You have been terribly misled about science fiction. You’ve been told that it comes
from the feverish pens of visionaries contemplating the wonders—or horrors—of
the future.  Sci-fi, from this perspective, is the literary equivalent of the crystal
ball, a source of prognostication and predictions. The authors of these astounding
storiesexcuse me, I meant to say ASTOUNDING STORIESare put in the same
basket along with horse race handicappers, roadside psychics, stock market
advisers and the writers of fortune cookie texts. Each aims to tell you tomorrow’s
news today.

It’s a lovely story, but totally wrong. Most science fiction is
written in the rearview mirror.  Whether the subject is
nuclear weapons or gender roles or climate change or
whatever else you find on that list of Hugo Award nominees,
genre fiction responds to the debate rather than creates it.
I'm reminded of the observation of a corporate VP who ran
a large research and development organization: "I can always
tell what the lead story was in
Scientific American last month
—because that always what my researchers put into their next
budget. Why don’t they bring me these ideas before they get
on the cover of a magazine." Most sci-fi follows the same
pattern, drawing on yesterday's news in shaping its vision
of the future.

Viewed from this perspective, Jack Vance's
The Dragon Masters—written in the months
between the rising of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban missile crisis—is a parable about the
arms race. A very clever parable, no doubt: his feuding clans keep trying to breed bigger and
stronger dragons to out-do each other. Vance lovingly describes the hierarchy of attack
dragons—the basic categories include Blue Horrors, Striding Murderers, Juggers,
Termagants and Fiends—with a zeal that evokes both Aquinas's enumeration of angels and
Jane's classification of tanks.

The Fiends flicked and feinted with their steel balls, scuttled forward. The Jugger
chopped, shattered its sword on the rockhard armor of the Fiends….

This is classic Vance, action-packed for the thrill-seekers but played out with a chessplayer’s
sense of strategy.

May the best dragon win!

But when you dig more deeply into the plot, you find that Vance is not looking into the

rearview mirror. His dragons, at first glance creatures more aligned with fantasy fiction than
sci-fi, are actually the result of daring gene-splicing experiments—the DNA of aliens has been
manipulated to create servile dragon warriors. I note that on the very same day that I write
this paragraph, the US government’s top intelligence officer is in the news—announcing that
he has added "gene-splicing" to the official list of "weapons of mass destruction." Media
outlets are raising alarms over this scary new development. I simply note that Jack Vance
recognized this threat in 1962.

Two human communities live in uneasy truce on the planet Aerlith. One group is led by Joaz

Banbeck, a typical Vance protagonist, a wary individualist who mostly keeps his own counsel.
His adversary is the blustering, boastful Ervis Carcolo.  Carcolo wants to conquer his rival,
but Banbeck has bigger concerns: his astronomical observations suggest that a hostile alien
civilization, known as the Basics, may soon return to seize and domesticate all remaining
humans on Aerlith. The Basics had been defeated in a previous foray. In fact, their genetic
stock produced the dragons in the Aerlith arsenals; but their technology is formidable, and it
is unlikely that they can be bested on a second encounter.  Adding to the strategic
complexity, both Banbeck and Carcolo have to deal with the Sacerdotes, a passive and
reclusive sect of quasi-humans who also live on Aerlith, yet pursue a mysterious agenda of
their own.

Vance never settles for simple social dynamics. Which conflict is at the center of
The Dragon
Masters? Do we focus on the Cold War rivalry of Banbeck and Carcolo? Or the intergalactic
struggle of humans and Basics? Or the uneasy tension between clans and Sacerdotes? Or
should we forget Clausewitz and Sun-Tzu entirely, and just focus on the bloody collisions of
the dragons?

Of course, Vance wants us to do all of the above. And in a bravura performance he brings all

of these elements together in a battle royale that comprise almost the entire second half of
this novel. This is the most elaborate description of combat I’ve encountered in a science
fiction novel, earning comparisons with the atom-splitting closing scenes of Joe Haldeman’s
The Forever War and the theologically-charged wrestlemania of competing deities in Roger
Zelazny's Lord of Light. But Vance's exchanges of hostilities are the most drawn-out of them
all, doing full justice to each of the six species involved
in the various phases of the encounter. This book
originally appeared in
Galaxy magazine in August
1962, exciting adolescent and teen readers with a
cover illustration of a dragon-riding warrior with a
sword encountering an even larger dragon
brandishing an axe, with mouth wide open to
display twenty fanged yellow teeth. I can
imagine young sci-fi fans compulsively turning
pages, anxious to determine which one triumphs
in this ultimate contest to determine a Darwinian
survival of the fittest over-sized reptile.

But most of the adolescent readers probably
missed the more philosophical elements at play
in this work. Students of linguistics and logic
will be amused over a subplot dealing with the
Sacerdotes inability to tell lies. A handful of later
science fiction writers have found inspiration in
the intricacies of truth propositions (see China Miéville's
Embassytown, from 2011, for the
definitive treatment of this rich topic), but Vance set the example with his delightful
interrogation scene, in The Dragon Masters. Here a captured Sacerdote manages to mislead
and equivocate, without ever stating a false proposition. No blood is shed here, but this
interlude is as engaging as the prominent battle scenes at the heart of the novel.

Vance walked away with a Hugo award for this work—one of three that he earned over the

course of a career in genre fiction that spanned almost seventy years. But I suspect that
Vance could have flourished as a highbrow literary writer telling completely realistic tales of
postwar American angst. Indeed, his antiheroes aren’t far afield from the James Dean and
Marlon Brando types that set the tone for modern storytelling during the Cold War. Instead
he lavished his talents on a callow young readership that may have missed the nuances
amidst the battlefield theatrics. But they are there for the reader who pays attention to more
than just plot.

“It is a mistake to read Vance for the narrative, beguilingly readable though those narratives

are,” warns Adam Roberts in his comprehensive survey The History of Science Fiction. “It is
the conjunction of the unflagging fertility of his imagination and the elegant chill mannerisms
of his prose that generate the distinctive Vance quiddity.”  His precision, his concern for
details of flora and fauna, his anthropological sensibilities, his neologisms (a whole book has
been devoted to the words he invented in his stories) and sensitivity to language—all are key
constituents of the Vance modus operandi that, much like the M.O. of a criminal, may leave
behind bodies and blood, but also more subtle clues for the penetrating investigator.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is
Love Songs: The
Hidden History, published by Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: February 13, 2016
Jack Vance (1916-2013)  

This year marks the centenary of Jack Vance's
birth. In honor of the occasion, we are publishing
a series of essays on Vance's works. The
complete edition of Vance's works spans 45
volumes and encompasses science fiction,
fantasy and mysteries. His writings earned
numerous awards including three Hugo Awards,
the Nebula Award, the Jupiter Awards, the
World Fantasy Award and the Edgar. In this
essay, Ted Gioia writes about Vance's novel
Dragon Masters.
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
The Dragon Masters
by Jack Vance
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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Essay by Ted Gioia
Related Articles:
The Languages of Pao
When Science Fiction Grew Up
The Jack Vance Centenary