Visions of Paradise

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Killing Machine

I began reading science fiction 40 years ago as an escape from the real world in which I lived, and I still prefer fiction set either in the past or in the future. So after reading a few “slipstream” anthologies which, read consecutively, left me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction, I decided to follow them up with a colorful far-future sense of wonder tale. Who better to turn to than Jack Vance? I selected the second of his Demon Princes series, The Killing Machine. I start rereading this series a year ago, and my review of the first novel, The Star King, appeared here on 12/27/04.

Briefly, if you are not familiar with that series, they concern Kirth Gerson who as a child watched his entire community invaded by space pirates who either killed or kidnapped everybody, destroying everything that remained. Only his grandfather and he survived, hidden at a site from where they were able to watch the devastation.

The attack was organized by five interstellar criminals known as the Demon Princes, and Gerson’s grandfather spent the rest of his life training Kirth to exact revenge on the five criminals. In The Star King, Gerson sought Malagate the Woe, a member of an alien race known as star kings, and killed him. In the second book he goes after Kokor Hekkus, the killing machine.

As usual, this novel is partly a mystery since Hekkus keeps his identity concealed for security reasons, so that Gerson spends much of the novel seeking Hekkus’ hideaway on a distant planet so lost in legend that very few people even know of its existence, and very few of its inhabitants even realize there are other worlds than their own. Once there, Gerson must then discern the identity of Hekkus.

The novel is also part adventure, as Gerson travels from world to world, indulging Vance’s sense of wonder which is his strongest trait. One subplot involves a place named Interchange where kidnappers bring their victims for safekeeping at a combination prison-resort. The victims remain there, cared for almost as guests, until somebody pays their ransom. If nobody does, then their price gradually lowers until somebody ransoms them as slaves.

One of the inhabitants of Interchange is Alusz Iphigenia, who against her wishes has become desired by Kokor Hekkus. Fearing him, she realizes that her only safety lies in Alliance, where she, in effect, kidnaps herself and sets such a high price that nobody in the entire galaxy could afford to ransom her.

Thus Kokor Hekkus begins a series of kidnappings of the children of rich people, intending to raise enough money to ransom Alusz Iphigenia. Meanwhile Gerson realizes that his best chance of finding Kokor Hekkus lies in his ransoming Alusz Iphigenia himself, even though he could not possibly raise a fraction of the ransom price.

The pace of The Killing Machine never lags, nor does its sense of wonder. Vance is not a deep writer a la Ursula K Le Guin or Kim Stanley Robinson, but for a break from seriousness, or a relief from the workday, you can never go wrong with Jack Vance. This book is highly recommended fun.

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