As you may have noticed, I’m mostly blogging to log my reading for the year, at least right now. Most of these posts come at least a few weeks after finishing a given book, to give me time to think about, process, and settle in my feelings and thoughts before discussing them.
So, I continued on in the new year with the Demon Princes novels by Jack Vance, of which this is the fourth. (I’d read the third back in December, so it wasn’t long ago.)
Before I get into the book, I’ll just note that while I’m posting some historical covers below to spice things up, the volume I read this in is the collection pictured above. Still, who can resist the allure of those old covers? The one on the left feels more authentic to Vance, in terms of the ramshackle kookiness of the lived-in, crumbling interstellar civilization Vance writes about. The one of the right is a bit too “sporty combat!” (shiny tank top and all) for a novel that covers the ground that this one does.
The twelve-year hiatus between books 3 and 4 makes it hard not to notice a drastic jump in writerly skill. This one’s much less in the “James Bond in Space” mode of the earlier ones (at least till the end), and much more… well, I don’t know, kind of a more sedate… wait, I’m not sure I can even really think of another book or film that depicts the methodical, slow-motion hostile takeover of a corporation for the purposes of flushing its famously sadistic and criminal current owner out of hiding so he can be assassinated.
Somehow, out of a plotline hinging on stock acquisitions and negotiations, Vance manages to spin an engaging tale. I credit the hilarious dialog, a dash of frustrated romance, and a good dose of snarky, observational satire of humanity’s worst tendencies: a lot of the book works around contrasting elitist scumbags with a clade of brutish, ugly, and strangely-evolved human weirdoes who seem genuinely terrible to be around.
Occasionally it felt like the latter group was vaguely coded as “foreign” (though not specifically racialized), while other times they felt much more like working class yokels from any American town… to which, all I can say is that while this universe still seems to be an awful place to be born female, at least the text doesn’t come across as racist so much as entertainingly misanthropic?
The more clod-like culture also has a major wrestling ritual that I kinda wondered whether Vance might have been using to poke fun at the pro-wrestling scene… but then I realized the timing was a bit off: this novel was published in 1979, while pro wrestling—though it existed in the 70s—wasn’t become really popular in the mainstream at the time and wouldn’t be for another half-decade or so; meanwhile, even in the underground it was kind of at a low point in terms of its popularity (or so internet sources suggest). It could be he was mocking pro athletics, though, which would fit with the idea that the latter group of people he was mocking were basically lower/working class Americans. Or maybe the wrestling is supposed to be a kind of emblem for the generally stupid and combative jockeying for respect and clout that happens throughout human societies, especially among men. It’s hard to say, except that it’s recognizable as very human despite it not mapping perfectly onto any specific institution as far as I could see.
Either way, this book felt like quite a departure for the series, because (at least to me) in that there was a lot more going on compared to the earlier ones: it’s almost like during his time away from the Demon Princes (and working on other things), Vance realized that the revenge plot wasn’t just a vehicle for a story, but that it was a potential vehicle for literally anything else he wanted to write about. That’s one reason this book is funnier and weirder than the others. It seems less intent on being taken seriously, and more about presenting a weird and sort of awful situation and then tracking how different people react to it.
One thing that’s clearer here than in earlier books is that Vance seems to see all societies as at least a little crazy and absurd (also, I gather, a theme running through his Dying Earth books, which I hope to finally read all the way through this year). A lot of what ends up being villainousness in his stories seems to be rooted in how that absurdity and craziness affects people who grow up in the thick of it. That’s an even bigger theme in the last of the Demon Princes novels… but I’m getting ahead of myself, and should save those thoughts for the final novel, which I’ll be posting about soon enough.
I’ll also note that it’s sad to see how one must now put “Jack Vance” in quotation marks when searching the man’s name, to avoid getting a flood of results involving a different American “author” (now turned political grifter in Ohio). The irony is that the younger Vance (no relation) is exactly the kind of guy you can see being a lackey to one of the Demon Princes… and getting flushed out an airlock without a thought once he screwed up (or just got on his boss’s nerves) one too many times.
UPDATE (12 Feb 2022): I stand corrected: Marc Laidlaw notes that pro wrestling did have a mainstream cultural presence as far back as the 1960s:
Loved that one. But I remember wrestling being a big deal on daytime TV when I was a kid in the 60s, and it was not as flashy as it became but the basic elements were all there and Vance would have been very familiar with it.
— mL (@marc_laidlaw) February 11, 2022
And Elijah Elder notes that sports spectacles are something Vance liked to write about:
Have you read Trullion yet? Vance liked to write about sports and spectacle.
— Elijah Elder (@Lige1) February 11, 2022
… and also speculates whether it might not have been a response to Dune:
Love that book. It makes wonder if the desert dwelling clod culture you describe is any way a response to Vance's friend Frank Herbert's desert dwellers?
— Elijah Elder (@Lige1) February 11, 2022
In fact, Twitter responses seem to be the new Comments Section of the 20s. You can follow along here.