Retro Review: Jack Vance and the Demon Princes: “The Killing Machine”

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Review by: KEN KORCZAK

Think of all the great names of science fiction from the previous century – Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Silverberg, Dick, Pohl, Cordwainer Smith, Sheckley, Van Vogt, de Camp, Harrison (insert your own) …

Well, there was one man who was a greater writer than all of the above.

It was Jack Vance.

I won’t belabor the point here anymore – if you read enough of his books, I’m certain you’ll come to agree with me. This book, The Killing Machine, one of the five-part “Demon Prices” series, is one Vance’s best.

Briefly, the scenario is this:

On a faraway planet at some time in the far-flung future, a young man by the name of Kirth Gersen witnesses to the horrible spectacle of his family being murdered in a raid on his village. The killers are the Demon Princes. They’re not demons, per se, but intergalactic mobsters/crime bosses who wreak havoc across the galaxy.

They do whatever they like: raid, steal, plummet, kill, rape and massacre. They’re extremely powerful, highly secretive and their desire for wealth and power cannot be quenched.

Gersen grows to manhood and dedicates his life to tracking down the Demon Prices. His goal is to assassinate them one at a time, seeking justice and to avenge his slaughtered family.

jv_cat_dog

Jack Vance, 1916-2013

With great self discipline and constant training, Gersen develops into a powerful man. He may be the only man in the entire galaxy who is even more lethal and dangerous than the Demon Princes themselves.

Gersen makes James Bond look like a rank amateur – his expertise with manual fighting techniques, personal weaponry and private eye investigative skills is unequaled – although he does have flaws; just a chink or two in his armor to make things interesting. He’s a gloomy man, fiercely intelligent and driven — a monomaniac.

His target in this book is the mysterious Kokor Hekkus, one of the Demon Prices. The name Kokor Hekkus literally means “The Killing Machine” in the language of the locals of the planet Thamber, where Hekkus is believed to live – although no one is certain.

In fact, many believe that the planet Thamber may not exist at all. Is it a mythical world? — A realm of castles, magic and dragons? Or perhaps there really is a Thamber, somehow lost or forgotten from the star charts of the known galaxy.

The Killing Machine is a book of almost unimaginable science fiction fun.

Expertly plotted, tightly written, it is inventive to a wonderful degree. Vance has an ability like no other writer to create a tone that is serious, but at the same time, impregnated with a pervasive, understated sense of humor. Vance’s humor is dry, wry and deeply ironic.

There is one scene in the book that is my favorite perhaps in all of science fiction, and I must mention it here:

It’s a situation in which the characters build a gigantic fighting vehicle that looks like a giant centipede. This “rolling fortress of death” travels on rows of flexible magnetic-metallic whip-like legs. It shoots deadly bolts of searing laser rays and bristles with an array of other weapon options – and the drivers operate it by sitting comfortably inside on plush captain’s chairs, much as if they were tooling around in a luxury RV.

It’s just great! You’ll know it when you read it!

Although each of the five Demon Princes novels are Class A, 5-star reads, The Killing Machine has always been my favorite of the series. It’s the second of the bunch, and you probably don’t need to read the first to jump right into the narrative.

This is a book that is magical and fantastical, while also staying true to those principles of hard science fiction, employing plausible inventions of futuristic technology, gadgetry and science.

In my almost 50 years of reading thousands of science fiction novels and short stories – The Killing Machine is among my Top 5 of all time. It’s just that good.




Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS

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2 thoughts on “Retro Review: Jack Vance and the Demon Princes: “The Killing Machine”

  1. OMK

    While I’m unsure of Vance’s level of quality, I AM sure of Korczak’s.
    In which universe is “It’s just great! You’ll know it when you read it!” either an intelligent or persuasive argument in a book-review?
    I sincerily hope claiming ANYONE to be the best writer, backed only by “I’m not going to explain why” is supposed to be sarcastic in nature, as being otherwise would render the rest of the review virtually useless in terms of credibility of the author of said review.

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Hey, OMK, I urge you, or perhaps “invite” you to read a lot more of my reviews here, and tell me what you think overall of my skills as a reviewer. Please read a few more …

      Reply

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