Friday, May 19, 2017

The Dragon Masters and their beasties.

In a previous entry, Jon Mollison mentioned the races in The Dragon Masters. He's correct, and the main weapon used in the conflict between the two human kingdoms and, later, between humans and the "Basic" (or Grephs) are living organism, selectively-bred from the original stock of their enemies. The humans use grephs, and the grephs use humans. 

This genetic arms race and its panoply of creatures may be a bit confusing. Jack Vace had a knack for descriptions, but there is a limit to what words can convey, not to mention that in this story Vance doesn't seem to have bothered giving detailed descriptions of the creatures (perhaps he knew someone was going to draw them?) Luckily, there's another way! 

The original story was published in Galaxy, August 1962, and it was supplemented by awesome drawings of the various creatures. I can understand why so many (now famous writers) young people mentioned this story as the reason they fell in love with Vance, but it wouldn't surprise me if the drawings by Jack Gaughan also helped a bit.

Use these sketches as a visual aid if you are reading (or rereading) The Dragon Masters.

-The Basics (or Grephs): Space-faring and technologically advanced. They look somewhat insectoid/reptilian and are gray or "pearl-pallid"



-The Spider: they serve as mounts for the humans.

"A few minutes later Joaz Banbeck appeared on Banbeck Verge riding a Spider caparisoned in gray and red velvet."


-The Striding Murderers: Described as the cousins of the Long-horned Murderers. In one sentence they are described as "silken." From the description of a battle,  they seem to have the function of "light cavalry."



-Long-horned Murderers: If the Striding Murderers were "light cavalry," these are clearly the equivalent of Heavy Cavalry.

"Long-horned Murderers, their fantastic chest-spikes tipped with steel.[...] steel-spiked and crested with steel prongs; [...] Banneck's long-horned Murderers came circling, struck from the flank into Carcolo's Striding Murderers, goring with steel-tipped horns, impaling on lances."




-Other beasties:

1. Jugger: They are massive, brutal, well-armored, and not very intelligent.

2.Blue Horror: Intelligent, massive, agile, quick, and good climbers.

3.Fiends:

"black-green [...] useless on the cliffs [...] low to the ground, immensely strong, tail tipped with a steel barbel [...] Flanking the Juggers marched the Fiends, carrying heavy cutlasses, flourishing their terminal steel balls as a scorpion carries his sting."



-Termagaunt: apparently, the most common "dragon."

"the rust-red Termagant [...] the fecund Termagant [...] Ervis Carcolo turned away, pretended to watch a pair of Termagants exercising with wooden scimitars. [...] small active dragons with rust-red scales, narrow darting heads, chisel-sharp fangs.

"A man pitted against a Termagant stood no chance, for the scales warded off bullets as well as any blow the man might have strength enough to deal"

Termagant is an odd word. According to wiktionary, it means:

1.A quarrelsomescolding woman, especially one who is old and shrewish
2.(obsolete) A boisterous, brawling, turbulent person, whether male or female. 

Perhaps it's another Vancian joke. 

In any event, Warhammer 40K fans might recognize the word because one of the Tyranid creatures is called Termagaunt. I suspect this is not a coincidence because the Tyranids use all sort of bio-weapons and also engage in some kind of genetic engineering (with themselves, though,) not to mention that this is how Vance's Termagant looks, compared to how W40K Termagaunts originally looked.






But the Basics (named like that by the humans because they are the basic template for all the other creatures*) also practiced their own form of selective breeding. In fact, they probably started it and it seems it's part of their species worldview or "political" ideology. Their goal seems to be to "integrate" the other species they encounter, to make them into slaves, weapons, and so on. Of course, the book only mentions their conflicts with the remaining humans, so we don't know what else are they doing out there, but I like the theory that they are doing this with all the intelligent species they encounter.




Really, after seeing these images, I think these creatures would be a great addition to any D&D campaign or, even, to some tabletop wargame. I mean, the Dragons are almost begging to be converted into miniatures.


*Ironically, the Greph probably see themselves as the Basic or original creature too, but for different reasons and with another meaning in mind.

Monday, May 15, 2017

June Puppy - An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity

The passage of the 2017 E. Pluribus Anus rules changes coupled with the Sad Puppies breaking the leash and wandering away from the Hugo yard means that there really aren't a whole lot of official Puppy options to choose from these days.  You probably noticed that already, given how the Club's selections run more toward the Appendix N end of the spectrum than the Puppy end.  Well, now you know why.

But that's an explanation, not an excuse, and there's really no excuse for not selecting the ONE best novel nomination by either camp.  Which means that J. Mulrooney's An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity, the Rabid Puppy selection for best novel, is now the Puppy of the Month selection for June.

This is one of those fun novels that I fully intend to dive into completely blind.  All I know is that if it's good enough for the Supreme Dark Lord, it's good enough for the Club.   

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Dragon Master Races

The second quarter of this book opens things up in the races department.  We've already been introduced to the default (point of view) race of which Joaz, Phade, and Ervis are members.  We've heard of the Basics and their human-slaves, who seem to be altered genetic through means either natural or foul.  We've seen the airy aloofness of the sacredotes.

