Such a WEIRD book. I always marvel at how oldish science fiction throws you headfirst into a new world and leaves you there to sink or swim. I am not well versed with the classics of this genre, but I do feel like this happens more often with science fiction than any other genre. [Fantasy, for instance, has a lot more blatant world building and info-dumps that aren’t even jarring.]
So: The Houses of Iszm is this ridiculously tiny book packed with so much character. I picked it up at a book sale because of the fascinating [and menacing] cover, and it lived up to the expectation. The cover is deliciously old-fashioned, the writing is archaic but in a pleasant, flowery way; and the world is absurd and makes me curious about Vance’s other works.
The story is set on the planet of Iszm, where the inhabitants [called Iszics] grow and live in tree houses; houses which are alive. The walls, floors, ceilings and even the furniture of these houses is part of the tree, grown in these peculiar habitable shapes. In the whole of the universe, it’s the Iszics alone who can grow these house plants from female house-seeds.
Naturally, the demand for these seeds is tremendous and the stern and efficient Iszics control their export across worlds. With the universe facing a population crisis, many planets are vying to end the Iszics’ monopoly on these organic dwellings. A big heist is brewing. The theft of a female house. And our narrator, an Earthling botanist, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Will he escape the ruthless Iszic security and prove his innocence? Read to find out.
“Sun, Earth, the Moon: an archipelago of bright round islands, after a long passage through a dark sea. Sun drifted off to one side, Moon slipped away to the other, Earth expanded ahead: grey, green, tan, white, blue – full of clouds and winds, sunburn, frosts, draughts, chills and dusts, the navel of the universe, the depot, terminal, clearing-house, which the outer races visited as provincials.
It was at midnight when the hull of the Andrei Sinic touched Earth. The generators sank down out of inaudibility, down through shrillness, through treble, tenor, baritone, bass, and once more out of hearing.”