The Last Castle by Jack Vance

The novella THE LAST CASTLE won Jack Vance both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, and this was in the days when those awards still meant something.

I had occasion to reread this novellas recently, and was deeply impressed at how the passing of time has not outdated it. Now, in the middle of the second decade of the Third Millennium, these tales are half a century old: as if a reader who enjoyed H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS first published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1897 were to reread it in Analog in 1947.

Jack Vance is sadly less well remembered than other science fiction writers of his generation, for reasons which are not clear to me. I suspect part of it is the rather dark and mordant nature of his wit, and the mildly disquieting examination of the nature of mankind.

Since I had read the tales both at 15 and at 51, what I notice first and foremost is the nuances invisible to me as a child. This review hence may emphasize unduly elements that are minor, but which I as the reader note for the first time.

SPOILER WARNINGS. I intend to discuss the plot, surprise ending, and plot twists along the way — but since we are talking about fifty year old novellas, your pride as a science fiction fan should long ago have urged you to seek out and read such luminary and seminal novellas as this one.

last cast

Every science fiction story has two elements: (1) the science fiction part (2) the story part.

The story, as with any story, consists of a conflict between some appealing or elemental longing, need or desire on the part of the protagonist, and the obstacles, internal or external, opposing it.

The science fiction part consists of the world building. The science fiction story should contain all the other elements as a mainstream story, as character development and adroit plot and so on, but the one additional element that makes speculative fiction unique is the element of world-building. Science fiction asks the question what would it be like if unknown but not impossible thing were true, how would it affect the characters and plot?

In this case, Jack Vance, in his introduction appearing in The Best of Jack Vance, gives the following account of the origin of this story.

The germ of this story was contained in an article dealing with Japanese social interactions. As is well known, Japanese society is highly formalized—much more thoroughly so in the past than during the relatively egalitarian times since the last war.

During the nineteenth century, when a samurai deigned to converse with a person of lower rank, each used markedly different vocabularies, with honorifics precisely calculated to the difference in status. When the person of lower degree discussed the samurai’s activities or intentions, he used a special convention. Never would he pose a simple question such as: “Will your lordship go boar-hunting tomorrow?” This would impute to his lordship a coarse and undignified fervor, a sweating, earnest, lip-licking zeal, which his lordship would have found offensively below his dignity. Instead the underling might ask: “Will your lordship tomorrow amuse himself by trifling at the hunting of a boar?”

In short, the aristocrat was conceded sensibilities of such exquisite nicety, competences of such awful grandeur, that he need only toy with all ordinary activities, in a mood of whimsy or caprice, in order to achieve dazzling successes.

So, “The Last Castle” concerns a society of somewhat similar folk, and examines their behavior when the society is subjected to great stress.

In THE LAST CASTLE Vance proposes almost as a thought experiment to examine the conditions of a society at the farthest extreme — bordering on parody — of useless ceremonial, pomp, recondite yet impractical erudition and slavish fidelity to tradition when put under stress.  In this case, namely, the threat of death at the hands of rebels whose low social status the aristocrats, perversely, find it impossible to dignify by treating as real.

The opening paragraph presents the image and mood of this central conflict nicely. I cannot explain the clarity and power of the prose except by quoting it in full:

Toward the end of a stormy summer afternoon, with the sun finally breaking out under ragged black rain clouds, Castle Janeil was overwhelmed and its population destroyed.

Until almost the last moment the factions among the castle clans were squabbling as to how Destiny properly should be met. The gentlemen of most prestige and account elected to ignore the en­tire undignified circumstance and went about their normal pursuits, with neither more nor less punctilio than usual. A few cadets, des­perate to the point of hysteria, took up weapons and prepared to resist the final assault. Others still, perhaps a quarter of the total  population, waited passively, ready—almost happy—to expiate the sins of the human race.

In the end death came uniformly to all; and all extracted as much satisfaction in their dying as this essentially graceless process could afford. The proud sat turning the pages of their beautiful books, or discussing the qualities of a century-old essence, or fondling a fa­vorite Phane. They died without deigning to heed the fact. The hot-heads raced up the muddy slope which, outraging all normal rationality, loomed above the parapets of Janeil. Most were buried under sliding rubble, but a few gained the ridge to gun, hack, stab, until they themselves were shot, crushed by the half-alive power-wagons, hacked or stabbed. The contrite waited in the classic pos­ture of expiation, on their knees, heads bowed, and perished, so they believed, by a process in which the Meks were symbols and human sin the reality. In the end all were dead: gentlemen, ladies, Phanes in the pavilions; Peasants in the stables. Of all those who had inhabited Janeil, only the Birds survived, creatures awkward, gauche and raucous, oblivious to pride and faith, more concerned with the wholeness of their hides than the dignity of their castle.

