OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
BARBARIANS OF THE BEYOND: A novel set in Jack Vance’s DEMON PRINCES universe
– by Matthew Hughes
Publisher: Spatterlight, Amstelveen, 2021
Cover design by Tiziano Cremonini
“Twenty years ago, five master criminals known as the Demon Princes raided Mount Pleasant to enslave thousands of inhabitants in the lawless Beyond. Now Morwen Sabine, a daughter of captives, has escaped her cruel master and returns to Mount Pleasant to recover the hidden treasure she hopes will buy her parents’ freedom.
But Mount Pleasant has changed. Morwen must cope with mystic cultists, murderous drug-smugglers, undercover “weasels” of the Interplanetary Police Coordinating Company, and the henchmen of the vicious pirate lord who owns her parents and wants Morwen returned. So he can kill her slowly…”
First off, this is delightfully old-fashioned space opera. Advanced technology exists, to be sure. Spaceships and such. The IPPC headquarters, responsible for law and order across the galaxy, features at least a dozen people staring at computer screens. But the bulk of their information is stored in file folders and cardboard binders. Restaurants and hotels, not to mention pubs, are less modern than current equivalents. There’s a general ambience of early 20th century film noir shading into 19th century western habits. No hint of futurism. Or to put it another way, no modern futurism. This is more like something written in the 1930s. Genuine space opera.
Yet there are intriguing modern touches, which is to say, an extrapolation from current trends which a writer in the 1930s would probably not have thought of. For instance, war is obsolete. It doesn’t happen. Simply because the technology is too expensive. Military spacecraft, and the weapons they carry, are strictly museum pieces. No one can afford to build them, or maintain them in large numbers. Now they’re merely tourist attractions.
This is perfectly logical. Used to be, say during WWII, that a given fighter or bomber would be manufactured in the thousands. Modern fighters are so complicated and expensive not even the superpowers can afford more than a couple of hundred. And the cost of technology keeps rising. It’s already taken for granted that within 10 or 20 years there won’t be any manned fighters, just smaller and cheaper drones operated through a combination of remote control and A.I. But, eventually, even they will be too expensive. So the concept of a galaxy-wide civilization without military forces is entirely feasible.
So, is the future a utopian paradise? Of course not! Humanity remains as human as always, and the possibilities for shenanigans are as fertile as ever. Being a dictator is still a thing, but rather boring. So what if you maintain a police force that controls the population? Where’s the point in that? Where’s the challenge? Might as well be a CEO of a shoe company. Dull administrative challenges. Nothing more.
The real excitement (and the real competition) lies in organized crime. That’s where the entrepreneurs go, the talented, the innovative, the imaginative, anyone with ambition. You don’t need a space fleet to dominate a group of worlds. Traditional Al Capone business practices will do nicely, some judicious bribery, giving the public what they want, focused thuggery, being smarter or at least luckier than the competition … yeah, that’s the ticket. And above all, ruthlessness.
Morwen grew up a slave belonging to a particularly sadistic crime boss, Hacheem Belloch by name, but her skill as a cook spared her the worst. She grew up resigned to being and behaving like a slave, a habit that kicks in unexpectedly and annoyingly from time to time, yet a part of her is always watchful and opportunistic, which are good survival traits. Eventually she manages to escape offworld, change her identity, and strive to earn enough to buy her parents out of slavery. Unfortunately her former owner makes it a practice of punishing slaves (and former slaves) who disobey. Raising money is the easy part. Convincing Hacheem to agree to a standard manumission deal is impossible. How to do it? What could tempt him? This is what she needs to find out.
Returning to her parents home world offers hope. There’s something her parents hid that might be sufficient to tempt her owner. But maybe not. What then?
Where the book really shines is the unraveling of layers of paranoia. Her own, and everyone else’s. The inhabitants of Mount Pleasant fear strangers, and their leader. He fears them, and strangers, offworld competition, and the agents of the IPPC. Morwen fears everybody, onworld and offworld. After all, Hacheem Belloch will pay for information as to her whereabouts, probably not with any good outcome for her in mind. Plus, as a stranger, everyone assumes she’s either a spy or an agent. What they decide determines whether she lives or dies. There’s really no place to hide. Morwen faces her fears every moment of every day. It’s a tough life.
Slowly, bit by bit, she establishes necessary relationships with her new neighbours. Getting to know her employers, for instance, and assuaging the suspicions of the local police. One might even hope she’s making friends. But can they truly be trusted? And what about her assumed enemies? Are they people she should shun? Or are they potential protectors and allies? To whom should she turn? Whom can she trust?
