The Dragon Masters by Jack Vance
Jack Vance won the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for this little gem of a tale which is a favorite of many of Vance’s fans, your present reviewer included. The story takes place vast millennia into the future on a planet known to its inhabitants as Aerlith. Aerlith is a harsh world, where slow rotation leads to long nights and days (analogous to several “earth” days). The human beings living on the planet are descended from spacefarers who fled an earlier interstellar war and who have lost all industrial knowledge as well as the capability of space flight. They may or may not be the last remnants of humanity. Every few generations or so, alien spaceships descend and wreak havoc, capturing as many humans as they can, leaving those who escape to try to rebuild their backward civilization among the rubble. The invaders are the “Dragons” of the title, intelligent lizard-like creatures known as greps or “Basics,” who as the years pass have selectively bred the humans they’ve captured and turned them into highly specialized warriors and beasts of burdens.
Generations before the beginning of the story, Kergan Banbeck, a leader of one the human settlements, turned the tables and captured a group of raiding greps (although not their spaceship), and began the process of selectively breeding the alien “Dragons” for use as warriors and mounts, just as the same greps have been breeding humans over the years. By the opening of the story, this process has produced humanity’s own “Dragons,” various types of greps known by such picturesque names as “Murders” (both “Striding” and “Long-Horned”), Blue Horrors, Juggers, and Spiders, to name just a few.
The protagonist of The Dragon Masters, a descendant of Kergan Banbeck named Joaz Banbeck, finds himself in conflict with a neighboring human settlement while at the same time trying to warn everyone that the time is near for another round of alien raids. Like many of Vance’s protagonists and heroes, Joaz has vision and a realistic reasoning ability that most of his contemporaries lack. He notes that whenever a neighboring star swings nearby every few decades the grep raids occur, but no one else thinks the coincidence has any connection with the raids.
As is also a usual Vance theme, the human societies on the planet are unique and eccentric. Besides the inhabitants of Banbeck Vale and its rival “Happy Valley,” there is a strange and mysterious group called the “Sacerdotes” of whom little is known, but who may have more advanced technology than the human inhabitants of the valleys. Sacerdotes believe that they themselves are the future of the human race, and that the inhabitants of the valleys are beneath them. They see themselves as observers rather than participants in the human struggle, until such time as Banbeck and the other “utter men” die out, leaving the Sacerdotes to return to the stars. They go about naked except for a golden torque and long hair, and will answer any question put to them truthfully, yet evasively, avoiding giving up their secrets. They are also loath to interfere in human affairs. Joaz is frustrated by their fatalistic approach and lack of willingness to help in countering what he sees as the approaching Basic incursion.
There’s quite a bit going on in this story, and I wish that Vance might have explored some of the themes at more length, but it has great characterization in the Vancian style, where in just a few well-chosen words he conveys a great deal about the personalities, hopes, dreams and fragilities of his actors. It lacks some of the dry humor that is more prevalent in the Cugel or LYONESSE stories, but stylistically it’s better than some of his more straightforward earlier stories. If you enjoy this story, I’d also suggest checking out his “The Miracle Workers” and “The Last Castle” which are novellas with similar themes.