To sum up: Wow. Now THAT’s some science fiction.
Haven’t read all that much Vance, which is a little odd, as I’ve loved everything of his I’ve read. If I’d have stumbled across him in grade school like I stumbled across Bradbury and Asimov, chances are I’d have read everything of his I could get my hands on by the age of 15 or so. As it is, I somehow missed him until a few years ago, and only now, when our children are mostly grown, do I have time to read. Anyway:
The story is only about 50 pages long, and can be found here, so I’m not going to spoil it by giving much detail. Just go read it. In typical Vance style, the basic structure of the tale could be a medieval romance: two adjoining kingdoms are locked in an age-old battle, but must unite if they are to defeat an even greater invading force. The language and lives of the peoples are suitably baroque – and there are flamboyantly-named Dragons!
…rust-red Termagant; the Long-horned Murderer and its cousin the Striding Murderer; the Blue Horror; the Fiend, low to the ground, immensely strong, tail tipped with a steel barbel; the ponderous Jugger, skull-cap polished and white as an egg.
Yet it is Sci Fi to the core: these people live in some vast future, in valleys on the harsh rocky planet Aerlith under the glare of an intense sun. They share the planet with a human-like race of Sacerdotes, gaunt creatures of unknown origin who are always naked except for their extraordinarily long hair. They are vowed to non-interference, and only rarely interact with the humans, usually to trade for food.
Somehow, however the humans got there in the first place, they have lost interstellar travel. Typical Vance, as are his descriptions – or lack thereof – of the dragons: he achieves a sense of wonder by not explaining thing, just hinting. And they are preyed upon by the inhuman Basics, who visit ruin upon them from their giant black ships whenever the motions of their red star bring their planet close.
Plot twists, gradual reveals, epic battles, dragons!, evil aliens, surprise ending… And we’ll just leave it at that – go read the story!