It's amazing how easily things can get derailed. It was my fullest intention to start reading Lin Carter's The Wizard of Lemuria - the first in his Conanesque Thongor series - but while searching for the book in question I stumbled across my copy of The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph by Jack Vance.
I have to confess that I haven't read much Jack Vance recently, and The Many Worlds of Magnus Ridolph has the advantage of being a short story collection. So, I thought, a quick bit of Jack Vance and then on to Lin Carter. However, I'd reckoned without the rather seductive power of both Jack Vance and Magnus Ridolph and quickly found myself lost in his many worlds.
The Magnus Ridolph stories are early Vance (the lead story, The Kokod Warriors first appeared in 1948) but still display the light touch and wild inventiveness that characterises his best work. The prose is nowhere near as jewelled as, say, The Dying Earth, but the stories are flamboyant and Ridolph himself an engaging central character.
In some ways Magnus Ridolph could be a second cousin of C.L Moore's Northwest Smith, inasmuch as both men are interplanetary adventurers, but where Smith was a hard-bitten, wanderer with a quick gunhand, Magnus Ridolph is a much more urbane figure - older, for a start, part consulting detective, part businessman, a character who solves problems with his intellect rather than his fists.(To get Hollywood about it, think Sherlock Holmes meets Indiana Jones... in Space!).
In The Kokod Warriors, Magnus attempts to solve an age old problem on the planet Kokod, where the inhabitants indulge in ritual and very bloody warfare as a very basic survival method and, at the same time, he seeks to get some revenge on couple of double-crossing former business partners.
Double crossers also feature in The King of Thieves, in which Magnus briefly finds himself as king of the Men-men, and in The Howling Bounders where a business opportunity that is too good to be true turns out to be just that... except the tables are turned by some clever thinking on the part of Magnus Ridolph (and some wonderfully comic support from an alien cook who's idea of breakfast, dinner, lunch and supper all boil down to the same dish - stew!)
Coup de Grace (my personal favourite) is a who-and-why-dunnit in space where a murder and a murderer are not all they seem, and shows Vance at his dazzling best, piling idea upon idea to create an engaging little mystery and, at rarest of things, a genuinely funny sf story that doesn't rely upon subverting genre conventions but rather actively embraces them.
Of course, what's so good about these stories is the sly humour in them and the deft ways in which Jack Vance creates the various alien worlds and environments which Magnus Ridolph passes through. Sure, there's an occasional info-dump here and there (and Magnus always seems to find just the information he's looking for when he's looking for it) but it doesn't take the shine off the stories.
Colourful, inventive and hugely entertaining, the Magnus Ridolph stories (six of which are collected in The Many Worlds... ) are a refreshing change from some of the more blaster-happy Earthmen who have roamed through science fiction over the years and a reminder that sf can be great fun sometimes.