Star King by Jack Vance

Aug 28, 2020

The first in a five novel epic of interplanetary revenge, Star King has several flaws but also many virtues.

The premise is pulp simplicity itself: the inhabitants of our hero’s home world were carried away in slavery, and now he must find and destroy the five Demon Princes responsible.

Although this first installment came out in 1964, the tech isn’t much more sophisticated than Edgar Rice Burroughs. For example, the ships are barely even visualized (we hear terms like fore and aft), and while the interstellar tech is given cool names (the intersplit), no interest is shown in how it actually works. Jack Vance doesn’t really care how they travel between a thousand different worlds; he only cares about the thousand worlds.

It is when he evokes this vast civilization of a thousand worlds, the Oikumene, that Vance is most impressive. Humans have colonized huge swaths of the galaxy, and on every planet a distinct culture has arisen. The Oikumene is a pretty loose federation of these planets, almost anarchistic, except that they share a currency, and if you commit a crime on one planet and flee to another, the Interplanetary Police Coordinating Company will be after you. The IPCC might even send agents into the Beyond, outside of official jurisdiction, to capture or kill a criminal. These agents are called Weasels, and the only organization indigenous to the Beyond is called the Deweaseling Corps. Other than that, it’s pure anarchy. What happens in the Beyond, stays in the Beyond.

Within the somewhat more civilized Oikumene, there is another mysterious organization called the Institute. Our hero, before setting out on his quest of interplanetary revenge, managed to rise to the 11th degree in this organization. The members, especially the high ranking ones, are expected to practice cold, dispassionate reason, which would be incompatible with the whole quest for revenge thing, so our hero dropped out. We don’t hear a lot about the Institute in Star King, but are told that they often act to thwart technological progress, which pisses off a lot of people. I look forward to reading more about the Institute in future installments of the series.

Jack Vance makes heavy use of a classic technique of speculative fiction—the imaginary citation. Think of the Necronomicon so often cited in Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Every chapter of Star King begins with a fake quotation from a made up source, like “Preface to Men of the Oikumene, by Jan Holberk Vaenz LXII” or “From ‘A Study of Inter-Class Accommodations,’ by Frerb Hankbert, in Journal of the Anthropicene, Vol. MCXIII”. Sometimes, just for fun, he’ll throw in a real quote from someone like Oswald Spengler. The imaginary citation is an excellent technique because it really creates a feeling of verisimilitude, and Vance uses it to good effect.

Vance is skilled at drawing a believable portrait of a fictional society or organization, but he struggles to portray a realistic individual. The protagonist, for example, is completely boring and one dimensional. This is almost unforgivable. In a five novel epic of interplanetary revenge, I expect a well drawn and compelling protagonist—something like the Count of the Monte Christo. This Kirth Gersen character, interplanetary avenger, isn’t just flat and boring—he is a bumbling moron!

Allow me to explain how stupid this Gersen character is. I’ll stick to the opening scenario in an effort to avoid spoilers.

The story begins on Smeade’s Planet, in the Beyond. There’s only one building on Smeade’s Planet, and that’s Smeade’s tavern and inn. Kirth Gersen is a Weasel who has stopped there for a rest on his way back to the Oikumene after some dangerous mission in the Beyond. He is undercover of course, as all Weasels must be. There are only two other people in Smeade’s tavern—a locator (an explorer who searches for habitable worlds in the Beyond), and a Star King. That’s right, there just happens to be a Star King in Smeade’s tavern tonight.

The locator, Lugo Teehalt, strikes up a conversation with Kirth Gersen and tells of a world that he’s found— not just habitable, but beautiful and ideal. However, Teehalt is about to break his locator contract by refusing to divulge the coordinates of this newly discovered world, because he just found out he is employed by Malagate the Woe. Teehalt doesn’t want this beautiful, peaceful world to be exploited and destroyed, which is certain to happen because Malagate the Woe is a notorious Star King, and just happens to be one of the five Demon Princes who Kirth Gersen is hunting. What a lucky coincidence for our story, what lazy plotting on the part of the novelist!

Anyway, three of Malagate’s henchmen enter. The Star King, who we are led to believe is just some random Star King who has just randomly stopped at Smeade’s on some completely unrelated business, makes his exit. Teehalt makes a beak for it and instantly gets killed outside, while Gersen is still inside with the three henchmen. Gersen gets knocked out, and when he comes to the bad guys have since made their escape in what they thought was Lugo Teehalt’s spaceship. But they actually took Kirth Gersen’s ship by mistake, the same model 9B. Now Gersen has Teehalt’s 9B, as well as the coordinates of the mystery planet encoded on the ship’s monitor. The plot is now in motion.

Here’s the stupid part: Gersen reasons that, because the three henchmen were inside the tavern with him when Teehalt was killed outside, then Malagate himself must be the killer. But it doesn’t occur to him for something like 100 pages that maybe, just maybe, the other random and supposedly unrelated Star King who just happened to in Smeade’s tavern that night, who just happened to have left as the three henchmen entered, might just be the culprit and the very same Malagate the Woe whom Gersen is hunting. The thought doesn’t even cross his mind.

There are two or three more major stupidities like this, but to describe them would spoil later plot developments. I’ll finish by saying that these errors are ultimately forgivable, because the world that Jack Vance creates is fascinating and this is the real reason one reads him. So I look forward to the next four installments of the odyssey.
It is worth persevering with this series, for the understated humour if nothing else. Kirth Gerson does become a bit more fleshed out as the story continues. You are correct to point out the lack of detail in space travel: Vance has little interest in this per se his stories and it is really only a vehicle to get his protagonists between planetary settings. Vance is not hard SF. He is however a brilliant SF writer in many other ways.
It is worth persevering with this series, for the understated humour if nothing else...

I fully intend to read the entire series; I’m already on the third installment actually.

I might’ve been a little harsh about the so-called flaws. Kirth Gersen may be a pretty flat character, but his quest for revenge is really just a narrative pretext to go around to bunch of different worlds; the cultures that he interacts with do seem real and three dimensional, so it’s not all that important that Gersen himself is kind of one dimensional.

And the fact that the tech is kind of weak doesn’t bother me at all. If you want realistic tech, there are other authors—Arthur C. Clark, for example. You don’t read Jack Vance for the tech.
Just finished the first book and it was a fun pulpy read! The world building is fantastic and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series. His descriptions are perfect; rich but succinct. A skill I wish other authors could master. I don’t really care about the technical aspects of getting to the worlds, but I do love the worlds themselves, cultures, and characters. I read the Lyonesse trilogy as a pre-teen and wasn’t aware of his other works. I’m looking forward to reading them all. If anyone has suggestions on their favorites, it would be greatly appreciated.