QuikReview – Dorsai – Gordon R. Dickson

Dorsai! – Gordon R. Dickson

[once again, apologies for the abrupt nature of this review. I had the midnight-3 a.m. shift last night and am operating on four hours of sleep.]

So this book is about Donal Graeme: from his abrupt discovery at eighteen that other people think he’s weird (he’s weirder than a lemur in a gift shop*)–his feud with William of Ceta–his somewhat-inexplicable love for the Select of Kultis and her even more bewildering infatuation with him–and his eventual realization of his true powers and relationship to humanity. What is absolute power over other humans–not to a corrupt or evil man, but to a man who loves humanity? It’s a lonely and wearisome burden.

Anyhow, so does Donal Graeme have the same powers as Paul Atreides? Between them: I do think Paul’s Bene Gesserit training would give him an edge, as would his control and usage of the Spice. He definitely has more conscious control of his powers and abilities. The Exotics do seem to have some similar training methods, but theirs are frankly rather crude in comparison and in any case, Donal doesn’t get them; he finds enlightenment on his own. Paul would definitely win in a physical fight, but Donal’s position as a free actor might just possibly give him the edge in manipulating the situation. On the other hand, Paul is the man who escaped the Bene Gesserit’s manipulations, so, perhaps they are pretty evenly balanced after all.

Rated: The Exotics versus the Bene Gesserit would be interesting to watch. From a suitable distance, that is. Like another planetary system…

* Squaaaawwk

The Spirit of Dorsai – Gordon R. Dickson

“–But these old sci-fi books, they’re not very pro-women. They don’t have very many strong female characters.”
“That’s not actually true. I think what most people are thinking of when they say that is like the old school pulp stories. Those are like: hero good, villain bad, girl pretty, pew pew pew, and then hero saves the day. And for those kinds of stories, having nuance and subtlety isn’t a selling point. So you want to not let other characters be strong because you don’t want to take the spotlight away from the hero. They’re stories that are meant to be very simple, they’re meant to go a certain way. So, the hero is always going to get the girl in the end, and the hero is always going to defeat the villain. And it has to be the hero who defeats the villain, and the heroine has to be someone you want the hero to end up with. Those are like the rules you have to work inside of.”
“Yeah, and the rules say that the women are like damsels in distress.”
“Not necessarily. Like, it’s pretty common to have the damsel have a dagger, or have a blaster, and pretty common for her to actually be able to at least get a stab in, but the main thing is that you just don’t want to show up your hero too much.”
“I don’t know…I just want to see more empowered women.”
“Oh, no, if you’re like looking for the actual female characters in science fiction who are like really cool, who are either straight-up asskicking badasses or just, y’know, strong-willed and take no [redacted], there’s lots of those.”
“Well, yeah, like in Aliens–”
Aliens is like the go-to example, but that’s only because people are uncultured idiots who don’t read books. Mil-SF particularly has a lot of women soldier characters. There’s Honor Harrington. There’s Herris Serrano….there’s Cordelia Vorkosigan…there’s probably a lot more that I don’t know about because I don’t read a whole lot of Mil-SF.There’s a lot, OK, because once you’ve got power armor in your universe, there’s no real reason to keep women out of combat.”
“No, for real, that makes sense.”
“So, yeah, there’s lots. The thing is: you have to read the books to read of them…There’s even like this one book–it’s a short one though, it’s more of a novella–about this one woman who is ninety-three years old and is appointed district commander when her planet is being invaded. Amanda Morgan.”
“Yeah, and so she’s ninety-two or ninety-three and the men are off-planet, which is why they’re being attacked, so she plans so the battle is fought–and won–by the elderly who have to stay home and then the teenagers. And, it’s a short story, so it’s not all that in-depth, but my point is: there are plenty of heroines in sci-fi.”
“Yeah, so I’m a nerd. Sorry. I’ll tone it down in the future.”
“You’re like a mega-nerd.”
“I’m going to shut up and go away now.”
“You don’t have to!”
“I got books to read!”
Rated: Stone are my walls–and my roof is of timber–but the hands of my builder are stronger by far.

Lost Dorsai – Gordon R. Dickson

“What is your series? What are you reading, right now?”
“Well….a couple of different ones. The main one I’m working on right now is the Dorsai books. Those are like…well, in the future, mankind has spread out to different planets, and because they’ve spread out, they’ve also diverged. So like, because the planets all have different specialties, and because the people who go there are selected, it becomes like we’ve evolved into different sub-species. So there’s like the religious race, there’s the merchant race–or planet, really–there’s the mystic race who like, have psi-powers–there’s Old Earth, which is like the seedstock. And then the Dorsai are like the warrior race and they’re the main protagonists, because this is mostly Mil-SF.”
“Ok, and they like take over?”
“No, they’re mercenaries. There’s not really enough of them to take over, probably. The one I’m working on right now is about one of the Dorsai who goes through the Academy and gets commissioned and all that, and then realizes that he’s a pacifist. He’s a complete pacifist. He absolutely has decided that he will not take life, he will not engage in violence.”
“So the others reject him because he won’t fight.”
“No, because the Dorsai are very individualistic. So he’s free to go his own way and everybody respects his decision. But the problem is that he’s kind of at a loss, because the Dorsai are also very….they’re like: you pick your path and then you stick to it. So when he started off as one thing–he joined the military–and then he abandoned it, he’s lost his way. He’s Lost Dorsai. So he doesn’t know where he fits, and they don’t know where he fits. Because a Dorsai goes all the way with whatever he does.
“So the story itself is about how he and the other characters have been maneuvered into a situation where it seems that the only possible way is to fight their way out. And, fighting is going to kill them–and not fighting is going to hurt everybody else in the long run. It’s complicated. