Ace Double Reviews, 31: The Dragon Masters, by Jack Vance/The Last Castle, by Jack Vance (#16641, 1973, $0.95)
by Rich Horton
This is to some extent a cheat as an "Ace Double Review". I don't actually have a copy of this Ace Double. But I have just reviewed, at SF Site, the iBooks reissue of these two short novels, called simply The Dragon Masters, based on the Vance Integral Edition texts. It seemed to me that this would be a good opportunity to highlight Ace's practice, in the latter years of Ace Doubles, of repackaging previous Ace Double halves by the same author, originally paired with other books, as new Ace Doubles -- and as such as sort of "omnibus" editions. In addition to this Vance book, Ace did similar repackagings of pairs of stories by Mack Reynolds, Samuel R. Delany, E. C. Tubb, Philip K. Dick, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and others.
The Dragon Masters was originally in Galaxy, August 1962. It won the 1963 Best Short Fiction Hugo. In 1963 it appeared as an Ace Double, paired with Vance's early novel The Five Gold Bands. That pairing was reissued in 1972 -- then, oddly, in 1973 this Ace Double came out, pairing The Dragon Masters with The Last Castle. The latter story first appeared in the April 1966 Galaxy. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1967 it appeared as an Ace Double backed with Tony Wayman's World of the Sleeper (the only time Vance appeared in an Ace Double backed with another author). The Dragon Masters is about 34,000 words long, and The Last Castle is about 23,000 words. (The Last Castle is one of the shortest Ace Double halves I've seen, along with Poul Anderson's Mayday Orbit, which is about the same length. The combination of The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle may well be the shortest ever Ace Double -- however, it's also one of the very best.)
Jack Vance is one of the greatest SF writers of all time, an SFWA Grand Master, an inimitable prose stylist, as individual a writer as anyone. His career began in the late 40s, and continues to this day, with a new novel, Lurulu, rumoured to be in the publication pipeline.
Both The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are set in the far future, and both feature humans enslaving genetically modified aliens. In both stories the plot turns on a war between the humans and the aliens. Both stories are quite cynical, and our admiration for the heroes is tempered by our natural antipathy for some of their attitudes and actions.
In The Dragon Masters, humans have almost been eradicated. Those that remain are mostly slaves of aliens, modified for special uses; except on one planet, where a few remain free. Indeed, these free humans have captured some aliens and radically modified them for their own uses. The hero, Joaz Banbeck, is a very Vancean hero, dour, misogynistic, intelligent but resigned. He has determined that the aliens are due to return, and he tries to organize a defence while dealing with a foolish enemy in the next valley, and also with the reclusive humans who live underneath the ground. The story works its way to a logical and rather bitter and uncompromising conclusion. The science is not terribly plausible(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. And the prose is enjoyable as ever with Vance, if perhaps not tuned to the highest pitch of Vancean elegance.
In The Last Castle, a group of decadent humans have returned to a long-abandoned Earth and set up an effete society in several "castles". The labour is performed by various genetically conditioned alien races. For example, the Phanes are beautiful elfin creatures sometimes used as sexual playthings. The Peasants perform menial chores. And the Meks are a hivelike species used to maintain the technological underpinnings. The Meks have finally revolted, and using their control of the technology, they have destroyed all the castles, until only the strongest, Castle Hagedorn, remains. The story turns on the ineffectual attempts of the humans to resist -- most are too concerned with their "honour", unable to sully themselves by any hint of labour, to put up a real resistance. Others refuse to kill aliens for what seems an arguably just rebellion anyway. Only a few see that the only hope for humanity is to regain a semblance of a work ethic and to cast off the decadent ways of the aristocratic society. The prose and characterization here is more effective than in The Dragon Masters, but I thought the plot resolution less convincing.