Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Flight of the Girls

The Irish are a diaspora people... for centuries, they have fled war, famine, poverty, and oppression, both foreign and domestic. They have faced exile and penal transportation. My dad's mom's parents were members of the diaspora- fleeing poverty in the early twentieth century (my great-grandfather had planned to emigrate to Australia, but while he was in San Francisco waiting to embark, the earthquake hit and he, a stonemason, was pressed into service rebuilding the city, actually living in a labor camp but receiving a decent wage, and decided to go back to New York, where he met my great-grandmother). I live in a neighborhood with a large Irish immigrant community, and every summer, we get an influx of young people from Ireland looking to work in construction or the restaurant/bar industry. My upstairs neighbor is an Irish gal raising two wonderful Yankee kids, and my next-door neighbors are Irish. Going to the bank, I overhear guys in paint-spattered pants asking how the craic is. I go to the local butcher to get house-made black pudding. The diaspora continues, though now there is more of a back-and-forth.

One of the watershed moments of the Irish diaspora was the Flight of the Earls, which saw the earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell leaving Ulster to seek help from the Spanish government in an attempt to throw off British sovereignty. The Flight of the Earls looms large in Irish folk history.

This weekend, though, saw a return of the diaspora population as many Irish abroad returned to Eire in order to vote on the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Looking at the pictures of returning émigrées, I have to say that the Flight of the Girls is an even more important event in Irish history as the Flight of the Earls (Smut Clyde informed me that this picture was actually taken at a pro "return to vote" performance art piece):

As an aside, I totally want to buy the girl in the glasses and the Ramones T-shirt a shot of Tullamore Dew. Gabba Gabba na Gael!

The Irish people voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eight Amendment which criminalized abortion. Once again, the population of Ireland has voted overwhelmingly to pursue liberal reforms- the first being the legalization of same-sex marriage. I have a prediction that this liberal vote, in the overwhelmingly Catholic Republic of Ireland, will cause a lot of angst among the right-wingers here in the United States. The Catholic Church in Ireland has been guilty of running a gulag system for young women, complete with forced labor and mass graves- they had lost the moral authority to weigh in on the abortion issue. A lot of Americans view Ireland as some sort of Candyland, toora loora lorra and all that shit. They want Ireland to be trapped in amber, a faraway land inhabited by leprechauns or smurfs. The voters of Ireland, and the emigrant Irish community proved to the world that they are modern, progressive people, people devoted to women's and minority rights.

This being a post about matters Irish, I would be remiss if I didn't post a song... the most appropriate one for this occasion is the haunting The Innocent and the Honest Ones by In Tua Nua:

That song was released thirty years ago- the Tuath na Gael have come a long way in the intervening years.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Fifth Anniversary of Jack Vance's Death

The reason why I decided to post about beloved Science Fiction and Fantasy author Jack Vance all week is the occasion of the fifth anniversary of his death. Vance was known for his baroque language, his spirited dialogue (often between characters trying to scam each other), and his unparalleled ability to invent weird planets and weirder societies... seriously, Jack Vance could throw up a dozen interesting planets in the course of a single novel. Jack Vance was also one of the major influences on Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons, with Vancian Magic being the preferred model for dweomercrafting, rather than a more traditional sympathetic magic approach. In his 'Dying Earth' story cycle, written while he was serving in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War and published in 1950, the wizards who haunt the moribund Earth are forced to commit discrete spells to memory with no knowledge of the dangers they may be facing. The tale Mazirian the Magician perfectly illustrates the trope:

The Magician climbed the stairs. Midnight found him in his study, poring through leather-bound tomes and untidy portfolios ... At one time a thousand or more runes, spells, incantations, curses and sorceries had been known. The reach of Grand Motholam—Ascolais, the Ide of Kauchique, Almery to the South, the Land of the Falling Wall to the East—swarmed with sorcerers of every description, of whom the chief was the Arch-Necromancer Phandaal. A hundred spells Phandaal personally had formulated—though rumor said that demons whispered at his ear when he wrought magic. Pontecilla the Pious, then ruler of Grand Motholam, put Phandaal to torment, and after a terrible night, he killed Phandaal and outlawed sorcery throughout the land. The wizards of Grand Motholam fled like beetles under a strong light; the lore was dispersed and forgotten, until now, at this dim time, with the sun dark, wilderness obscuring Ascolais, and the white city Kaiin half in ruins, only a few more than a hundred spells remained to the knowledge of man. Of these, Mazirian had access to seventy-three, and gradually, by stratagem and negotiation, was securing the others.

Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch.

Similarly, from the story Turjan of Miir in the same collection:

As he sat gazing across the darkening land, memory took Turjan to a night of years before, when the Sage had stood beside him.

"In ages gone," the Sage had said, his eyes fixed on a low star, "a thousand spells were known to sorcery and the wizards effected their wills. Today, as Earth dies, a hundred spells remain to man's knowledge, and these have come to us through the ancient books ... But there is one called Pandelume, who knows all the spells, all the incantations, cantraps, runes, and thaumaturgies that have ever wrenched and molded space .. ." He had fallen silent, lost in his thoughts.

"Where is this Pandelume?" Turjan had asked presently.

"He dwells in the land of Embelyon," the Sage had replied, "but where this land lies, no one knows."

"How does one find Pandelume, then?"

The Sage had smiled faintly. "If it were ever necessary, a spell exists to take one there."

Both had been silent a moment; then the Sage had spoken, staring out over the forest

"One may ask anything of Pandelume, and Pandelume will answer—provided that the seeker performs the service Pandelume requires. And Pandelume drives a hard bargain."

Then the Sage had shown Turjan the spell in question, which he had discovered in an ancient portfolio, and kept secret from all the world.

Turjan, remembering this conversation, descended to his study, a long low hall with stone walls and a stone floor deadened by a thick russet rug. The tomes which held Turjan's sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan's brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short blue cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel's Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

While there are no statistics out there, it's probably that reading Jack Vance in high school would add two hundred points to a test taker's SAT verbal score. It's the language which ultimately draws fans to Jack Vance's work- the worlds are beautifully detailed, the dialogue sprightly and droll, the characters (whether noble or despicable, and Vance has written some incredible villains and antiheroes) memorable, even if some of his more competent, heroic protagonists tend to blend together a bit. Vance provided the perfect escapism- his satirical content was applied with a light touch, his plots were often secondary to the sheer wall of glorious purple prose. He's been five years gone, but he'll be a part of my dreamscape for the rest of my life... and for that I will be forever grateful.

Friday, May 25, 2018

It's a Miracle, a Vancian Miracle!

Tomorrow being the fifth anniversary of the death of Science Fiction/Fantasy grandmaster Jack Vance, I figured that I would make this week Jack Vance Week- all Jack Vance, all week.

If one were to force me to pick a favorite work of fiction by Jack Vance, I would eventually have to conclude that

The Miracle Workers, a novella originally published in the July 1958 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, an illustration of one of the book's 'jinxmen' is a real beaut:

The electrical diagrams on the vestments of the jinxman are a particularly nice touch! I first encountered the story in the a library copy of the hardcover edition of the 1969 compilation Eight Fantasms and Magics, which I found in paperback at a library booksale years later.

I disagree with this review, being of the opinion that The Miracle Workers is better than The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle- the protagonist is a more genuinely (HEH) character, an amiable misfit who challenges a society which has stagnated to the point of peril, possible extinction. Like the societies depicted in the later The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle, the human society of The Miracle Workers' planet Pangborn is descended from spacefarers defeated in an interstellar war and taking refuge on a planet inhabited by insectlike autochthones, who they promptly began to slaughter:

Sixteen hundred years before, with war raging through space, a group of space captains, their home bases destroyed, had taken refuge on Pangborn. To protect themselves against vengeful enemies, they built great forts armed with weapons from the dismantled spaceships.

The wars receded, Pangborn was forgotten. The newcomers drove the First Folk into the forests, planted and harvested the river valleys. Ballant Keep, like Faide Keep, Castle Cloud, Boghoten, and the rest, overlooked one of these valleys. Four squat towers of a dense black substance supported an enormous parasol roof, and were joined by walls two-thirds as high as the towers. At the peak of the roof a cupola housed Volcano, the weapon corresponding to Faide’s Hellmouth.


