Nov 29, 2015

Writing as a Disease

1935 - cover art by Margaret Brundage
And writing as medicine. In both cases, writing can be something very powerful.

Picture Isaac Asimov growing up in New York City and becoming fascinated by the colorful covers of the pulp science fiction magazines that were sold in his parent's store. Asimov read them all. In a parallel universe, near another ocean, Jack Vance grew up in the country, but he was also a voracious reader. He'd wait expectantly for the next edition of Weird Tales to appear in his family's mailbox. Both boys had been infected by the reading disease which metastasized and spread...they both began writing their own stories at a young age.

Asimov and Vance struggled for decades to accommodate themselves to their writing disease and they both finally succeeded, reaching points in their careers where they could chuck their "day job" and support their families by writing. Millions of their readers and fans are still grateful for their prodigious literary output.

Howard, king of thieves. source
I'm entranced (OK, I'm obsessed) by the idea of writers who write about writers, not in the dreary mode of pontificating and sharing their advice for how to write, but rather, by inserting writers into their stories as characters. Vance inserted several memorable writers into his fiction and he seemed to have a whole lot of fun doing so, even when his fictional writers were stunted or crippled due to the effects of their own writing disease.

A musical Treesong. source
Among the diseased writers that Vance imagined, I must first mention Howard Alan Treesong. Treesong was the "preeminent criminal of the Oikumene and Beyond" in Vance's fictional universe and the 5th and final Demon Prince to be hunted down and murdered by the avenging Kirth Gersen.

Zada Memar
At a young age, Howard became infected by something and he began writing his autobiographical "Book of Dreams".

Also at a young age, Howard became a serial murderer. Vance rather dramatically displays two of Treesong's earliest victims: Zada Memar and Nimpy Cleadhoe. They are presented to readers as "marmels", their dead bodies encased in a thin, stone-like layer of impermeable stuff and posed like statues.

"The only good drummer is a dead drummer"
The Book of Dreams
For decades, Treesong has carefully guarded his personal privacy. He has exercised his authority as the "king of thieves" by using a dozen secret identities. When Gersen's persistent sleuthing finally reveals Treesong, the last of the Demon Princes is at the height of his career as a matured criminal. Treesong's goal is nothing less than to become the first Emperor of the Oikumene and rule over all the human-settled planets of the galaxy.

With such grandiose plans, we might think he'd be too busy to fret about his childhood, but Vance can't pass up the opportunity to show -in humorous detail- what happens when Treesong attends his 25th high school reunion. Poised to become the First Emperor of the human universe, Treesong returns to his home planet in order to take revenge on his old "school chums" in Gladbetook. Woe to those who long ago bullied and tormented him. As Treesong says, "...for every 'tit' there must be a 'tat'."

Never Interrupt a Writer
Treesong's Book of Dreams, lost for 25 years, is found by Gersen and used as bait to lure Treesong to his death. The book describes the colors of Treesong's soul. Vance depicts Treesong as being the living vehicle for a cadre of mysterious reincarnated "paladins". These wandering souls animate Treesong much like a humanoid puppet, endowing Howard with a dramatic and magical multiple-personality disorder. When under stress, Treesong can simultaneously speak in multiple overlapping voices, revealing the presence of the excited paladins as they fail to wait their turns to speak. In the end, the paladins abandon Treesong's body just before his death. Howard has finally been exorcised of his disease, which in a lesser man might only have led to a writing career, not mass murder.

Here are some other fictional writers from the imagination of Jack Vance....

1) Baron Bodissey was not given a speaking role by Vance. However, Bodissey Unspiek's words reach us through snippets that Vance has selected and taken from the baron's sprawling master work, Life. The good baron even gets his own Wikipedia page.

Particularly amusing is the start of Chapter 10 in The Killing Machine. Our hero, Gersen, has just reached the primitive planet Thamber. Vance leads us into Gersen's coming travails with a long quote from Baron Bodissey's six volume opus, Life, lamenting the futility of mere book learning. It ends with...

cover art by David Russell
"Essentially the tastes and preferences of the intellectual elite, derived from learning, are false, doctrinaire, artificial, shrill, shallow, uncertain, eclectic, jejune and insincere."

