What I’m Reading: Jack Vance – The Demon Princes, Vol. 1 (The Star King * The Killing Machine * The Palace of Love)

One thing that has always bothered me about science fiction as literary genre is that so very few of its authors seem to have any awareness of their medium, i.e. language. Of course there are exceptions (Cordwainer Smith and Samuel Delany come to mind, not coincidentally my two favourite science fiction authors) but for the vast majority of science fiction literature out there, the language it is written in is serviceable at best and all too often merely clunky and stilted. Jack Vance is another of the rare exceptions – due to his very own unique style, a kind of wry, detached attitude that views the events and characters in his works like ants through a microscope.

That kind of distancing tone is not likely to get the reader much involved in the narrative, though, or sympathizing with its protagonists, and consequently lack of plot and character are often pointed out as weaknesses prevalent in Vance’s oeuvre. But Vance seems not really interested in those, it’s like he condescends to make grudging use of them since the form and the market required it, but his real interests lie elsewhere. To fully enjoy his works, a shift in focus is required, like with Wittgenstein’s duckrabbit – and once you are aware that Vance is really all about voice and style, plot and character tend to become nothing but minor factors that (in his weaker works) distract or (in his better ones) enhance what is essential, namely Vance’s prose and a prolific imagination that comes up with the most incredibly bizarre invententions.

In consequence, some of the best parts in Vance’s Demon Prince series (the first three installments of which this omnibus collects) are not found in the main narrative body of the novels at all, but in the epigraphs to individual chapters, purporting to be quotations from a multidude of sources as varied as newspapers, biographies, philosophical tractates and poems, and which often do not even pretend to bear any connection but their placement to the chapters they introduce. Free of context, not bound to the strictures of plot or character coherence, they often read like intriguing miniatures of their own where Vance sketches an insanely bizarre society or a totally ludicrious religious belief system in just a couple of sentences.

As for the novels themselves, they stand in a fascinating relationship to each other – while The Demon Princes is definitely a series, revolving around the main protagonist Kirth Gersen and his campaign of revenge against the five crime overlords who destroyed his home village and killed or enslaved its population. But it does not proceed so much in a linear fashion, the general structure seems to rather be a serial one (as in serial music) – i.e., each of the individual is not so much a continuation of where the previous one left off but rather repeats the previous ones, tells what is basically the same story but in a different way.

Or maybe a better way to describe the shift between novels is as a fractal progression, where each consecutive installment reveals a greater level of ever more intricate detail within the identical framework of the basic revenge plot: The Star King is a straightforward adventure story with a minimum of frills, The Killing Machine is the same story with a few more turns and twists, while The Palace of Love is one of the highlights of Vance’s oeuvre – it is much the same story as before, with much the same ingredients, but with such a wealth of intricate bizarreness, such a vast amount of finely crafted narrative ornament clicking and whirring away that the reader would get quite dizzy if it was not so squee-inducing enjoyable. And of course it is quite impossible to talk about The Palace of Love without at least a passing mention of Navarth who is not so much a character as rather the archetype of the l’art pour l’art poet taken to its larger-than-life, in equal measure fascinating and terrifying extreme – he is like the literary equivalent of every Mad Scientist and as such quite the fitting emblem for a novel that is bursting with odd details and bizarre inventions that serve no conceivable purpose at all, but are a wonder and delight to behold.

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10 comments

  1. Even Barry R. Malzberg has the “literary” short story (and novel) every now and then (I happened to show my girlfriend — an English Lit grad student — the Malzberg short story ‘Revolutions’ (1973) which he wrote under the moniker Robin Schaeffer and she was quite impressed).

  2. lol, I know there are more – Zelazny of course would belong on that list, too, as well as some more recent authors like Elizabeth Bear or Ian McDonald. And the same thing could be said for pretty much any other genre to a greater or lesser degree – romance novels for example tend to be even less language-conscious than science fiction. But as I’m not writing exhaustive studies but nothing more ambitious than impressionistic ramblings I reserve the right to simplify things on occasion in order to make a point.

    Malzberg is an author I really need to re-read soonish – I remember liking his stuff a lot when I read it in my teens (then still in German translation) but have no clue how he would hold up now. As it happens, the SFGateway has made a lot of his novels available again,and I already bought one, hopefully to be read soon.

  3. No worries, and I very much agree on all those authors being both cool and excellent writers. 😉 I really wish someone would re-release some of Lafferty’s stuff – he does not seem to be on the SFGateway list. Not yet at least – one can always hope….

  4. I fear that there is a fundamental problem for science fiction. There are authors such as Asimov who had scientific training and who only wanted to write clearly; he knew that people would read his stories for his ideas, not the way that he wrote. I’d like to see collaborations between some science geeks with interesting SciFi ideas and language artists like Vance. Is it possible for two writers as different as Asimov and Vance to collaborate?

  5. From my experience, though, the problem with collaborations tends to be that the writers involved meet at their lowest common denominator; the few exceptions to this I can think of are writers who collaborate on a regular basis (the brothers Strugatsky come to mind here). And I really can’t imagine anything good coming of a collaboration between two such different writer temperaments like Asimov and Vance.

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