Novella Review: “The Kragen” by Jack Vance

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller. Fantastic, July 1964.)

Who Goes There?

Jack Vance is a contender for the most influential mid-20th century SFF writer that relatively few people have read. He debuted in 1945, and unusually for a writer of that period his science fiction tended to read like fantasy—his fantasy, because nobody at that point wrote fantasy quite like Vance did. His 1950 collection (it’s a collection, I don’t CARE if some people call it a novel) The Dying Earth presents an Earth so far in the future that magic has not only emerged but overtaken technology; it influenced, among other things, Dungeons & Dragons. He would win two Hugos and a Nebula for the novellas “The Dragon Masters” and “The Last Castle,” which, despite sounding like they’d be fantasy, are in fact science fiction. He won a third Hugo in 2010 (this man lived a long time), this time for Best Related Work, with his autobiography This Is Me, Jack Vance! Even in his works that are not fantasy at all, there always seems to be a sense of magic with Vance.

Something to keep in mind is that Vance wrote a lot over a long span of time, and he has quirks that people will either accept or reject. If you really need your SFF to be colloquial or down to earth then you will probably not like Vance; his penchant for the flamboyant and the baroque has blocked off many would-be Vance fans. I have to admit that I wasn’t into Vance for a while, and even not I can’t say I love his work, but I do respect it and often enjoy it. Surely there’s something to like about a guy who will write a short story, set it on a planet that he’ll never write about again, and not only grant that setting a novel’s worth of detail, but even include footnotes. Vance is clearly a fan of planet-building, and it’s a niche talent he’s quite adept at, as we’ll see with today’s novella.

Placing Coordinates

“The Kragen” was first published in the July 1964 issue of Fantastic, which is on the Archive. A bit of a long story with this one. It’s not unusual for novellas to be expanded into novels, or to be made into sections of novels like they’re pieces in a jigsaw puzzle; in my experience the novella usually doesn’t benefit by being inflated to novel-length. “The Kragen” was expanded into the novel The Blue World in 1966, with the novel version getting nominated for a Nebula and being up for the Prometheus Hall of Fame a few times (makes sense). I just assumed that since the novel version is more well-known that “The Kragen” would be one of those novellas to get reprinted maybe once. Not quite! It was reprinted in Robert Silverberg Presents the Great SF Stories: 1964, edited by… you guessed it, Robert Silverberg (and also Martin H. Greenberg). It got a chapbook release from Subterranean Press, which is weird, like who asked for this? We have at least one in-print edition with the Vance collection Wild Thyme and Violets and Other Unpublished Works, in both paperback and as an ebook.

Enhancing Image

Much of this review will be spent on the world-building of “The Kragen,” rather than the plot, since the actual plot is pretty simple when viewed with a wide lens; I suppose it has to be. Vance has about sixty pages to not only introduce a whole world to us but to make it comprehensible, so while there are a few twists and turns, this is not one of his more complex narratives. Take it as an adventure story that theoretically could be just as easily fantasy as SF, if not for background details.

The unnamed world of the novella is entirely covered with water, which when you think about it is not so different from our world, which is only mostly water. Several generations ago (the dates aren’t clear) a ship crash-landed on the planet—apparently a ship full of criminals (though given their ability to procreate it must’ve been co-ed), and surprisingly the survivors did not all kill each other within a month; instead they found ways to survive and even prosper on the blue planet. This is impressive, not only because civilization managed to rebuild itself out of a bunch of scraps, but because it did so with some things that we take fore granted, such as electricity and even metal. There is a bit of metal that lies in some people’s possession, but it’s not enough to be used for much of anything, and anyway, nobody knows what to do with it.

Not the first or last time Vance did a lost colony narrative; he arguably did it better in his 1958 novella “The Miracle Workers,” in which survivors of a crashed ship eventually devolve into warring pseudo-medieval factions. In both stories the content could be construed as fantasy while the reasoning behind that content is undeniably science-fictional.

Society works on a caste system, although even at the beginning of the story the system is loosening up, with inter-caste marriage and what have you. In a bit of humor from Vance the castes are named after species of criminal, so you have the Incendiaries, the Swindlers, the Hoodwinks, and so on, with Advertisermen at the bottom. I know, very funny. Hoodwinks actually don’t do what you would expect, as their job is basically to act as signal-men, communicating with people on other floats in a sort of morse code, quite literally winking hoods at the tops of towers. I’m not sure what Swindlers do here, since their occupation probably wouldn’t align with what their name implies. Anyway, the protagonist, Sklar Hast, is one such signal-man, although he spends much more time in-story being a thorn in some authorities’ sides than doing his job.

About those “floats.” Without metal, without even glass, society has to rely on other resources, and in this case they were very lucky, because while the ocean does indeed stretch from pole to pole, there are these vast swaths of sea-plant that are big enough to not only serve as pseudo-land but to be handy for lots of other purposes too. Whatever the plants don’t cover, human bones will sometimes do the trick; apparently the people of this seafaring society are not one to waste the bodies of their dead, though from what I can tell they don’t indulge in cannibalism. I wonder Donald Kingsbury read this (or more likely The Blue World), got to the part where a human rib is used as a hook, and thought, “Hmm, I could write a novel like this.”

