Jul 4, 2012

Death and Destruction

If you have never read Jack Vance's "Demon Princes" novels then I suggest you go read them and come back here later.

In the Demon Princes novels, the protagonist (Gersen) is out for revenge (actually, he explicitly denies that his motivation is that simple and it may be that he is mainly interested in preventing the Demon princes from doing more harm to humanity). He lives his life for one purpose, to kill the five criminals who destroyed his family.
Spoilers follow....

I've long been intrigued by the ways that Vance found to "terminate" the five criminals. Gersen is disciplined and he goes about his task with workman-like efficiency, although he always wants to have a face-to-face meeting with his adversaries and tell them why they are about to die. I've been thinking about death and destruction in the context of the story that I'm currently creating (working title: Exode). I completed an outline of chapters for Exode today and realized that as things stand there is no death or destruction in the entire story! I'm not sure that we are allowed to write science fiction novels in which nobody dies and no planets are blown up.

cover by Edmund Emshwiller
At the end of the first Demon Princes novel (Star King), the "bad guy" tries to escape from Gersen. Gersen is ready and willing to "blast" the bad guy with his Space Opera blaster, but an alien creature is conveniently available to deliver the coup de grâce. Gersen walks off into the sunset with Pallis Atwrode, damsel formerly in distress. Gersen saves the girl and does not actually have to bloody his hands. Although, along the way to a happy ending, Gersen does break the bones of one evil minion in hand-to-hand combat and also poisons one of the Star King's evil henchmen (Suthiro), who, ironically, is a Master Venifice, a well-trained poisoner (Gersen neatly flushes Suthiro's corpse out into the vacuum of space). A third evil  henchman (who actually kidnapped Pallis) has to live out his life as a slave-like captive under conditions that are worse than the fate of death.

Sessily and Glawen
I wonder if Vance started out feeling a need to demonstrate Gersen's credentials as a ruthless killer, but then later had second thoughts about the mounting body count in the Demon Prince novels. Even before Gersen is on the trail of the first Demon Prince, Vance tells us that Gersen killed his first man in a street brawl, at the age of 14. Just to get started, to discover the names of the five Demon Princes, Gersen must torture and kill one of the evil henchmen. Much later in the series, Gersen says that he can't kill people without having a good reason for doing so. However, in Star King, Gersen poisons Suthiro for no obvious reason. (It is later suggested that as part of Gersen's training on Suthiro's home world, he learned to quickly poison anyone like Suthiro who would soon become an enemy.)

Revenge for murder is a popular theme in many Vance novels and central to the Demon Princes story. In Vance's Alastor Clustor novels the protagonists must deal with 1) the murder of a brother (Trullion), 2) the murder of a father (Marune), or 3) mass murder (Wyst). In the Cadwal Chronicles the pattern is similar: Glawen must deal with the murderer of his girl friend (the charming Sessily), Wayness must go on after the murder of her brother and in the final book of the trilogy they must deal with mass murder.

Cloned damsels in distress
In the second Demon Prices novel (The Killing Machine) Gersen hunts down Kokor Hekkus and blasts him to oblivion at point blank range. Along the way Gersen rescues (repeatedly) another damsel in distress, Alusz. Maybe there is a calculus according to which SciFi heroes must redeem themselves for each murder by rescue of a damsel in distress. By my count, Gersen is at about 4 murders and 2 damsels rescued by the end of The Killing Machine.

In The Palace of Love, the third Demon Prince has cloned a damsel in distress. Gersen rescues 4 cloned damsels in distress and at the moment when Gersen is ready to blast the bad guy, he falls to his death, so I'll not count that as Gersen murdering someone. By the wonders of cloning and "accidental deaths", the count has become 4 murders by Gersen and 6 damsels rescued.

Alice Wroke
In The Face, Gersen kills both Bel Ruk and Lens Larque in revenge for their roles in the death of his parents. Gersen has a serious romance with Jerdian, but I can't count her a a damsel in distress. Going into the fifth and final novel it is 6 murders by Gersen and 6 damsels rescued.

In The Book of Dreams, Gersen tries to kill Treesong, but fails. Ultimately, two of Treesong's henchmen and Treesong himself die in "accidents" that are arranged for by the Cleadhoes, Gersen's partners in retribution. I'm tempted to assign these three deaths as follows: one each to Gersen and the two Cleadhoes. Does Gersen rescue the miraculous Alice Wroke? Is she ever really in distress? I have to wonder what her fate might have been had Gersen not fallen in love with her....possibly the same fate as her father, who Treesong murdered. So my final tally is 7 murders by Gersen and 7 damsels rescued. Of course, Alice shares Gersen's motive to eliminate Treesong and along the way she rescues Gersen right back.

In one of his Foundation stories, one of Asimov's characters says, "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent," but in standard Space Opera fashion, Galactic civilization begins to crumble and, as the story flowed from Asimov's trusty typewriter,  the destruction became epic. There are battling fleets of space ships and bombardments of planetary populations from space. At the personal level, Onum Barr takes revenge for the slaughter of his family by the crumbling Empire, murdering Bel Riose, the last strong General of the Empire. There is attempted assassination of The Mule and Bayta Darell has to murder poor Ebling Mis in order to prevent The Mule from becoming Emperor of the galaxy.

I'm not sure that Exode is best categorized as a Space Opera. Can you have a Space Opera story without death, battles and destruction?

In my story Exode there are many humanoid robots. Asimov is famous for his "laws of robotics" which allowed him room for stories about robots killing people and even a robot that murders another robot. In Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, an intelligent machine commits murder (Sorry, Dave).

The robots of Exode are tools of the Huaoshy. The Huaoshy are "alien invaders" of our galaxy, but they actually create the human species. In typical science fiction, alien invaders bring death and destruction to Earth. In Exode, the Huaoshy create and nurture humanity.

Kach, a character in Exode.
So far, I do not see any reason to have a murder in Exode. No wars, no space battles, no exploding planets. However, I could arrange for Parthney to kill Hana's husband. My original plan was to simply allow an Overseer to cart away her husband, but by forcing myself to find a way to add a murder to the story I can imagine that Parthney might realize that Hana's husband needs to be killed in order to prevent him from attracting the attention of an Overseer.

If I go this route (murder), I can also write the story so that, even after the murder, the Overseer still moves in and captures Parthney and Hana. The murder would weigh heavily on Parthney both for the act itself and because of its utter futility. What do you think? Should I throw a murder into Exode? The story is still under development and collaborating authors are welcome.

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