Winning the 1966 Nebula for best novella, The Last Castle is amazingly only one of few major awards Jack Vance won in his career. It is surprising because there is nothing that really sets the Last Castle apart from any of Vance’s other work to warrant such a distinction. The colorful imagination, the playful plot, the witty dialogue, the fantastical creatures—all are Vance through and through, leaving one in wonder.
Sidestepping the lure of discussion on the inconsistencies of speculative fiction awards, The Last Castle is the story of Castle Hagedorn and its stand against a rebellious horde of aliens on far-far future Earth. The incumbent humans living in decadence and useless décor for far too long, their slaves, the Meks, have revolted, taking the country by storm until only Hagedorn remains standing. Xanten, a surly, aggressive personality (not a typical Vance hero), decides to take action facing the complacency of the ruling elite and sets out over the land to find how and why the Meks rebelled. What he discovers is surprising, not to mention more disagreeable than any of the lords and ladies could have imagined.
Filled with the wit and creativity readers of Vance have come to take for granted, The Last Castle is no exception. Though short (less than 100 pages), the story’s details and originality are more than enough to set the imagination alight. Fleshing out Xanten’s story are Phanes, insect-esque humans, exhibited every evening by the lords of Hagedorn in a sort of “Whose peacock is more beautiful?” display. Birds, impertinent pterydactyl-esque creatures, work as other-worldy taxi drivers. And the Meks, though never developed beyond comic book presentation, fill the role of foil well enough—and weirdly enough—to make the story at least readable.
Thematically, The Last Castle is one of Vance’s strongest stories. Perhaps the reason it won the Nebula, slavery and the mindset underpinning the practice take center stage as Xanten pursues his mission on a sap-slurping power-wagon across the country. Talking amongst the variety of classes and peoples inhabiting the land, he encounters perspectives that don’t always line up with Hagedorn’s view of propriety. Drastic steps needed as the Meks draw closer, Vance’s solution to the slavery issue, while not exactly chiming with modern liberalism, is nevertheless practical.
In the end, The Last Castle is a superb novella from a Grandmaster of Fantasy (one of the few other awards Vance has won). Available by itself in older publications, it is now included only in collections of short stories, or paired with Vance’s other highly successful novella, The Dragon Masters. Fans won’t want to miss it, while those new to the author will find it a short and sweet introduction that exhibits the majority of Vance’s strengths.