A Tale of the Last Free Humans: Fletcher Vredenburgh on Jack Vance’s “The Dragon Masters”
Various covers for Jack Vance’s novella “The Dragon Masters” over the years: the
original appearance in the August 1962 Galaxy, the 1972 Ace Double, and the 1981
Ace paperback edition. Cover art by Jack Gaughan, Josh Kirby, and David B. Mattingly
Over at Goodman Games Bill Ward, Howard Andrew Jones and a team of thousands have assembled a world-class fantasy blog around their magnificent magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull. Recent articles include Bill Ward’s delightful survey of the Classic Covers of Jack Williamson, Jeff Goad’s Appendix N-inspired dive into the work of Fletcher Pratt, and Ngo Vinh-Hoi’s appreciation of pulp master Stanley G. Weinbaum.
But the piece that really grabbed my attention was part of their recent series on the amazing Jack Vance. Black Gate‘s own Fletcher Vredenburgh has a look at Vance’s Hugo Award-winning novella “The Dragon Masters,” calling it “a fantastic introduction to the science fiction of Jack Vance… one of the great writers of fantasy and science fiction.”
The Dragon Masters first appeared in 1962 in the August issue of the Fred Pohl-edited Galaxy magazine. In 1963, it was published as an Ace Double with another Vance story, The Five Gold Bands. Beating out Ted Sturgeon and Fritz Leiber, among others, it won the Hugo Award for best short story.
Thanks to Gary Gygax’s adoption of Vancian magic as portrayed in The Dying Earth series, I suspect Jack Vance is best known these days for his fantasy. At best, his picaresque stories, like the Big Planet and Planet of Adventure novels. He was also a writer of very good straight up science fiction and it’s as deserving to be read today as anything else from his catalogue. In a mere 102 pages in its first standalone version, The Dragon Masters introduces a wild high concept, provides a synopsis of hundreds of years worth of history, and tells a fast-paced story that culminates in a terrible battle.
Aerlith is a barren planet where humans live in fertile valleys at a gunpowder level of civilization. For centuries they have come under a total of six attacks from space. The reptilian grephs and their army of human troops have come on raids to kill and capture as many humans as they can. In this they are aided by human soldiers they have bred to different tasks; among them, muscular troopers, long nosed trackers, and spindly-limbed riding mounts. During their raids, the grephs bombard and destroy whatever they don’t capture, ensuring the humans remain technologically backwards. From what little information the humans of Aerlith have been able to piece together, they believe they are probably the sole remaining free humans in existence.
During the last greph raid on Aerlith, Kergan Banbeck, leader of Banbeck Vale, managed to capture twenty-three grephs. Over the ensuing years, Banbeck carried out the same sort of breeding regimen the grephs did, creating a wide array of “dragons” from the captured aliens, now called Basics. By the time of The Dragon Masters’ start, there exists a wide array of the creatures….
I absolutely love The Dragon Masters as much now as I did when I last read it. I was, in fact, surprised how much more detail and complexity there is in such a short work. It is a fantastic introduction to the science fiction of Jack Vance, well, really, to Jack Vance in general. Vance was not only one of the great writers of fantasy and science fiction, he was also one of the great American writers.
Read the whole thing here, and check out some of their other articles on Jack Vance:
Howard and James’ Ten Vance Favorites by Howard Andrew Jones and James Enge
Classic Covers: More From Jack Vance
The Dying Earth: A Case for Sword-and-Sorcery by Brian Murphy
What is The Dying Earth? by Bill Ward
Words Weird and Wonderful: Jack Vance’s Dying Earth by Bill Ward
See our latest coverage of Tales from the Magician’s Skull here, and order copies direct from Goodman Games here.
I cannot recall if “The Dragon Masters” was the first Jack Vance story that I read, which, thanks to Dr. Asimov’s collection of Hugo winners, it may well be. It certainly is the most memorable of all his works, with the various named breeds of combat “dragons” (Juggers, Termagants, Murderers) and their mutated human counterparts presenting one of the most unusual pieces of “mil SF” ever published, like a living chess match or a surreal yet serious pro wrestling contest.
“The Dragon Masters” is a brilliant story, but the Vance story I can’t get out of my head (a decade after reading it) is “The Moon Moth.” That’s an original, mind-blowing, space adventure tale.
The Moon Moth is the story I point to that perfectly encapsulates everything that made Vance Vance.
I have the 1986 Grafton version, with an awesome Geoff Taylor cover. The first Jack Vance I read. Reading Fletchers review, I have a hankering to give it a quick re-read. I loved the concepts of the selective breeding.
Vance went into. Years later while reading the Tumithak (Charles R. Tanner) stories in BG I noted the similar concept of selectively breeding of humans is explored. I suppose its hardly a unique concept, given humanities own approach to animal and plant husbandry.