Thursday, October 23, 2008


Our books today are four of the late Gordon Dickson's "Dorsai" books, Dorsai!, Lost Dorsai, Spirit of Dorsai, and Soldier, Ask Not. These four titles are nowadays billed as 'segments' of something called 'The Childe Cycle,' but that need not overly worry you - Dickson was a chronic big-dreamer, and by the time of his death the over-arching structure of his 'Childe' books had taken on the doomed hyper-comprehensiveness of the unfulfillable - kind of like science fiction's answer to Mr. Casaubon's "The Key to All Mythologies."

Unfortunately, the "Dorsai" books ended up bloated, boring, and hopelessly convoluted; later tomes like The Final Encyclopedia, Young Bleys, and The Chantry Guild are joylessly impenetrable. And there are misfires early in the series too - notably Necromancer and Tactics of Mistake. But our four books today all crackle with energy and invention, each a perfect demonstration of how great Dickson's talent was before he forgot one-half of the Horatian dictum "to instruct and entertain."

The shared background of the books is Dickson's imagined future world of the so-called Splinter Cultures: in this future, groups of humans have left Old Earth and settled other worlds, allowing those worlds to sharpen their specialties and narrow their focuses - a kind of cultural natural selection. The planets Newton and Venus have devoted themselves to cutting-edge science, to the exclusion of all else; Harmony and Association are hotbeds of religious ecstasy (and fanaticism); Mara and Kultis are home to the Exotics (think of them as super-psychologists, with a little stage-magic thrown in); and central to these early books, there's the world of the Dorsai, whose natural resources are scanty enough so that the planet's chief export resource is its fighting men and women, the super-mercenaries known as the Dorsai.

Against this backdrop, Dickson again and again created fascinating stories, mainly centering around the Graeme family, specifically Donal and twin brothers Ian and Kensie. These three either star in the novels and short stories that comprise these four books or else crop up in them at key moments. The story of this family and the chaotic growth of the Splinter Cultures away from (and occasionally against) Old Earth had huge potential - Dickson only barely scratched its surface before he died. To an old hack sci-fi writer such as myself, the obvious grand clincher of a plotline would involve all these squabbling cultures banding together against a common enemy from outside, one intent of destroying them all. Deadwood-to-the-stars, as it were. But Dickson never got around to writing that story, as satisfying as it might have been.

Still, what we have today is satisfying enough! Dickson might eventually have intended his whole 'cycle' to be a parable of the totality of human existence, but before he went down that rabbit-hole, he wrote some great, thought-provoking sci-fi adventure stories set in a future world as fascinating as any on the market. Plus, it's pretty obvious from these four books how cool Dickson thinks his Dorsai are.

And they are - these men and women who are a little bigger, a lot faster, and who adhere to a military code that at times makes them seem utterly alien to the other Cultures, especially the hum-drum ordinary men of Old Earth. That contrast is at the heart of Soldier, Ask Not, which centers on the burning desire of one man of Old Earth, Tam Olyn, to plant his flag for the home world and have his revenge on the excesses of the Splinter Cultures. As he puts it:

... I am a man of Earth.

That does not impress you? Not in these days when the sons of the younger worlds are taller, stronger, more skilled and clever than we of the Old World? Then, how little you know of Earth, and the sons of Earth. Leave your younger worlds and come back to the Mother Planet, once, and touch her. She is still here and still the same. Her sun still shines on the waters of the Red Sea that parted before the Children of the Lord. The wind still blows in the pass of Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the Spartan Three Hundred held back the hosts of Xerxes, King of the Persians, and changed history....

...The men of the Dorsai may be warriors above imagining. The Exotics of Mara and Kultis may be robed magicians who can turn a man inside out and find answers outside philosophy. The researchers in hard science on Newton and Venus may have traveled so far beyond ordinary humans that they can talk to us only haltingly, nowadays. But we - we duller, shorter, simpler men of Old Earth still have something more than any of these. For we are still the whole being of man, the basic stock, of which they are only the refined parts - flashing, fine-honed, scintillant parts. But parts.

Responding to a tragedy in his life, Olyn seeks revenge on these worlds and their specialized beings, and eventually one of tools he's tempted to use to gain that revenge is a creation of Dickson's called The Final Encyclopedia - and it's positively goose-pimpling to read his descriptions of this vast storehouse of active, interlinked information ... information of all kinds, continuously fed and updated and multiplied until it takes on a kind of matrix or interconnectivity of its own ... a vast, centralized encyclopedia that puts all the combined knowledges and whims and artistic choices of every discipline at the fingertips of the most casual user ....

In Dickson's future world, such a Final Encyclopedia will take more than a century to build (since it's being accumulated, steadily) - and of course long before it's finished, it'll be too big to be housed on Earth's surface; it'll have to be launched into orbit around Earth. Dickson died in 2001 and hadn't been in the best of health for a time before that; I don't know if he ever really saw the real-world form his Final Encyclopedia ended up taking (he certainly couldn't even dream that some day an old snail-mail correspondent of his would have access to that amazing creation from the comfort of his bed on an autumn's evening, without need for special headset, jetpack, or inter-orbital shuttle).

