The Dragon Masters and The Last Castle are Jack Vance’s most famous novellas. Falling short by just a hair, The Miracle Workers is also a well thought out piece of short fiction from the grandmaster of sci-fi, fantasy, and everything between. So similar in quality in fact, the editors of the Vance Integral Edition (VIE) thought fit to group this story with Vance’s two award winning novellas in a single edition—a shout in support of its quality.
The Miracle Workers is the story of Keep Faide, its wars, its attacks to establish position, and sometimes its need to just plain survive on the strange planet they inhabit. The other Keeps attacking in overt fashion, Keep Faide also faces inroads from the devious First Fols, a group native to the planet who seek to obstruct all of mankind’s efforts at domination. Beyond their foam billowing, wasp spitting ways, the Fols erect forests filled with traps and snares where none exited before, and if not careful, may just be plotting to take back over the world they once called their own. Lord Faide and the men under his control must go to wits’ end defending what they believe is their own. Lord Faide’s problem is, his wits have a short road.
Like the complacency motif of The Last Castle, much of the knowledge backing the technology that originally brought humanity to the planet has been lost in The Miracle Workers. Lord Faide may have a floating car, but he knows only how to make it go forward and back, the technical knowledge of its power systems, weaponry, etc lost. Large guns protect the Keeps, but nobody bothers to maintain them, their functionality severely in doubt come war time. Battles are instead fought the old fashion way. Knights on horseback with sword and shield must do their best despite the knowledge mankind once had, giving the story a strong medieval feel.
Technology may be missing, but there is one fighting technique that has lasted the ages: hoodoo. Vance’s term for voodoo, the practitioners of hoodoo, called jinxmen, use dolls and magic to creep inside the heads of their enemies, making them see and fear things that do not exist. All manner of demons and other forms of horror and haunting are used by the jinxmen in battle to defeat their enemies. Competition is also tight within Chief Faide’s ring of hoodooers. Being head jinxman, as Hein Huss is for Faide Keep, requires looking both forward and backward over your shoulder during battle.
In the end, The Miracle Workers is a fun piece of short fiction that falls short of Vance’s two more well-known novellas for only a couple of reasons. The structure not as pure as The Dragon Masters and theme not as developed as The Last Castle, The Miracle Workers nevertheless displays all of the imagination and cleverness that are Vance’s trademarks, making this a story worth tracking down for anyone who calls themselves a fan of the author. (For those interested, try also M. John Harrison's Viriconium books. The Pastel City in particular has many parallels to Vance's novella, though Harrison's book is more vibrant and rich thematically.)