Thursday, September 6, 2012
Dragons fighting for Men and Men fighting for Dragons
I love the bizarre but internally self-consistent societies—both human and alien—that Jack Vance builds into his science fiction novels and short stories.
Take The Dragon Masters, for instance. This novella, first published in Galaxy Magazine in 1962, is my personal favorite Vance story.
It’s set on the planet Aerlith, a rocky and desolate place inhabited by what may be the last remaining humans in the galaxy. They live in small kingdoms, located in valleys where the soil is thick enough to grow crops.
Aerlith gets raided from time to time by a reptilian race called the Basics, with much of their population being taken into slavery and their settlements bombarded severely. These regular setbacks prevent them from developing beyond a more-or-less pre-industrial society. The humans taken by the Basics are bred into a variety of sub-species with a variety of shapes, sizes and intelligence levels. The Basics uses these sub-species as soldiers.
But the last time the Basics raided, a particularly bold military leader captured some of them. The Basics are kept as slaves themselves and the humans then do their own selective breeding, coming up with a variety of fighting creatures with a nifty mixture of names, shapes and sizes: Termagants, Juggers, Blue Horrors, Long-Horned Murderers, Fiends and so on. These creatures supplement their fangs, claws and pincers with axes, swords and maces.
That’s the situation as it stands when the novella’s protagonist—Joak Banbeck—finds himself between a rock and a hard place. One of his neighbors is at war with him and he’s convinced the Basics are due for a return visit soon. And then there’s the sacerdotes, a species of ascetic humans who just might have the resources Joak needs to fight the more advanced Basics. But the isolationist sacerdotes have their own agenda that doesn’t necessarily involve helping to save the rest of the human race.
There’s a lot going on in this story, but Vance’s clear prose and skillful storytelling skills move things along briskly without ever leaving us behind. Joak, an intelligent and (when he has to be) ruthless leader, is a strong protagonist. Vance does an impressive job of world-building with Aerlith, creating a downright fascinating combination of cultures.
Of course, I’m writing for a blog whose name includes the phrase “cool stuff,” so I’m naturally drawn to concentrate my attention on the specially-bred warriors used by the humans and the Basics. Because—let’s face it--those guys are really, really cool!
The different sub-species have different combat-oriented skill sets, so important tactical decisions involve choosing when and how to use—say—your large-sized Fiends as opposed to your man-sized Termagents. And when Joak is fighting his human enemy, the tactics he uses have to be much different than when he fights the Basics, whose sort-of human soldiers have heat-rays and blast projectors.
This all makes for some wonderfully original battle scenes. These action set pieces are both fantastically exciting and completely unique.
Yes, The Dragon Masters is intelligent science fiction with a well-constructed plot, strong characterizations and clever world-building, but I have to say it’s my favorite Vance novel because of those magnificent battle sequences. Heck, if Mr. Vance had wanted me to talk about how good he is at all that other stuff, then he wouldn’t have given me scenes where giant axe-wielding reptiles go hand-to-hand against super-strong human soldiers armed with heat-rays and swords. Of course that’s what’s going to catch my attention.