|cover art by Gino D'Achille|
"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."
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.
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 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.
|cover art by Louis S. Glanzman|
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|
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.
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?
|low-G space Bonding|
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.
|Gersen and Alusz - cover art by David Russell|
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|
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.
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.
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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