...which is followed closely by several replies from reviewers of Baron Bodissey's Life...

"Ponderously the great machine ingests its bales of lore; grinding, groaning, shuddering, it brings forth its product: small puffs of acrid vari-colored vapor."

"Six volumes of rhodomotade and piffle."

"Egregious, ranting, boorish, unacceptable."

2) Navarth, the mad poet, also got a Wikipedia page for his speaking role in The Palace of Love. Having long ago crossed paths with Demon Prince Viole Falushe, and having come to despise him, Navarth functions as a kind of humorous side-kick and partner in crime fighting with Kirth Gersen.

Gersen: I understand that in your youth you contrived a few outrages of your own.

" 'In my youth' ?" Sputtered Navarth. "I have contrived outrages all my life!"

Navarth and his ward, Zan Zu, the mysterious girl from Eridu, accompany Gersen to Falushe's Palace of Love. There, Gersen finds a notebook kept by Viole Falushe that explores how he might succeed in making Jheral Tinzy -or one of her clones- fall in love with him. As one of the clones says, "A great deal of wasted effort."

The girl I met in Eridu
Was kind beyond belief;
The hours that I spent with her
Were hours far too brief.

I told of force and time and space,
I told of hence and yonder;
I asked if she would come with me
To know my worlds of wonder.

"You are you and I am I,
And best that you return.
And I will stay in Eridu
With all this yet to learn." -Navarth

Sessily Veder
3) I must also draw attention to Floreste's letter, written at the behest of Glawen in the Cadwal Chronicles. After having left Glawen to die as a prisoner of the perverse Ordene Zaa at Pogan's Point and then awaiting his own execution, Floreste makes a lame attempt to atone for his evil by composing a long, meandering letter that discloses where the even more perverse Smonny is holding Glawen's father as her prisoner. The letter is first read out loud in its entirety and then summed up by the crusty Bodwyn Wook: "If nothing else, he knew how to contrive exquisite excuses for himself".

stray treads
In his letter, Floreste made an effort to "justify" his crimes by noting that his only goal was to fund a new center for the performing arts at Araminta Station. Bodwyn Wook is not moved: "...we can't allow every vagabond dog-barber who calls himself an 'artist' to commit vile crimes while pursuing his muse".

4) Wayness Tamm, the future wife of Glawen, goes off to Earth for a visit with her uncle Pirie Tamm, the last secretary of the ancient Naturalist Society. We are told that Pirie spends his time doing research for a monograph he is writing. Pirie explains to Wayness:

"I dwell in a swivel chair. I sit in one direction to work on my monograph: I am jerked to attention by a sudden recollection, swing about in the chair to plunge into Society business."

In the Ekcolir Reality: 1959
Wayness learns that Pirie Tamm is presiding over the slow death of the Naturalist Society and he has few friends. One acquaintance of Pirie is the professional tomb robber Adrian Moncurio who suggests a strategy to revive the Naturalist Society:

"...organize a grand beauty pageant, with pretty girls recruited from as many worlds as possible. They would be named 'Miss Naturalist-Earth', 'Miss Naturalist-Alcyone, 'Miss Naturalist-Lirwan' and so forth."

When Pirie Tamm balks at Moncurio's scheme, Adrian presses his point, "Never forget: a beautiful girl is no less a part of nature than a bottle-nosed blind worm from the caves of Procyon IX."

5) Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII, author of Preface to Men of the Oikumene.

Vance obviously spent time thinking about an imaginary future where humans would spread outward from Earth into the vastness of the galaxy. His fictional universe was a stage where he could let his imagination play with human reactions to new environments. Vaenz asks: "Does infinity, as an object of experience instead of a mathematical abstraction, daunt the human mind?"


"There are those who, like the author, assume the obligation of appraisal, commendation, derogation or denunciation of their contemporaries. Still, by and large it is an easier job than digging a ditch."

