Jack Vance, “Star King” and “The Killing Machine” (1964) – I read these two on two flights back and forth cross-country. At about 160 fast-paced pages, they worked out pretty well for that time slot. They’re the first two volumes in the Demon Princes series, named after the gang of five space pirates who destroyed the village and killed the family of Kirth Gessen (related to that n+1 guy, one wonders?) who, naturally, vows revenge, one novel per Demon Prince.
The setting is classic Vance- far future, interplanetary, but comparatively low tech (there’s hand-wavey faster than light travel, but everyone still deals in cash), and a crazy quilt of planets with radically different cultures and environments. One of the conceits is that anyone with a spaceship can lift off and find an inhabitable planet, so every oddball sect or separatist group settles its own world, and stuff gets weird out there after a few thousand years.
Into this welter goes Kirth, his life given relatively straightforward meaning and rationality by his quest for revenge. The Demon Princes themselves belong to a kind of competitor species to humanity, asexual amphibians characterized by an innate drive to imitate and eventually excel the most sophisticated species they can find- which, this being midcentury sci-fi, soon comes to mean humans. They even adapted themselves to look like us. Apparently, most people aren’t that worried about it, but these Demon Princes guys decided to pursue sneaky lives of spectacular crime.
This means along with sci-fi with a certain western element (the revenge quest, frequent visits to the untamed frontiers where all the weirdest planets are), there’s a certain detective story element to each of the books, as Kirth needs to poke through clues to figure out who each of the Demon Princes are. In the first one, he finds that his quarry is hiding among academic administrators(!), and uses the promise of rights to a lucrative planet, along with some good old-fashioned goon suborning, to winkle him out. In the other, the bad guy is hiding on a planet stuck in the Middle Ages, so Kirth needs to do some knight and princess biz.
The set ups are fun and the books are quick. They give plenty of range for Vance’s worldbuilding and his baroquely courteous but sinister dialogue- like Wodehouse’s evil twin. A particular favorite, after he gets a story out of an old flunky of one of his quarries who belongs to a cult that eats rotten food and is on his way out the door: “Gersen said thoughtfully, ‘I shall now take all your money, and throw your vile food into the sea.’” The Demon Princes, naturally, rant like Bond villains on acid when caught, and their henchmen are pretty good, too.
Hard boiled heroes of the Chandler or Hammett mold are often somewhere between standing aloof from the sordid worlds they deal with and being their apex predators. Something similar can be said for many of Vance’s heroes, including Mirth. One interesting difference- Vance’s sci-fi/fantasy worlds are rendered sordid by the forces of time, decay, and petty narcissism, especially the narcissism of difference, than by exploitation as in the noir. Vance wasn’t a comrade and tended to see people as amusing, amoral beings who do a variety of fun tricks.
As the story develops it becomes clear that the Demon Princes were undone by the constant striving after greatness that their species is prone to- they can’t just enjoy life, they need to be constantly chasing more, and in their case, it’s more refined wickedness. The bad guy in the second book, the titular Killing Machine, seeks out a medieval world because he has some long-winded theory about producing the perfect kind of fear. Kirth is a relatively straightforward type, but of course, he’s aware his whole life, too, is dedicated to killing, and what happens if it’s ever over? Presumably, we’ll learn more about that in subsequent volumes. ****’