Sunday 21 June 2020

The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance

Science fiction was my first love as a young reader and recently I've been delving back into the wondrous work of Jack Vance.

Vance also wrote fantasy — terrific, distinctive fantasy: Dungeons and Dragons drew heavily on his writings. But, despite its title, The Dragon Masters is solidly science fiction.

It's set on the planet Aerlith, settled by humans in the distant future, and hinges on their periodic conflict with an alien race called the grephs (or the Basics — we'll explain that in a minute) from the star system Coralyne.

It's periodic because it takes place whenever Coralyne's orbit brings it close enough to Aerlith to enable an attack.
The grephs have an overwhelming technological advantage and raid and enslave the humans at will, carrying them back to their home planet and breeding them into different specialised forms to serve their warlike ends — Weaponeers, Heavy Troopers, Giants.
But, eleven generations before this story begins, the humans win a victory that enables them to capture a signifcant group of the grephs, or Basics.

"Basics" because the humans then proceed to turn the tables on their enemies and selectively breed them into a variety of forms, developed from this basic orginal. These new creatures are called dragons, and they are bred to be used in battle.

And what a variety:

"Termagants darted into the lead, followed by silken Striding Monsters and the heavier Long-horned Murderers, their fantastic chest-spikes tipped with steel. Behind came the ponderous Juggers, grunting, gurgling, teeth clashing together with the vibration of their steps. 

"Flanking the Juggers marched the Fiends, carrying heavy cutlasses, flourishing their terminal steel balls as a scorpion carries its sting; then at the rear came the Blue Horrors, who were both massive and quick, good climbers, no less intelligent than the Termagants."

The genetic manipulation makes this story solidly science fiction, while the symmetry of the conflict gives it a certain savage, poetic irony.

The rich and colourful depiction of this alien world is indeed like a fantasy novel and allows Jack Vance to draw the reader into his story swiftly and seductively.

And he makes the alien seem real by the confident use of exotic terminology, much of it invented but much of it also real, abstruse and archaic — like 'sacredote' (literally, a priest) or 'curvet' (a series of jumps on the hind legs performed by a horse — or in this case, a creature called a Spider).

Vance also writes quite beautifully: "Over them the flier darted, veered, fluttered, settling like a falling leaf." Or his description of a Dragon Master with "eyes black and blank as drops of ink on a plate."

And it's a beautiful, warlike world he describes: "With the cold rain of dawn pelting down upon them, with the trail illuminated only by lightning-glare,  Ervis Carcolo, his dragons and his men set forth... the dragons mumbled and muttered fretfully... watching an opportunity to kick each other or to snip a leg from an unwary groom."

Soon enough the Basics land for another attack and battle is joined and Vance keeps us turning the pages with a prose which is both dryly ironic and downright thrilling. 

"With silken ferocity the Blue Horrors ripped them apart.. What a terrible day... What awful events; what a great victory."

It was a great pleasure to discover that this novel still sparks that same sense of wonder that made me love science fiction in the first place.

(Image credits: The covers are all from the very useful Goodreads; I was pleased to be able to avoid most of the more sword-and-sorcery flavoured ones.)

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