Sep 14, 2014

Dissonant Readings

Cover art by Ron Walotsky
I've often linked to the Demon Princes Wikipedia page from this blog. That article is fairly long, but it only has one reference, a book by Jack Rawlins called Demon prince: the dissonant worlds of Jack Vance. There is a short article about Rawlins in the November 2003 Cosmopolis. In that Cosmopolis piece by Richard Chandler, it says that Rawlins was an English professor at California State University, Chico.

Apparently Rawlins was an avid reader of science fiction, but it was not until he was working towards a degree in English Literature that he read The Star King and became a fan of Jack Vance's writing.

Chandler's article is called "Vance in the Classroom" and it reports that over the years, Rawlins tried to share is love of Vance's writing with students. Here is how Rawlins described student response to Vance's work: "I found that Vance was largely hated by students. I didn’t know why then, and I don’t know why now."

art by Jasper Schreurs
I've previously blogged about my own introduction to Vance which came in a college English class. I first read Moon Moth in school then stumbled upon a copy of Trullion. Not all of Vance's stories appeal to me, so I suspect that most student's reactions to being introduced to Vance in school would be highly dependent on exactly what they were assigned to read.

Also, in my experience (as a science nerd who took an English class in college that had all of its assigned reading in the science fiction genre) professors of English can be on a completely different wavelength than their students. Often, what a professor says about a book can discourage students from enjoying it. Now, I suppose some English professors might actively try to keep their students from reading science fiction, by Rawlins claimed to love science fiction in general, Vance's works in particular and to have taught a course about science fiction for many years. Given that background, I'm rather amazed by what Rawlins wrote about Vance's Demon Princes novels.

A Dissonant Reading of Vance
The Star King
In his book (page 76), Rawlins claims that when Gersen (the protagonist) methodically destroys each of the five Demon Princes, Gersen is left regretting his victories. Eh? Gersen is characterized by Rawlins as a "linear hero who despoils single-mindedly". Really? This is like saying a police officer who steps on a flower while capturing a criminal "despoils single-mindedly".

Okay, maybe in each case Gersen has regrets about something that happened during pursuit of his adversary, but, hey, eggs must be broken! In Star King, yes, Gersen regrets the fact that "Teehalt's planet" has been contaminated by evil, but the damage done to that planet is actually minimal. What would have been the outcome had Gersen not killed the alien Star King? We get a good idea in the second novel of the series.

In The Killing Machine, Vance depicted the planet Thamber as a "lost planet" controlled by Demon Prince Kokkor Hekkus, a hormagaunt. A hormagaunt is like a vampire, surviving for centuries by extracting life-prolonging hormones from the bodies of children. Hekkus uses Thamber as his personal playground. After much travail including personal imprisonment and a bone-bruising fight with a TadouskoOi warrior, Gersen manages to kill Hekkus.

art by Gino D'Achille
After his capture, here is how the right-hand man of Kokkor Hekkus describes what has transpired on Thamber: "Fools! Fools! Do you realize how long you have been gulled, milked and bled? Of your gold, of your warriors, of your beautiful women? For two hundred years!" The innocent people of Thamber are disgusted when they learn that that have lived for generations as the play things of Kokkor Hekkus and his cadre of life-sucking hormagaunts. Gersen offers to let the victims of Hekkus remain in isolation on Thamber, but they are eager to escape from their centuries of imprisonment on that "lost planet". They insist: "...we must rejoin humanity..." According to Rawlins, Gersen has deprived Thamber of its hero (Hekkus) and deprived Kokkor's victims of their chance to live with "high emotionalism". Now they face the dreary challenge of merging with the "mundane" human civilization of the galaxy. I totally disagree with how Rawlins tried to spin the outcome of The Killing Machine.

The Palace of Love
If Gersen had not killed the Star King, then "Teehalt's Planet" would have become another private planet of a Demon Prince. I suppose Rawlins might have regretted this lost opportunity for a Demon Prince to create a place for more "high emotionalism", but Vance gives no indication that Gersen regrets having eliminated the Star King and kept Teehalt's planet from being further despoiled. Similarly, while the residents of Thamber or the Palace of Love might naturally feel some dislocation upon being liberated, I don't doubt that the are better off having been freed.