"Beauty" Dasce
At this point in the story, Gersen has just tortured and murdered an evil henchman, visciously beaten another and been close at hand while Demon Prince Attel Malagate murdered Lugo Teehalt. Arriving back in civilization from the Beyond, Gersen is just about to meet the gay, warm-hearted Pallis Atwrode. Vance selects and provides to readers a passage about the quest for pleasure, taken from Baron Bodissey's Life...

"...every particular scarcity or compulsion or danger generates a corresponding psychic tension demanding a particular gratification."

Gersen quickly asks Pallis out for a night on the town. Almost at once she is kidnapped by "Beauty" Dasce and subjected to his vile attentions. Poor Pallis!

The Medicine Men
The Pilgrim's Progress
While writing can be a disease, it can also be medicine. Maybe like-cures-like? Once inflicted with the writing disease, is the only cure spending a lifetime writing millions of words?

Kirth Gersen is a James Bond-like character, trained for lethal competence, but after he steals 10,000,000,000 SVU, he quickly buys Cosmopolis magazine which allows Gersen to carry out his detective work while disguised as a journalist. Gersen seems to enjoy taunting both Viole Falushe and Howard Treesong in print.

In his 'vulgar exposé' of Viole Falushe (Part I: The Boy), Gersen writes: "His name was then Vogel Filschner. If the boy resembles the man, his celebrated amours can only have been achieved by duress or drugs   .....   I suppose it was not all his fault. His mother must have been a sloven. He had disgusting personal habits, such as picking his nose and examining the yield, making queer gulping noises and above all smelling."

Where Vance gracefully and repeatedly created characters who were writers, Asimov was prone to inserting both "scientists" and "sleuths" into his stories. The applied mathematician Hari Seldon and plainclothesman Baley are two famous examples.

In a sense, good science fiction stories always include exploration of a mystery and both Vance and Asimov explicitly wrote mystery genre stories. Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw were created by Asimov as part of his effort to prove that it is possible to write a good detective story in a science fiction setting.

Not to be out-done, Vance gave us Over-Inspector of the Whelm, Ryl Shermatz.

Cal, 1990
An amusing story that combined both robots and a clever perspective on 'writing as a disease' was produced by Asimov near the end of his life: Cal.

The robot Cal (number CL-123X) was built to the specifications of a wealthy writer of mystery stories who is named Mr. Northrop. In addition to being constrained by the three Laws of Robotics, Cal had an unusual bug: he wanted to be a writer like Mr. Northrop. Cal's first attempt to write a story produced only gibberish, but Mr. Northrop was intrigued by the existence of a robot who wanted to write, so he had Cal modified so as to enlarge his cognitive powers and vocabulary.

Cal's second written story reveals two serious problems. First, Cal can't spell. Second, since Cal is endowed with the Laws of Robotics, he can't write a good crime mystery. Mr. Northrop pays to have Cal modified again so that the robot can spell words correctly and he allows Cal to read some stories that were written by Northrop. Already at this point, we begin to see that poor Cal is starting to become even more unusual. He resents the fact that the robot technician who performs his upgrades calls him "a hunk of steel and titanium".

In the Ekcolir Reality.
Cal's third story is a silly "crime mystery" about an embezzling businessman. Cal writes himself into the story as the great detective 'Calumet Smithson' who solves the case by tempting the thief with a shiny quarter. Mr. Northrop finally gives up all hope that Cal can write a story about crime and punishment since such concepts conflict with the Three Laws of Robotics. Northrop decides that Cal should write satire, but Cal's mental condition continues to deteriorate. He resents the fact that Mr. Northrop is telling him what type of stories to write. Cal is given another upgrade: the robot technician performs a risky adjustment of Cal which he hopes will provide the robot with a sense of the ridiculous.

Cal next writes an Azazel story which the robot technician reads and finds amusing. Mr. Northrop is not amused, realizing that the robot will quickly learn to write stories that would be more popular than his own. You need to read Cal in order to experience the ending and fully appreciate the extent to which Asimov created a charming recursive fiction story that is simultaneously science fiction, fantasy and a crime mystery. Sadly, 2 years after the first publication of Cal, Asimov was dead.

