Jack Vance is an amazing author, one of my favorite picks when I want a fun and enjoyable read. Vance wrote over sixty books, eleven mysteries and the rest science fiction or fantasy, and volumes of short stories. Of which, truth be told, I haven’t read half as many as I’d like… a situation I’ve been working to rectify. I still have a stack of his Ace Doubles I haven’t read—Vance novels were almost always paired with other Vance novels, so I have 11 of his 13 Ace Double halves. My choice was The Five Gold Bands, a decision based more on the fact that nobody else seems to have reviewed it than anything else. Also published under the juvenile-sounding title The Space Pirate, it’s one of Vance’s earlier novels, from the Startling Stories pulp.
Irascible rogue Paddy Blackthorn, Irish Earther, has the misfortune of being caught when he breaks into an alien facility to steal valuable space-drives. See, the powerful races of the universe have banded together in an act of self-interest, and limit the distribution of space-drives (e.g., FTL spaceship engines)… preventing small, worthless planets such as Earth from gaining access to too many space-drives. For his attempted theft, Paddy is sentenced to death but, at the last minute, is discovered to be multi-lingual. Instead of immediate execution, he’s shipped off to translate for the Five Sons of Langtry, leaders of the alien nations and descendants of the space-drive’s creator.
Paddy manages to get out of this predicament from dumb luck and quick thinking, and makes off with the golden circlets the Five Sons wear around their arms—each one with a clue, a puzzle hinting at the blueprints to construct space-drives. And with that secret worth potential billions to the Earth Government, Paddy realizes what he’s going to do next. As he evades the authorities, and teams up with an attractive woman secret agent working on behalf of Earth, Paddy criss-crosses the galaxy to track down the formula of the space-drives.
This is a great view at Vance’s rough beginnings; the man had only been writing for five years… yet had already published works that were closer to what became his typical Vancian style (The Dying Earth, for one). Five Gold Bands is a very basic, banal pulp treasure hunt, with little of the Vancian flair found in his 1960s offerings. Paddy is an irritating stereotype and a womanizer, though his female acquaintance is likable. At 173 pages, things blaze along a predetermined plot, leaving it shallow and disjointed… but at least some of the ideas are kind of cool. It’s the kind of mindless entertainment that Ace Books loved to collect from old pulp magazines and reprint, and reminds me of Silverberg’s early novels, with a hint of Ed Hamilton and a bit of Van Vogt.
On the other hand, it’s interesting to see Vance’s staple themes emerging. We have an interest in linguistics and language; though most of that comes across through Paddy’s stereotypical Irish Brogue (which is so thick that infants and those with respiratory ailments best avoid it). Of course, the fact that Paddy is multilingual and manipulates the Five Sons’ turns of phrase is a critical plot point. We’re also rewarded with some suitably Vancian aliens, who are the mutant stepsons of Earth: humanity’s descendants have evolved so well that they’ve replace humanity itself, leaving mankind a bit player on the cosmic stage, not even allowing humans access to enough space-drives. I love the era’s fascination with humanity getting replaced by some higher version of itself; a reaction to World War II and the eugenics of Nazi supermen perhaps?
All told, a rather unexceptional read… though I did like reading a work from Vance’s early years, and I don’t have anything to complain about other than its shallowness and brevity. It’s not without merit, but it’s also without greatness—and lacked that distinctive spark that characterizes Jack Vance novels. Five Gold Bands is a short and entertaining book, but falls into mindless action novel territory, and nothing new or exciting happens within it. Recommended for Vance fans and completists only, because there are dozens of better Vance novels out there.