As the Meks swarmed over the parapets, the Birds departed their cotes. They screamed strident insults as they flapped east to­ward Hagedorn, now the last castle of Earth.

With scientific precision and artistic succinctness, we have the theme of the tale. The external obstacle is the rebellious underclass of Meks, nonhuman slaves valued (as their name implies) for their mechanical skills. In the same brief passage, the hierarchy of alien servant-races is mentioned: the peasants till the soil, the phanes dance pavannes , and the birds serve as air-transport.

The internal obstacle is the artificial and unnatural social norms which strangle and distort the natural response of self preservation: one group, the gentlemen of most prestige, ignore the ungraceful matter of impending death entirely; a second, the Expiationists, with eerie happiness, meet death submissively, apparently in reaction to some deep-seated racial guilt; and finally the cadets with weapons, who fight in vain and die despite the bravado of their resistance.

We will meet these same three responses again, in miniature, in the meeting of the Table of Notables of Castle Hagedorn, the last castle of the title, where we meet the three main characters:

O.Z. Garr represents the traditional faction, which advocates taking only those ineffectual steps which will not lead to the indignity of a pragmatic solution; Claghorn of Overwhele, while not an Expiationist, is notorious for urging that a change in the way of life of the great castles is necessary, up to and including freeing the slaves on whose toil the gentlemen have waxed fat; Xanten is young, something of a firebrand, and willing to fight.

In elegant rejoinders and nuanced turns of phrase, the recondite gentlemen show themselves utterly useless at committing to any practical course of action, not even so much as to make radio contact with any possible survivors.

At last, Xanten is commissioned to travel to the long-neglected spaceyards to see if the antique spaceships are serviceable, perhaps for fetching aid from the homeworlds. (The gentlefolk of the castles are descendants from interstellar colonies of Earth, which was decimated in long-forgotten catastrophes, leaving behind only a few gaunt and savage nomads.)

During his escapade, Xanten fights a squad of Meks found dismantling the starship components, finds a leader Mek of eerie resemblance to a homeworld specimen, back when they were free creatures, one not biologically modified to take nutriment through syrup sacks, and captures this leader.

It is worth pausing to note that Jack Vance is a master of mood and nuance. By placing his drama not on some far world, but on an Earth which was strangely abandoned and yet re-inhabited, he evokes a desired atmosphere of melancholy and strangeness necessary to emphasize the fragility of the protagonist’s domain and the elusive vanity of all things human.

This bit of description may just as easily have come from his elegant fantasy stories of the Dying Earth milieu:

The gentlefolk of the castles, for all their assurance, disliked to wander the countryside by night, by reason of what some derided as superstitious fear. Others cited travelers
benighted beside mouldering ruins and their subsequent visions: the eldritch music they had heard, or the whimper of moon-mirkins, or the far horns of spectral huntsmen. Others had seen pale lavender and green lights, and wraiths which ran with long strides through the forest; and Hode Abbey, now a dank tumble, was notorious for the White Hag and the alarming toll she exacted.

A hundred such cases were known. While the hard-headed scoffed, none needlessly traveled the countryside by night. Indeed, if truly ghosts haunt the scenes of tragedy and heartbreak, then the landscape of Old Earth must be home to ghosts and specters beyond all numbering; especially that region across which Xanten rolled to the power-wagon, where every rock, every meadow, every vale and swale was crusted thick with human experience.

The moon rose high. The wagon trundled north along an ancient road, the cracked concrete slabs shining pale in the moonlight. Twice Xanten saw flickering orange lights off to the side, and once, standing in the shade of a cypress tree, he thought to see a tall quiet shape, silently watching him pass.

He also approaches the huts dark-robed and hooded Nomads, the original inhabitants of Earth. Not far away is a village of Expiationists and exiles who have departed the Castle formality of life, and now do manual labor, living without slaves.

In both places he attempts to raise a militia to fight and preserve the Castle; he is rebuffed or attacked. Finally, upon his return, Xanten makes the same offer to the gentlemen of the Castle, that they toil and work for their survival, abandon its indefensible walls, and take up arms. He is scorned. To work to save oneself from peril is regarded as insufferably uncivil.

He utters the momentous statement that survival is good morality. This is the turning point of the tale.

The gentlemen dismiss the idea, except for a few of the younger. Xanten and these uncouth hotspurs depart with none to bid them farewell.

Hence, the same trio of characters is seen again as place settings: the Castles are the home of the traditional; the exile villages house the Expiationists, who urge change; the Nomads are the rash and belligerent element.

Included among the exiled village are those children born without licenses, that is, born in violation of the strict population protocols of the Castellans. One such is Glys Meadowsweet, an artless beauty to whom Xanten is gallant.

