Ace Double Reviews, 3: The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance/The Five Gold Bands, by Jack Vance (#F-185, 1963, $0.40, reissued in 1972 as #16640, $0.95)
by Rich Horton
Jack Vance published quite a few stories as parts of Ace Doubles. Unusually, almost every Ace Double he appeared in featured one of his stories backed with another of his stories, as in this case. A total of 13 Ace Double halves were by Vance, in seven different books (not counting reissues of The Dragon Masters/The Five Gold Bands and Son of the Tree/The Houses of Iszm). The only author to be featured in an Ace Double with Vance was Tony Russell Wayman, whose World of the Sleeper was backed with The Last Castle in 1967. However, you don't need to sully your Vance collection with Wayman's work -- The Last Castle was later reissued in another Ace Double backed with The Dragon Masters. (Thus, The Dragon Masters was issued three times as an Ace Double, twice with The Five Gold Bands and once with The Last Castle.) Accounting for duplications, a total of 11 different Vance "books" were halves of Ace Doubles (including two story collections and a fixup).
The first Ace Double of The Dragon Masters backed with The Five Gold Bands was published in 1963. That year "The Dragon Masters", which had appeared in the August 1962 Galaxy, won the Hugo for Best Short Fiction. (The other contenders were stories by Leiber, Sturgeon, Swann, and, surprisingly enough, Gary Jennings.) The Dragon Masters, in the Ace edition (and I have no reason to believe this differs from the Galaxy publication), is about 34,000 words long. The Five Gold Bands is rather longer at some 44,000 words. It first appeared in the November 1950 Startling Stories. It was also published in 1953 in a paperback from an outfit called Toby Press, of which I had never heard, under the title The Space Pirate. This was his second book. The Toby Press edition is available from Abebooks for prices ranging from $15 to $100, with most prices in the $45 to $75 area. (This isn't nearly as expensive as Vance's first hardcover, also from 1953, the Winston Press edition of Vandals of the Void, which will run you at least $140 for a copy with dust jacket (as little as merely $75 w/o dj), and as much as $375.)
The Five Gold Bands is basically a pure potboiler, with very little classical Vancian charm. It's still quite entertaining, though, and it does have some nice Vance aliens (or modified humans). The hero is Earth-born thief Paddy Blackthorn, who tries to steal some space drives. The secret of the drives is known only to the five Sons of Langtry, each a much-altered human from a different planet, and space drives are doled out very sparingly, especially to the detested Earthmen. Sentenced to death, Paddy manages to escape and kill the Sons, and to steal the title objects which include, treasure hunt fashion, clues to the location of the space drive plans. Paddy becomes the object of an interstellar manhunt, while, with the help of a beautiful Earth agent who gets to him first, he tracks down the space drive plans based on the clues in the bands. It's good fun, if totally unbelievable, and riddled with plot and world-building holes.
While in prose style this book is uncharacteristic of classic Vance, the cultural setup at least hints at later Vance. More interestingly, in this context, the much-altered human types -- different enough to be aliens -- strongly foreshadow the altered humans in The Dragon Masters.
The Dragon Masters is very good, though I'd rank it below Vance's best stuff. As I have said, it shares with The Five Gold Bands (otherwise a thoroughly different story) the theme of radical modification of humans. In this case, in the very far future, humans have almost been eradicated. Those that remain are either slaves of aliens, modified for special uses; except on one planet, where a few remain free. The aliens have visited this planet on occasion, but then leave for long times. In the past, the free humans have captured some aliens and radically modified them for their own uses.
The hero, Joaz Banbeck, a very Vancian hero, dour, misogynistic, intelligent but resigned, has determined that the aliens are due to return, and he tries to organize a defense while dealing with a foolish enemy in the next valley, and also with the reclusive humans who live underneath the ground. The book is quite dour, with a rather bitter and uncompromising conclusion. The science is typically silly (though I can think of ways to paper over the worst bits), but the description is good, and the action is sound. The story moves well and fascinates. Certainly worth reading, though as I said Vance has done better.