Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Retro Review: Killer (1985) by David Drake & Karl Edward Wagner

Introduction:  When David Drake (author of the "Hammer's Slammers" interstellar mercenary series) and Karl Edward Wagner (author of the "Kane" fantasy series about the eponymous cursed warrior-wizard) get together, you know they're not going to write a story about happy little Smurfs.  Killer is no disappointment in this regard.

Synopsis:  In the late 1st century AD Roman Empire, during the reign of Domitian (AD 81-96), Vonones, an Armenian merchant and Lycon, a tough beast-catcher with both military and gladitorial experience, are friends and business associates in the trade of capturing wild animals to feed the Roman arenas.  Vonones has purchased a most unusual animal -- a "sauropithecus" or "lizard-ape," which was found near an African mountain after a great bolt of lightning from a clear sky struck the rocks.

The sauropithecus is a very strange beast indeed -- slightly smaller than a man, shaped vaguely like a a tailed ape, with blue scaly skin and long razor-sharp claws.  It is hideously strong, fast, tough and smart;  far more deadly than any creature the pair have ever encountered.  When the sauropithecus escapes in the countryside outside of Rome and rampages through a private Imperial estate, Vonones and Lycon are commanded by Emperor Domitian himself to recapture it, or be put to death in the Arena themselves.

But its recapture seems no easy matter, because the sauropithecus is like no other beast of Earth.  For the very good reason that it is no beast of Earth -- it is a semi-sapient creature from another world.


Beyond the Earth, the stars are ruled by the Cora, whose superior knowledge and might have imposed peace across a wide expanse of space.  RyRelee, one of a race subject to the Cora, serves the Cora as a secret agent, intervening for them on planets where -- with advanced technology -- he can pass as an inhabitant.

In the interstellar empire, there is a secret and illegal trade in beasts which fight for the amusement of the masses.  Smuggling ships transport the animals.  One such smuggler, pursed by the Cora, attempted to evade pursuit by landing on Earth, and instead wound up crashing into a mountain.  The ship was mostly destroyed, but unfortunately its cargo survived.  Its cargo was one of the deadliest of all fighting-beasts -- a phile.

The phile are the top predators of the extremely-hostile planet Zuyle, a world of high gravity and geological and meteorological instability, on which only the toughest life-forms can hope to survive.  They are so cunning, dangerous and fast-breeding that philes -- getting loose even on high-tech worlds -- have been known to consume entire planetary civilizations.  Past a certain point, the only way to deal with a phile infestation is to bombard the planet into lifelessness.

The Cora command RyRelee to destroy the phile.  But beyond that, they want him to determine if the phile was male or female.  For a female phile can contain hundreds of fertilized eggs which she may retain or deposit at her will, and thus a single female phile, uncontained, could easily infest a world -- especially one held by primitive, pre-industrial civilizations, such as is the case on Earth.

However, RyRelee is playing his own game.  He knows full well that the phile is female, because he was part of the conspiracy to smuggle in the phile.  It was no accident that the smuggling ship came to a the Earth -- RyRelee's intent is to loose the female phile on Earth and let it infest Earth's ecosystem, so that Earth can be used as a secret breeding colony from which his syndicate can obtain as many philes as they like for the games.

As for the fate of Earth's humans, he cares not a whit.  They are merely barbarians, beneath his consideration as a member of a race that travels the stars.


So there begins a lethal four-cornered game.  Lycon and Vonones must capture the phile or die in the Arena, but as the phile strikes against what Lycon loves, the hunt becomes very personal, and Lycon resolves to kill the creature.  Emperor Domitian -- not realizing the danger to himself and his planet -- wants the phile captured so that it may amuse him in the arena.   RyRelee, disguised in a human-formed exoskeleton as "N'Sumu," an African warrior-priest, wants to ensure the infestation of the Earth while pretending to aid Domitian, Lycon and Vonones.  And the phile -- the phile just wants to live, and kill -- and breed.

Analysis:  David Drake is an expert Classicist with a real love of Roman history, while being fully aware of just how bloody and callous was the Empire.  This really shows in his story.  The setting of early-Imperial Rome is described in all its squalid grandeur, as it would be perceived by two semi-outsiders (both Lycon and Vonones are non-Romans who have been grudgingly accepted into the rights of citizenship because they are extremely competent foreigners).

Rarely for a Drake collaboration, the darker elements of the story are probably not Drake's own doing but those of Karl Edward Wagner.  As seen in the Kane novels, Wagner has a dark, pessimistic -- almost nihilistic view of life which has probably limited his popularity as an author, while Drake ususally tries to have at least some silver lining in his tales.  This probably limited Wagner's popularity as an author.

There are two Significant Names hidden in here.  "Lycon" -- the name of the protagonist -- means "Wolf One," which is appropriate as Lycon is a cunning, deadly fighter who is loyal to those he loves and utterly-lethal to any who incur his hatred, or in some cases merely get in his way. 

