Boy, these days a writer sure couldn't get away with a 22-year gap between a novel and its sequel. And usually, when a veteran writer revisits a popular story from decades past, one is cynically tempted to think of flagging fortunes and a desperate stab at reviving past glories. But this was never an issue for Robert Sheckley. While the phenomenal mass media success of Douglas Adams might have overshadowed Sheckley's reputation as SF's premier satirist, Victim Prime proves the cutting edge of his sense of humor hadn't been dulled by the passage of time. Much less whimsical than The 10th Victim (and a completely stand-alone story, by the way), Victim Prime tells an often bitterly funny story about a simple young man who just wants to make his way in the world and can't be overly bothered by the fact that civilization has pretty much collapsed. It's marred only by an abrupt and unsurprising ending and a handful of opening chapters that have an overly familiar post-apocalypse feel.
Harold Erdman hails from upstate New York, where the citizens of his hometown have pitched in to help him go to the Carribean island of Esmeralda to partake in the Hunt. The idea is he'll send half his winnings home to help the struggling town get by in an America whose central government has given up the ghost, with the whole place now a hellhole of environmental desolation, banditry, and folks struggling in agricultural communes.
The early scenes establish — with a little too-familiar art direction — the state of the world in the decades following The 10th Victim. Society is now comprised of a populace so jaded that only death couched in the most flamboyant spectacle is considered decent entertainment any more. Humanity has come full circle to the mores of the Roman Empire, evidenced by the massive arena in Esmeralda's capital of Huntworld that's been built to resemble the Colloseum. Where the Hunt used to be a matter of individuals signing up to engage in ten such stalkings — with participants playing Hunter five times, and Victim five times — now it has become a thriving subculture, with participants hiring freelance "spotters" to help them, and Huntworld staging ever more outrageous killing scenarios for their bloodthirsty audience.
Harold arrives in Esmeralda and immediately acquaints himself with a couple of shady characters. Mike Albani is a Spotter whose reputation has faded after some serious bungling and embarrassing losses by several of his clients have resulted in heavy fines and bad press. Louvaine Daubray is a Hunter with a rep for sloppiness and dumb luck, who is seriously looking to boost his cred. Daubray sees in noob Harold an easy kill that will enable him to recoup some style points lost after his previous victim tripped and broke his neck. Albani is desperately looking for a client that can win handily, and bring him back from the brink of bankruptcy and looming government slavery. Harold, ever the Innocent Abroad, takes all of this in stride with a pragmatic, Huck Finn-like outlook on life that some mistake for the simplemindedness of a yokel. But can Harold really survive the ruthlessness of hardened, seasoned veterans of the Hunt?
Once the story reaches Esmeralda, Sheckley shifts into fifth gear and doesn't brake for sharp turns or pedestrians. There are almost as many laugh-out-loud moments here as in the first book, though, after a while, it does seem like it's going a bit over the top. The story also ends fairly suddenly, with a somewhat unconvincing shift in attitude from Harold and no real denouement to allow characters or readers the kind of downtime we usually like to have to reflect on events. But how can you dislike a book with Suicide Clowns? And it's clear how spot-on Sheckley's skewering of cultures that trivialize and even glorify death really is. Particularly when you consider not only the violent and satirical entertainment that has followed in Sheckley's wake — Fight Club, Natural Born Killers, Battle Royale — but the real life circumstances and attitudes that have arisen following 9/11 and the Iraq War, in which war casualties become meaningless statistics, and poor people killed by a massive hurricane are not helped or given sympathy as much as attacked in the media. Sheckley's satire always had a knack for making you cringe while cracking up, because you can tell that it really wouldn't take too slippery a slope for us to end up in one of his funhouse worlds. And here, the cringing comes from wondering, if we ever really saw a Huntworld open for business, just which networks and corporations would scramble for sponsorship bids, and how high the ratings would be.
Followed by Hunter/Victim.