Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jack Vance's novella The Dragon Masters first appeared in Galaxy magazine in 1962. Since then, it has been reprinted several times, most recently as half of a Tor Double with Kim Stanley Robinson's A Short Sharp Shock. Interestingly enough, The Dragon Masters's first book appearance was as an Ace Double, paired with Vance's The Five Gold Bands (1963).
The Dragon Masters tells the story of Joaz Bambeck and his neighbor, Ervis Carcolo, both living on the alien world Aerlith, where humans have bred reptiles to be the ultimate fighting creatures. Carcolo and Bambeck have a generational feud raging, although Joaz Bambeck is willing to work with Carcolo to stave off a possible invasion from the Basics. According to Bambeck, when the red star Coralyne appears close to Aerlith, the Basics always attack. Carcolo refuses Bambeck's overtures of peace and continues to wage war against him.
Perhaps it is because I have recently finished reading Anne McCaffrey's latest episode in her long running Pern series, The Masterharper of Pern, but the similarities between Vance's world and McCaffrey's are too direct to be coincidental. The dragons on both worlds have been bred by human colonists. Both worlds have a red star which bring alien menaces to the men who rule the dragons. However, there are major differences as well.
McCaffrey has been careful, even in the earliest books, the show how the economy of Pern functioned. Vance's The Dragon Masters does not show any indication of an economy. There are hints of slave labor and use of the dragons as laborers, but no real indication where the various items Bambeck owns come from. While Vance's world is embroiled in eternal battle, McCaffrey's characters wouldn't go to war if their lives depended on it.
Of course, there is more to The Dragon Masters than comparison to a series of books not begun until The Dragon Masters was already six years old. Counterpoint to the militaristic humans and Basics, Vance includes a pacifistic race known as the sacerdotes. Although never fully explained, despite several run-ins with Bambeck, the sacerdotes believe themselves to have progressed beyond the foibles of the human race. They remain aloof from humans, trusting that they will outlast both humans and Basics and begin building a galaxy spanning civilization of their own.
Joaz Bambeck doesn't fit any of the categories Vance has set up. Although he can meet the Basics or Ervis Carcolo on the battlefield, he is just at home debating existence with the sacerdotes. Vance seems to be pointing to Bambeck as the perfect combination of his other races strong points.
The Dragon Masters does suffer from a lack of plot and characterization. The meat of this short novel is in the philosophies espoused by Bambeck, Carcolo, the sacerdotes and Bast Givven, Carcolo's chief dragon breeder who seems as if he might have some of the spark which sets Joaz Bambeck apart from the otehr men of Aerlith.