It turns out the sacredotes are a sub-race of humans.  Cave dwellers who take vows of honestly answering any question posed to them, but forbidden from otherwise interfering in the affairs of man.

Do I have this right?  The dragons are the degenerate Basics, cross bred to serve the Valley People?  If so, that implies that there's a genetic war going on in which the Basics and the Humans steal each other's progeny to create the weapons used to fight the next cycle of war.  It's war by janissaries on both sides.

Either way, the limited geography of the story combined with the science fiction setting strongly reminds me of a Traveller post by Jeffro.  In an old issue of Space Gamer one of the grognards of Traveller explained how he turned Lieber's "A Pail of Air" into a full session adventure for a randomly rolled planet.  You could very easily use "Dragon Masters" in the same way.  The planet's denizens are stuck at the bottom of the gravity well, but they know all about the old interstellar empire.  They have their own aims and goals and squabbles, and no ability to leave their home world.  Which is not to say they aren't dangerous.  Which makes this the perfect sandbox for a sci-fi game.




If the players crash landed on the surface of this planet, and needed one of the sacerdotal prayer sculptures to repair a vital ship's component, a decent GM could milk that premise for weeks of playtime.  Just figuring out how the place works and discovering the hidden back story could fill up several sessions of play.

This neatly resolves one of the problems that always niggled at the back of my mind when it comes to exploratory sci-fi.  If interstellar travel is possible, how do ships like Enterprise constantly stumble onto planets that don't have space ships?  It's clear that most planets are inhabited by near-humans - why didn't those near-humans find the Enterprise?  We usually see this from the point of view of Kirk and Spock and Bones, and the rationale for why the Roddenberryverse works that way is generally glossed over.  Vance's inclusion of a possible Golden Age of Man to which the people of Aerilith aspire.

Jack Vance writes this story from the point of view of the planet-bound society, and that society is one that is incapable of, and largely uninterested in, space travel.  They know its up there.  They know its dangerous.  They know they need bolt holes, but with nothing particularly valuable for the star-farers but their own bodies, they figure they can just hide until the aliens get bored and leave.

It works.  And like so much of Vances work, it's worth filing away for potential use at your game table.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Idle Musings and Disjointed Thoughts on the Dragon Masters

I might be reading the wrong copy of this selection.  It doesn't look like the image Frisky used in his announcement.  Mine seems to contain nothing but The Dragon Masters itself, and looks like this:



Not to scale

As a man coming into this work having only read the Dying Earth series, the inclusion of a map surprised me.  I skipped it – the Kindle reader for small Android phones is not kind to graphics – thinking that it wouldn’t be necessary.  Jack’s a fine writer, and I trust him to bring me into the important parts of the geography as necessary.  This assumption proved out for the first quarter of the book, anyway.
Vance really is a master at the slow lead-in.  The first character on screen is a naked, hairy sacredote – a term not defined until Chapter Three, a full chapter after the first long term exposure to the odd religious/mystic hermits.  It’s not until the second chapter and the history of Happy Valley and the basics that we learn this isn’t a fantasy world, but a low-tech science fiction world.  Both happen at the same time as we see Vance’s gift for describing alien cultures.
The…’negotiation’ for lack of a better term…between Kergan Banbeck and the Weaponeer was delightful.  As a confusingly bizarre interaction between two alien minds, it’s one of the best I’ve encountered.  Kergan and his counterpart both use words that the other understands, but those words are the arms of blind men flailing for an elephant that might not even exist.  The introduction of the sacredote and his observation that they are talking past each other doesn’t help matters at all.  It just makes me wonder if the sacerdotes aren’t so wise after all.
The introduction of alien beings - the Basics - didn't really surprise me, despite coming into this story completely unaware.  Vance has a reputation for flouting genre conventions in this manner, and hanging out with well-read nerds has prepared me for just this sort of trick out of the great man.  It's still nice to read a story that so effortlessly bridges the gap between fantasy and sci-fi.
The confined nature of the setting makes it easy to see why Vance is required reading for RPG enthusiasts.  You have two major factions, separated by a ridge, a few hidey-holes, a vague and repeated existential threat to the world.  It’s everything you need for a tight little sandbox campaign, all tucked into the pages of a relatively short book.  It would be a trivial matter to grab the map from the first page, advance the clock by four generations and have Kergan Banbeck II warring with Neddry Carcolo, and hey look, it’s a brand new campaign complete with dungeons, dragons, and political intrigue.
Oddly enough, Vance’s gift for nomenclature rings off-key for me in this book. As a long-time (and sadly lapsed) college football fan, Happy Valley will always be home to the Nitanny Lions to me, and I cannot read Kergan’s name without thinking, “There can be only one.” The fault is entirely mine, but there it is.

Friday, May 5, 2017

A perambulatory commentary on Jack Vance and his epigones.

Jack (John Holbrook) Vance (San Francisco, August 28, 1916 - Oakland, May 26, 2013) is one of those authors whose influence is felt, but it's sometimes not admitted or openly spoken.

