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The Demon Princes is a five-book series of science fiction novels by Jack Vance, which cumulatively relate the story of one Kirth Gersen as he exacts his revenge on five notorious criminals, collectively known as the Demon Princes, who carried the people of his village off into slavery during his childhood. Each novel deals with his pursuit of one of the five Princes.
The titles, Gersen's antagonists, and a few details of their plots, in order of publication:
- The Star King (1964). The antagonist is Attel Malagate, a renegade from a species called the Star Kings, who are driven to imitate and surpass the most successful species they encounter; with their contact with humanity in antiquity, they began consciously evolving into imitations of human beings. The bait Gersen uses to trap him is an undeveloped and fantastically beautiful planet whose location is known only to Gersen, which Malagate covets to become the father of a new race that can outdo both humans and his own species.
- The Killing Machine (1964). Kokor Hekkus, a 'hormagaunt', has prolonged his life by the vivisection of human beings to obtain hormones and other substances from their living bodies. But eternal life can be boring, and so he has converted the lost planet Thamber into a stage wherein he acts out his fantasies.
- The Palace of Love (1967). Viole Falushe, an impotent megalomaniac ironically fixated on sex. He was so obsessed with a girl in his youth, that he created a number of clones of her in a vain attempt to generate one which would return his love. This novel contains one of Vance's most compelling and unforgettable characters, the mad poet, Navarth, who has a central role.
- The Face (1979). Lens Larque, a sadist and monumental trickster. In the course of the novel, the protagonist experiences some of the same outrages that motivated the villain to concoct his most grandiose jest, leading to one of the most humorous endings in all Vance's work.
- The Book of Dreams (1981). Howard Alan Treesong, a 'chaoticist', who embodies elements of all the foregoing, and has the most imaginatively ambitious plans of all. He attempts to take over the three major organisations of the Oikumene - the IPCC (law enforcement), the Jarnell Corporation (space ship technology), and the Institute (political and social power).
Significantly or not, Vance portrays each of his human criminal 'princes' (the humanoid alien Attel Malagate is the exception) as a frustrated artist, each working out his fantasies in a different medium. Much of The Book of Dreams centres on Treesong's attempt to retrieve his own youthful work of fantastic fiction (itself called The Book of Dreams): the portions reproduced in the novel could have come from one of Vance's own magical novellas. To some extent Treesong is prefigured in the repulsive yet almost pitiable protagonist of Vance's thriller Bad Ronald (1973).
Place in Vance's work
The first three books in the series appeared in 1964-67 and were published in both hard cover and mass-market paperback editions under the Berkely Medallion imprint. There was a 12-year gap before the last two appeared in 1979 and 1981 and published as individual volumes in limited editions of 700 copies each by Underwood-Miller in 1981. The collected books were published as a limited edition set, The Demon Princes, in 1997.
The Demon Princes books extensively use Vance’s practice of augmenting and counterpointing his narrative by means of footnotes and, especially, lengthy or bizarre epigraphs drawn from imaginary works of literature, history, philosophy, newspaper reports, television interviews, court transcripts and so on.
Some of these bear closely upon the plot in hand: for example, the quotations from The Demon Princes by Caril Carphen (published by the Elucidarian Press, New Wexford, Aloysius, Vega), apparently the authoritative scholarly study of these five notorious individuals.
Some have tangential significance, such as the excerpts from the works of the ‘mad poet’ Navarth. Others have no logical relevance: such as the learning processes undergone by the ‘Avatar’s Apprentice’, Marmaduke, in Scroll from the Ninth Dimension (though these hint at providing a metaphorical/metaphysical comic correlative to Kirth Gersen’s progress). But they all serve to flesh out the mores, history and culture of the wide-flung future milieu in which Gersen pursues his quest.
Perhaps Vance’s most memorable creation in this stratum of the books is the aristocratic philosopher Unspiek, Baron Bodissey, who lives only in the citations from his all-embracing six-volume magnum opus, Life. (The Baron and his work are referred to in other Vance novels unrelated to the Demon Princes sequence: in his elusive person Bodissey is so to speak the combined Socrates, Aquinas, Montaigne, Hume and Nietzsche of Vance’s universe).