The Writing Mystery
In Vance's novel Araminta Station, he introduces readers to the Clattuc family. Glawen Clattuc is the protagonist and we see him growing up and following in his father's footsteps, becoming a careful, competent and thoughtful policeman. Vance starkly contrasts Glawen with other members of his family, particularly Simonetta (A.K.A. 'Smonny'). Here is one description of Simonetta provided by Vance:

"She seems to be guided by an instinctive or subconscious shrewdness, rather than formal intelligence..."

Glawen is born into a mysterious world where a kind of civil war is taking place within his family and across the planet Cadwal. Vance provides Glawen with several mysteries (puzzles) to be solved.

In both the case of Vance and Asimov, through the decades each writer refined his craft and created a fictional universe that is suited to his interests and style. Asimov used Golan Treviz and Janov Pelorat to solve the mystery of the Foundation Fictional Universe (Blissenobiarella was something of a "5th wheel" that Asimov could not resist including). Vance used Glawen and Wayness to solve the mysteries of Cadwal and the Naturalist Society (as an irrepressible creator of characters, Vance included folks like Sessily Veder and Eustace Chilke as 5th wheels and spare tires).

By the ends of their careers, Vance and Asimov were masters of their craft. If, like Howard Treesong, they were infected by the writing disease as children, both Vance and Asimov were ultimately able to cure their affliction and turn it to their advantage. Science fiction fans will be eternally grateful.

Next: Asimov and how he ended Eternity.
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Nov 27, 2015

The Metafoundation

In 1966 Isaac Asimov won a special Hugo Award for the "Best All-Time Series". His Foundation Trilogy was selected from among a group of nominated series that included Burroughs' Barsoom, Heinlein's Future History, Smith's Lensmen and The Lord of the Rings.

Stalagmites and Stalactites! (click image to enlarge)
Possibly the first "science fiction" story I ever experienced was the movie Journey to the Center of the Earth (I saw the movie on TV).

About the same time, Star Trek arrived on TV. I didn't become consciously aware of Asimov's existence until I read his novel The Gods Themselves.

Foundation trilogy
cover art: Don Punchatz
Soon after my discovery of Asimov, I read the Foundation trilogy. Even at a young age, I knew that there was something special about Asimov's ability to tell a science fiction story. Eventually, Asimov added additional novels to the Foundation Saga and united it with his Robot series.

cover art by Jean Targete
The 1990s were a low point for science fiction. With the death of both Asimov and Carl Sagan, I had to face the fact that Asimov would never write a sequel to Foundation and Earth and we'd probably never see a movie sequel for Contact. Gene Roddenberry had died in 1991 and through the mid-90s I had to endure three different Star Trek spin-offs that glorified endless war and fictional politics over Roddenberry's original vision of a future that we'd actually like to inhabit.

The 90s closed out with Benford, Bear and Brin writing a second Foundation trilogy. Many Asimov fans reacted like Don Web: "Spare us!" But fans of Asimov continue to struggle with -and puzzle over- the Foundation series. In my case, I wrote my own sequel to Foundation and Earth.

cover art by Fred Gambino
I like the idea that Asimov brought into existence a fictional universe where we can all explore the implications of artificial intelligence for the future of Humanity. Asimov himself had the pleasure of first imagining a future where Earthlings spread through the galaxy and then later he re-imagined it all as a galactic future for both humans and robots.

"Genres are constrained conversations." -Gregory Benford

Benford's afterword for Foundation's Fear mentions the importance of science fiction fandom. It is thrilling to imagine that somewhere right now there is a young boy or girl in their own personal golden age of science fiction who is just starting to read Foundation, a child who will go on to both be a fan of Asimov's fiction and also write their own re-imagined version of the Foundation saga, a version that will ultimately eclipse even Asimov's original. Benford mentioned that in a similar way, Shakespeare's Hamlet drew upon earlier plays that had the same plot.