During the first centuries of human settlement, sportive young men had hunted the First Folk with clubs and lances, eventually had driven them from their native downs into the forests.

In the intervening centuries, the humans of Pangborn descended into superstition and medievalism, with the voodoo-esque 'jinxmanship' replacing empiricism. The ancient 'miracle workers' are seen as superstitious sorcerors:

Peculiar, these ancient men! thought Lord Faide: at once so clever, yet so primitive and impractical. Conditions had changed; there had been enormous advances since the dark ages sixteen hundred years ago. For instance, the ancients had used intricate fetishes of metal and glass to communicate with each other. Lord Faide need merely voice his needs; Hein Huss could project his mind a hundred miles to see, to hear, to relay Lord Faide’s words. The ancients had contrived dozens of such objects, but the old magic had worn away and they never seemed to function.

The action of the novella begins as one of the planet's feudal rulers, Lord Faide, is consolidating his power over the other keep lords. The military action between human armies depends on the use of mannikins to induce pain or terror into enemies and the use of 'demons' (the 'rights' to which can be traded between jinxmen) to possess soldiers in order to confer to them superhuman ferocity, agility, or vitality:

“Listen then. What happens when I hoodoo a man? First I must enter into his mind telepathically. There are three operational levels: the conscious, the unconscious, the cellular. The most effective jinxing is done if all three levels are influenced. I feel into my victim, I learn as much as possible, supplementing my previous knowledge of him, which is part of my stock in trade. I take up his doll, which carries his traces. The doll is highly useful but not indispensable. It serves as a focus for my attention; it acts as a pattern, or a guide, as I fix upon the mind of the victim, and he is bound by his own telepathic capacity to the doll which bears his traces.

“So! Now! Man and doll are identified in my mind, and at one or more levels in the victim’s mind. Whatever happens to the doll the victim feels to be happening to himself. There is no more to simple hoodooing than that, from the standpoint of the jinxman. But naturally the victims differ greatly. Susceptibility is the key idea here. Some men are more susceptible than others. Fear and conviction breed susceptibility. As a jinxman succeeds he becomes ever more feared, and consequently the more efficacious he becomes. The process is self-generative.

“Demon-possession is a similar technique. Susceptibility is again essential; again conviction creates susceptibility. It is easiest and most dramatic when the characteristics of the demon are well known, as in the case of Comandore’s Keyril. For this reason, demons can be exchanged or traded among jinxmen. The commodity actually traded is public acceptance and familiarity with the demon.”

“Demons then do not actually exist?” inquired Lord Faide half-incredulously.

Hein Huss grinned vastly, showing enormous yellow teeth. “Telepathy works through a superstratum. Who knows what is created in this superstratum? Maybe the demons live on after they have been conceived; maybe they now are real. This of course is speculation, which we jinxmen shun.

“So much for demons, so much for the lesser techniques of jinxmanship. I have explained sufficient to serve as background to the present situation.”

The opening scene involves a war party from Faide Keep encountering a trap-filled forest planting created by the planet's natives... to locate the traps in the planting, the novella's protagonist, bumbling apprentice jinxman Sam Salazar (my favorite Vance character), is considered the most expendable person, and tasked to prod the perilous planting in order to ensure the safety of head jinxman Hein Huss... leading to some of Vance's trademark brilliant dialogue:

“Send someone to speak to the First Folk. Inform them we wish to pass, offering them no harm, but that we will react savagely to any hostility.”

“I will go myself,” said Hein Huss. He turned to Comandore, “Lend me, if you will, your brash young apprentice. I can put him to good use.”

“If he unmasks a nettle trap by blundering into it, his first useful deed will be done,” said Comandore. He signaled to Sam Salazar, who came reluctantly forward. “Walk in front of Head Jinxman Hein Huss that he may encounter no traps or scythes. Take a staff to probe the moss.”

Without enthusiasm Sam Salazar borrowed a lance from one of the foot soldiers. He and Huss set forth, along the low rise that previously had separated North from South Wildwood. Occasionally outcroppings of stone penetrated the cover of moss; here and there grew bayberry trees, clumps of tarplant, ginger-tea, and rosewort.

