Visions of Paradise

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Dragon Masters

When I discovered Galaxy Magazine in 1963, Vance’s “The Dragon Masters” was already a famous story in its pages, even before winning that year’s Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction. This novella is considerably more serious than most of Vance’s short fiction. It still contains the characteristic Vance color, but Vance’s usual humor is augmented by a seriousness of purpose.

The story is set on two settlements of a sparsely-settled world. The settlement in Happy Valley is ruled by a harsh tyrant named Ervis Carcelo whose actions are dominated by a lust for power and a need to overthrow his nearby rival whose ancestors overthrew Ervis’ own ancestors several times.

Ervis’ rival is Joaz Banbeck, ruler of Banbeck Vale, and a scholar who rules out of necessity, seemingly not caring for personal power in any way.

Both rulers breed stocks of enormous dragons, unwinged and Earthbound, more resembling dinosaurs with their powerful horns and tails, lumbering across the ground like army tanks. And both rulers are stumped by the existence of sacerdotes, a human-like race who go naked with waist-length hair, preaching pacifivity, only speaking when questioned directly, and then required by their philosophy to answer truthfully, but literally to the point of intentional evasiveness.

Several times in the past their world has been invaded by Basics, a race of space invaders who each time destroyed the cultures of the dragon masters and took their citizens as hostages. Joaz has been studying history and astronomy, and theorizes that the Basics invade when a certain star swings close to their own, an event which has happened recently. To begin preparations for mutual protection he tells Ervis that he anticipates another attack, but his sworn enemy ignores the information as foolishness.

An early scene in the story pits Joaz in a battle of words with a sacerdotal, as Joaz strives to learn if the pacifists hoard powerful weapons which might help him resist the impending invasion of the Basics. For awhile the questions-and-answers seem almost a game, until Joaz veers near some secret knowledge of the sacerdotals and it abruptly dies.

Because of this incident, both Joaz and the leader of the sacerdotals independently of each other begin to question their own beliefs and actions.

The latter half of the story is filled with battle. First Ervis attacks Banbeck Vale in an attempt to seize control of it, but in the middle of his second wave the Basic invade. Since Ervis had discounted their return, Happy Valley is totally unprepared and quickly overrun.

But Joaz has indeed prepared, and he fights a strong holding action against them, although he seems unable to do more than merely delay the invasion.

For awhile it seems as if the novella will end with resolution to the invasion only, but just as he has done in many of his novels, Vance’s story contains unexpected depth in addition to his color and sense of wonder. Thus "The Dragon Masters" ends with serious questions about smugness of purpose and racial memories, as well as the eternal questions about can you ever go home? Although this story was short compared to Vance’s novels, it was equally thought-provoking with its ending, and very successful as a result.

“The Dragon Masters” well-deserved its Hugo Award and its status as one of the classic science fiction novellas of all time. I was struck by the similarities between the setting of “The Dragon Masters”and that of Anne McCaffrey’s famous Pern series, whose first story “Dragonflight” was published a half-dozen years later. It seems obvious where her inspiration came from.


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