Tomorrow being the fifth anniversary of the death of Science Fiction/Fantasy grandmaster Jack Vance, I figured that I would make this week Jack Vance Week- all Jack Vance, all week.
If one were to force me to pick a favorite work of fiction by Jack Vance, I would eventually have to conclude that
The Miracle Workers, a novella originally published in the July 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, an illustration of one of the book's 'jinxmen' is a real beaut:
The electrical diagrams on the vestments of the jinxman are a particularly nice touch! I first encountered the story in the a library copy of the hardcover edition of the 1969 compilation Eight Fantasms and Magics, which I found in paperback at a library booksale years later.
I disagree with this review, being of the opinion that The Miracle Workers is better than The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle- the protagonist is a more genuinely (HEH) character, an amiable misfit who challenges a society which has stagnated to the point of peril, possible extinction. Like the societies depicted in the later The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle, the human society of The Miracle Workers' planet Pangborn is descended from spacefarers defeated in an interstellar war and taking refuge on a planet inhabited by insectlike autochthones, who they promptly began to slaughter:
Sixteen hundred years before, with war raging through space, a group of space captains, their home bases destroyed, had taken refuge on Pangborn. To protect themselves against vengeful enemies, they built great forts armed with weapons from the dismantled spaceships.
The wars receded, Pangborn was forgotten. The newcomers drove the First Folk into the forests, planted and harvested the river valleys. Ballant Keep, like Faide Keep, Castle Cloud, Boghoten, and the rest, overlooked one of these valleys. Four squat towers of a dense black substance supported an enormous parasol roof, and were joined by walls two-thirds as high as the towers. At the peak of the roof a cupola housed Volcano, the weapon corresponding to Faide’s Hellmouth.
During the first centuries of human settlement, sportive young men had hunted the First Folk with clubs and lances, eventually had driven them from their native downs into the forests.
In the intervening centuries, the humans of Pangborn descended into superstition and medievalism, with the voodoo-esque 'jinxmanship' replacing empiricism. The ancient 'miracle workers' are seen as superstitious sorcerors:
Peculiar, these ancient men! thought Lord Faide: at once so clever, yet so primitive and impractical. Conditions had changed; there had been enormous advances since the dark ages sixteen hundred years ago. For instance, the ancients had used intricate fetishes of metal and glass to communicate with each other. Lord Faide need merely voice his needs; Hein Huss could project his mind a hundred miles to see, to hear, to relay Lord Faide’s words. The ancients had contrived dozens of such objects, but the old magic had worn away and they never seemed to function.
The action of the novella begins as one of the planet's feudal rulers, Lord Faide, is consolidating his power over the other keep lords. The military action between human armies depends on the use of mannikins to induce pain or terror into enemies and the use of 'demons' (the 'rights' to which can be traded between jinxmen) to possess soldiers in order to confer to them superhuman ferocity, agility, or vitality:
“Listen then. What happens when I hoodoo a man? First I must enter into his mind telepathically. There are three operational levels: the conscious, the unconscious, the cellular. The most effective jinxing is done if all three levels are influenced. I feel into my victim, I learn as much as possible, supplementing my previous knowledge of him, which is part of my stock in trade. I take up his doll, which carries his traces. The doll is highly useful but not indispensable. It serves as a focus for my attention; it acts as a pattern, or a guide, as I fix upon the mind of the victim, and he is bound by his own telepathic capacity to the doll which bears his traces.
“So! Now! Man and doll are identified in my mind, and at one or more levels in the victim’s mind. Whatever happens to the doll the victim feels to be happening to himself. There is no more to simple hoodooing than that, from the standpoint of the jinxman. But naturally the victims differ greatly. Susceptibility is the key idea here. Some men are more susceptible than others. Fear and conviction breed susceptibility. As a jinxman succeeds he becomes ever more feared, and consequently the more efficacious he becomes. The process is self-generative.
“Demon-possession is a similar technique. Susceptibility is again essential; again conviction creates susceptibility. It is easiest and most dramatic when the characteristics of the demon are well known, as in the case of Comandore’s Keyril. For this reason, demons can be exchanged or traded among jinxmen. The commodity actually traded is public acceptance and familiarity with the demon.”
“Demons then do not actually exist?” inquired Lord Faide half-incredulously.
Hein Huss grinned vastly, showing enormous yellow teeth. “Telepathy works through a superstratum. Who knows what is created in this superstratum? Maybe the demons live on after they have been conceived; maybe they now are real. This of course is speculation, which we jinxmen shun.
“So much for demons, so much for the lesser techniques of jinxmanship. I have explained sufficient to serve as background to the present situation.”
The opening scene involves a war party from Faide Keep encountering a trap-filled forest planting created by the planet's natives... to locate the traps in the planting, the novella's protagonist, bumbling apprentice jinxman Sam Salazar (my favorite Vance character), is considered the most expendable person, and tasked to prod the perilous planting in order to ensure the safety of head jinxman Hein Huss... leading to some of Vance's trademark brilliant dialogue:
“Send someone to speak to the First Folk. Inform them we wish to pass, offering them no harm, but that we will react savagely to any hostility.”
