The other day, I was (re-)reading Jack Vance’s Clarges (aka To Live Forever). It’s one of Vance’s most straightforward extrapolations – in this case, of one solution to the combination of restricted space and eternal life. It’s got the usual cast of strange and perverse characters, but toned down a bit from the Vancian norm. There are, for example, only a few lethargic, phlegmatic, infuriating clerks. Nonetheless, and apropos of nothing, it suddenly struck me that Bartleby the scrivener was the archetype for all Vance’s service staff.
I read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in high school, or maybe in middle school; I forget. I had the same reaction as most students – I thought it was incredibly dull, and I avoided Melville thereafter. But then in my senior year of high school, I discovered (was required to read) Bartleby the Scrivener. It was a true revelation. The story, about a legal clerk who “would prefer not to” (to work, to talk, eventually to eat, and to live) was profoundly affecting, and absolutely changed my view of Melville (though not to the extent that I re-read Moby Dick.
In any case, it seems to me that Bartleby, with his understated refusal to conform, and especially to produce any service at all, fits most of Jack Vance’s clerks almost to a T – they invariably go out of their way to avoid being in any way helpful. Unlike Bartleby, Vance’s characters can usually be swayed with money. They’re lazy, not perverse per se.
I have no idea whether Vance has read Bartleby, but at the least, Vance and Melville shared a love of the sea, and a common interest in the sometimes ineffable ways of the human mind.