Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Doom of the Demon Princes

The following is speculation on the series The Demon Princes, which Jack Vance finished writing in 1981. I have, thus far, completed three out of the five books in the series; my speculation will be based on that, but will endeavor to avoid 'spoilers' for those who have not read the series. (I believe this can be accomplished.)


The year is roughly 3500 AD, though the Gregorian calendar is no longer in use. Humanity has expanded into the stars; civilization spreads over hundreds of worlds across a hundred star-systems. The reasons for war are undone; living-space and resources are vast and plentiful, and it is easier for a planet that has exhausted its own resources to find and exploit an uncolonized world than to attack their neighbors. There is conflict, tyranny, greed; but only on a smaller scale, a human scale, created by the weaknesses of men, not the necessities of nations. This is life within civilization.

But humanity does not live within civilization alone. Beyond the bounds of the civilized worlds, the so-called Oikumene*, there stretches a vast, sparsely-populated frontier: the Beyond. Lawlessness runs rampant there: slavery, kidnapping, murder, and any of a hundred other crimes accept no punishment. Most of the crimes of the Beyonders are directed towards each-other; but some find their way back to the civilized worlds, to raid and plunder inhabited planets. This is a matter of some concern.

There are three great powers in known space. The first is the Institute: a queer and secretive academic institution, with a twofold purpose. Their members seek knowledge for themselves, and seek to keep knowledge from the rest of humanity. Their mindset is Luddite: if they had their way, interstellar travel would be abolished, and mankind would revert to a utopian, agrarian state. This has not yet occurred.

The second power is the IPCC, a sort of interstellar police force acting outside the control of any government. They have a tremendous hatred for the Beyond, and would destroy it if they could, placing it and all of its inhabitants within the bounds of civilized space: that is, within the IPCC's control. But they have not the power to do so; their attempts to extend into the Beyond have resulted in the formation of tremendously strong reactionary forces, the so-called 'Deweaseling Corps', whose viligance make any IPCC agent's jaunt into the Beyond virtually a suicide mission. So their ambitions, too, remain unfufilled.

The third power - or, perhaps, powers - are the Demon Princes. Five men, some of whom have lived for centuries, and who have divided the Beyond into pieces, each Demon Prince controlling one. Their power and wealth is vast; their evil scaled to match. (And there is no better word than evil for the atrocities the Demon Princes commit.) They share no great love for one-another, but maintain a truce of sort: while they remain in power, no organized venture from civilized space can hope to tame the Beyond.

But they will not remain in power.

Some years ago, the Demon Princes united - remarkably! - for a raid on a small colony world. They enslaved the inhabitants, slaughtered any who would not obey, and stole the rest away into the stars. This might reasonably be expected to provoke some degree of ire from the survivors; but, being enslaved, this mattered little.

Except that at least one person - Kirth Gensen - escaped the Demon Princes. He fled into the hills when the great ships fell from the sky; watched, just a boy, as everyone he had ever known were taken into slavery or killed. Time passed; he trained, becoming expert in the arts of melee combat, subterfuge, and poison, all the while searching for the identities of those who had so terribly wronged him. He became a self-described monomaniac, with the sole purpose in life of killing the Demon Princes. One man - clever, skilled, and resourceful, but still terribly alone - against the leaders of the most powerful criminal organizations in all of human space.

Remarkably, he is succeeding.

One after another - with terrible difficulty, over the span of at least a year's time since he concluded his training and discovered the location of the first - Kirth Gensen has killed three of the five Demon Princes. They were secretive, paranoid men; their organizations had no strong chain of command, and their closest associates often died in the process of Gensen's assassinations. In all likelihood, their holdings are falling into chaos; a vast power vacuum is being created. Whoever seizes it will determine the fate of mankind.

The surviving Demon Princes are the obvious candidates to take up the reins of their former peers' holdings. They are creatures of the Beyond, and have no compunctions against theft; so why would they not take all they could get? Because they are creatures of deceit - and they know that the other Demon Princes were, as well. What if the deaths were feigned; a trick, to get the other Demon Princes to overextend themselves, with lethal consequences? This becomes less likely with each succeeding death - the extent of the cooperation and conspiracy required would be phenomenal - but the Demon Princes do not know that Kirth Gensen is seeking their lives. They have no idea why anyone would attempt to hunt down the Demon Princes, one-by-one - well, why they would have motivation, skill, and courage enough to try the feat - and in the absence of such, all becomes uncertain. They will move slowly; and open up opportunity. (For by the time they would act, it is very likely that Kirth Gensen will have killed them.)

Next is the Institute. They are perhaps the greatest power of all, posessessed of untold knowledge, and utterly unified: were they to seize the wealth of the deceased Demon Princes, it could prove the lever they need to seize final control over the fate of mankind, enforcing their own strange societal-shaping ideas. But they are, fundamentally, a reactionary organization. Academic; bureaucratic; slow. By the time they come to any decision, the matter will be over and done. If they are to achieve their aims - which they may yet - it will be through the slower means through which they have proceeded so far.

So the IPCC is the last great organization which might potentially act on the matter; and their involvement is the most likely of all. They are a large organization, but not nearly so cumbersome in movement as the Institute; they have been looking for an opportunity like this for generations. It is not Kirth Gensen's intent to give the IPCC control over known space, to destroy the Beyond; but by killing the Demon Princes, he may indeed have done just that. Human expansion will slow to a crawl, governed by the IPCC, now ruler of all mankind; the many institutions of the Beyond, alternately evil and simply free, will come to an end. The terrible, magnificent evils of the Demon Princes will give way to the mundane, everyday evil of any tyranny; all across the stars. In all likelihood, this will be the future of mankind, thanks to the actions of Kirth Gensen.

Unless - perhaps - Gensen does something more. For in the process of his attacks upon the Demon Princes, he has acquired a tremendous amount of wealth - the result of one specific event, which I will not go into further detail here. Ten billion SVU**; the wealth of worlds. Kirth Gensen invested it in various ways, leaving himself with a 'meagre' million SVU per day for a stipiend; but if he wished to, he would have the power to take up the power the Demon Princes no longer hold. And after all - he is the person most familiar with their organizations, now that they are dead; he is the only one who can be truly certain of their deaths. Kirth Gensen is not a man of ambition; he is not a leader of men, by nature. But - when and if he succeeds in killing the remaining Demon Princes (as seems increasingly likely) - he will be in need of a new purpose. And what better purpose than to become a power over all the worlds of the Beyond; a shaper of the fate of mankind?

It's a thought.

*an abbreviation, for something along the lines of 'Ordered Interstellar Community'.
**'Standard Value Units'. Space money.

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