They exchange less than two dozen words; she returns in the final scene as Xanten’s lawfully wedded wife.

The reader can expect no more than a passing glance of romance from Jack Vance, whose habitual eloquent and voluble cynicism grows mute and hoarse in the presence of true love, and who much prefers his heroes to be brokenhearted and abandoned by the frivolous and elfin creatures we science fiction fanboys only dimly know by repeated rumor are called ‘girls’: I leave the delicate matter as a speculation to the reader as to why this is a universal among Vance heroes.

(I believe the one exception is Kirth Gersen, who is not yet dumped by Alice Wroke at the end of BOOK OF DREAMS, as he is dumped by Pallis Atwrode and Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay, and Drusilla Wayles and Jerdian Chanseth. If there is another Jack Vance story where the hero ends the tale with the heroine in mutual happiness, I would ask an alert reader to bring it to my attention.)

However, in this case, since Xanten has just severed his alliance with Ariminta of Onwane, his current consort, the author is making a subtle point all the more noticeable because it is against type, that is, not his usual take on the issue.

Whether the author intended it or not, by placing the two women in this contrast, Xanten’s extramarital conversation with his consort is representative of the artificiality and unreality of Castellan life, whereas his matrimony is representative of the natural and solid customs of the renascent postbellum culture, the civilization it is worth toiling to maintain.

The final act contains two dramatic turns of the plot.

The first is that Xanten discovers the source of the Mek rebellion. The Mek are in continuous radio communication from brain to brain, and hence have only a dim understanding of human individuality. When one gentleman of the Castle, namely Claghorn of Overwhele, expressed the desire to free the Meks and return them to the dismal swamps of their homeland of Etamin Nine, the Meks, far preferring the balmy airs of Earth, took up arms in rebellion. The Meks did not understand that the one voice did not speak for all humans.

The droll cruelty of the irony should be clear: Claghorn, wanting to do the right thing, triggers a revolt among the nonhumans who themselves have no particular desire for liberty or any human abstraction. His desire to free the slaves provoked the bloody slave rebellion.

Xanten goes with weapon in hand to kill Claghorn for the monstrous disaster his folly has precipitated, but Claghorn merely turns his back, unwilling to duel Xanten and unwilling to fight to preserve mankind on Earth.

Does this mean O.Z. Garr and his absurdly ossified traditionalists were correct? The author offers no simple answer.  The subtle and stinging implication is that had Claghorn, the partisan of abolition and change, remained as silent and tradition-gagged as his opposite O.Z. Garr, the smothering serenity of the Castellan way of life would have no doubt remained undisturbed, at least for a season.

But the mere existence of Expiationists betrays the stress lines creaking beneath the surface of this glittering and malfunctioning society. The story simply drips contempt for pomp and circumstance: this is surely one of the main appeals for its target audience of (at the time) young American boys interested in science, progress, and futurity. In America at that time the richest classes dressed in the same dark suit and tie as the poorest, and Americans traditionally have had no patience for display, ceremony, and ritual. O.Z. Garr is surely not the hero here, nor any spokesman for the moral of the story, for he acts as a clown and ends as a lunatic, shooting at the hero attempting his rescue.

The safest interpretation of the horrid irony of making Claghorn the trigger of the bloodbath is that this story regards societies as too complex for social engineers, of no matter how angelic motivation, to foresee the ends of their meddling, or to halt what they set in motion. Claghorn the advocate of change is just as theoretical, just as academic, just as useless as O.Z. Garr the advocate of tradition.

Neither of their useless lives comes to anything, because neither believes the central truth the story proposes: that survival is the source of morality.

The second turn of the plot is that when the Last Castle is invested and undermined, Xanten returns from exile, unexpectedly aided by Nomads and Villagers — because these locations also housed malcontents not willing to follow the leaders who at first rebuffed Xanten — and his cadets attack the Meks who are besieging the Castle, but who themselves made no provision to withstand any attack from the rear. In short order the Meks tunnel into the castle; the inhabitants flee; in a droll reverse, the Meks are beleaguered, starved, and brought to surrender.

Neither Clanghorn nor O.Z. Garr are present at the finale. The decision as to the fate of Earthmen is left to OC Charle, called Hagedorn, the somewhat nondescript administrator. He decrees an end to slavery; any civilization worth preserving, he says, must be preserved by toil. The gentlemen themselves must work to make their way of life work.

In a brief epilog, the Castle is reduced to a museum, the once-great administrator to its custodian, and Xanten, now with a wife and family of two children, will not pause to open a bottle of old wine within the empty shadows of the immense edifice. The last line of the tale is “he turned away from the Castle toward the world of men.”

