not holding up so well

11 July 2005, 12:16 pm

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It’s apparently de rigeur to mention that the stories of (currently popular and prolific) SF writer Matthew Hughes owe a debt to the Old Earth stories of Jack Vance. Vance is one of those old-school SF writers from whom I always meant to get around to reading something, but never quite did. In fact, although I didn’t have any of his Old Earth stories in particular, I long ago squirrelled away a few of his “Demon Princes” novels. I just read the second, The Killing Machine.

Killing Machine cover art by Gino D'Achille

I found it rather unintentionally hilarious. It’s certainly not fair to fault a work of speculative fiction from another generation (this one was written in 1964) for failing to anticipate developments like personal computing and the Internet. Nonetheless, it’s hard to read with a straight face a scene in which a guy has to compute square roots with his slide rule, or in which the closest analogue to a database search requires flying to a planet where you can look things up.

It might likewise seem unfair to criticize Vance for the reflexive, unexamined sexism of his work, but not all of his contemporaries exhibit that deficiency. James H. Schmitz, for instance, in the 1950s and ’60s portrayed a similar interstellar cosmopolitan society which happened to include several tough, smart female characters. He didn’t even make a big to-do over his female characters’ toughness or smartness; his male characters accepted female equality as a natural state of affairs. (Many of Schmitz’s stories have recently been reprinted in several hefty anthologies from Baen books. I loved these tales when I was a teenager, and I was delighted at how unembarrassing they were to return to as an adult.)

One clear similarity Vance shares with Hughes is both writer’s frequent — even excessive — use of the passive voice to evoke a general air of sophistication. Vance winds up evincing the stiltedness of 19th prose without much of its grace or music; Hughes (whom I think deserves roughly half of the hype he seems to have) fares a little better with the device, mostly because he can write dialogue that’s not patently ludicrous.

Once you subtract the spaceships and rayguns, The Killing Machine is basically a cops and robbers story. Ubervillain Kokor Hekkus (one of the titular “Demon Princes,” and one of the two titular “Killing Machines” — the other is the pictured giant mechanical 36-legged arthropod, which for some obscure reason is referred to as a “mobile fort”) is engineering a rash of kidnappings to raise a vast sum of money (for frankly absurd purposes). Keith Gersen is the grudge-bearing, rule-ignoring bounty hunter who’s sworn to bring Hekkus down.
The financial focus of the plot leads to gripping scenes like this:

“We had best consider the matter of recompense,” said Gersen. “Here I speak for Mr. Patch, of course. He wants the full sum of the original contract, plus the cost of modifications and the normal percentage of profit.”
Otwal considered a moment. “Minus, of course, those developmental funds already advanced. SVU 427,685, I believe to be the sum.”
Patch began to sputter. Otwal could not restrain a faint smile.
“There have been additional expenses,” said Gersen. “To a total of SVU 437,685. This must be included in the total reckoning.”

and this:

Half an hour later, Patch called the area Branch of the Bank of Rigel, inserted his account tab into the credit card slot. Yes, he was told, the sum of SVU 1,181,490 had been deposited to his acount.
“In that case,” said Patch, “please open an account in the name of Keith Gersen — ” he spelled the name ” — and deposit to this account the sum of SVU 500,000.”
The transaction was performed, both Patch and Gersen affixing signatures and thumbprints to tabs. Patch then turned to Gersen. “You will now write me a receipt, and destroy the partnership agreement.”

and (as the novel’s sole female character pays her own ransom to an institution that brokers payment between kidnappers and their extortees), this:

“There is another matter,” said the clerk. He adressed Aluzs Iphigenia. “Since you are acting the peculiar capacity of your own sponsor, the money, minus our 12 1/2 percent fee, is yours.”
Alusz Iphigenia stared at him apparently without comprehension.
“I suggest,” said Gersen, “that you prepare a bank draft, so that she need not carry around so much negiotiable currency.”
There was a flurry of consultation, a shrugging of the shoulders, a flutter of hands; finally the bank draft was drawn upon the Planetary Bank of Sasani at Sagbad, in the sum of SVU 8,749,993,581: ten billion minus 12 1/2 percent, minus charges of SVU 6,419 for special AA accommodation.
Gersen scrutinized the document with suspicion. “Presumably this is a valid draft? You have funds to cover?”

(I suggest, dear reader, that you pause here to allow your heart rate to settle before activating the clicker on your computator to access the remainder of this (or any other) informational repository. I must inform you that I can not be held responsible for any consequences that could arise from your failure to heed this warning.)
continued. . .

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7 comments on “not holding up so well”

  1. Paula

    flying to a planet where you can look things up

    That is SO much cooler than the Intenet!!

  2. Flasshe

    I can’t wait until 2060 A.D., when I get paired up with the swimsuit models (IF magazine cover).

  3. Ezra

    >I can’t wait until 2060 A.D., when I get paired up with the swimsuit models (IF magazine cover).

    I have *my* swimsuit model. I guess the future’s just not evenly distributed yet…

    The thing that I find hilarious (besides the obvious) about the IF cover is that the title story is called “Quickie”.

  4. summervillain

    Holy cow, Ezra, I think I worked with that guy whose site you linked at my first real job! And yeah, I thought “Quickie” sounded like censor-bait, too.

  5. Ezra

    Intersting. He has a pretty widely-read blog, so I’m surprised you haven’t happened by it before. I found it through John Battelle, who I read because he covers search. Not quite the kind of search I’m interested in, but he occasionally points to things which are useful to me.

  6. Ezra

    Oh, and the other thing I find hilarious about that cover is that they’re standing on marble pedestals. There’s nothing that says “we are mates” like standing together on a marble pedestal.

  7. summervillain

    He has a pretty widely-read blog, so I’m surprised you haven’t happened by it before.

    well, you should never be surprised by my ignorance. what i don’t know about the blogverse would fill, um, very, very, many blogs. but i’m grateful for this pertickular pointer.

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