“I will go myself,” said Hein Huss. He turned to Comandore, “Lend me, if you will, your brash young apprentice. I can put him to good use.”
“If he unmasks a nettle trap by blundering into it, his first useful deed will be done,” said Comandore. He signaled to Sam Salazar, who came reluctantly forward. “Walk in front of Head Jinxman Hein Huss that he may encounter no traps or scythes. Take a staff to probe the moss.”
Without enthusiasm Sam Salazar borrowed a lance from one of the foot soldiers. He and Huss set forth, along the low rise that previously had separated North from South Wildwood. Occasionally outcroppings of stone penetrated the cover of moss; here and there grew bayberry trees, clumps of tarplant, ginger-tea, and rosewort.
A half mile from the planting Huss halted. “Now take care, for here the traps will begin. Walk clear of hummocks, these often conceal swing-scythes; avoid moss which shows a pale blue; it is dying or sickly and may cover a deadfall or a nettle trap.”
“Why cannot you locate the traps by clairvoyance?” asked Sam Salazar in a rather sullen voice. “It appears an excellent occasion for the use of these faculties.”
“The question is natural,” said Hein Huss with composure. “However you must know that when a jinxman’s own profit or security is at stake his emotions play tricks on him. I would see traps everywhere and would never know whether clairvoyance or fear prompted me. In this case, that lance is a more reliable instrument than my mind.”
Sam Salazar made a salute of understanding and set forth, with Hein Huss stumping behind him. At first he prodded with care, uncovering two traps, then advanced more jauntily; so swiftly indeed that Huss called out in exasperation, “Caution, unless you court death!”
Sam Salazar obligingly slowed his pace. “There are traps all around us, but I detect the pattern, or so I believe.”
“Ah, ha, you do? Reveal it to me, if you will. I am only Head Jinxman, and ignorant.”
“Notice. If we walk where the spore-pods have recently been harvested, then we are secure.”
Hein Huss grunted. “Forward then. Why do you dally? We must do battle at Ballant Keep today.”
Two hundred yards farther, Sam Salazar stopped short. “Go on, boy, go on!” grumbled Hein Huss.
“The savages threaten us. You can see them just inside the planting. They hold tubes which they point toward us.”
Hein Huss peered, then raised his head and called out in the sibilant language of the First Folk.
A moment or two passed, then one of the creatures came forth, a naked humanoid figure, ugly as a demonmask. Foam-sacs bulged under its arms, orange-lipped foam-vents pointed forward. Its back was wrinkled and loose, the skin serving as a bellows to blow air through the foam-sacs. The fingers of the enormous hands ended in chisel-shaped blades, the head was sheathed in chitin. Billion-faceted eyes swelled from either side of the head, glowing like black opals, merging without definite limit into the chitin. This was a representative of the original inhabitants of the planet, who until the coming of man had inhabited the downs, burrowing in the moss, protecting themselves behind masses of foam exuded from the underarm sacs.
The creature wandered close, halted. “I speak for Lord Faide of Faide Keep,” said Huss. “Your planting bars his way. He wishes that you guide him through, so that his men do not damage the trees, or spring the traps you have set against your enemies.”
“Men are our enemies,” responded the autochthon. “You may spring as many traps as you care to; that is their purpose.” It backed away.
“One moment,” said Hein Huss sternly. “Lord Faide must pass. He goes to battle Lord Ballant. He does not wish to battle the First Folk. Therefore it is wise to guide him across the planting without hindrance.”
The creature considered a second or two. “I will guide him.” He stalked across the moss toward the war party.
Behind followed Hein Huss and Sam Salazar. The autochthon, legs articulated more flexibly than a man’s, seemed to weave and wander, occasionally pausing to study the ground ahead.
“I am puzzled,” Sam Salazar told Hein Huss. “I cannot understand the creature’s actions.”
“Small wonder,” grunted Hein Huss. “He is one of the First Folk, you are human. There is no basis for understanding.”
“I disagree,” said Sam Salazar seriously.
“Eh?” Hein Huss inspected the apprentice with vast disapproval. “You engage in contention with me, Head Jinxman Hein Huss?”
“Only in a limited sense,” said Sam Salazar. “I see a basis for understanding with the First Folk in our common ambition to survive.”
“A truism,” grumbled Hein Huss. “Granting this community of interests with the First Folk, what is your perplexity?”
“The fact that it first refused, then agreed to conduct us across the planting.”
Hein Huss nodded. “Evidently the information which intervened, that we go to fight at Ballant Keep, occasioned the change.”
“This is clear,” said Sam Salazar. “But think—”
“You exhort me to think?” roared Hein Huss.
“—here is one of the First Folk, apparently without distinction, who makes an important decision instantly. Is he one of their leaders? Do they live in anarchy?”
“It is easy to put questions,” Hein Huss said gruffly. “It is not as easy to answer them.”
“In short, I do not know. In any event, they are pleased to see us killing one another.”