A half mile from the planting Huss halted. “Now take care, for here the traps will begin. Walk clear of hummocks, these often conceal swing-scythes; avoid moss which shows a pale blue; it is dying or sickly and may cover a deadfall or a nettle trap.”
“Why cannot you locate the traps by clairvoyance?” asked Sam Salazar in a rather sullen voice. “It appears an excellent occasion for the use of these faculties.”

“The question is natural,” said Hein Huss with composure. “However you must know that when a jinxman’s own profit or security is at stake his emotions play tricks on him. I would see traps everywhere and would never know whether clairvoyance or fear prompted me. In this case, that lance is a more reliable instrument than my mind.”

Sam Salazar made a salute of understanding and set forth, with Hein Huss stumping behind him. At first he prodded with care, uncovering two traps, then advanced more jauntily; so swiftly indeed that Huss called out in exasperation, “Caution, unless you court death!”

Sam Salazar obligingly slowed his pace. “There are traps all around us, but I detect the pattern, or so I believe.”

“Ah, ha, you do? Reveal it to me, if you will. I am only Head Jinxman, and ignorant.”

“Notice. If we walk where the spore-pods have recently been harvested, then we are secure.”

Hein Huss grunted. “Forward then. Why do you dally? We must do battle at Ballant Keep today.”

Two hundred yards farther, Sam Salazar stopped short. “Go on, boy, go on!” grumbled Hein Huss.

“The savages threaten us. You can see them just inside the planting. They hold tubes which they point toward us.”
Hein Huss peered, then raised his head and called out in the sibilant language of the First Folk.

A moment or two passed, then one of the creatures came forth, a naked humanoid figure, ugly as a demonmask. Foam-sacs bulged under its arms, orange-lipped foam-vents pointed forward. Its back was wrinkled and loose, the skin serving as a bellows to blow air through the foam-sacs. The fingers of the enormous hands ended in chisel-shaped blades, the head was sheathed in chitin. Billion-faceted eyes swelled from either side of the head, glowing like black opals, merging without definite limit into the chitin. This was a representative of the original inhabitants of the planet, who until the coming of man had inhabited the downs, burrowing in the moss, protecting themselves behind masses of foam exuded from the underarm sacs.

The creature wandered close, halted. “I speak for Lord Faide of Faide Keep,” said Huss. “Your planting bars his way. He wishes that you guide him through, so that his men do not damage the trees, or spring the traps you have set against your enemies.”

“Men are our enemies,” responded the autochthon. “You may spring as many traps as you care to; that is their purpose.” It backed away.

“One moment,” said Hein Huss sternly. “Lord Faide must pass. He goes to battle Lord Ballant. He does not wish to battle the First Folk. Therefore it is wise to guide him across the planting without hindrance.”

The creature considered a second or two. “I will guide him.” He stalked across the moss toward the war party.
Behind followed Hein Huss and Sam Salazar. The autochthon, legs articulated more flexibly than a man’s, seemed to weave and wander, occasionally pausing to study the ground ahead.

“I am puzzled,” Sam Salazar told Hein Huss. “I cannot understand the creature’s actions.”

“Small wonder,” grunted Hein Huss. “He is one of the First Folk, you are human. There is no basis for understanding.”

“I disagree,” said Sam Salazar seriously.

“Eh?” Hein Huss inspected the apprentice with vast disapproval. “You engage in contention with me, Head Jinxman Hein Huss?”

“Only in a limited sense,” said Sam Salazar. “I see a basis for understanding with the First Folk in our common ambition to survive.”

“A truism,” grumbled Hein Huss. “Granting this community of interests with the First Folk, what is your perplexity?”
“The fact that it first refused, then agreed to conduct us across the planting.”

Hein Huss nodded. “Evidently the information which intervened, that we go to fight at Ballant Keep, occasioned the change.”
“This is clear,” said Sam Salazar. “But think—”

“You exhort me to think?” roared Hein Huss.

“—here is one of the First Folk, apparently without distinction, who makes an important decision instantly. Is he one of their leaders? Do they live in anarchy?”

“It is easy to put questions,” Hein Huss said gruffly. “It is not as easy to answer them.”

“In short—”

“In short, I do not know. In any event, they are pleased to see us killing one another.”

Subsequently, the humans come into conflict with the natives, who have developed biological weapons:

“Notice, they carry tubes,” said Scolford.

