The novel “The Pnume” by Jack Vance was published for the first time in 1970. It’s the fourth novel in the Tschai tetralogy, also known with the global title “Planet of Adventure”, and follows “The Dirdir“.
Adam Reith has almost completed the difficult task of building a starship to leave the planet Tschai and finally return to Earth. To succeed, he had to pay Aila Woudiver, who supplied him with parts and workforce, well knowing that he couldn’t trust him and that sooner or later his betrayal would come.
Although a prisoner, Aila Woudiver manages to contact the Pnume, one of the species that live on Tschai and native of the planet. The Pnume prove interested in Adam Reith and kidnap him, bringing him to one of their underground cities. The Earthman must again face various dangers to hope to return to Earth.
In the last novel of the Tschai tetralogy, Adam Reith seems close to completing his plan to escape from the planet when he arouses the Pnume’s interest. This species is native to Tschai but lives underground following the various invasions of the other species that share the planet’s control.
In the Pnume’s underground cities their human slaves live as well in a very peculiar situation: the humans living on Tschai have different beliefs than in the case of the Pnumekin, the Pnume’s slaves, are added to a control exercised using drugs that inhibit their sexuality.
When Adam Reith is kidnapped to be exhibited in a Pnume museum, he discovers yet another human culture, stranger than ever because of the combination of drugs and isolation. The Pnumekin are in some ways like kids, even physically because their sexual maturity is inhibited, who know only what their Pnume masters teach them, which is very little. For the Earthman, even communicating with Zap 210, a Pnumekin girl, is difficult precisely because she struggles to understand references that are stranger to her limited knowledge.
“The Pnume” includes elements typical of Jack Vance’s works, starting from the description of the Pnume and Pnumekin’s culture, where the oddities are pushed to absurdity. The comparison with other cultures of the planet in the last stage of Adam Reith’s journey shows more than ever the variability of human beliefs. Since his arrival on Tschai, the Earthman managed to get by also taking advantage of certain beliefs.
In the course of his attempts to leave Tschai, Adam Reith has to take a number of risks and in “The Pnume” the theme is even more explicit by including gambling. In fact, one the planet the opportunities to make money have been constantly linked in some ways to luck but in this novel this element is made more explicit.
Adam Reith is a typical hero of classic science fiction, able to cope with any situation. Real astronauts are trained to survive in difficult conditions, for example if a landing brings them in the wrong place such as a jungle or a desert, and typically have a military background but a hostile planet is an almost insurmountable obstacle and not coincidentally Reith is the only survivor of his expedition.
The whole Tschai tetralogy has an average length of a single novel written today but Jack Vance was able to include many adventures with many details about the various species that live on Tschai. It’s a series in which the plot is essential and is used by the author to describe the many cultures that exist on the planet with his unique style.
“The Pnume” is a worthy final for the Tschai tetralogy even if it ends far too hastyly. It’s a detail in a series that’s become a classic not only of the planetary romance subgenre but of science fiction in general and a must-have for the this genre’s fans.