Thursday, May 24, 2018

Vance's Hugo and Nebula Awards

In keeping with this being Jack Vance week, this coming Saturday being the 5th anniversary of Jack's passing, I figured I would comment on some of Jack's award winning writings. He won the 1962 Best Short Fiction Hugo for The Dragon Masters and 1967 Best Novella/Novelette Hugo and Nebula awards for The Last Castle. These two works are related thematically- they both concern human populations which have enslaved intelligent alien species and bred them for various tasks, such as waging war or providing transportation.

The Dragon Masters was originally published in the August 1962 edition of Galaxy magazine. Besides being a typical 'planetary romance', the long short story can be interpreted as an allegory of the arms race. The plot of the story concerns an isolated population of humans, stranded on a distant planet in the aftermath of an interstellar war and unsure of the current status of the bulk of humanity:

“You know the legends as well as I, perhaps better. Our people came to Aerlith as exiles during the War of the Ten Stars. The Nightmare Coalition apparently had defeated the Old Rule, but how the war ended—” he threw up his hands — “who can say?”


Carcolo sidled close, prodded Joaz with his forefinger.“We know nothing of the outer worlds. We are marooned on this miserable planet of stone and wind while life passes us by. You assume that Basics rule the cluster. But suppose you are wrong? Suppose the Old Rule has returned? Think of the rich cities,the gay resorts, the palaces, the pleasure-islands! Look up into the night sky. Ponder the bounties which might be ours! You ask how can we implement these desires? I respond, the process maybe so simple that the sacerdotes will reveal it without reluctance.”“You mean —?”

“Communication with the worlds of men! Deliverance from this lonely little world at the edge of the universe!”

Joaz Banbeck nodded dubiously. “A fine vision. But the evidence suggests a situation far different, namely the destruction of man and the Human Empire.”

Separated from the bulk of humanity, the population has stagnated, devolving to feudal societies using technologies from the early age of gunpowder. In their vulnerable state, they are subject to periodic invasions by slave-taking reptilian aliens who breed their human captives to fill various martial capacities. One such invasion goes awry due to the vicissitudes of the planet's weather, and an ancestor of the tale's protagonist manages to capture some of the aliens. Vance denies moral superiority to his human protagonists- they subject their captives, dubbed Basics, to the same enslavement and genetic manipulation that the aliens are guilty of- breeding them into the dragons of the title: Termagants, Blue Horrors, Long Horned Murderers, Striding Murderers, Fiends, Juggers, and Spiders.

In the course of the story, the Basics, accompanied by their human cannon fodder, stage their periodic invasion of the planet:

“Look you,these Basics are neither ghouls nor angels of death. They are no more than pallid Termagants, the basic stock of our dragons."


Phade stared at the queer pale shapes who had come tentatively out on the ramp. “They seemstrange and twisted, like silverpuzzles for children.”

“They are the Basics. From their eggs came our dragons.They have done as well with men: look, here are their Heavy Troops.”

Down the ramp, four abreast,in exact cadence, marched the Heavy Troops, to halt fifty yards in front of the ship. There were three squads of twenty: short squat men with massive shoulders, thick necks and stern, down-drawn faces. They wore armor fashioned from overlapping scales of black and blue metal,a wide belt slung with pistol and sword. Black epaulets, extending past their shoulders, supported a short ceremonial flap of black cloth ranging down their backs.Their helmets bore a crest of sharp spikes. Their knee-high boots were armed with kick-knives.

A number of Basics now rode forth. Their mounts were creatures only remotely resembling men. They ran on hands and feet, backs high off the ground. Their heads were long and hairless, with quivering loose lips.

In the ensuing battle, the protagonist uses broken terrain and his specially-bred dragons to counter the aliens' technological advantages. There is also a wild-card... a secretive human population living in caverns under the planet's surface, espousing a doctrine of non-interference and a prophecy of a resurgence after their 'inferiors' on the surface are utterly defeated. The tide of battle is ultimately determined by sheer numbers of cannon fodder, as the dragons can be bred in larger numbers and greater variety:

“Only two dozen? Perhaps they are hard to breed. Generations pass slowly with men; dragons lay a clutch of eggs every year."

There is also a timely intervention by combatants wielding what boils down to a wave motion gun.

Rereading The Dragon Masters, I noticed that it is less flowery than much of Vance's other works. The adjective use is almost restrained, the dialogue not as baroque as that in other Vance novels. It's a quick read, and the satirical/allegorical content sneaks up on the readers while they are occupied with a bunch of kaiju battles.

The Last Castle concerns a population of aristocrats who have forgotten how to work because they have delegated all of their tasks to various alien species, particularly the vaguely anthropoid Meks:

A specimen in a museum case,was a man-like creature native,in his original version, to a planet of Etamin. His tough rusty-bronze hide glistened metallically as if oiled or waxed. The spines thrusting back from scalp and neck shone like gold, and indeed they were coated with a conductive copper-chrome film. His sense organs were gathered in clusters at the site of a man’s ears; his visage—it was often a shock, walking the lower corridors, to come suddenly upon a Mek—was corrugated muscle,not dissimilar to the look of an uncovered human brain. His maw, a vertical irregular cleft at the base of this “face’, was an obsolete organ by reason of the syrup sac which had been introduced under the skin of the shoulders, and the digestive organs, originally used to extract nutrition from decayed swamp vegetation and coelenterates,had atrophied. The Mek typically wore no garment except possibly a work apron or a tool-belt,and in the sunlight his rust-bronze skin made a handsome display. This was the Mek solitary, a creature intrinsically as effective as man—perhaps more by virtue of his superb brain which also functioned as a radio transceiver. Working in the mass,by the teeming thousands, he seemed less admirable, less competent: a hybrid of sub-man and cockroach.

It is this contempt for the Meks that leads to the downfall of their aristocratic masters, and Vance's human characters echo some of the horrendous arguments that current apologists for slavery try to employ:

In spite of such research, the Mek revolt came as an utter surprise, no less to Claghom, D. R.Jardine and Salonson than to anyone else. Why? asked everyone. How could a group so long submissive have contrived so murderous a plot?

The most reasonable conjecture was also the simplest: the Mek resented servitude and hated the Earthmen who had removed him from his natural environment. Those who argued against this theory claimed that it projected human emotions and attitudes into a non-human organism, that the Mek had every reason to feel gratitude toward the gentlemen who had liberated him from the conditions of Etamin Nine.

One hears this kind of bullshit a lot from right-wing types...

The plot involves the defense of the last human stronghold against the revolt of their specially bred alien slaves, which even include their 'cars':

Power-wagons, like the Meks, were originally swamp-creatures from Etamin 9. They were great rectangular slabs of muscle, slung into a rectangular frame and protected from sunlight, insects and rodents by a synthetic pelt. Syrup sacs communicated with their digestive apparatus, wires led to motor nodes in the rudimentary brain. The muscles were clamped to rocker arms which actuated rotors and drive-wheels. The power-wagons were economical, long-lived and docile, and so they were principally used for heavy cartage earth-moving, heavy-tillage, and other arduous jobs.

Both The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are thematically similar to perhaps my favorite Jack Vance work, 1958's The Miracle Workers, which also involves a regressed, isolated human population coping with an insurgency of the natives of the planet they have colonized. I find The Miracle Workers to be a superior story, though, having a fantastic protagonist and some entertaining secondary characters. The human characters in The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are pretty despicable people, their careers of evil making their struggles for survival less urgent to this reader. I think I'll tackle The Miracle Workers in tomorrow's post- the theme of employing empiricism to pursue one's goals is particularly appealing to me.

No comments: