The Gray Prince, Jack Vance

Where do I even start with this?

@jorjolthegrayprince #killallgaeans #safespace #privilege

@jorjolthegrayprince #killalloutkers #safespace #privilege

While I’m certain there are people who disagree with me (especially those who’ve given this book 1 star ratings in various places complaining about the ‘problematic’ themes), The Gray Prince is an amazing piece of science fiction that deserves a place in the High School curriculum somewhere between the Great Gatsby and The Things They Carried.

Anyone who has read my blog for an extended period of time knows that I don’t really talk much about Social Justice Warriors, but there’s really no way to talk about the Gray Prince without bringing them up because this book is literally about Social Justice Warriors. Of course the political ideas and themes explored here are a lot harder to unpack than just saying it’s about SJWs.

The story comes at us from the perspective of the center, first from a moderately conservative character, secondly from the moderately liberal/progressive character. Much of the ‘adventure’ portion of the story is the moderately liberal/progressive character, who is as part of an alphabet soup progressive organization, learning that isolated political classes, demagogues and ideologues tend to have no idea of the practical realities of the situations over which they try to dictate, and such dictations have potentially dire consequences. He also realizes that he’s been kind of a condescending dick of the ‘white mans burden’ variety after spending some time with one of the aliens. Vance cleverly subverts our expectations by making the titular Gray Prince not a hero out to save the world but an agitating grievance monger masquerading as a populist upon whom political agitators and people concerned with feels can project their various hopes and desires.  One of the recurring complaints I’ve seen is that the Gray Prince, a political radical, isn’t the main character.  The other complaint is the book casts an entire race in a single light because of Jorjol’s buffoonery, completely ignoring the character of Kurgech and several Uldra tribes who all have differing political, cultural and social views and are opposed to the Gray Prince.

But what I want to talk about is the Minimum Wage. That’s right, the Minimum Wage. Though it’s only a minor detail mentioned once the Gray Prince, Vance makes an excellent illustrative point for why the Minimum Wage is a useless and harmful notion.

In the Gaean Empire, people have switched to the SLU. The SLU or Standard Labor-value Unit is defined as “the value of an hour of unskilled labor under standard conditions. The unit supersedes all other monetary bases in that it derives from the single invariable commodity of the human universe: toil.”

By raising the minimum wage, what are we doing but breaking our hour into smaller pieces, each less valuable than before? Currently, we could say that $1 would be worth just a little less than .14 SLU. Locally, $1 in Seattle would be worth .06 1/3 SLU, though the common currency shared regionally and nationally might balance it out for goods imported into the area. If we raised fixed minimum wages nationally, any actual benefits netted by a local or region wage raise would be negated; it would be $15 = 1 SLU instead of $7.25 = 1 SLU. So nationally, $15 would be worth what $7.25 had been before the hike.

I’m not saying that an SLU currency is in any way preferable or a good idea, but it works to show that our time is the inflexible variable and any arbitrary increase or decrease in the segmentized monetization of our time spent at labor does nothing to actually increase the wealth of the wage-earner, only the granular liquidity of their time.

Anyway, the moderate conservative girl realizes that she loves and respects the tough land baron for his resourcefulness and thoughtful decisiveness and realizes he’s far more empathetic than she gave him credit for, the moderate progressive boy realizes that ideology doesn’t always jibe with reality and practicality is as worthy as principle, the heroes destroy the progressive alphabet soup organizations and politicians’ agenda with logic backed by evidence, and the SJW villain goes “off to inflict himself upon another world” because no one left on Koryphon has time for his bullshit.

The biggest issue I’d had with The Dragon Masters was not a problem here. While it was odd to have so many foot-notes in a work of fiction, the descriptions and insights they offered never left me wondering what this or that alien word meant, and it allowed Vance to easily expand the vocabulary of his work, conveying ideas and concepts in one alien word when a paragraph would be necessary without it. All of the aliens and monsters were fairly well described, so I was never really left scratching my head.

There are a few things which could be worked into your game, whether it’s fantasy or sci-fi. The terrifying morphotes are great if you need a race of questionably intelligent shape-shifting demon monsters. There are primitive air-ships called “sky-sharks”, which are basically a flying plank with a windshield and a gun. The “crazy-box” would make a great “magic” item as a re-usable charm person.

Lastly, I’d note that the Uldras cannot have failed to shape Morrowind’s Dunmer; I’d never believe you if you told me that no one on Bethesda’s creative team had read and loved this book. Blue nomadic people, some of whom are content with their political status in an imperial colony, others of whom violently hold onto traditions and are just as at odds with their fellows as they are the outsiders? Uldras or Dunmer? Slavers who moralize about ancestral land rights? Uldras or Dunmer? The blue nomads who want the outsiders to leave are the ones with slaves and the blue nomads who are okay with the outsiders are not? Uldras or Dunmer? I could go on, but I won’t. At least not today.

So, some lessons from the Gray Prince:
-Distant governing bodies are typically unaware of the consequences of their legislation because they are hopelessly out of touch with those whom they nominally govern.
-Time is an inflexible economic resource.
-Harping on birthright territorial grievance is pointless and dangerous because everything was taken from someone or something at some point; if you follow reparation and restitution as a principle, you’d have to go back to the beginning of time.
-Not having your head up your ass can easily be mistaken for Privilege.
-When shit hits the fan, you’re better off with people like Varg than hipsters who tell you listening to Burzum is problematic.

12 responses to “The Gray Prince, Jack Vance

  1. Well, I love the Woodruffe cover, and I generally like Vance, so I have been keeping an eye out for this one (still need to read the Lyoness trilogy first though so I haven’t been all that active about it).
    I’d be pretty surprised if the story really has a specific political agenda. Vance was pretty satirical of everyone IME. It’s pretty easy to find confirmation of one’s own views in such things.

    • While I’d say that’s pretty true for the most part, this one was pretty overt, especially compared to the other Vance stuff I’ve read. I didn’t go into it much here, but the whole crux of the story is that if you follow the principle that reparations for and forfeiture of occupied land you come to find that you’ll be going back forever, because all land was ‘conquered’ and all races would owe reparations to someone.

      The anti-human Uldra factions’ claim to indigenous right ends up being sunk by the discovery that they had been extra planetary invaders; the lizard-folk the anti-human faction had enslaved in ages past were actually intelligent (and were pretending to be dumb animals so they could rise up and kill everyone), but also turned out to be off-world invaders, who had taken the planet from polymorphic demonfolk. The round-the-campfire lesson is respect each other and your cultures, but if you intend to resurrect old conflicts as a point of principle, you’ll be fighting wars from the beginning of time, and that’s just silly.

    • Also, I tried to use particular words in my description, conservative in a sense of traditionalism, and progressive, rather than ‘liberal’ to describe characters. I wouldn’t pretend that it jibes with a Republican vs. Democrat or even necessarily an American Conservative vs. American Liberal paradigm. The Gray Prince, though, is explicitly pointed out to be a radical demagogue who is trying to manipulate compassionate liberals into backing his personal grievances disguised as political activism.

    • err, well, I fixed the spot where I referred to Elvo as progressive in one spot and then as liberal. He’s really a liberal who drops his progressivism by the end of the book.

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