Despite the lack of resources, life has been mostly good for Sklar Hast and his people. “On this water-world, which had no name, there were no seasons, no tides, no storms, no change, very little anxiety regarding time.” It’s one thing to have a single-biome planet, but it’s an extra strain on one’s suspension of disbelief that there be practically no harsh weather. Of course, had there been gales and hurricanes then the crash survivors surely would’ve died off, and thus we wouldn’t have a story. You gotta do what you gotta do. There are a few other things, which I’ll get to in the spoilers section, that don’t strike me as the most credible, but Vance (as usual) goes the distance with the mechanics of his newfangled world. A lot of time is spent on what the people of the floats eat and how they eat it, and stuff like that, and much of it is at least intriguing.

But wait, there’s trouble in paradise! The people do have one natural threat to their way of life: the kragen (plural), a race of sea monsters that act more as really large pests than as direct threats to human life. Still, an angry kragen has the bulk and weaponry (tentacles and mandibles) to fuck up a person, and unfortunately the people don’t have weaponry good enough to take on the kragen; instead they have to rely on the supposed goodwill of the largest kragen of them all, King Kragen, which the elders “””allegedly””” are able to communicate with. If King Kragen is appeased with gifts (i.e., food) then he’ll kill or drive off smaller kragen. This feels like solving a big problem with an even bigger problem, but who am I to judge.

A little aside…

We get illustrations of the kragen on both the issue’s cover and with the opening interior illustrations, both done by Ed Emshwiller. Now, Emshwiller is a legend, and I respect him, but while I would say his depictions of the kragen are accurate enough, they seem a little… goofy.

It’s not his best work is what I’m saying.

One day a kragen fucks up Sklar Hast’s abode and instead of waiting on King Kragen to maybe show up, Sklar Hast takes matters into his own hands and rounds up some likeminded fellows to kill the kragen themselves, which they actually come close to doing. The fallout is catastrophic, though, resulting in a schism headed by Sklar Hast with a particularly zealous elder named Barquan Blasdel on the other side. The question comes down to this: Do the elders have any control over King Kragen, or are King Kragen’s appearances merely serendipitous, with the monster’s “help” purely fueled by the prospect of food? This is a Jack Vance story so you know damn well it’s closer to the latter, and come to think of it, questioning and overcoming unjust hierarchies is also a Vance staple. Sklar Hast and his people vow to not only head out on their own, detatching their float from the rest of society, but to kill King Kragen, come hell or high water.

Forgive me, I’ve been spending a considerable amount of time trying not to misspell these weird character names. Not really a Vance story if there aren’t weird character names.

Sklar Hast has manpower on his side, but what he doesn’t heave is the weaponry. Not yet. How do you take down a giant sea monster without guns? Crossbows? Even decent harpoons? They have to figure out how to modernize—to rediscover metal on a planet that’s practically devoid of it, and in the process prove to the elders that they no longer need such an arbitrary quasi-religious order of living. From here on the narrative becomes two-pronged, jumping between Sklar Hast and Barquan Blasdel, the new and the old, as they seek to destroy and protect King Kragen respectively.

There Be Spoilers Here

Mostly I wanna talk about how Sklar Hast and company are able to overpower the Kragen, because it’s… complicated. And also maybe a leap in logic. I’m not a scientist, but I’m not sure if blood works this way. The climactic scene of the men from the renegade float, now with crossbows made of metal and powered with electrical tubes, taking down King Kragen almost made me think more about the logistics of getting all that goddamn metal from burned blood (blood being smoldered down to iron, yes really) than the coolness of the action. And the action can be pretty cool when it’s there! So that says something about how much the solution to the lack of metal makes me scratch my head. The ubiquitous nature of the plant life already threatened to make things too convenient, but this is a bit much. That’s about it. That’s all I felt like saying about that.

A Step Farther Out

I have conflicting feelings as to the length of this thing. The plot is simple enough that I don’t think an extra fifty to a hundred pages would benefit it (mind you that The Blue World itself is quite short), but also I can see that extra wordage benefitting depth, especially character depth but also the workings of Vance’s world. Sklar Hast is a bit of a flat character; he wants one thing for most of the story, which is to kill King Kragen, and we can’t say he matures since he’s shown to be right pretty much from the outset and thus he has no lesson to take from all this. I at least appreciate that the elders, while shown generally to be wrong, are pragmatic enough that they’re not cartoonishly evil, with the exception of Barquan Blasdel. Indeed the pragmatism of the elders becomes part of the novella’s sly humor, which is perhaps chuckle-worthy but never laught-out-loud funny. Even so, I do think Vance’s sense of humor is underrated, and his jokes lend flaor to what would risk becoming a droll and humorless adventure.

I wouldn’t consider “The Kragen” to be Vance’s finest hour, if only because I don’t think it reaches the same level of epicness as his best stories of similar length. Consider that “The Miracle Workers” and “The Last Castle” each fit not only a novel’s worth of world-building into sixty pages, but a novel’s sense of grandeur; these are wondrous tales of action that feel like they’re deserving of big-budget Peter Jackson adaptations. Meanwhile “The Kragen” feels weirdly insular, with even the kragen themselves never being fully allowed to act the part of giant movie monsters. Also, I’m not sure where else to say this, so I’ll say it here: Don’t read “The Kragen” (or most Vance, for that matter) if you absolutely must have women in your fiction. In other words, this is not Vance at his worst, but it’s certainly not his best.

See you next time.


2 responses to “Novella Review: “The Kragen” by Jack Vance”

  1. The basic world reminds me a bit of Vance’s other entirely water planet novel The Blue World (1966). Which, apparently looking at my review, I enjoyed way back 2011. I think I’ve gone the other way than you with Vance. I increasingly tire of his prose and style… I recently read and reviewed The Languages of Pao (1958) but found the fascinating observations about language entirely defeated by the hackneyed plot.


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