Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Revenge Spectacular - John Wick and The Demon Princes, by Jack Vance

So what does a set of old SF works have to do with a slick modern action movie?  Almost nothing!  But they both deal with some badass out to kill a bunch of guys, and that’s enough thematic similarity for me to join them at the hip for a review.

First up is John Wick, an outlandishly entertaining film directed by Keanu Reeves’ former stuntman from the Matrix films, based around a screenplay that doesn’t take itself seriously, but is acted very seriously, to great effect.  Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a former hit man whose wife has just died, leaving him with an empty heart and a cute puppy.  It’s super cute, ya’ll.  It would be a shame if something happened to it.  I mean, really terrible.  Like if Wick ran into some young Russian mafia guys who wanted to buy his cool ’69 Mustang and he didn’t want to sell it, and then they followed him home and kicked his ass, took the car and killed the puppy.  (The chief Russian kid is played by Alfie Allen, who is Theon on “Game of Thrones” on HBO, and while a good actor is cursed with a face that is going to have him continue playing this role for the next twenty years.)

If that happened, then the only thing to do would be for him to dig out his stash of guns, put on a black suit and tie, and go out murdering.  It’s only logical.

Actually it turns out that Wick used to work for Theon Greyjoy’s dad Viggo (Michael Nyqvist, another good actor, and while European is no more Russian than Alfie Allen or myself for that matter).  Viggo takes the reasonable for an action movie tactic of simply calling up Wick on the phone to see if maybe they can resolve this whole situation without resorting to extreme measures.  Wick says no, or rather he doesn’t say anything at all.  Viggo then sends a bunch of guys to Wick’s house to kill him, which goes about like you’d expect, namely a crazy gun battle.

Most of the fight scenes in this movie – and there are many – revolve around various sorts of gunplay, but Keanu pulls a little bit of kung fu every now and again, usually grappling moves followed by execution-style shots to the head.  Some of those were clearly CG, and every now and again you’ll spot some guys just sort of hanging around to get shot, but on the whole this is some really good action.  They keep everything clear and don’t use a bunch of jump cuts or shaky cam; you can always tell who is where.

I’m actually flabbergasted by how effective this movie is.  The plot is about as thin as you can possibly get and still be coherent, and it takes place in a bizarre world filled entirely with elite hit men, service providers for them, henchmen, and some random partygoing civilians.  The contract killers have their own currency, their own social clubs, some sort of bizarre code of honor, and they all seem to know each other from way back.  Somewhat surprisingly, everyone seems to be cool with Wick’s whole revenge agenda, or at least they understand that it’s just how he gets.  It’s surprisingly nuanced that way.

In the same vein, they actually manage to get more depth to these characters than they have any right to deserve.  It’s relatively clear that Wick is actually pissed about the dog, but that he was more pissed about his wife dying and this is really something of an excuse to get himself up and out of the house.  The spoiled Russian kid is also good; he spends his time in hot tubs with sexy women and talks shit about Wick to his dad’s men.  When they give him a verbal thrashing as a result he takes it out on his friend, who gets this hangdog expression like I can’t believe you’re doing this to me, man.  Viggo clearly thinks his son is a total fuckup but goes up against this unstoppable killer anyway just because it’s his kid, after all.

They manage to throw in all the scenes you’d expect to find in a movie like this one, like the “honor among thieves” scene, and the part where someone demands that they put down the guns and fight like gentlemen, and so on.  That they pay all homage to every cliché without actually falling down into the trap is all the more impressive.

So this is a great movie for action movie fans, probably the best I’ve seen all year and one of the better ones that I can recall in some time.  It’s exactly what it looks like, but does that super well, so this isn’t to be missed if brainless action movies are your thing.

Anyway, on to The Demon Princes.  For whatever reason, I have just never read any Jack Vance, although people talk him up as one of the all-time SF greats, and his ideas have heavily influenced D&D, among other things.  In fact that’s how I came to read this one, since I was rereading some volumes of Order of the Stick in preparation for the fifth volume release in December, and at one point one of the characters mentions Vance.  I ought to read some of that, says I, and next library trip here we are.

People say good things about The Dying Earth, but this one was checked in and seemed more accessible, so I decided to go with it.  This is actually a compilation of five novels written by Vance between 1964 and 1981, with the first two appearing in 1964 and the third in 1967, followed by a twelve year hiatus, then the final two in 1979 and 1981.  With the long gap there was obviously a chance for Vance’s narrative voice to change somewhat, and the anthologies recognize this by compiling the first three into Volume I and the last two into Volume II.

