Science fiction by Jack Vance. * 1/2 (explanation)

In short: Don't bother. If you want to retain a fond memory of Jack Vance, read The Dying Earth, Emphyrio, and Night Lamp, and don't touch either Ports of Call or its continuation Lurulu.

Ports of Call tells the story of Myron Tany and the people he encounters while zigzagging through life. Myron's wanderlust makes him ill-suited for the career (as a banker) his parents have planned for him. After drifting out of university, Myron initially serves as decoration at his wealthy great- aunt's mansion. But when the aunt suddenly takes it into her head to visit a world she read about in a magazine, she asks Myron to captain the Glodwyn, a spaceship she was awarded in a lawsuit. About halfway through Ports of Call Myron has a disagreement with his great-aunt over another male decoration she has picked up along the way, and Myron suddenly finds himself put off the ship. Stranded, Myron signs aboard the space-freighter Glicca, and the rest of both books consists of things that happen to Myron, the rest of Glicca's crew, and its passengers.

Unfortunately, these travels are an incoherent muddle. Glicca zigs and zags to this planet and that planet around the Gaean Reach, picking up this cargo and discharging that passenger, running into amusing locals with idiosyncratic cultures. If those idiosyncracies lead to conflict with Glicca's crew, the crew invariably gets the better of everyone. My discontent about the straight-line plots in the various Demon Princes novels seems rather naive at this point, as Ports of Call and Lurulu never really go anywhere (although many of the plot lurches are suspiciously linear). Demon Princes is paradise by comparison!

It's heartbreaking to have to give such a review to work by a SFWA Grand Master, especially one who has provided highly enjoyable stuff in the past. But Vance continually sets the reader up only to disappoint. There are squids on every available mantelpiece. You could get dozens of novels out of all the valid story ideas that occupy a few lines of text but are simply dropped, chopped off with a hand wave, plastered over by some banal resolution.  The concept of "lurulu", which suddenly appears in the second book, refers to some sort of contentedness with one's lot in life, and verges on being a motherhood statement called a smeerp

Even the idiosyncratic cultures are never really used for anything except filler. The world of Fluter has a fanatical dogma about zero population growth and protecting the environment, including several castes of secret police to enforce its strict laws. This could lead to loads of entertainment, but none of the characters is ever in danger of being executed for littering!

Bathetic gimmicks abound. One in particular (lettering on the port-master's door) is repeated a nauseating number of times, with slightly altered wording and characters to suit the current planet.

Many of the author's well-known idiosyncracies appear throughout the text: Shifty but stupid villains. Lots of simple declarative sentences displaying incredibly complicated vocabulary.  But where they added charm to other works, they only serve to make Ports of Call all the more annoying, burdened as they are with copious telling rather than showing.

In the end, there's nothing to build suspension of disbelief on without being jarred out of it later, and that's a shame. It's as if there were a butcher, renowned in the past for the tenderness of his cutlets, who throws whatever scraps he had left into a meat grinder. After grinding away until the bin was full, he puts the bin out under the counter labeled Ports of Call. Returning to the back, he grinds the rest of the meat into another bin, and finally puts the second bin out labeled Lurulu.  If you think that's overly harsh, Vance admits as much in the preface to Lurulu!

The publishers, Tom Doherty and Associates, make a bad situation even worse with a suspicious mistake in the back-cover blurb: The captain of Glicca is named "Maloof" throughout the text, but in the blurb, his name has morphed into "Malfoor" for some reason. Is this a typo they didn't feel worth the bother to correct, or some lame duplicity?

If after all I've said, you still want to read Ports of Call, don't say I didn't warn you.

I wanted to sound witty by using "If you were expecting steak, you'll get hamburger" but I enjoy hamburgers too much.