“Blowguns possibly,” suggested Edwin.

Scolford disagreed. “They cannot blow through their foam-vents.”

“No doubt we shall soon learn,” said Lord Faide. He rose in his seat, called to the rear. “Ready with the darts!”

The soldiers raised their crossbows. The column advanced slowly, now only a hundred yards from the planting. The white shapes of the First Folk moved uneasily at the forest’s edges. Several of them raised their tubes, seemed to sight along the length. They twitched their great hands.

One of the tubes was pointed toward Lord Faide. He saw a small black object leave the opening, flit forward, gathering speed. He heard a hum, waxing to a rasping, clicking flutter. He ducked behind the windscreen; the projectile swooped in pursuit, struck the windscreen like a thrown stone. It fell crippled upon the forward deck of the car—a heavy black insect like a wasp, its broken proboscis oozing ocher liquid, horny wings beating feebly, eyes like dumbbells fixed on Lord Faide. With his mailed fist, he crushed the creature.

Behind him other wasps struck knights and men; Corex Faide-Battaro took the prong through his visor into the eye, but the armor of the other knights defeated the wasps. The foot soldiers, however, lacked protection; the wasps half buried themselves in flesh. The soldiers called out in pain, clawed away the wasps, squeezed the wounds. Corex Faide-Battaro toppled from his horse, ran blindly out over the heath, and after fifty feet fell into a trap. The stricken soldiers began to twitch, then fell on the moss, thrashed, leaped up to run with flapping arms, threw themselves in wild somersaults, forward, backward, foaming and thrashing.

It is later revealed that the natives have adopted the methods of the ancient human 'miracle workers' to defeat their human enemies:

"‘There are always more in the cells to replace the elements which die. But if the community becomes sick, all suffer. We have been forced into the forests, into a strange existence. We must arm ourselves and drive away the men, and to this end we have developed the methods of men to our own purposes!’

“Isak Comandore spoke. “Needless to say, the creature referred to the ancient men, not ourselves.”

“In any event,” said Lord Faide, “they leave no doubt as to their intentions. We should be fools not to attack them at once, with every weapon at our disposal.”

Hein Huss continued imperturbably. “The creature went on at some length. ‘We have learned the value of irrationality.’ ‘Irrationality’ of course was not his word or even his meaning. He said something like ‘a series of vaguely motivated trials’—as close as I can translate. He said, ‘We have learned to change our environment. We use insects and trees and plants and waterslugs. It is an enormous effort for us who would prefer a placid life in the moss. But you men have forced this life on us, and now you must suffer the consequences.’ I pointed out once more that men were not helpless, that many First Folk would die. The creature seemed unworried. ‘The community persists.’ I asked a delicate question, ‘If your purpose is to kill men, why do you allow us here?’ He said, ‘The entire community of men will be destroyed.’ Apparently they believe the human society to be similar to their own, and therefore regard the killing of three wayfaring individuals as pointless effort.”

Realizing that the natives have developed heretofore unknown military prowess, Hein Huss, his chief rival Isak Comandore, and Sam Salazar travel to one of the First Folk's safe Forest Markets in order to determine if a counter to the natives' techniques can be developed via jinxmanship. Once again, Sam Salazar proves to be the most awesome character in Vance's oeuvre:

Isak Comandore, nominal head of the expedition, spoke. “We rode along the river bank to Forest Market. Here was no sign of disorder or of hostility. A hundred First Folk traded timber, planks, posts, and poles for knife blades, iron wire, and copper pots. When they returned to their barge we followed them aboard, wagon, horses, and all. They showed no surprise—”
“Surprise,” said Hein Huss heavily, “is an emotion of which they have no knowledge.”

Isak Comandore glared briefly. “We spoke to the barge-tenders, explaining that we wished to visit the interior of Wildwood. We asked if the First Folk would try to kill us to prevent us from entering the forest. They professed indifference as to either our well-being or our destruction. This was by no means a guarantee of safe conduct; however, we accepted it as such, and remained aboard the barge.” He spoke on with occasional emendations from Hein Huss.
They had proceeded up the river, into the forest, the First Folk poling against the slow current. Presently they put away the poles; nevertheless the barge moved as before. The mystified jinxmen discussed the possibility of teleportation, or symboligical force, and wondered if the First Folk had developed jinxing techniques unknown to men. Sam Salazar, however, noticed that four enormous water beetles, each twelve feet long with oil-black carapaces and blunt heads, had risen from the river bed and pushed the barge from behind—apparently without direction or command.

