Saturday 3 July 2010

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Jack Vance was one of the giants of my early SFF reading and is still around today. His last novel (to date) was published in 2004, some 54 years after the first. In between came some forty SFF novels, plus novellas and some mystery stories. He won several major awards, one of them - the Hugo in 1963 - for The Dragon Masters. This was one of my recommendations for the Classic Science Fiction discussion group, as I felt that such an influential author needed an airing and I was looking forward to re-reading his work after a long absence.

The most obvious feature of the book is its length: at just over 120 pages it is barely a novella in modern terms. Even by the standards of the 1960s this is a bit short (something nearer 200 pages being more typical then) , but that doesn't mean it is lacking in ideas. In fact, novels from this period tended to be all about ideas, with characterisation and detailed world-building receiving sketchy treatment. That doesn't make them worse than modern doorstops, just different, with the added benefit that they can be polished off in a session or two so even if they're not much good, you haven't wasted a lot of time on them. In contrast, I need to wind myself up to grappling with a huge modern tome, and have to feel mentally fit and fresh before I start. Also, I frequently don't finish them; if they're going to monopolise so much of my time, they'd better be good. I wrote about book length in more detail in this web article.

No problems of this sort with The Dragon Masters. The reader is plunged straight into the action, in the form of a strange intruder breaking in to the private apartment of Joaz Banbeck, hereditary leader of the small community of Banbeck Vale on the sparsely populated planet of Aerlith. The intruder is a sacerdote, one of a secretive group of contemplative humans who live a separate existence in deep caverns in the mountains which border the Vale. Joaz investigates the sacerdotes to find out what is going on, and learns that they have developed a mysterious but powerful weapon. He is interested in this because not only is he facing a challenge from his territorially expansive neighbours in Happy Valley, he is worried that the gradual brightening of star Coralyne may indicate the possible return of the grephs (the "dragons" of the title); a lizard-like race with technology - including spaceships - far more advanced than the humans, and whose previous destructive visits have been to capture humans for slaves and breeding stock.

Vance then jumps back to the past with a chapter set in the time of the last greph attack. The grephs subjected their human stock to selective breeding, producing a variety of specialised types differing considerably in size and characteristics (much as we do with dogs). The humans of Aerlith were able to capture some of the grephs and over the intervening years also bred them - for internecine warfare, producing breeds with names such as Termagants, Fiends, Murderers, Juggers and Blue Horrors.

The plot follows the fortunes of Joaz as he juggles the problems of invasion from his neighbour, greph attack, and the enigmatic sacerdotes.

How does this award-winner stand up today? Not too well in terms of literary quality, but the fresh and imaginative plot, the selective breeding of humans and dragons, and the strange culture which results on Aerlith, all have their appeal. Definitely worth the couple of hours needed to read.

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