Tenth Victim Mass Market Paperback – Jan 1 1981
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About the Author
Robert Sheckley (1928-2005) was a Hugo and Nebula-nominated American SF author.
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It is also part of a loose trilogy of books exploring the effects of popularizing/accepting the media fascination with violence. The other two are Hunter/Victim and Victim Prime.
The three books together tell the story of how a society embraces controlled violence as the solution to uncontrolled violence and its effects on people. The books run in reverse chronological order and span 100 years or so, starting with ultimate effect and working back to cause.
The short story is infinitely better, but Sheckley was a true master of the short story. His novels work best when they stay absurd; Tenth Victim moves back and forth on adburdism and doesn't rate as one of his best. It is one of his most visibly sociopolitical, however, and that is another of his strengths.
The book concerns a protagonist who is a succesful Hunter in a grand world-wide game designed to aliminate wars. Rather than constrain the urge to kill inherent in men (human males), men may sign up to alternately play Hunters and Victims. A Hunter is assigned a Victim and a two-week period in which to kill them; the Victim is simply told in which two-week period someone will be legally hunting them. The Victim may employ any deadly force or clever traps necessary to defend themselves.
After a successful hunt, the Hunter takes a turn as Victim.
Of course, this game becomes the subject of worldwide obsession. Well-known Hunters are reviewed and interviewed, their sense of style is copied, and the very best--those who survive to Hunt for the 10th time, having been Victim 10 times as well and therefore presumably killed or evaded 20 people--join the exclusive Tens Club.
The tag line used in the book (and the short story) is, "At least there weren't any more big wars.... Just hundreds of thousands of small ones."
Opinions vary as to whether Sheckley believed this statement. People who haven't read the rest of his stories tend to think he did. This book has action, romance, humor, and opens a clear social discussion. Sheckley doesn't believe in the game, but he does believe that the social forces that create--and the social cynicism that exploit it--it are real.
He also believes that these forces are more complicated than is readily obvious: the plot centers on our protagonist, an excellent Hunter who will join the Tens after this hunt, having a crisis of faith and conscience when his Victim turns out to be a woman. The game was created to sublimated mens' aggressions, he reasons. The idea that aggression might be a human, and not a masculine, phenomenah is unpalatable to him. When he meets her, his beliefs are reinforced and he faces difficult and potentially costly trade-offs.
Cynical exploitation of human nature is the central element of Sheckley's canon. 10th Victim (and the Victim books in general) distill Sheckley's cynical assessment of cynicism as a fundamental human trait in a way easily accessible to modern audiences. Plus, it inspired a Mastroianni movie. How cool is that!
It is the not-so-distant future. War has been replaced by the Hunt, a system in which computers select a Hunter and a Victim. One stalks the other until one or the other is killed. I have never been convinced that a society with organized violence within it (at one point we see a litterbug killed on the street) would also abolish war. But over and over, science fiction writers make this claim. We have the Hunt, the Mercenary Games, the Chase, the Organized Duel to Get Rid of War. Ah, well.
Our protagonists are Caroline Meredith (who has just finished her ninth kill) and Marcello Polletti. They are pitted against one another as Hunter and Victim respectively. In the past, Caroline has usually been the Victim and Marcello the Hunter. Both must train to adapt to their new roles. And then, of course, they begin to fall in love...
Sheckley adopts a tongue-in-cheek style that sometimes works and sometimes falls flat. Here is where it works, when Caroline kills a Hunter with a loaded brassiere:
The dummy whirled; it was Caroline, half-clad, the upper half of her body concealed only by a strangely shaped metal brassiere reminiscent of the one worn by Wilma, the legendary wife of Buck Rogers. (15)
And here it falls flat, in a scene in which Marcello has tricked his patchwork Hunting coach, Professor Sylvestre:
Despite his frivolous tricks, Marcello Poletti was headed for a graveyard. But then, he reminded himself, so were all men; whereas he, Professor Sylvestre, was probably headed for a junk heap. (65)
Most of the action takes place in and around Rome (the climax is in the Colosseum) and it adds a bit to the color of the setting and to the connection with past history. There is one funny scene in which some television executives argue over whether they can use St. Peter's Cathedral for the location of Catherine's last kill. One of them suggests that they might use a studio. The others look upon him with horror. They can't do _that_, they say. They are shooting a _documentary_.
Sheckley wrote two poor sequels to _The Tenth Victim_: _Victim Prime_ (1987) and _Hunter/Victim_ (1988). You would do well to pass them over.