And Vance’s virtuosity on this plane may be illustrated by the epigraph to Chapter 10 of The Killing Machine, which consists of a citation from Volume IV of Life followed by extracts from six stylistically individuated (but uniformly negative) reviews of the Baron’s book.
One of the quasi-citations, on planetary ecology, is attributed to Herb Frankbert, a homage to Frank Herbert.
The novels take place in the Oikumene, which is a loose confederation of the civilized planets of the galaxy. The Oikumene shares some conceptual features with the Gaean Reach, and may be a precursor to it. Earth, for example, exists in both universes, as do currencies based on unskilled labor. The majority of planets referred to in the Oikumene and Gaean Reach stories do not appear in both, however.
There is a universal language; there are some variations of dialect, but in the main even the most widely travelled individual has no difficulty making himself understood on any of the worlds of the Oikumene. This is no doubt because interstellar travel is cheap and extremely fast, to the extent that the newspaper is still an effective means of dissemination, and hence there are few isolated communities likely to undergo linguistic drift.
The universal currency is the Standard Value Unit (SVU), a fiduciary issue backed by several of the Oikumene's largest banks, such as the Bank of Rigel. The SVU is also cheerfully accepted in the Beyond (though some communities use other exchange media, one instance being Dar Sai). The currency is generally presented in the form of notes, with coins being used for fractional units. Bank drafts are widely used for large amounts. The paper notes are validated by means of a widely available device known as a "fake-meter"; in The Killing Machine, Kirth Gersen intercepts a communication that allows him to deduce how the validation process works, and hence how to counterfeit currency. (Before printing the currency lines are lightly scored on the paper causing areas of greater density. The position and alignment of these areas is used to validate the notes.)
Buying power of the SVU appears to be roughly on a par with the United States dollar or English pound sterling of the 1960s and 1970s; alcoholic beverages may cost less than one SVU, a luxury meal for twenty or thirty SVU; minor officials may be effectively bribed for fifty SVU, more senior ones requiring hundreds or thousands according to the nature of the enterprise being suborned. In The Grey Prince on page 24 is a footnote defining the Standard Labour-value unit as the value of an hour of unskilled labour under standard conditions.
Worlds of the Oikumene
Many systems and planets comprise the Oikumene, including:
- Solar system
- Cora system
- Dar Sai, a desert planet with a single large natural satellite called Mirassou.
- Phi Ophiuchi system
- Sarkovy, the sole planet of Phi Ophiuchi. It is somewhat larger than Earth but has a marginally lower surface gravity; unusually, it has zero axial tilt and therefore no seasons. The landscape consists largely of steppes, some of which are mentioned by name in The Palace of Love: Hopman Steppe, Gorobundur Steppe, and the Great Black Steppe. Its moist, cloudy climate supports abundant plant life which serves the Sarkoy as a ready source of poisons. It is also home to many animal species including the harikap.
- The Rigel Concourse: a system of 26 planets orbiting Rigel, which were moved into the system in antiquity by a vanished alien race. Their pompous discoverer named them for figures of Victorian literature (such as Bulwer-Lytton and Rudyard Kipling); but the clerk who processed his transmission, Roger Pilgham, replaced the names with a fanciful series of his own devising: Alphanor, Barleycorn, Chrysanthe, Diogenes, Elfland, Fiame, Goshen, Hardacres, Image, Jezebel, Krokinole, Lyonesse, Madagascar, Nowhere, Olliphane, Pilgham (after himself), Quinine, Raratonga, Somewhere, Tantamount, Unicorn, Valisande, Walpurgis, Xion, Ys and Zacaranda. Pligham also gave a particularly ugly moon the name "Sir Julian" in honor to the discoverer of the entire system.
