Review: “The Dragon Masters” from The Hugo Winners, Volume II

(Or…Why I Don’t Like Fantasy, Explained, Part One)

I don’t like fantasy.

“But all fiction is fantasy… waaaaaah…”

Stop that. You know what I mean. Well, maybe you don’t. I know what I mean.

I mean Tolkein. Conan the Barbarian. Shanara. Xanth. Hell, I have trouble getting into Heinlein’s Glory Road, although I’ve read it three times. All good works, but I don’t like their flavor. Except Glory Road. (What is “Fantasy?” Stay tuned next week.) For whatever reason, I’ve just never cared for fantasy.

So, when I sat down to read the latest entry in Isaac Asimov’s The Hugo Winners and realized it was largely fantasy, I read with an extra critical eye. As a result, I gained some insights about what elements fantasy as a genre often contains—or does not contain—that make it a problem for me.

One might attempt to argue that Jack Vance’s “The Dragon Masters” is a science fiction story. I mean, it won a Hugo in 1962; but the Hugos’ rules governing content are not specific. I imagine Danielle Steel could win a Hugo, if enough members of WorldCon liked her latest book about love on a pontoon boat. (I’m not knocking Ms. Steel. I believe she’s a good storyteller. I just don’t read her stuff, as a rule.) I’ve long thought that science fiction fans, past a certain date, realized that they preferred dragon porn to space opera, time travel, or dystopia. “Dragon Lords” suggests that this change in taste is reflected in the genre’s most prestigious award, and that that certain date was sometime around 1962.

Arguing that it is science fiction, “The Dragon Lords” does involve space travel. It is set on another world long, long after Earth humans have colonized many worlds and long after they have been driven into exile on a few lonely planets. But Ms. Steel’s apocryphal tale of love on a pontoon boat is set on a world created in the aftermath of the Big Bang, and the people of that world have space travel. We’re all living in space and in someone’s future. That doesn’t make our stories science fiction. “The Dragon Lords,” as its name implies, is about feudalistic village people fighting each other with dragons. They also fight some bizarre and inhuman creatures. That those creatures are from another planet in the same solar system doesn’t make them substantially different from creatures that crawled out of the depths of Mordor.

SPOILERS. I reveal the whole plot below.

In the apartments of Joaz Banbeck, Phade the Minstrel Maiden stumbles across a naked man who disappears. (Side note: Nudity was very big in science fiction of the 1960s. So it might count with space travel and future history as a trope herein.) The man is a Sacerdote, a shadowy, cavern-dwelling figure who possesses secret knowledge. Phade alerts her boss, Joaz, but he’s agog that Ervis Carcolo wants to meet with him.

Insert pages of backstory here. The Banbecks and the Carcolos rule parts of Happy Valley. A generation ago, aliens from space (the Basics) landed and slaughtered (or kidnapped) lots of people. When the Basics left, the Banbecks and the Carcolos were so distraught that they went to war with each other. War and peace between these clans ebbed and flowed, and the Basics returned every five years to slaughter and kidnap more. Somewhere in there, the Banbecks and the Carcolos started breeding dragons.

Now, Joaz Banbeck believes that the Basics are due to return. He sends word to Carcolo that he’d better dig tunnels and move his people into them, as Joaz has done, or his village will be destroyed. Carcolo says, “Okay, let’s talk,” and they meet. They discuss the Sacerdotes, and how these secretive people might have access to doomsday weapons to fight the Basics. Carcolo wants to go torture Sacerdotes right now. Joaz says, “I like your thinking, but let’s live through the next Basic attack first.” Carcolo takes this as a straight refusal and is outraged.

So Carcolo attacks Banbeck’s village, is wounded and driven back. Meanwhile, the Sacerdote returns to Joaz’s apartment, is questioned, and apparently drops dead. Joaz steals his clothes and sneaks into the Sacerdote caverns. Joaz has a dream encounter with the Demie Sacerdote, the head honcho. Joaz asks for help fighting the Basics, Demie says his people do not need to be protected against the Basics.

So Joaz climbs back to the surface world and fights Carcolo some more. The Basics land, Carcolo calls for a truce, Joaz says, “You had your shot,” and leaves. While Joaz and Carcolo each fight the Basics, one of the Basics’ human thralls, a Weaponeer, comes to talk cease fire with Joaz. Joaz tries to persuade the Weaponeer to lead a revolt against his masters, seize their spaceship and go find “the Worlds of Men.” The Weaponeer is not swayed. Joaz refuses the cease fire. The battle continues.

Using dragons to winnow down the alien forces, Joaz and Carcolo meet as they both board the alien spaceship. It is protected by poison gas, but the Sacerdotes suddenly lash out with mysterious blue rays and destroy the Basics. Now the spaceship belongs to Joaz, and he says he will journey to find the worlds of men. Carcolo says, “Take me with you!” Joaz says, “I’d love the company!”

And then he orders Carcolo killed and takes over.

The End.

I’ve never read Jack Vance before. He has a good prose style, but this particular story doesn’t put him on my “must read” list. I’m not sure why it won the Hugo, except, as proposed, Dragon Porn. Powerful stuff. As with Danielle Steel, I mean no disrespect to the late Mr. Vance. I’m only critiquing why one story did not work for me.

Here are my issues with this story, and they can be extended to my experiences with a lot of fantasy stories:

No one is likable. I mean, there are characters I think I could like, if I knew more about them. Phade is a bit emotional but seems a decent sort. The three Sacerdotes we meet are not objectionable, but we never get to know them well enough. Carcolo and Banbeck, on the other hand, we know too well. They’re assholes. We only needed one of them. Yes, Banbeck came to the same conclusion and acted on it, but he waited 80 pages too long. And, in the end, an asshole was still in charge. A smarter asshole, but still.

Politics are more important than characters. In this case, perhaps that was Vance’s point. Banbeck and Carcolo cared so much about political power that they were blind to all else. They had no other reason to live. Okay, wry comment on the human condition, but, in the absence of someone who does have a better reason to live, why do I care?

There’s a lot to memorize. For instance, much time is expended detailing the different orders and species of dragons, but the dragons are no more important to this story than the phaser is to Star Trek. That is, sometimes they’re useful, but Star Trek was not titled, “The Phaser Masters.” Similarly, there are, for a novella, a lot of groups to keep track of: The Banbeck villagers, the Carcolo villagers, the Sacerdotes, the Basics, who include Heavy Troops, Weaponeers, and Trackers (all different species.) There’s a six-page history text near the beginning of the story.

If I have to keep flipping back several pages to remind myself of who a character is or whether a Tracker is a Basic dog or a Spider is a dragon, I’m gonna get lost. This level of active reading is not a deal-breaker for me, I should point out. I love Diana Gabaldon’s work, but I do need a character lexicon beside me at all times in order to keep up. (Was it Lizzie, Mary or Amy that crossed the Atlantic with Bree? And was she also the mother of Claire’s 17th adopted grandchild? Know, I know, Claire doesn’t have that many grandchildren… yet.)

Maybe I just have a bad memory?

Anyway, those are my reflections on my experiences with fantasy in general, filtered through my latest attempt to enjoy a fantasy story. And yes, I hear the clever among you saying, “Steve, Outlander is fantasy.”

And we’ll talk about that next time. In the meantime, feel free to tell me what fantasy story you think would change my mind.  

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