(image from Amazon.com)
The Dragon Masters, first published in 1962, is our July reading selection in the ClassicScienceFiction Yahoo group. It's actually a novella in length, and contrary to the cover on my Ace Double paperback, it won the Hugo Award for best short fiction, not best novel. (The 1963 best novel award was given, deservedly, to Philip K. Dick for The Man in the High Castle.)
This story is set on a rocky planet settled by human refugees, perhaps the only humans left in the galaxy following a war with reptilian aliens. They have no spaceflight capability themselves, and they suffer under periodic alien raids. But at the start of the book, the last raid had been generations previously, at which time they'd captured 23 aliens. Since then, they've bred their captives into different bizarre forms to fight for them (the "dragons" of the title). Of course, being human, these people mostly just fight among themselves.
There's also another human culture on the planet, the strange "sacerdotes" who settled there originally. Unclothed in all kinds of weather, they will answer any question with the truth, but with such circumlocution and evasion that their answers tend to be completely useless. Seemingly unconcerned about the human/alien conflict, they just want to be left alone. But that's not going to happen.
[Note that "sacerdote" isn't an English word, but it means "priest" in Spanish and Portuguese (from the Latin sacerdos: literally, "one who presents sacred offerings"). Sacerdotalism is the idea that priests are needed to mediate between humans and God, apparently by offering propitiatory sacrifices to atone for sin. I don't see any religious implications in this book, and I wonder at the use of the word. These sacerdotes want nothing to do with other humans. In fact, they hope for all other humans to become extinct, so they're certainly not interested in mediation. And there's no sign that anyone in the book believes in gods. If there's a reason why Vance used this word, I'm missing it.]
I thought this was a fun little story, and quite unique. I'd read the book years ago, but I didn't remember anything about it until I started reading it again this month. But as soon as I began, I remembered the "dragons" - the Termagants, Fiends, and Juggers, the Long-horned Murderers, Striding Murderers, and Blue Horrors. As I mentioned, these are descendants of alien prisoners bred into various fighting forms (mostly for fighting between the groups of humans living in different valleys).
But the aliens have done the same thing with their own captives, creating bizarre forms of human beings to fight for them. So when the aliens return, as we know they will, we see transformed humans fighting on their side against transformed aliens on the human side. It's not at all plausible (not, at least, without advanced genetic engineering), but the imagery is great. It's a unique idea that still seems typical of classic science fiction.
Why else did I like the book? Hmm,... this might involve spoilers, so I'll put it below the fold.
There are few characters in the story, and I can't claim that it's character-based fiction, but I loved the rivalry between the two human leaders, who couldn't put away their hatred even when aliens threatened. Well-rounded they were not, but they were interesting.
Both were autocratic rulers who expected to be obeyed without question. The hero, Joaz Banbeck, even sends one of his children - and one of his wives - out to act as bait for the aliens. No big deal is made of this. Yes, it's a patriarchal society and a despotism, but clearly rule has responsibilities as well as perks. And it's no fairytale civilization. Banbeck is as ruthless as he needs to be. I thought he was a very interesting character.
I loved the sacerdotes, too. The attempt to get useful information from one of them was quite fun. And for the most part, they remain mysterious. I liked the fact that we never learn everything about them. I also liked the fact that they're not really "good guys" or "bad guys." It's not that simple. I felt some sympathy for them, but when Banbeck arranges for the aliens to attack their cavern, I applauded his tactic. Is this why the aliens have (nearly) won, because you just can't get all humans facing in the same direction? When nearly extinct, human beings still fight each other.
I don't know. The story just held together for me. Every part of it worked - Ervis Carcolo and Joaz Banbeck, the sacerdotes, the aliens. At one point, there's a parley with a modified human being (one raised by aliens) where neither side can understand the other. We see something similar later, with the attempt to question the sacerdote. Maybe the difficulty of communication is another theme. Heck, even Carcolo doesn't seem to understand his rival, with fatal consequences.
And as a novella, it was just as long as it needed to be - no filler, no wasted space. There's an economy of many classic stories that you don't see much these days. I guess there wasn't anything I didn't like, when you get right down to it. The Dragon Masters isn't one of my all-time favorite tales, but I did enjoy it. And I think it deserved its Hugo Award.