"Phile" -- the name of the alien species -- is a double pun.  It's a varient of "love," which seems fairly ironic given the extremely murderous nature of the sauropithecus, but when you consider that the ultimate threat the beast poses is to breed and displace Man as Earth's top predator, it's completely appropriate.

A far greater irony lies in the characters' perceptions of each other's cultures and natures.  Domitian despises Lycon and Vonones as non-Romans (and as a tyrant, has little respect even  for Romans); RyRelee is able to get the Emperor's full cooperation only because they apparently have the same objective.  Domitian only sees people as tools, useful or useless, to be employed or cast down at his whim.  He thinks the sauropithecus can be a useful tool to entertain himself and the people at the Games, without ever suspecting that he is being used by RyRelee.

Lycon and Vonones correctly distrust and fear Domitian, obeying him primarily because of this fear.  They are moral towards those they care for, but they don't really care about the many innocents the sauropithecus slays:  Lycon in particular simply accepts that random violent death is part of life (and he's done some terrible things himself, not so much out of cruelty as out of convenience).  While he'd make a better buddy than Domitian, in his own way Lycon is just as limited by his callous culture.  Lycon also fears and distrusts "N'Sumu" -- he doesn't know why at first, but he somehow senses that the wizard's alien-ness goes beyond merely being an African barbarian.

And Lycon, more than any of the other human characters, comes to understand the nature of the phile.  He can tell from the beginning that it's a killer; and as he hunts it, repeatedly almost killing it and repeatedly almost being killed by it, he comes to realize that it is intelligent, almost as smart as and more cunning than most men.  He hates and respects the phile at the same time, which is more than any other character in the novel is able to do.  This is, of course, because Lycon is a killer himself, a human analogue of the phile.

RyRelee sees all of the humans as mere barbarians, dangerous principally because he is outnumbered and armed only with those devices which could be concealed in his exoskeletal human-suit.  Though more knowledgable than any other major character in the book, he is perhaps both the least perceptive -- for instance, he totally fails to grasp the obvious ironic truth that he is merely a higher-tech counterpart of Lycon and Vonones -- being engaged in almost exactly the same business (indeed, since he isn't Cora, he's a semi-outsider engaged in that business, just like Lycon and Vonones).  And despite knowing in detail the capabilities of the phile, he does not really comprehend its intelligence or nature save in the most detached intellectual sense.  He is a would-be mass-murderer, but not a natural killer.

He is also -- with one exception -- the least moral major character, because he comes from a higher civilization but is callously willing to annihilate all Mankind just to gain wealth.  He wants to do to the Earth exactly what the arena trade is doing to the cultures and ecosystems around the Empire, with the significant difference that he knows what he is doing, and just doesn't care.  He is in his own sophisticated way, every bit as callous as the Romans.

RyRelee richly deserves his extremely-humiliating fate.

Domitian has the smallest in-scene part of any of the major characters, even though his lusts and commands are ultimately the main threat to Lycon and Vonones outside of the phile itself.  He is the most powerful main character in his social setting, but he is the least intelligent, perceptive and moral of the characters.  He acts essentially out of sheer sadism -- he thinks the phile would be useful to the Arena and hence useful to keeping him in power, but he does not really need the phile (and knows he doesn't), and he cares not a whit for the many people it kills save insofar as they are his property (as was the case on the Imperial estates).  He himself tortures and kills his own servants just because he finds it amusing.

He is thus less moral than the phile.  And unlike the phile, he is fully-sapient -- he can reason morally and philosophically.  He just chooses not to do so.  Domitian feels superior to every other character in the book, but in truth he is the most despicable.

The phile herself is the final main character.  It's difficult to like a creature shaped by both evolution and sapiently-directed selective breeding to be a killing machine, especially when that creature is killing one's own kind, including some of the most sympathetic characters in the story.  But then she was so shaped:  she was crafted both by Nature and Mind to be a killer, and from her point of view she's simply trying to ensure her own survival and that of her species.  She's been cast into an utterly-alien world inhabited solely by her enemies, and given what she is it's difficult to see what other choice she had.

There is a strong mirroring between the phile and Lycon.  They each recognize the other for what it is:  the phile even explicitly thinks that Lycon though human is in some ways more like herself than his fellow men.  Most men are prey, but Lycon is a predator, and the phile knows that if she kills him it will not be an act of predation, but rather of competition for the same role.

It is hard to love the phile, but it is also hard to love Lycon, and for the same reason ...

Mice do not love a cat.

Conclusion:  This is an excellent and powerful novel, which very effectively combines Drake's and Wagner's strengths.  I won't say that this book has been "neglected" -- it's been reprinted at least once, and I think is currently available from Baen Books -- but it may be less well-known than much of Drake's other work.  It's well worth reading.

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