The plot of the story reaches an inevitable climax as humans and natives wage war. The denouement of the novella is particularly satisfying, but you'll have to read it yourself... I've already cut-and-pasted too much of the novella into this blog post. If you are a fan of Science Fantasy, I would urge you to purchase the ebook. It's a great introduction to Jack Vance, mixing swashbuckling action, evocation of a sense of wonder, A celebration of the scientific method, and sidesplitting humor. You'll thank me.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Vance's Hugo and Nebula Awards

In keeping with this being Jack Vance week, this coming Saturday being the 5th anniversary of Jack's passing, I figured I would comment on some of Jack's award winning writings. He won the 1962 Best Short Fiction Hugo for The Dragon Masters and 1967 Best Novella/Novelette Hugo and Nebula awards for The Last Castle. These two works are related thematically- they both concern human populations which have enslaved intelligent alien species and bred them for various tasks, such as waging war or providing transportation.

The Dragon Masters was originally published in the August 1962 edition of Galaxy magazine. Besides being a typical 'planetary romance', the long short story can be interpreted as an allegory of the arms race. The plot of the story concerns an isolated population of humans, stranded on a distant planet in the aftermath of an interstellar war and unsure of the current status of the bulk of humanity:

“You know the legends as well as I, perhaps better. Our people came to Aerlith as exiles during the War of the Ten Stars. The Nightmare Coalition apparently had defeated the Old Rule, but how the war ended—” he threw up his hands — “who can say?”


Carcolo sidled close, prodded Joaz with his forefinger.“We know nothing of the outer worlds. We are marooned on this miserable planet of stone and wind while life passes us by. You assume that Basics rule the cluster. But suppose you are wrong? Suppose the Old Rule has returned? Think of the rich cities,the gay resorts, the palaces, the pleasure-islands! Look up into the night sky. Ponder the bounties which might be ours! You ask how can we implement these desires? I respond, the process maybe so simple that the sacerdotes will reveal it without reluctance.”“You mean —?”

“Communication with the worlds of men! Deliverance from this lonely little world at the edge of the universe!”

Joaz Banbeck nodded dubiously. “A fine vision. But the evidence suggests a situation far different, namely the destruction of man and the Human Empire.”

Separated from the bulk of humanity, the population has stagnated, devolving to feudal societies using technologies from the early age of gunpowder. In their vulnerable state, they are subject to periodic invasions by slave-taking reptilian aliens who breed their human captives to fill various martial capacities. One such invasion goes awry due to the vicissitudes of the planet's weather, and an ancestor of the tale's protagonist manages to capture some of the aliens. Vance denies moral superiority to his human protagonists- they subject their captives, dubbed Basics, to the same enslavement and genetic manipulation that the aliens are guilty of- breeding them into the dragons of the title: Termagants, Blue Horrors, Long Horned Murderers, Striding Murderers, Fiends, Juggers, and Spiders.

In the course of the story, the Basics, accompanied by their human cannon fodder, stage their periodic invasion of the planet:

“Look you,these Basics are neither ghouls nor angels of death. They are no more than pallid Termagants, the basic stock of our dragons."


Phade stared at the queer pale shapes who had come tentatively out on the ramp. “They seemstrange and twisted, like silverpuzzles for children.”

“They are the Basics. From their eggs came our dragons.They have done as well with men: look, here are their Heavy Troops.”

Down the ramp, four abreast,in exact cadence, marched the Heavy Troops, to halt fifty yards in front of the ship. There were three squads of twenty: short squat men with massive shoulders, thick necks and stern, down-drawn faces. They wore armor fashioned from overlapping scales of black and blue metal,a wide belt slung with pistol and sword. Black epaulets, extending past their shoulders, supported a short ceremonial flap of black cloth ranging down their backs.Their helmets bore a crest of sharp spikes. Their knee-high boots were armed with kick-knives.