I’ll just say this book is full of surprises. All is definitely not what it seems at first glance. The clarity of writing and fascination of unfolding detail is as equally addictive as the writings of Jack Vance. One hates to stop reading because one desperately wants to know what’s going to happen next, and also what Morwen is going to find out next. Revelation follows revelation as surely as one event follows another. This makes for a hypnotically fascinating book. The more one reads the more one wants to read. But overlaying the entire book is a miasma of paranoia worthy of Philip K. Dick. Barbarians of the Beyond comes across as a joint effort by Jack Vance and Philp K. Dick, which makes it quite a treat. I love it.
Is there a central theme? Absolutely. Revenge. Morwen doesn’t realise it at first, but what she truly wants, oncer her parents are free, is revenge against Hacheem. He wants revenge against her. So do several others, never mind for unjustifiable reasons. There’s no accounting for human nature. And all the powers that be in the local part of the galaxy can be said to be seeking revenge, or at least dominance over each other. Given that there are no vast space armadas, this competition with immense potential for violence is pretty much a personal matter, a question of ambitious crime bosses with bands of thugs, plus security forces with limited budgets. Who knew a galaxy-wide struggle could be such a small scale affair? Yet given the nature of things, perfectly natural and credible. It all makes sense.
Fortunately for Morwen, despite her fears and doubts, she is one tough cookie, flexible, adaptable, and surprisingly ruthless and dangerous when necessary. Above all, she never gives up. Betray her at your peril.
Which is another way of saying that she is a complicated yet realistic character, an admirable character, though not a saint. The other characters are believable and realistic, but not detailed in depth as much as Morwen. The story is told entirely from her point of view. There is nothing objective about the description of the other characters. They are seen entirely through her eyes. Their characters change as her perception of them changes. You experience what she experiences. This is one of the strengths of the novel.
I should address the issue of gender portrayal. After all, the protagonist is a twenty-year-old woman. The author is an oldish white male. This reader is definitely an old white male. Is there any credibility to Morwen’s character?
Well, as an old white male with 70 years experience relating to women, I say yes. Without a doubt. Granted, there’s no Harlequin romance mushiness, no mooning about in cliché fashion. This is not surprising. She’s a hunted woman on a desperate personal mission to save her parents. She spent her first 20 years as a slave under a sadistic pervert. Left unsaid is what she undoubtedly experienced. Sex as such probably has little attraction for her. There are men who attract her, and some of them are attracted to her. But she’s far too cynical to automatically fall into someone’s arms merely because they are willing. She demands authenticity in a relationship, and it’s something that doesn’t even bear thinking about until she has accomplished her personal goal of rescuing her parents. She keeps her priorities straight. I find this thoroughly credible, and quite refreshing. Makes her character stand out from cliché characters.
Even so, there are moments which tug at her heartstrings. Sometimes she casts them aside as a moment of weakness. Sometimes she casts them aside as irrelevant till her situation improves. She simply doesn’t have time to indulge in personal feelings. Besides, she spent most of her life absolutely dominated by Hacheem’s whims. She is still struggling to be fully in control of her own “whims,” feelings, and emotions, yet suspects therein lies fatal weakness. To succeed, she must be decisive, firm, and above all, incapable of making wrong decisions. In a way, her biggest battle is within herself. She is obsessed with the responsibility she feels for her parent’s fate. Good for her, I say.
Morwen is, at times, weak and vulnerable, but generally is determined to be the exact opposite, no matter what it takes. This makes for an utterly fascinating character. Can’t help but root for her.
Some women I know have had hard, difficult times in their lives. I see echoes of their strengths and determination in Morwen’s character. Thus I find it perfectly easy to accept her as a legitimate female character.
I would even go so far as to suggest she makes a perfectly suitable role model for young female readers (apart from her method of interrogating bad guys, perhaps). There’s nothing apologetic or subservient in her character. She knows what it is to think like a slave. She has zero interest in being anybody’s slave ever again. Damn good role model, it seems to me.
The main thing is this novel is a lot of fun to read. If you enjoy the early Philip K. Dick, or the writings of Jack Vance throughout his career, you’ll really enjoy this book. Old style, but awash in modern subtleties and sensibilities. A real pleasure to read, every page of it.
Check it out at: < Barbarians of the Beyond >
Note: Currently available paperback only. E-book will be available soon.
Graeme, this is an *excellent* review. Sounds like Matthew has succeeded in writing an excellent Jack Vance book as well… his fantasy writings always remnded me of Vance anyway. So he can do the SF side too! I look forward to reading this. Congratulations to Matthew, and to you for such a good review!