According to Rawlins, Gersen's victory over Demon Prince Viole Falushe "seems almost misguided". After all, Falushe only has a decades-long record of murdering, imprisoning, kidnapping and enslaving innumerable victims. Rawlins argues that Falushe himself should be viewed as the sad victim of Jherel Tinzy, a girl who once jilted Falushe. Rawlins argues that Jherel, whose crime is jilting a boy and who died while imprisoned by Falushe, was herself "really worse" than the mass murder Falushe. This argument seems to have been taken right out of the Guide for Blaming Rape Victims

At the end of The Palace of Love, Gersen releases from their cells the many prisoners of Falushe and frees the residents of the Palace (who Falushe described as his slaves). Here is how Rawlins characterized Gersen's "misguided" actions: Falushe's slaves were: "...evicted from their innocent, emotionally rich womb and sent into the chill of real life, their dreams pitilessly uprooted". It would be interesting to know if any of Falushe's prisoners and slaves later regretted being given their freedom by Gersen. I think Vance carefully showed us what he thought the typical response of Falushe's kidnapping victims and slaves would be when he described the immense gratitude expressed by Dundine when she was given her freedom by Gersen: "...she embarrassed him by falling on her knees and kissing his hands."

The Face
In The Face, Gersen does come to share Demon Prince Lens Larque's motivation for pulling a prank on the President of Chanseth Bank, but when given the chance, Gersen mercilessly poisons Larque, subjecting him to slow and agonizing death. Of course, by then Gersen had survived at least a half dozen murderous attacks from Larque and the evil henchmen who worked for Larque. I can't imagine Gersen feeling any regret for Larque's demise.

Rawlins complained that the 5th and final book in the Demon Princes series, The Book of Dreams, was, "an unsatisfactory close for the series" largely because Gersen's "search for new roots is awarded no closure". In contrast, I feel that Gersen's romance with Alice provides great prospects of a happy future for the couple. They worked together to trap and kill Treesong and they shared the same motivation, their families both having been blasted by Treesong's evil doing. 

The Book of Dreams
At the end of the Demon Princes series, Gersen is fabulously wealthy and free to live out a long and happy life together with the miraculous Alice Wroke. In his book, Rawlins tried to argue that the Demon Princes were all identical to Gersen in their motivations, simply seeking to return to a happy home. As Vance once wrote, criminals can be expected to "contrive exquisite excuses" for their evil doing. Has there ever been a judge who granted a pardon to a mass murder in order to help the killer fulfill his wish to return to a happy home? Probably not; that is a job best left to English professors.

Had I been exposed to the Demon Princes saga by way of Rawlins, I would not have been motivated to read the novels. As it is, they are among my favorite works of fiction.

At some point towards the middle of the 20th century a few science fiction authors began to sell their novels and make some money. Suddenly the mainstream publishing industry wanted to ca$h in. Literary critics jumped in and expressed their preference for "dark and complex" characters rather than the cardboard-cut-out heroes of the science fiction pulp magazines. In my view, Vance did a masterful job in constructing Gersen as the protagonist in the Demon Princes saga. 

There is no need to paint Gersen any darker than Vance did or contrive some dark parallel between Gersen and the criminals he kills. Gersen is a vigilante, but Vance placed him in a future society where the police are often unable to defend people against criminals. Gersen is often sickened by the act of killing criminals and although he wonders if he might become habituated to his gruesome work, he never does. 

Is Gersen a hero? I think not, but in his book, Rawlins describes Gersen as a hero. Rawlins is then free to develop his thesis that as a hero, Gersen is paradoxically just like his evil adversaries. I for one have no trouble noticing the stark differences between the Demon Princes and their many victims like Kirth Gersen and Alice Wroke. As the main character and protagonist of the Demon Princes saga, the entire story is told from Gersen's perspective and, at least for readers with normal human empathy, in the end, we'd like to know how things turn out for Kirth and Alice.

Towards the goal of spending more time with Kirth and Alice, I've previously outlined my ideas for a fan fiction sequel to The Book of Dreams. My only complaint about how Vance ended his Demon Princes saga is that I was left wanting more.

More posters.

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