A number of Basics now rode forth. Their mounts were creatures only remotely resembling men. They ran on hands and feet, backs high off the ground. Their heads were long and hairless, with quivering loose lips.

In the ensuing battle, the protagonist uses broken terrain and his specially-bred dragons to counter the aliens' technological advantages. There is also a wild-card... a secretive human population living in caverns under the planet's surface, espousing a doctrine of non-interference and a prophecy of a resurgence after their 'inferiors' on the surface are utterly defeated. The tide of battle is ultimately determined by sheer numbers of cannon fodder, as the dragons can be bred in larger numbers and greater variety:

“Only two dozen? Perhaps they are hard to breed. Generations pass slowly with men; dragons lay a clutch of eggs every year."

There is also a timely intervention by combatants wielding what boils down to a wave motion gun.

Rereading The Dragon Masters, I noticed that it is less flowery than much of Vance's other works. The adjective use is almost restrained, the dialogue not as baroque as that in other Vance novels. It's a quick read, and the satirical/allegorical content sneaks up on the readers while they are occupied with a bunch of kaiju battles.

The Last Castle concerns a population of aristocrats who have forgotten how to work because they have delegated all of their tasks to various alien species, particularly the vaguely anthropoid Meks:

A specimen in a museum case,was a man-like creature native,in his original version, to a planet of Etamin. His tough rusty-bronze hide glistened metallically as if oiled or waxed. The spines thrusting back from scalp and neck shone like gold, and indeed they were coated with a conductive copper-chrome film. His sense organs were gathered in clusters at the site of a man’s ears; his visage—it was often a shock, walking the lower corridors, to come suddenly upon a Mek—was corrugated muscle,not dissimilar to the look of an uncovered human brain. His maw, a vertical irregular cleft at the base of this “face’, was an obsolete organ by reason of the syrup sac which had been introduced under the skin of the shoulders, and the digestive organs, originally used to extract nutrition from decayed swamp vegetation and coelenterates,had atrophied. The Mek typically wore no garment except possibly a work apron or a tool-belt,and in the sunlight his rust-bronze skin made a handsome display. This was the Mek solitary, a creature intrinsically as effective as man—perhaps more by virtue of his superb brain which also functioned as a radio transceiver. Working in the mass,by the teeming thousands, he seemed less admirable, less competent: a hybrid of sub-man and cockroach.

It is this contempt for the Meks that leads to the downfall of their aristocratic masters, and Vance's human characters echo some of the horrendous arguments that current apologists for slavery try to employ:

In spite of such research, theMek revolt came as an utter sur-prise, no less to Claghom, D. R.Jardine and Salonson than toanyone else. Why? asked every-one. How could a group so longsubmissive have contrived somurderous a plot?

The most reasonable conjecture was also the simplest: the Mek resented servitude and hated the Earthmen who had removed him from his natural environment. Those who argued against this theory claimed that it projected human emotions and attitudes into a non-human organism, that the Mek had every reason to feel gratitude toward the gentlemen who had liberated him from the conditions of Etamin Nine.

One hears this kind of bullshit a lot from right-wing types...

The plot involves the defense of the last human stronghold against the revolt of their specially bred alien slaves, which even include their 'cars':

Power-wagons, like the Meks, were originally swamp-creatures from Etamin 9. They were great rectangular slabs of muscle, slung into a rectangular frame and protected from sunlight, insects and rodents by a synthetic pelt. Syrup sacs communicated with their digestive apparatus, wires led to motor nodes in the rudimentary brain. The muscles were clamped to rocker arms which actuated rotors and drive-wheels. The power-wagons were economical, long-lived and docile, and so they were principally used for heavy cartage earth-moving, heavy-tillage, and other arduous jobs.

Both The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are thematically similar to perhaps my favorite Jack Vance work, 1958's The Miracle Workers, which also involves a regressed, isolated human population coping with an insurgency of the natives of the planet they have colonized. I find The Miracle Workers to be a superior story, though, having a fantastic protagonist and some entertaining secondary characters. The human characters in The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are pretty despicable people, their careers of evil making their struggles for survival less urgent to this reader. I think I'll tackle The Miracle Workers in tomorrow's post- the theme of employing empiricism to pursue one's goals is particularly appealing to me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Continuing Jack Vance Week Here...

