Jack Vance (1916-2013) burst on the scene with some finely crafted miniature fantasies about the dying Earth in 1950, then had a couple Hugo Awards in the early ‘60s, but mostly labored away, largely unnoticed, in the pages of the science fiction digests and several series of paperback originals. For a long time, I didn’t read him, because I thought he was probably a hack resting on the laurels of his early dying Earth tales. Turns out I was wrong.
One of the Hugos was The Dragon Masters, a novella with much of the blood and thunder one associates with Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, but also something extra. It is the “extra” that makes Vance’s work a fascinating twist on post-pulp digest-era science fiction (this story was first published in Galaxy magazine.) Vance packs a lot into just a few pages. Later writers, of the so-called “fat fantasy” mold, would have fleshed out this story with hundreds of pages of poorly edited verbiage and turned it into the first of a trilogy. Vance packs more ideas and more action into 77 pages than most “fat fantasy” authors would have fit into 770 pages.
The “extra” is that Vance excels at worldcraft. In less than 100 pages, he takes us to a world where warring human factions have eked out an existence despite being periodically ravaged by a superior alien force called The Basics (who presage Star Trek’s Borgs.) There are rumors of an old race of men who ruled the stars, but there are intimations that all the men are gone except a few stubborn enclaves. There is a subterranean race of naked ascetics called Sacerdotes who have an agenda of their own, but they turn out to be the Deus ex machina at the end of this story, albeit not much to their liking. The men have bred various breed of “dragons” to fight their battles and protect against the scourge from space. Most of the story is battle after battle, men vs. men, then men vs. marauding spaceship inhabitants from the stars. But Vance pauses for some mind-blowing moments as the humans deal with the Sacerdotes and a Borg-like spokesman for The Basics.
Vance’s worldcraft is compelling, because he starts the action in medias res, without a whole lot of explanatory backstory, and his names, places, and descriptions are sufficiently familiar and alien at the same time. Plus, he is to be commended for leaving the story as a one-shot, forcing us to beg for more. If only a whole generation of “fat fantasy” authors could have stopped with just one, the science fantasy world might have been a better place. To be sure, Vance did write several series, but an entire Vance series is shorter, more compact, and to-the-point than even one modern fantasy novel.
–Dale D. Dalenberg MD