Subsequently, the humans come into conflict with the natives, who have developed biological weapons:
“Notice, they carry tubes,” said Scolford.
“Blowguns possibly,” suggested Edwin.
Scolford disagreed. “They cannot blow through their foam-vents.”
“No doubt we shall soon learn,” said Lord Faide. He rose in his seat, called to the rear. “Ready with the darts!”
The soldiers raised their crossbows. The column advanced slowly, now only a hundred yards from the planting. The white shapes of the First Folk moved uneasily at the forest’s edges. Several of them raised their tubes, seemed to sight along the length. They twitched their great hands.
One of the tubes was pointed toward Lord Faide. He saw a small black object leave the opening, flit forward, gathering speed. He heard a hum, waxing to a rasping, clicking flutter. He ducked behind the windscreen; the projectile swooped in pursuit, struck the windscreen like a thrown stone. It fell crippled upon the forward deck of the car—a heavy black insect like a wasp, its broken proboscis oozing ocher liquid, horny wings beating feebly, eyes like dumbbells fixed on Lord Faide. With his mailed fist, he crushed the creature.
Behind him other wasps struck knights and men; Corex Faide-Battaro took the prong through his visor into the eye, but the armor of the other knights defeated the wasps. The foot soldiers, however, lacked protection; the wasps half buried themselves in flesh. The soldiers called out in pain, clawed away the wasps, squeezed the wounds. Corex Faide-Battaro toppled from his horse, ran blindly out over the heath, and after fifty feet fell into a trap. The stricken soldiers began to twitch, then fell on the moss, thrashed, leaped up to run with flapping arms, threw themselves in wild somersaults, forward, backward, foaming and thrashing.
It is later revealed that the natives have adopted the methods of the ancient human 'miracle workers' to defeat their human enemies:
"‘There are always more in the cells to replace the elements which die. But if the community becomes sick, all suffer. We have been forced into the forests, into a strange existence. We must arm ourselves and drive away the men, and to this end we have developed the methods of men to our own purposes!’
“Isak Comandore spoke. “Needless to say, the creature referred to the ancient men, not ourselves.”
“In any event,” said Lord Faide, “they leave no doubt as to their intentions. We should be fools not to attack them at once, with every weapon at our disposal.”
Hein Huss continued imperturbably. “The creature went on at some length. ‘We have learned the value of irrationality.’ ‘Irrationality’ of course was not his word or even his meaning. He said something like ‘a series of vaguely motivated trials’—as close as I can translate. He said, ‘We have learned to change our environment. We use insects and trees and plants and waterslugs. It is an enormous effort for us who would prefer a placid life in the moss. But you men have forced this life on us, and now you must suffer the consequences.’ I pointed out once more that men were not helpless, that many First Folk would die. The creature seemed unworried. ‘The community persists.’ I asked a delicate question, ‘If your purpose is to kill men, why do you allow us here?’ He said, ‘The entire community of men will be destroyed.’ Apparently they believe the human society to be similar to their own, and therefore regard the killing of three wayfaring individuals as pointless effort.”
Realizing that the natives have developed heretofore unknown military prowess, Hein Huss, his chief rival Isak Comandore, and Sam Salazar travel to one of the First Folk's safe Forest Markets in order to determine if a counter to the natives' techniques can be developed via jinxmanship. Once again, Sam Salazar proves to be the most awesome character in Vance's oeuvre:
Isak Comandore, nominal head of the expedition, spoke. “We rode along the river bank to Forest Market. Here was no sign of disorder or of hostility. A hundred First Folk traded timber, planks, posts, and poles for knife blades, iron wire, and copper pots. When they returned to their barge we followed them aboard, wagon, horses, and all. They showed no surprise—”
“Surprise,” said Hein Huss heavily, “is an emotion of which they have no knowledge.”
Isak Comandore glared briefly. “We spoke to the barge-tenders, explaining that we wished to visit the interior of Wildwood. We asked if the First Folk would try to kill us to prevent us from entering the forest. They professed indifference as to either our well-being or our destruction. This was by no means a guarantee of safe conduct; however, we accepted it as such, and remained aboard the barge.” He spoke on with occasional emendations from Hein Huss.
They had proceeded up the river, into the forest, the First Folk poling against the slow current. Presently they put away the poles; nevertheless the barge moved as before. The mystified jinxmen discussed the possibility of teleportation, or symboligical force, and wondered if the First Folk had developed jinxing techniques unknown to men. Sam Salazar, however, noticed that four enormous water beetles, each twelve feet long with oil-black carapaces and blunt heads, had risen from the river bed and pushed the barge from behind—apparently without direction or command.
The plot of the story reaches an inevitable climax as humans and natives wage war. The denouement of the novella is particularly satisfying, but you'll have to read it yourself... I've already cut-and-pasted too much of the novella into this blog post. If you are a fan of Science Fantasy, I would urge you to purchase the ebook. It's a great introduction to Jack Vance, mixing swashbuckling action, evocation of a sense of wonder, A celebration of the scientific method, and sidesplitting humor. You'll thank me.