Many of the planets are not only inhabitable but extremely pleasant to live on, and all are settled to a greater or lesser degree. Some (principally Olliphane, Lyonesse and Tantamount) are mineral-rich and given over to heavy industry. The entire system is considered one of the primary focal points of the Oikumene and certainly represents the greatest concentration of habitable planets. The Rigel Concourse includes:
- Alphanor: a large bright sea world, somewhat larger than Earth and with a marginally greater proportion of water, with seven conjoined continents and countless islands. Though first in alphabetical order, it is the eighth member of the Concourse in orbit around Rigel. Alphanor is beautiful and well-adapted to human life; it also boasts much native life of its own, including the hyrcan major (apparently anthropoid to judge by a reference in The Palace of Love) and the invisible eel. It features the prestigious Sea Province University, Sailmaker Beach, and the Grand Esplanade at Avente, the planetary capital. Alphanor is considered the administrative node and cultural centre of the Concourse. Kirth Gersen lived on Alphanor during part of his upbringing, and visits it repeatedly during the course of his adventures.
- Olliphane: fifteenth in alphabetical order, but nineteenth in order from the star. Somewhat smaller than Earth, it comprises a greater proportion of metals and so its gravity is broadly similar. Its mineral wealth (as well as a mountainous geography naturally favouring hydroelectric power) has made it a natural target for industrialisation and it is probably the Concourse's industrial heartland, though there are significant works on the nearby planets of Tantamount and Lyonesse. Its population is generally stolid and industrious, with a highly ordered caste system largely impenetrable to outworlders. Gersen visits Olliphane once as part of his detective work in Star King.
- Ys: original home of Pallis Atwrode. Named locations include Singhal Island, the Palmetto Islands and Lantango Peninsula. The inhabitants sometimes practise sibling marriage, which is considered scandalous elsewhere in the Concourse.
- Vega system
- Mizar system
- At least six planets of which at least the third and the sixth are inhabited. Mizar Six is home to the Tunkers, a strange religious sect who impose unusually stringent restrictions on clothing, behaviour and vocabulary, all in order to prevent needless speculation on each other's motives.
- Xi Puppis (Asmidiske) system
- Xi Puppis X: Over drinks, protagonist Kirth Gersen is explaining to lovely Pallis Atwrode the origin of the humanoid race of Star Kings. One theory has it that the same vanished race who "carved Monument Cliff on Xi Puppis X" kidnapped a tribe of Neanderthals long ago and removed them to the Star Kings' homeworld Ghnarumen, there to serve as an experimental evolutionary template for the highly adaptable but still rudimentary native life forms.
Law is enforced locally by each planet's own police, but is coordinated within the Oikumene by the Interworld Police Coordinating Company (IPCC) which also provides technical assistance (laboratory facilities, etc.) if required. The IPCC sends agents to the Beyond where they are known as "weasels".
This organisation is both educational and social, acting to control the development and dissemination of technology. It has many detractors, who operate on the assumption that but for Institute interference there would be many more technological innovations widely available and society would be Utopian. The Institute for its part holds that a certain amount of work and even suffering is necessary for the overall good of the human condition.
Students admitted to the Institute rise through a number of degrees or "phases", which are over one hundred in number. The more senior the Fellow, the more closely he aligns with the Institute's aims and ideals (or else he would never be promoted). Any number of Fellows may rise to degrees below the ninetieth, but there are only ever three Fellows in each rank 90 to 99. Of the higher phases up to 111, the 100th and 110th phase are always vacant, and the other phases are occupied by a single Fellow. The highest phase is 111, called the Triune for obvious reasons. The ten phases above 99 comprise the Dexad, the Institute's governing body. Promotion within the Dexad is strictly by seniority. When a vacancy in the Dexad occurs, usually by death, a 99 is selected to fill the vacancy. A new 99 is then selected from the 98s, and so on until 90. To achieve rank 89 is difficult; attaining rank 99 is much more difficult. A Fellow elected to Rank 101 has a good chance to become Triune, but a Fellow in Rank 99 who has made enemies among the Dexad may never be advanced. (The Book of Dreams, chapter 7).