The protagonist of these works is one Kirth Gersen, introduced as he is walking into a bar on a backwater planet.  In his pocket is a piece of paper with five names on it:  Attel Malagate, Kokor Hekkus, Viole Falushe, Lens Larque, and Howard Alan Treesong.  These five are the titular Demon Princes, slavers and galactic-wide criminals who sacked Gersen’s homeworld of Mount Pleasant.  Gersen and his grandfather escaped the carnage, and the grandfather then shaped him into an instrument of revenge.  He’s a master of armed and unarmed combat, a starship astrogator, and an adept at exotic poisons.

In a modern SF work these various traits would probably be explained via flashback over many pages, but these are about 200 pages long each and there’s some story to get into, so in this case Gersen basically just states that he’s been trained in hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting, and knows a lot about poisoning people.  The Golden Age authors didn’t waste words on this stuff.

Reading these sorts of works can be polarizing.  You basically have to take this sort of genre work with a big grain of salt at this point, since the future has definitely left the past behind.  This is another one of those worlds where anybody can take an interstellar trip on a lark, but otherwise technology is still stuck in the ‘60s.  They still use slide rules to calculate their hyperspace routes, and although they’ve got video phones they have to be at a land line to do so.  Cash is still heavily used throughout the galaxy, and although anyone can have cosmetic surgery to alter their features or skin tone, medical treatment does not appear all that much more advanced than you would expect to find decades ago.  And they’ve still got magazines and newspapers in the future.  One neat touch is something that works sort of like Wikipedia where people can contribute their personal knowledge to a big database, but it works through calling a clerk and using a Telex arrangement.

The villains are a reprehensible lot, and don’t bother to deny their complicity in the events.  None of them have made any attempt to reform, and in fact are continuing to commit various heinous acts up to the present of the novel.  With five villains and five books, the formula is reasonably clear – one book, one villain.  The five don’t actually work together in the normal sense; the Mount Pleasant raid was sort of a proof of concept or demarcation of authority, and they don’t hang out.  It’s unclear whether they’re aware that they’re being pursued, or if they even know they’re being picked off, especially since they heavily use false identities and shell companies to disguise themselves when they’re anywhere with something resembling law and order.  In the social media age, it’s pretty hard to believe that such notorious desperadoes could manage to hide their identities so completely or that known information about them (such as their real names) would not be generally disseminated.  Gersen is also able to kill the Demon Princes and their henchmen without anticipating any sort of official or legal troubles for doing so.

I really don’t know if I can give this an enthusiastic recommendation.  The characters are flat, the dialogue is pretty stilted, and the setting isn’t believable at all.  The writing itself is okay, but more workmanlike than anything, although it does seem to have notably improved in the last two volumes.  Perhaps that’s just because it’s written in a more modern, less stilted style.  As an introduction to Vance this doesn’t persuade me that his reputation is deserved, though.

There’s one more element about these books that I feel is worth a mention in particular, and that’s the treatment of women.  This sort of period SF was not a good place for depiction of women; they were typically absent, and where present limited to support roles and housework.  Here it ends up being a little more insidious than that.  In the first book, Gersen asks out a nice young lady on a date, but she ends up being captured by one of Malagate’s henchmen, who is a serial rapist.  In the second book, the beautiful Alusz Iphigenia is desired by Hekkus, and Gersen ends up buying her as a slave, then saving her from another sexual assault, and gets frustrated when she doesn’t immediately want to have sex with him.  In the third book we find out that Falushe started his criminal career in high school by kidnapping 28 members of the girls’ choir and selling them into slavery, later kidnapping another girl and forcing her to give birth to her own clones to find one that would love him.  In the fourth book Gersen saves another girl from rape, while leaving her friends to the same fate; and in the fifth, Treesong forces yet another girl to throw herself at Gersen with the threat that he’ll kill her father if she doesn’t.

These women are generally treated as plot devices without agency, and considering all the bad things that happen to them this is doubly unfortunate.  I would like to give a shout out to Alusz Iphigenia, though, the only female character to appear in more than one novel (the second and third).  By the third novel, Gersen has managed to cheat Kokor Hekkus out of a staggering amount of money, enough that he is able to buy whole corporations outright and conceal himself by setting up shell companies and the like.  Alusz sensibly points out that he can use all this money to hire investigators and assassins to complete his program of revenge, which will both increase his chances of success and decrease his own personal risk.  This is actually a good idea, but Gersen refuses to modify his plans.  So she tells him good luck, but I’m out of here.  Man, I wish she had more to do in these books.

If you’re a genre aficionado, then The Demon Princes is probably a worthwhile read if your to-read stack is low, although I didn’t find the books especially compelling.  If you were to read just one, I’d say the fourth is the best.  Lens Larque’s plan to get some revenge of his own against some snooty rich people is actually pretty funny, and it contains some of the best action of the whole series.  I also admire his grammar; when Gersen finally confronts him and says he is there to kill Larque (literally, he says “I am here to kill you”), Larque responds by saying “We shall see who kills whom.”  But there’s a book five, right?  I think we know who kills whom here.