Jen Banbury: Like a Hole in the Head

I’m not a big fan of movies that rely on “twist” endings. I think the value of surprise as an artistic technique is easily overrated. If it’s not a good movie if you know the ending, it’s just not a good movie, period.

But on the other hand, it can be really rewarding to see a film with no preconceptions at all. Surprises can be fun (even if they’re not sufficient to redeem a bad flick). I treasure some of the film experiences I’ve had where I knew nothing about the movie I was about to see. (I used to belong to a preview club that screened films that hadn’t yet secured distribution deals; I miss it.) I’m glad I went through the effort necessary to see Blair Witch Project and Memento without much foreknowledge.

Some years ago I read Like a Hole in the Head, Jen Banbury’s first (and, sadly, still only) novel. Like a Hole in the Head starts in a very conventional light comic mystery mode, and abruptly turns into a completely different sort of book. Knowing its genre could reduce some of the joy of a first reading, even if it wouldn’t exactly constitute a spoiler. And — this is the tricky part, and the reason I never tried to review the novel — even knowing in advance that there will be a shift in narrative tone and focus could lessen its impact.

The film Incident at Loch Ness left me with a similar feeling. It reminded me powerfully of a wonderful TV miniseries that I don’t think I should name. If you think you agree with me about makes for a good movie, I urge you to just see it without reading another word about it. It’s directed by Zak Penn (perhaps best known as the screenwriter of X-men 2) and features a scene in which Werner Herzog shops for razor blades. Agh, I’ve said too much already.

I will succumb to the temptation to mention that the DVD commentary track is entirely worthwhile, and then I will shut up.

Needs More Demons? Nope.

Jack Vance: The Killing Machine

It’s apparently de rigueur 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?”

This book is available from me through Bookmooch, if you’re interested.

Needs More Demons? Has a “Demon Prince,” but needs fewer details of financial transactions.

(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…