Review: Jack Vance - The Killing Machine

Aug 28, 2020


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Whoops, I accidentally posted the book cover without the review. Here’s the review:

This second installment in the Demon Princes series is pretty close to the first one, especially in that it shares the same basic flaws—one dimensional characters, clumsy plotting, and bad tech. But it’s still entertaining.

Kirth Gersen is after his second Demon Prince, a notorious interplanetary arch criminal named Kokor Hekkus. He is “fascinated by beautiful objects, by antiquity, and by intricate machines.” He once built a mechanism that would cleave his enemies in half with a terrible metallic scream, and he has been known ever since as the Killing Machine. Kokor Hekkus, aka the Killing Machine—sounds almost like a bad guy in the world of professional wrestling, doesn’t it?

Jack Vance is a pulpy novelist, and I’m starting to realize that you just have to accept these cheesy, pulp elements if you like the other things that he does well. And actually, the pulpiness is kind of funny and lends it a certain charm. This stuff is not meant to be taken so seriously, like Dune or Childhood’s End. It’s meant to be fun.

We get to visit a number of interesting planets and societies with Gersen this time. There’s Interchange, solely devoted to the negotiation of ransoms for kidnap victims. Kidnapping is a big problem in the Oikumene, primarily because of the prevalence of affordable spaceships. Any bad guy with a ship can snatch almost whoever they want. If the kidnappers go out into the Beyond, the case is truly hopeless, because the victim will be sold into slavery and never heard from again. But many kidnappers take their victims to Interchange, where they are held in an inescapable prison while awaiting payment of their “rescission fee.” It’s not technically legal but the IPCC tolerates it because otherwise all the victims would simply disappear into the Beyond.

Then there is Thamber, a world of myth and legend at the outer edge of the galaxy, which was settled so long ago that now it has fallen out of touch with the Oikumene. In fact, no one knows where it is located anymore or even that it really exists, but Gersen finds it. Society here has reverted to a medieval stage of development. Barbarian warriors ride into battle on giant centipedes. It’s kind of like a swords and sorcery fantasy world.

Theee was a little bit more about the Institute, as I had hoped. The children of a high ranking member, Duschane Audmar, have been kidnapped by Kokor Hekkus and packed off to Interchange. The way Interchange works, if the rescission fee is not forthcoming, the victims are eventually sold into slavery and disappear forever. Audmar is rich enough to prevent this, but it would destroy his career in the Institute, because it would show that he let emotional considerations (his love of his children) control his decisions, instead of being guided by cold, calculating reason.

One minor quibble—before Malagate the Woe was dispatched in the last installment, he got to deliver a cool little speech in which he philosophically laid out some of the motives behind his actions. I would’ve liked something like that with Kokor Hekkus. In fact, the ending overall felt a little rushed. I wouldn’t have minded spending another chapter or two on the Thamber world. But then again, I was also anxious to move onto the next installment in the saga.

In sum, this second installment was pretty much on par with the first. Kind of silly at times, but entertaining.

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