Monday, June 2, 2008

the demon princes

The internet is a wonderful thing. Perhaps you're reading a blog entry by your favorite current game designer, and perhaps he offhand mentions how several of his ideas were inspired by old-school science fiction writer, Jack Vance. Well, you've got a keyboard in front of you, so you link to Amazon, read some reviews, and a couple days later there's a 5-volume set of retro sci-fi in your greedy, instant-gratified hands.

The Demon Princes is a series of novellas (150-200 pages apiece) written by Jack Vance between 1964 and 1981. Briefly, the plot centers around a protagonist known as Kirth Gersen: an intragalactic explorer, a good guy, an assassin, a man of many talents, an all-around bad ass. Kirth has dedicated his life to seeking and slaying the five so-called "demon princes," regarded to be the most dangerous and notorious galactic criminals alive - responsible for planetary genocides, kidnapping, torture, terrorism, and rampant evil-doing. More importantly, Kirth has a personal vendetta with these men: together, they were responsible for killing and enslaving his entire childhood village while he watched from a safe distance along with his grandfather.

His grandfather convinces him to dedicate the remainder of life seeking revenge for this heinous crime. We meet Kirth as an adult, his many years of training complete, ready to begin his daunting task. Each novella traces Kirth's path as he investigates, discovers, and eventually kills one demon prince. Don't worry that I just gave away a big plot point - the joy of these books doesn't come from wondering whether Kirth will assassinate his target, but rather watching him get closer and closer to these exotic human devils.

And while Kirth is an engaging and likable character, to be sure, it is the demon princes themselves that make these books magical. They are brilliant, mad, creative, insecure, allusive and delusional. And perhaps not surprisingly, the path to each lies along their own personal obsession. Attel Mattelgate, the villain of volume 1, is a Star King - a species both superior to and envious of Homo sapiens, to which they owe their existence. Girth leads him to his doom by tempting him with a new planetary eden - a paradise in the midst of the universe, where he could father a new race to eventually outshine the humans he so despises. The villain of volume 3,Viole Falushe, was perhaps my favorite. Spurned by a lovely girl in his youth, he created a palace of love in which he studies and explores various facets of love, lust, and seduction, alternatively sublime and depraved. And so on.

In each story, Kirth must first learn about his enemy, discover their passion and their weakness, and conjure a way to exploit it. It is this combination of psychological treatise (of the criminal mind) plus space-adventure that makes The Demon Princes one of the most entertaining pieces of fiction I've read this year.

But if that was the end of it, it'd just be another trashy piece of sci-fi, easily consumed and readily forgotten. What elevates The Demon Princes to, dare I say, literary heights is the brilliant prose and technique of Vance. He is a master storyteller. Consider this passage from The Palace of Love, in which Vance describes the odd people who reside in Viole Falushe's palace precincts only to provide guests with romantic entertainment:

"The servants, as Viole Falushe had implied, were acquiescent and possessed of great physical charm. The folk in white, even more beautiful than the underservants, were innocent and willful as children. Some were cordial, some were perverse and impudent; all were unpredictable. It seemed as if their sole ambition was to evoke love, to tantalize, to fill the mind with longing, and they became depressed only when guests found the underservants preferable to themselves. They showed no awareness of the worlds of the universe, and only small curiosity, though their minds were active and their moods mercurial. They thought only of love, and the various aspects of fulfillment. As Viole Falushe had hinted, infatuation too intense might lead to tragedy; of this danger the people in white were gravely aware, but made small effort to avoid..." (The Palace of Love)

First and foremost, Vance is known as an "adventure" writer. His plots move fast and he uses a skillful hand to paint fantastical action sequences on alien landscapes. Here is Kirth attempting to capture the first demon prince, Hildemar Dasce:

"Out from one of the tents charged Hildemar Dasce. Gersen saw him with savage delight. He wore loose white pantaloons and no more. His torso, stained a faded purple, was ribbed with muscle. He stared up with lidless eyes, the blue cheeks blooming from the vermilion face. Dasce marched acrosss the crater floor...Gersen followed close behind. At the base of the slope, a sound, a vibration, alarmed Dasce. Once more he turned to look up-slope - directly at the figure leaping down on him. Gersen laughed to see the loose pale mouth open in startlement, and the he struck. Dasce toppled, rolled, bounded to his feet, started to run awkwardly for the airlock; Gersen fired at the back of one of the rangy thighs. Dasce fell." (The Star King)

Vance creates an entire universe in this series, albeit with recognizable characteristics like our own planet Earth. As such, he runs the risk of alienating his reader by making them work too hard to understand this new, starkly different place. On the other hand, you don't want to create a "Milky Way-lite," where life seems oddly similar to that on 20th century earth (Star Trek, anyone?). Lucas dealt with this problem in Star Wars (of which I am an admitted fanboy) by tapping into grand mythological constructs and Jungian archetypes and using an epic narrative structure with Greek historical roots.

Vance's solution is to begin each chapter with a selection of prose taken from a work published within this fictional universe. Many of these selections are non-fiction, such as anthropological and religious texts. These delightful tidbits provide the patient reader with interesting planetary factoids (geography, principle economic factors, etc.) and cultural details (colonization history, religious fractionization, etc.). This allows Vance to concentrate on his plot, without breaking action to explain particular species or eccentric cultural practices, once the chapter formally begins. I found this to be a more elegant solution than, say, Orson Scott Card's approach in the Ender's Game series, in which the anthropology and politics are heavy-handed and distracting.

Here is part of a description of the Darsh - one of the more entertaining peoples in the Vance universe:

"Whoever wishes to experience human opacity need only attempt jocular intercourse with a Darsh woman. Men and women espouse each other for economic accommodation, nothing else. Procreation is accomplished by a far more adventurous process during nocturnal promenades across the desert, especially when Mirassou-shine is in the sky. The system is simple in outline but complicated in detail. Both men and women aggressively seek out young sexual partners. The men waylay girls barely adolescent; women seize upon boys not much older. To lure the boys out into the desert, the women ruthlessly send out the pubescent girls and so it goes. The system has permutations unnecessary now to explore." (The Face)

There is a vast world here, and throughout the course of these 5 novellas, you get the sense that Vance has only skimmed the surface. That should be considered a mark of his success in bringing this universe alive and bridging that sometimes frightening/silly/absurd gap between sci-fi writer and reader. If I have a criticism of these works, it is this: there is never a denouement. Each novella abruptly ends with Kirth assassinating his target. One is left to ponder the consequences of these actions, of how the universe responds to these truly galactic events. For example, given that the Demon Princes have formed a loose consortium, would not the assassination of one alert the others to potential danger? Would not the events of one book affect the outcome within another?

I suspect this has to do with Vance's desire to have each of these books stand on its own, such that a reader could enter at any point and not feel overly disconcerted. There are carry-overs within the narrative; for example, in The Killing Machine Kirth becomes a very wealthy man (through a fascinating case of counterfeiting) and he uses this wealth to great extent in the later volumes. However, Vance seems to take pleasure in closing the book on each story as soon as the demon lies dead. Each of the volumes sees Kirth become moderately infatuated with a female character (nearly always divine, distant, and in distress) and he usually consummates the relationship - but once the story's over, no more girlie. It's sort of like watching a James Bond flick.

But really, if you want some quality summer reading and you don't mind the periodic science-fiction cliche, look no farther than Jack Vance's The Demon Princes. Over these past few months, they have regularly invaded my dreams with their dangling ear-lobes, skinless faces, and twisted eloquence. And that's a good thing, trust me.

No comments:

Post a Comment