It is safe to say why this tale won its honors. Not for its science fiction elements. It proposes no scientific speculations: the solution of the problem is not through technical brilliance (albeit the story deliberately dangles one such technical solution to the problem as a red herring to provoke the expectations of traditional Hard SF, namely that the Mek’s brain-to-brain radio communication could have been jammed, if the gentlemen had been willing to dirty their gloves getting the components from the warehouses). It won because of the moral of the story, because of the world view, because of the philosophy announced in no uncertain terms by the character the story slowly reveals to be the hero.

That philosophy is pragmatism. Americans, particularly of the generation of World War Two, glorified the practical thinker, the problem solver, the man willing to get his hands greasy (or even bloody) getting done what needed to get done.

There are parallel passages to Xanten’s grim pronouncement that survival is the basis of morality to be found in Heinlein’s STARSHIP TROOPERS and other writers from the John W. Campbell Jr stable of writers. Jack Vance here penned the most perfect advertisement for that philosophy by the reduction to the absurd example of the need for that philosophy by inventing a society where it is utterly absent. Ayn Rand performs a similar reduction to the absurd in ATLAS SHRUGGED when her similarly pragmatic philosophy is removed from a make-believe America run by idiotic (yet strangely realistic) socialist collectivists.

Science fiction is the preferred genre for such experiments in society, since no real historical society could produce the experiment in all its simplicity and extremity. Seriously, such a tale set in the real Nineteenth Century Japan would involve nothing but extreme activity, violence, bloodshed, and suicidal courage: the very opposite of what Jack Vance is trying to examine, or, rather trying to mock. He is making fun of the rich and nouveau riche of his San Francisco childhood, from whose high circles his family was suddenly and unfairly expelled, leaving him a life of manual labor which only his pen allowed him to escape.

He is not concerned with the Japanese, no matter what he says, nor are his readers. We readers are interested in the whiff of corruption and uselessness that comes from our own upper crust.

It is perhaps an eternal rule of human nature that the ruling classes, once they discover that others will toil and sweat for them, not only grow lax and dependent, but, due to the dependence, grow craven and cowardly, not of physical dangers, but of challenges and questions threatening whatever cultural myth, taboo, or prettified history justifies their useless lifestyle. Maintaining the myth becomes paramount over and above maintaining life and limb, so that, for the sake of  the myth, the elites favor and coddle enemies, plague-bearers diseases across their borders, fail to take common sense precautions against evident dangers, and instead busy themselves with over-elaborate precautions against utterly imaginary dangers.

Since not only in the current generation do all political parties make this accusation against their rivals, but Jonathon Swift mocked the selfsame predilection in the elite of airy Laputa, the flying island staffed by intellectuals, we can safely conclude it is a folly of mankind, not merely one to which our rivals of this generation are prone.

Again, if I may quote at in full from a writer whose sense of he absurd was equal to that of Jack Vance, and from whom Vance no doubt took (or should have taken) at least some inspiration.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find the parallels between the eccentricities of Laputa and those of Castle Hagedorn:

These people are under continual disquietudes, never enjoying a minutes peace of mind; and their disturbances proceed from causes which very little affect the rest of mortals.  Their apprehensions arise from several changes they dread in the celestial bodies: for instance, that the earth, by the continual approaches of the sun towards it, must, in course of time, be absorbed, or swallowed up; that the face of the sun, will, by degrees, be encrusted with its own effluvia, and give no more light to the world; that the earth very narrowly escaped a brush from the tail of the last comet, which would have infallibly reduced it to ashes; and that the next, which they have calculated for one-and-thirty years hence, will probably destroy us.  For if, in its perihelion, it should approach within a certain degree of the sun (as by their calculations they have reason to dread) it will receive a degree of heat ten thousand times more intense than that of red hot glowing iron, and in its absence from the sun, carry a blazing tail ten hundred thousand and fourteen miles long, through which, if the earth should pass at the distance of one hundred thousand miles from the nucleus, or main body of the comet, it must in its passage be set on fire, and reduced to ashes: that the sun, daily spending its rays without any nutriment to supply them, will at last be wholly consumed and annihilated; which must be attended with the destruction of this earth, and of all the planets that receive their light from it.

They are so perpetually alarmed with the apprehensions of these, and the like impending dangers, that they can neither sleep quietly in their beds, nor have any relish for the common pleasures and amusements of life.  When they meet an acquaintance in the morning, the first question is about the sun’s health, how he looked at his setting and rising, and what hopes they have to avoid the stroke of the approaching comet.  This conversation they are apt to run into with the same temper that boys discover in delighting to hear terrible stories of spirits and hobgoblins, which they greedily listen to, and dare not go to bed for fear.

Please read and support my work on Patreon!