Well, all this is interesting to me, anyway, and that's what matters here. The Internet is a terrible thing for someone like me, who finds almost everything interesting.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
"The Dragon Masters" by Jack Vance
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.
I'm a skeptic. I think it makes sense to have reasons for what I believe, so I apportion my belief to the evidence. You're welcome to disagree. Please, tell me I'm wrong. I probably don't agree with anyone about everything. Why should disagreement be a problem? Check the Pages section below for series posts and links to book reviews and game posts, as well as contact info. I have varied interests, so there's a little bit of everything here. I encourage you to look around. - Bill
We've all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true. - Robert Wilensky
It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong - Richard Feynman
The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss, and commit to memory the one, and pass over the other. - Sir Francis Bacon
When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart. - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Speculation is perfectly all right, but if you stay there you've only founded a superstition. If you test it, you've started a science. - Hal Clement
No matter how many times a theory meets its tests successfully, there can be no certainty that it will not be overthrown by the next observation. This, then, is a cornerstone of modern natural philosophy. It makes no claim of attaining ultimate truth. In fact, the phrase "ultimate truth" becomes meaningless, because there is no way in which enough observations can be made to make truth certain and, therefore, "ultimate". - Isaac Asimov
The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. - Treaty of Tripoli, passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed by President John Adams (1797)
I don't doubt the sincerity of dowsers, but even after we've demonstrated that they can't produce results that are any better than chance they'll still go away believing in their abilities... It is like the mother whose son is caught shoplifting on tape. She wonders why someone would want to frame her child by producing a fake video. - James Randi
During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church ... imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. - Mark Twain
Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives' mouths. - Bertrand Russell
A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. - Friedrich Nietzsche
I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends... that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them. - Adlai E. Stevenson, Jr.
This is not about proof. Science does not use proof. We favor evidence, and the work consists largely of the slow accumulation of evidence in support of ideas, not magically potent proofs that establish an idea as unassailable. - PZ Myers
No, people don't expect government to solve all their problems. But they sense, deep in their bones, that with just a slight change in priorities, we can make sure that every child in America has a decent shot at life, and that the doors of opportunity remain open to all. - President Barack Obama
The formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat. - Shekhar Gupta
We are prodding, challenging, seeking contradictions or small, persistent residual errors, proposing alternative explanations, encouraging heresy. We give our highest rewards to those who convincingly disprove established beliefs. - Carl Sagan
We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further. - Richard Dawkins
120 million of us place the big bang 2,500 years after the Babylonians and Sumerians learned to brew beer. - Sam Harris
To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man. - Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 1553
Democracy is not about majority rule; it is about minority rights. If there is no culture of not simply tolerating minorities, but actually treating them with equal rights, real democracy can't take root. - Thomas L. Friedman
We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason. - Thomas Macauley, 1830
It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important. - Martin Luther King, Jr.
We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason if we dig deep into our history and remember we are not descended from fearful men. - Edward R. Murrow
The deepest sin against the human mind is to believe things without evidence. Science is simply common sense at its best - that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic. - Thomas Huxley
There is no absurdity so obvious that it cannot be firmly planted in the human head if you only begin to impose it before the age of five, by constantly repeating it with an air of great solemnity. - Arthur Schopenhauer
Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. ... Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society. - President Thomas Jefferson
To be elected in America, no matter from what party, the candidates have no choice but to year after year pledge to lower taxes further and further. We have become the nation of Ken and Barbie, looking good but very poor at the math. - Rack Jite
Invisible Pink Unicorns are beings of great spiritual power. We know this because they are capable of being invisible and pink at the same time. Like all religions, the Faith of the Invisible Pink Unicorns is based upon both logic and faith. We have faith that they are pink; we logically know that they are invisible because we can't see them. - Steve Eley
We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. - President Franklin D. Roosevelt
I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn't actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle. - Molly Ivins
In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican. - H. L. Mencken
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. - Winston Churchill