However, anyone who tries to expand on Asimov's Foundation saga faces a dire risk: introducing the unacceptable retcon. For example, one of the charming features of Asimov's fictional universe is hyperspace. Asimov himself was not averse to applying a retcon to hyper-spatial travel. In the original trilogy, piloting a spaceship through the galaxy was depicted as being rather like sailing around the world in the year 1,500. In Asimov's later expansion of the Foundation Saga, during the time of Golan Trevize, late 20th century Earth computer technology finally came to the Foundation and it suddenly became much easier to navigate between the stars.

"Constraint is itself yields crisp confines." -Gregory Benford

I love the idea that for 20,000 years Daneel had prevented scientific advancement. Constrained by his programming, "he" could not afford to let humans make significant changes to human nature. I agree with Brin: the constraints imposed by science are an essential feature of science fiction.

"In place of Isaac's 'hyperspace' ships I have used wormholes." -Gregory Benford

Asimov had his scientific training in chemistry and he was a professor of biochemistry. Benford's background is in physics, with a long-standing personal interest in wormholes. I believe it was a serious error for Benford to take his own interest in wormholes and shove it into the Metafoundation. Once you allow yourself to start making changes like this, you might as well stop pretending that you are in the same fictional universe as Asimov. Be honest with your readers and admit that you are in an alternate universe that was inspired by Asimov (and there's nothing wrong with that).

 A serious problem for science fiction as a new literary genre was the dominance of physics and physical science in the 20th century. Asimov's interest in biology and, indeed, all branches of science and human learning, was an advantage that he had over most more narrowly specialized scientists and science fiction writers. This makes the Metafoundation a challenge and something of a field of landmines waiting for authors like Benford and Brin (also with a background in physics) who have tried to contribute to the Metafoundation.

Who wants to go?
Click image to enlarge.
We can usefully contrast these two physics nerds (Benford and Brin) to Carl Sagan. Sagan had a deep interest in biology and he took the time to learn some biology. Physical scientists generated some very cringe-worthy ideas during the 20th century including the claim that it can be mathematically proven that biological evolution is impossible. In related fantasy, some science fiction has explored the idea that evolution is only possible if DNA is a quantum computer. An oldie but a goodie: you could breed humans for luck. My personal favorite "biological" theory from the world of physics: consciousness is made possible by the action of quantum gravity in synapses.

original cover art by Michael Whelan
Sometimes I wonder which has done more damage to the science fiction genre: 1) unemployed physicists who write science fiction stories that contain bogus biology or 2) Hollywood'$ commercialization of science fiction. Everyone in the world should be respectful to Asimov and be thoughtful when adding stories to the Metafoundation. It would be nice if we could avoid having physics nerds and Hollywood'$ sausage grinders irreverently dumping garbage into the Foundation fictional universe.

Next year, it will be 50 years since Asimov won the Hugo for best series. Maybe this is a good time for Asimov's estate to issue another call for new science fiction works that are inspired by Asimov's Foundation.

Maybe the next round of additions to the Metafoundation could be orchestrated by someone who is not a physicist.

Related Reading: can HBO do a Foundation TV show?

Next: fiction writing as a disease.
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"Michael Whelan is one of the most important contemporary science fiction and fantasy artists, and certainly the most popular. His work was a dominant force in the transition of genre book covers away from the surrealism introduced in the 1950s and 1960s back to realism." source

Nov 26, 2015

Jack Vance: A Lost World

cover art by Gino D'Achille
My two favorite authors are Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance... two writers who go together like oil and vinegar. I often search the internet for commentary from readers who enjoy reading stories that were written by Vance and/or Asimov and so I recently came across a "retro review" of a Jack Vance novel (The Killing Machine) by Ken Korczak. Mr. Korczak says:

"In my almost 50 years of reading thousands of science fiction novels and short stories – The Killing Machine is among my Top 5 of all time. It’s just that good."