Gersen rose to the eleventh degree with respectable ease, but then found that his own aims conflicted with Institute policy. However, his Institute background still admits him to the occasional company of other Fellows, who take no issue with his reluctance to commit himself further.
The typical senior Fellow is calm and serene to a fault even when his own interests are threatened, as may be seen by the conduct of Duschane Audmar in The Killing Machine.
The Institute of the Demon Princes novels very closely resembles the "Historical Institute" of Earth, in the Durdane trilogy. In that series, the Historical Institute is represented on the planet Durdane by Ifness, an Earthman. The internal politics of the Historical Institute in the Durdane novels are considerably more Byzantine, if not downright Machiavellian, than those of the Institute as described in the Demon Princes novels.
Outside the Oikumene is the Beyond. It includes many inhabited worlds, some of which have only a single settlement, others of which are civilized to a degree.
The Beyond is not subject to Oikumene law (technically, any outrage committed Beyond is not recognized as a crime in the Oikumene), but they use the SVU as currency. Many (probably most) of the worlds in the Beyond have a deservedly criminal reputation. However, a fortune made there can be brought into the Oikumene with, as a rule, no questions asked; the IPCC has no jurisdiction in the Beyond, but often sends out clandestine operatives, known as "weasels", when necessary. Ironically, this has led to the emergence of the only widespread organisation of any note in the chaotic Beyond, the Deweaseling Corps, whose sole purpose is to detect and kill weasels wherever they find them.
As stated, space travel is widely available; there are regular liner services for those who do not own their own spacecraft, and private spacecraft are extremely common and easy to use (a determined novice can navigate one with the aid of the Operator's Manual). Vance's version of FTL travel is the Jarnell intersplit, a subspace or hyperspace drive by another name. It does not muddy the waters with inconvenient relativistic effects; a traveller journeying from one end of the Oikumene to the other could synchronise watches with one who remained planet-bound meanwhile, and at the end of his journey the two watches would still be in agreement; there is no twin paradox to be considered. (This is plausibly explained away in that the traveller never experiences extreme speeds or acceleration in normal space.)
A hand weapon known as the projac is widely used; this is a typical energy-beam weapon of the type common to science fiction. It is generally used to kill, melt or burn things, although it can also deliver a charge that only knocks down or shocks.
Sivij Suthiro at one point shows off a weapon, almost certainly illegal and possibly though not certainly of Sarkoy manufacture, that can cause a variety of unpleasant internal disorders, any of which might look like death by natural causes.
Gersen uses knives of various kinds, with all of which he shows a great facility, and is adept at unarmed hand-to-hand combat. He has an equal skill with the poisons of Sarkoy, including the dreaded cluthe, a poison which acts within seconds to paralyze and minutes to kill by means of muscle contractions (including contractile paralysis of the respiratory muscles). He also employs at one point a gauntlet wired to deliver electric shocks and a pistol which discharges "slivers of explosive glass". As a civilian, his ships are unarmed.
The armament of warships is not covered to any degree, but probably includes energy weapons similar to the projac but on a larger scale. The 'thribolt projector' is a projectile launcher which spits out an unguided missile driven by the same "Jarnell Intersplit" faster-than-light drive which propels spacecraft. The tip of the missile stays in the "grey zone" between normal and Jarnell space and, upon impacting the target, brings the entire projectile out into normal space for the 'hit'. A variant exists in which the warhead is replaced by nonlethal disks, to act as "Warning shots". Efforts to guide the weapon have proved futile.
Computers are present but by no means universal, and even a manufacturing company (Feriste Precision Instruments, of Olliphane) that might be expected to have access to sophisticated technology instead keeps its records on paper and card index. However, some other instrumentation is very advanced; a space traveller can examine a planet's surface from orbit by "macroscope" and test the planet's biosphere for harmful micro-organisms before emerging from his ship. A kind of "black box" recorder known only as a "monitor" can record a spacecraft's voyages on a coded filament, enabling subsequent travellers to retrace the craft's wanderings. These are commonly used by "locators", spacefarers who search for habitable planets; such a filament is important in the plot of The Star King.