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Tschai and Demon Princes: The Journey is the Destination

 

Jack Vance’s book series of Tschai Planet of Adventure and Demon Princes are long winding journeys that end abruptly and in an anti-climactic fashion.

(Spoiler alert for those who need them for books from the sixties.)

Adam Reith arriving at the empty steppe to find a working spaceship, rubbing some dirt between his fingers and Tschai “exhibiting its rotundity” before it vanishes.

Kirth Gersen arriving to find that Howard Alan Treesong, the weakest of the series’ villains, has already been immobilized by his victim’s parents only to have him commit suicide and then complaining in a brief scene with Alice Wroke, who like Reith’s Zap 201 is really the latest girl he has ended up with, though Alice at least shares his passion for revenge, that he has been abandoned by his enemies.

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Kirth and Adam are only truly alive on their quests. Adam frequently debates whether he will even be able to leave Tschai. Kirth becomes progressively more ruthless and yet unwilling to kill his enemies. He misses Lens Larque twice and misses Howard Alan Treesong. He complete Lens’ revenge for him coming close to crossing into the dark side.

After defeating the Demon Princes, with his skills and endless fortune, Kirth faces the same crisis as the demon princes who were undone by the need to find pursuits, grand or petty, to match to their vast power. It’s not unlikely that Kirth will become a demon prince.

Adam’s skill set as a scout is only truly of use in a place like Tschai. There’s no room for men like Kirth and Adam on civilized worlds. And they are too empty to live on them.

Kirth Gersen has few interests. He buys a chess playing toy toward the end for the novelty. He considers settling down on Methlen yet knows it’s nothing but a fantasy. Adam Reith is even more of a cipher. Nothing is known of his past. His profession requires him to tackle dangerous worlds. He’s only truly alive on Tschai.

A conventional author would have written of Anacho, Traz and Zap 201’s responses to enco0uro_caza011untering human worlds and the Federal service’s war with the Dirdir, but topics like that did not interest Vance. The abrupt departures and conclusions of both series is Vance closing the door once there is nothing of interest to write about.

Vance, a tourist in real life, was also the author as tourist, laying out the fanciful wonders and baroque irritations of strange places and turning away when it was time to go home and there was nothing more to say.

Adam Reith and Kirth Gersen are tourists with incredible skills who are vehicles for exploring strange imaginary worlds. When the tour ends, the air leaves the balloon and the story ends. Reith and Gersen are driven by the plot on a quest that will destroy the purpose of their journey. Their journey is their destination and their destination ends them.

Their mission is the self-destruction of the animating force that gives them purpose and meaning.

Jack Vance’s Darsh and Frank Herbert’s Fremen

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Jack Vance wrote The Face, the fourth novel in the Demon Princes series after his friend Frank Herbert wrote Dune.

The Face has Jack Vance’s own take on the desert people who adapt to the environment, but Vance’s Darsh with their female mustaches, aggressive manners, overt thievery, inedible food and horrifying mating customs are so much more colorful and real than the Fremen.

Dune’s Fremen are there to be noble warriors. The desert has boiled them down into survival mechanisms with a hidden cause. The Demon Princes’ Darsh were made aggressive and obnoxious by the desert. They are intolerant of authority and can’t work together. Their macho attitude expresses itself as Plomash, they duel and conspire against each other, their marriages are based on mutual hatred and they dwell under giant metal umbrellas that rain water that make their homesteads more memorable than those of the Fremen.

Like the Fremen, the Darsh have something valuable that everyone wants and it’s tempting to see the Darsh as a more realistic take by Vance on his friend’s most famous creation.

When Vance wrote The Face in 1979, Herbert had turned Dune into a huge franchise. Children of Dune had become the first Science Fiction bestseller 1976 and its sequel was eagerly awaited. Dune had transcended its original characters and become a story of the environment. And The Face is also about the environment, but the environment doesn’t make its men and women noble, but ignoble.

The Darsh, a wacky mixture of Gypsies, Arabs, Eastern and Southern Europeans, feel much more real than the Fremen because of their glaring flaws and their zest for life. They may be horrible people, but like so many of Vance’s fictional characters and cultures, their horrible enthusiasms make them come alive.

Vance’s description of Darsh gastronomy alone brings more life to a culture than all of Dune does for the Fremen.

Their food is seasoned with vile condiments, so that they may better savor cool pure water; they drink offensive teas and beers if only to exemplify this typical perversity, which they value for its own sake.

The traveler must adjust himself to a Darsh meal as he might a natural catastrophe. It avails nothing to pretend relish; the Darsh themselves know that their food is repulsive, and apparently derive a perverse pride in their ability to consume it regularly.

 

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