Soldier, Ask Not is probably Dickson's most accomplished novel, although it drags in certain sections. Likewise the novel Dorsai! physically and opposite sides of the same coin emotionally, with Ian "all ice" and which centers on Donal Graeme as a kind of focal-point of planetary destiny. The book is fast-paced but feels anticlimactic, although it gives us some fine portraits - not only of Donal, who's strange and mystical in ways that puzzle his fellow Dorsai, but also of the towering identical twins Ian and Kensie Graeme, who are quintessential DorsaiKensie "all blood."

The brothers (and another pivotal Dorsai character, Amanda Morgan) feature prominently in Dickson's best-written Dorsai book, Lost Dorsai, a very intriguing story about what happens if a Dorsai were to embrace pacificism. There's plenty of action in this book, but the character-work is its highlight and some of Dickson's best work.

But for my money, the purest distillation of his Dorsai mythos comes in the short novella "Brothers" which forms half of Spirit of Dorsai. In that story, Kensie Graeme is leading a Dorsai Expeditionary Force putting down insurgents on the world of St. Marie, and his job is just about over - when a sniper guns him down in a city street. Kensie's allegedly emotionless brother Ian order the planet be put under martial law until his brother's killers are found, but he also orders his soldiers to wait until an investigation is made. The men are reluctant to obey, wrathful and mindful of an infamous incident in Dorsai past, the subject of a marching song:

It was the song of the young Colonel who had been put to death one hundred years before, when the Dorsai were just in their beginning. A New Earth city had employed a force of Dorsai with the secret intention of using them against an enemy force so superior as to surely destroy them utterly - so rendering payment for their services unnecessary while at the same time doing considerable damage to the enemy. Then the Dorsai had defeated the enemy, instead, and the city faced the necessity of paying, after all. To avoid this, the city authorities came up with the idea of charging the Dorsai commanding officer with dealing with the enemy, taking a bribe to claim victory for a battle never fought at all. It was the technique of the big lie; and it might even have worked if they had not made the mistake of arresting the commanding officer, to back up their story.

This incident from the Dorsai past hangs over the events of "Brothers" like an insistent threat, and the deadline the troops give their commanding officers (by overwhelming vote) before they attack the cities of St. Marie gets closer and closer as Ian and his allies search for the assassins. It's a tense, well-told tale of tragedy and revenge, and in addition to everything else, it treats its readers to Dickson's wonderfully Kiplingesque poetical talents! Because naturally, in addition to alluding to that old-story camp song, he sings it for us, and it goes like this:

... one fourth of Rochmont's fighting strength -
One battalion of Dorsai -
Were sent by Rochmont forth alone,
To bleed Helmuth, and die.

But look, look down from Rochmont's heights
Upon the Helmuth plain.
All of Helmuth's armored force
By Dorsai checked, or slain.

Look down, look down, on Rochmont's shame
To hide the wrong she'd done,
Made claim Helmuth had bribed Dorsais-
No battle had been won.

To prove that lie, the Rochmont lords
Arrested Jacques Chretien,
On charge he dealt with Helmuth's Chiefs
For payment to his men.

Commandant Arp Van Din sent word:
'You may not judge Dorsai,
Return our Colonel by the dawn,
Or Rochmont town will die.'

Strong-held behind her walls, Rochmont
Scorned to answer them,
Condemned, and at daybreak, hanged,
Young Colonel Jacques Chretien.

Bright, bright the sun that morning rose
Upon each weaponed wall.
But when the sun set in the west,
Those walls were leveled all.

Then soft and white the moon arose
On streets and roofs unstained,
But when that moon was down once more,
No street nor roof remained.

No more is there a Rochmont town
No more are Rochmont's men.
But stands a Dorsai monument
To Colonel Jacques Chretien.

So pass the word from world to world,
Alone still stands Dorsai.
But while she lives, no one of hers,
By foreign wrong shall die.

They little knew of brotherhood
- The faith of fighting men -
Who once to prove their lie was good
Hanged Colonel Jacques Chretien!

Of course in an overview like this one, only a fraction of the good stuff that awaits you in these four books can be sampled, so just take it on faith: if you like vigorous, down-to-earth (so to speak) science fiction, and especially military science fiction (if you know somebody currently serving in any branch of the military, find a copy of Spirit of Dorsai and mail it to them today), the early sagas of Gordon Dickson's "Dorsai" cycle won't let you down.


Beepy said...

Hey, isn't Kensie Graeme a freelance writer for Open Letters Monthly?

Sam said...

Awesome post! Are these books all out of print?

steve said...

They are indeed all out of print (after first coming back INTO print with covers so hideous I couldn't bring myself to include them - I had to go digging around for the older, dorkier covers instead), although they're certainly available from Stevereads to all interested parties!

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