Lost Worlds
I've previously blogged about some of the "lost worlds" that Vance wrote into his stories. In The Killing Machine, Vance transports us to a lost world called Thamber, but most of the novel is not really about Thamber. We don't even reach the planet Thamber until we are 75% of our way through the story.

In his famous Foundation Saga, Asimov turned Earth into a "lost world". That trick took some mentalic magic by Daneel because the quadrillions of people who live on the 25 million settled planets of Asimov's imagined galaxy all originated from Earth only a few 10s of thousands of years before the age of the Foundation. How could everyone just forget the location of the home world of Humanity?

If you are a certain type of literal-minded nerd (and I am) then you worry about such things. I once collaboratively wrote a space opera in which Earth was "lost" in plain sight by means of  technological trickery.

In the case of Thamber, Vance just expects us to chill out and not question how the planet was lost.

In the Oikumene Fictional Universe where Vance set his five Demon Princes novels, about 1,500 years in our future, humans are still slowly spreading outward from Earth into the vast galaxy, into the Beyond. Somehow, it is possible for planets to be colonized by humans and then those planets can be "lost" and allowed to develop in isolation for centuries or millennia. Maybe we should blame the mysterious Institute for the ease with which entire planets can be lost.

In any case, Thamber is the playground of Kokor Hekkus the hormagaunt. Back on page 15 of the story, we get to read a set of instructions titled: "How to become a hormagaunt". The basic idea seems to be that if you obtain certain substances ("the ichore of youth") from the glands and organs of children then you can use that elixir to transform yourself into an immortal hormagaunt.

cover art by Louis S. Glanzman
Hey, if we can have a lost planet, then why not also have lost knowledge like the secret of eternal life? Elsewhere in the Demon Princes Saga, Vance suggests that it might be just a matter of time before space travel itself is banned and it is hinted that the Institute has already "covered-up" many scientific discoveries.

A side-effect of becoming a hormagaunt is that your skin becomes a transparent film across the surface of your head, allowing your facial muscles to show through. This does not bother Kokor Hekkus, who has a set of rubber masks and disguises that allow him to play the roles of several different people. On the planet Thamber, the human population lives in a primitive medieval society, but Kokor Hekkus has a spaceship and access to all the advanced technology of Earth. Thus, Kokor Hekkus finds it easy to rule over the people of Thamber and he secretly lives among them, acting out his preferred roles in a kind of virtual reality.

the origins of gizmo fiction
The Killing Machine
One of the native life forms on the planet Thamber is called a "dnazd", a large animal with many legs and powerful mandibles. Kokor Hekkus owns a mechanical "killing machine" fashioned after the dnazd. Having imported this mechanical monster from off planet, Hekkus can use it to terrorize a tribe of primitive warriors on Thamber (the Tadousko-Oi). Apparently Mr. Korczak is particularly enamored of Hekkus' mechanical dnazd.

One of the originating threads of the science fiction genre is what I like to think of as "gizmo fiction". Probably for as long as humans have existed we've been intrigued by tools and toys. In some sense, you might argue that Asimov's positronic robots are just cool gizmos. However, it might be closer to the truth to say that Asimov's most famous robot, Daneel, became humanity's tribal god: a being that could watch over the human species and guide us into the future.

I've seen multiple commentators describe The Face as their favorite Demon Princes novel. Some prefer The Palace of Love and the Mad Poet, Navarth. I was surprised to see Mr. Korczak rank The Killing Machine so highly without comparing it in any explicit way to other novels by Vance. I was provoked to ask myself: do I have a favorite novel that ranks highly because it contains a cool gizmo?

I'll admit that I've long had a soft spot in my heart for the space elevator. However, none of the novels that I've read with a space elevator in the story is a favorite of mine. So, upon introspection, I conclude that I love gizmos in science fiction stories, but not for their own sake. No, what I enjoy about gizmos in science fiction is when an author can construct a story that shows how a gizmo would alter human existence.

low-G space Bonding
By inventing gizmos such as the robot Daneel and exploring their impact on Humanity, Asimov proved himself a master of science fiction. Kokor Hekkus' walking fort strikes me as a stage prop that is typical of those deployed in order to support and advance Vance's playful literary style, which he was reluctant to even place within the science fiction genre.

