for people is love of beauty. For the short length of the book, it has a textured look at human motivations.
The dramatic core of the book is the intrigue between Farway and Harkrider. Although it is initially described in great detail, I was a bit disappointed that the two didn't interact more: a flaw of the length of this book, less than 140 pages. One of the reasons why this story was interesting to me was the figure of a man with dwarfism that was in turns both idealistic and cynical, and his attempts to use strategy to destroy a rich, corrupt house reminded me of Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, and I even wondered whether this book could have been written by a young George RR Martin. So while I like the characterization, and the plot had early promise, I found the science-fiction core of the book even more interesting.
The most intriguing concept from a science-fiction point of view is that the alien artifact is not a matter of power, but of beauty and meaning. There have been many science-fiction works about ancient technology giving great power, but here, it is the ability of the technology to provide inspiration and value that makes it so vital. I found this a prescient concept, since as of late, it has been technologies ability to sway people's emotions, to give them a sense of identity and purpose, that has been its most central effect. The book takes a central science-fiction concept "What if some type of discovered artifact changed human culture and became a focal point for art and commerce?" and tells a realistic story around that premise, which seemed like quite an accomplishment for this relatively obscure author.