[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Assault on a City by Jack Vance appeared in the 1974 collection Universe: 4.
I’m doing something a bit different this week; circumstances have kept me from having time to hit the pulp stack but having seen a few articles on the Sensor Sweep mentioning the rapey nature of some of Vance’s characters and the questioning of rape as a narrative device, it seemed strangely prescient that I just happened to find a collection over the weekend with this particular story in it. Assault on a City looks at what would happen when one of those dirty rotten no-good rapey protagonists tries his shtick on one of those smart, collected and brave pulp sci-fi girls.
Both a no good rapscallion on parole and an overwrought self-entitled ‘nice guy’ are competing for the affections of a smart, dreamy young red-head who is back with her family from the frontiers of space to briefly play tourist back on Earth. The ‘nice guy’ tries to woo her with the decadence of civilized culture, offering to take her to stuff that reminds me of feminist scream music (don’t click this link; it will take you to feminist scream music), while the rapscallion tries to overawe her with his masculine confidence.
Long story short, the rapscallion’s failed efforts to impress the girl culminate in his attempting to abduct and rape her to record an illegal neuro-cyber VR experience, and the ‘nice guy’, who’d been humiliated by the rapscallion and spurned by the girl, shows up with some thugs and, rather than saving the girl, more or less says ‘you need to be taught a lesson; let’s do this’. The girl, being a smart, prepared and competent pulp heroine, sighs in disappointment, tases the lot of them and holds a gun on everyone until the police arrive.
A lot of the focus of the story is the notion of social sickness caused by urban living; through the heroine, it’s posited that urban living is largely vicarious living, whether through drugs and VR (artificial experiences in an artificial reality) or music and arts (attempting to empathetically experience another’s emotions via their personal expressions), and urban life leads to desire of not real experience but facsimiles of real experiences. Ultimately, Assault on a City can be seen as an example of the narrative of pastoral purity (embodied by the wide-eyed girl from the frontier) vs urban corruption (the criminal and the hip urbanite representing the two sides of the same coin).
Interestingly, I don’t know that a story like this could work if the genders were reversed; there is here, certainly, the mythic feminine capacity for purity and inviolability that makes such a narrative plausible. Compare this to the oldest story known to man –Enkidu, the man from the country, didn’t stand a chance against the corrupting influence of the wily woman from the city. I’m not sure how immediately aware of this Vance was, but from what writings of his I’ve read, he certainly has a fondness for the pastoral over the urban and would want to see it triumph over the urban corruption, even if it was a somewhat bitter and disappointing victory.
Assault on a City is not one of my favorite Vance pieces, but it’s an interesting, if surreally whimsical, look at sexual assault in a pulpy science fiction setting.