Since the fifth anniversary of the death of Jack Vance is this coming Saturday, I have decided to continue Jack Vance week, having been a huge fan of Jack Vance since my youth. One of the tropes common to Jack Vance's oeuvre is the protagonist's encounters with unscrupulous business professionals proffering dubious services. Perhaps the funniest of these scenes is stranded Earthman Adam Reith's encounter with a professional assassin in the hilariously titled Servants of the Wankh, the second book in his 'Planet of Adventure' series. Earlier in the book, the same protagonist encounters another sort of tradesman, who runs afoul of the supercilious renegade Dirdirman (a member of a human population kidnapped from Earth millennia ago by the sinister, spacefaring Dirdir and bred to serve, and ultimately resemble their captors) Ankhe at Afram Anacho:

An hour later, clean and refreshed, the four met in the downstairs lobby. Here they were accosted by a black-haired blackeyed man with a pinched melancholy face. He spoke in a gentle voice. "You are newly arrived at Coad?"

Anacho, instantly suspicious, drew himself back. "Not altogether. We are well-known and have no needs."

"I represent the Slave-taker's Guild, and this is my fair appraisal of your group. The girl is valuable, the boy less so. Dirdirmen are generally considered worthless except in clerical or administrative servitude, for which we have no demand. You would be rated a winkle-gatherer or a nut-huller, of no great value.

This man, whatever he is, appears capable of toil, and would sell for the standard rate. Considering all, your insurance will be ten sequins a week."

"Insurance against what?" demanded Reith.

"Against being taken and sold," murmured the agent. "There is a heavy demand for competent workers. But for ten sequins a week," he declared triumphantly, "you may walk the streets of Coad night and day, secure as though the demon Harasthy rode your shoulders! Should you be sequestered by an unauthorized dealer the Guild will instantly order your free release."

Reith stood back, half-amused, half-disgusted. Anacho spoke in his most nasal voice: "Show me your credentials."

" 'Credentials'?" asked the man, his chin sagging."Show us a document, a blazon, a patent. What? You have none? Do you take us for fools? Be off with you!"

The man walked somberly away. Reith asked, "Was he in truth a fraud?"

"One never knows, but the line must be drawn somewhere."

Planet of Adventure is a pretty good introduction to Vance. It's got a pretty simple 'planetary romance' plot- an Earthman, a hypercompetent military scout stranded on a strange planet by a sneak attack on his 'mothership' is forced to fight his way through strange aliens and stranger humans (taken from Earth and bred to be clients of various contending aliens) in order to obtain a spacecraft so he can return to Earth to warn the authorities of various hostile alien species. In some ways, it's Vance's 'love letter' to Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Barsoom' novels (complete with savage giant green-skinned nomads), though Vance was a lot funnier than Burroughs.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Should I Make this a Jack Vance Week?

So far, I have put up two posts about Jack Vance this week, and seeing that the fifth anniversary of the great science fiction grandmaster's death is this coming Saturday, I may just make it a Jack Vance week. Current events will be just as stupid, just as worthy of skewering, next week.

Speaking of stupid current events, Trump has decided to use his office to attack Amazon- I suspect it's because Jeff Bezos is a lot richer than he as, as well as being owner of The Washington Post. I haven't bought anything from Amazon in years, but I think I will make an exception just to spite Vulgarmort. Jack Vance's two best known mystery novels are finally available in affordable editions, and it behooves me to buy them. The shop at the Jack Vance website is Paypal only, so I figure buying hard copies is preferable to having to set up an account with yet another 'evil empire'.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Another Vance Mystery

Yesterday's post concerned a mystery novel written by Jack Vance, perhaps my favorite author, under the aegis of the Ellery Queen Industrial Complex. Jack Vance typically wrote his mysteries under his full birth name, John Holbrook Vance, and won an Edgar Award for best first mystery novel (he had written previous science fiction novels) for 1960's The Man in the Cage. The book, until recently, had been prohibitively expensive to buy, but it was adapted for an episode of the television anthology show Boris Karloff's Thriller:

The big takeaway from watching this is that one should NEVER imprison a Jack Vance protagonist- that only leads to heartache and eventual defeat. I also enjoyed the twist at the end of the plot with regards to the police informant who saves the day.