Originally a short story published in 1961, The Moon Moth has everything you might expect from classic science fiction- a futuristic, technologically advanced, space-faring society; complicated alien societal rules; and a plucky, young hero pitting himself against the odds. The protagonist, Thissel, is sent from Earth as a replacement ambassador after the last one was brutally murdered for a social gaffe on the alien planet, Sirene.
The culture on the planet is all about societal rank, with everyone wearing special masks that indicate an intricate, hierarchical system and playing more than a dozen instruments to communicate with people of different levels of status. As an outsider, Thissel finds it extraordinarily difficult to fit in within this complicated social structure and manages to insult quite a few of the locals. He also finds out that a crazy murderer is after him, yet how can the criminal be found when everyone keeps a mask on at all times?
Vance is known for his complicated world building, and this story is no exception. Starting a book by being dropped into the middle of a story is always a little confusing, but sticking it out reveals a surprising and interesting conclusion. The plot and tone of the story feel like the 60s era’s sci-fi stories with an all-male cast and a Twilight Zone tone, fascinating for hard core sci-fi fans. However, I’m not sure the average person would pick it up and survive the intricate beginning. The complex and formal language of the Sirene people amps up the realism of the created world, but it also requires a greater commitment from the reader.
The art is as intricate as the setting and language, with a variety of masks and some attention-grabbing settings. The artist manages to capture a great deal of expression from characters whose faces are covered. Part of that expression comes from the art around the speech bubbles illustrating the kind of instrument the speaker/singer is using to convey his or her emotions. The art, though, is more interesting than beautiful, with scary looking alien masks dominating the panels.
Overall, the book will be extremely exciting for fans of the genre but less exciting for non-fans. This is not to say that others could not enjoy the story, but it would take a little more enticement. Still, if the reader gives the story a chance, he or she will be rewarded with a creative, dramatic tale that turns out to be quite enjoyable.