All influential artists have followers and detractors, but Vance is one of those few that have no open enemies or anyone trying to "subvert" them. There are anti-Conan characters or anti-Tolkien writers, but I don't know of anyone trying to improve, correct, or subvert Vance. Why would anyone do that if his successors and imitators are still attempting to write like him? For similar reasons, I have yet to find someone saying, "Vance? Yeah, I've read him. Meh, nothing especial, really. There are dime a dozen like him.

That cannot be because he is an unknown author. Sure, he isn't as popular as others, but he wasn't a two-bit writer either. During his life, he wrote around 60 books, received multiple awards, and those who knew him had only positive things to say about his work and style. My guess is that he is one of those hidden giants whose presence is an intimidating force. Something magnified by the fact that he always tried to stay out of the spotlight.

Although there are strong and passionate communities of Vancians, most sff fans probably know of him indirectly, through the influence he had on Dungeons & Dragons. Perhaps they have also heard about his Dying Earth books and their baroque language. 

In the famous AD&D Appendix N, Vance was one of the authors that had the "et al." abbreviation, meaning that Gygax believed all their works were important as a source of inspiration. But even that would downplay the importance Vance had for Gygax, as this article he wrote in 2001 shows:

"Need I say that I am not merely a Jack Vance fan, but that he is in my opinion the very best of all the authors of imaginative fiction? Well I am and he is!"

Gygax, mostly known as a game designer, was probably the most open and public about his awe and debt to Jack Vance,  but he wasn't the only one.

This excellent article, The Genre Artist, by Carlo Rotella, dedicated exclusively to Vance, also mentions many other Big Names who became immediate fans of Vance the first time they read him. These include Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, Tanith Lee, and even a young Ursula K. Le Guin is mentioned. And these are the ones who are open about it. Truth is, the fan letters sent to him were probably full of (now) famous rabid fans sending him their undergarments. 

To reiterate, when I say "fans," I don't mean just people who "like" him:

"Among them are authors who have gained the big paydays and the fame that Vance never enjoyed. Dan Simmons, the best-selling writer of horror and fantasy, described discovering Vance as 'a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James. Suddenly you’re in the deep end of the pool. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly turned language. If he’d been born south of the border, he’d be up for a Nobel Prize.' Michael Chabon, whose distinguished literary reputation allows him to employ popular formulas without being labeled a genre writer, told me: 'Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If ‘The Last Castle’ or ‘The Dragon Masters’ [both are in this month's anthology] had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.'

Vance may not have been a proper pulp writer (his style is too unique, and his first published story, The World-Thinker, was written in 1946) but the curse of being considered a low-brow writer followed him, as it inevitably does to anyone who writes "fantasy" (writers of "magic realism", whatever that may be, are forgiven.) Not that he seemed to care, though. In fact, he probably liked it that way.

One of the most obvious traits of Vance's work was his distaste for fame, attention, and blowhards of all kinds. People who live in mental castles of their own creation are routinely mocked in his stories, perhaps because he knew he could have become one of them. From the Jack Vance's biographical sketch at the Vance Museum:

"'By the age of 15, I had read ten times the books an average person might read in a lifetime. [...]  
Vance entered high school at age 11 and graduated at 15.  He described himself at the latter age as bright, arrogant, introverted, and lacking in social skills. Then his grandfather died, the family was broke, and it was the bottom of the Great Depression.  College plans were set aside and, for the next several years, Vance ranged the state of California, working at a wide variety of jobs: fruit picking, canning, construction, surveying, bell-hopping.  He described this period as a metamorphosis: “Over a span of four or five years, I developed from an impractical little intellectual into a rather reckless young man, competent at many skills and crafts, and determined to try every phase of life.'”

I wouldn't describe that as "anti-intellectual" stance, since Vance stories have many deep intellectual themes, but these are seamlessly weaved into the story in such a way that many readers believe they are just enjoying a story of simple, pure, and unadulterated adventure. And that's probably one of the best compliments anyone could say about a SFF writer.

Monday, May 1, 2017

May's Puppy - "The Dragon Masters"

I don't know about you, but I'm excited to read this month's selection.  For decade's Jack Vance was an author whose name lurked only in dim rumors of serving as the inspiration for the D&D magic system.  Even as a regular at the used book stores, his works just never crossed my path.  It wasn't until a lucky find at the dawn of the digital publishing revolution that I stumbled on a Dying Earth omnibus.
That book really opened my eyes to new ways of looking at magic, and Vance's gentle touch showed me that Ring Lardner's dry and blink-and-you-miss it subtle humor could work in a fantasy settting.  To my chagrin, I've only lately been informed that my Vance exposure is drastically limited.  In fact, Dying Earth represents the only works of his I can say with any certainty that I have read.  (It's possible a few of his stories were included in collections, and I just didn't realize I was reading one of the masters at the time.)  I have no idea what to expect, only that it will be a pleasure to enjoy a few stories for a change of pace.  Given my recent forays into establishment fiction and a futile search for modern pulp, a little Vance is just what the literary doctor ordered.
 
So it is with great pleasure that I open the floor for discussions about The Dragon Masters.  If you want to join in the read-along, pick up a copy today, we'll be here all month.