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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