I'm comfortable categorizing the Demon Princes novels within the science fiction genre, but Vance puts much more on our plates than is typical for run-of-the-mill science fiction stories. Mr. Korczak rightly compares Vance's protagonist in the Demon Princes novels (Kirth Gersen) to James Bond. In each of the five Demon Princes novels, Gersen takes time out of his busy life to have a dalliance with a damsel in distress.

In The Killing Machine, the damsel is Alusz, the 10,000,000,000 SVU girl from Thamber. Gersen first meets Alusz when they are being held as prisoners at Interchange.

Gersen and Alusz - cover art by David Russell
The relationship between Gersen and Alusz is a strange one. Gersen makes use of Alusz as a way to find the lost planet Thamber and kill Kokor Hekkus. Along the way, he steals 10,000,000,000 SVU from her, money that Kokor Hekkus raised by a string of kidnappings and paid to Interchange in order to gain possession of Alusz.

Although Gersen and Alusz grow fond of each other, their romance has no real prospects for enduring. Alusz can't understand Gersen's single-minded devotion to killing the three remaining Demon Princes. Gersen is only slightly tempted to relax and enjoy his vast wealth in the company of Alusz.

projac and planet
My problem with Alusz is that she irritates me. She's a spoiled princess. On Thamber, she was destined to marry Prince Sion Thumble, one of the secret identities of Kokor Hekkus. Supposedly Sion Thumble captured a spaceship from Kokor Hekkus and then Alusz read the instruction manual and departed from Thamber in order to escape from the evil Kokor Hekkus who demanded that she be turned over to him.

Eventually, Alusz learns about Gersen's background and the reason why he wants to kill the five Demon Princes. She can't really fault his motives, but she endlessly badgers Gersen to change his ways. Eventually, both Gersen and the reader are glad to see her depart from the stage.

bipedal version!
The final 25% of The Killing Machine, which takes place on Thamber, is far less entertaining than the first 75% of the story. As soon as Gersen arrives on Thamber, his flying machine is shot down by a Tadousko-Oi arrow. Then Gersen has to engage in hand-to-hand combat against the Tadousko-Oi hetman, their highest ranking warrior. In fine Hollywood tradition, Gersen never fails to win a fist fight.

After a few encounters with Sion Thumble and Franz Panderbush (another identity of Kokor Hekkus), Gersen notices that they are the same person in disguise, indeed, the same person that Gersen previously met playing the roles of Billy Windle and Seuman Otwal on other worlds of the Oikumene. Gersen unmasks Kokor Hekkus, kills him and liberates the people of Thamber from Hekkus' tyranny.

What do you get for a Demon Prince who has everything? I can accept that Vance wanted to explore the idea of an evil mastermind who controlled an entire planet and I accept that Vance did not want to confine his writing to a single defined genre such as science fiction, but my tastes do not run towards the type of sword-and-planet fiction that Vance grew up reading. I purposely avoid some of Vance's work in which he drifts into the domain of fantasy.

I've long regretted that Vance did not put more thought into Thamber rather than just adopting a conventional sword-and-planet culture for Kokor Hekkus' toy planet. I get the feeling that Vance himself was rather bored with the final 25% of The Killing Machine, which reads like it was slapped together in a rush to meet a publishing deadline.

A Hollywood tradition is the evil master-mind who always fiddles around while the hero closes in and ultimately dispatches the bad guy. When Gersen arrives on Thamber, Kokor Hekkus seems to just keep playing his usual masquerade games, even though Gersen clearly represents a serious danger from off planet. Given my biases, the ending of The Killing Machine, with the feel that Vance inserted a fantasy novella set on Thamber, marks this as my least favorite of the Demon Princes books. I suppose that Vance fans who enjoy his fantasy stories might prefer The Killing Machine and its touch of sword-and-planet fiction.

Next: a return to Asimov's Foundation

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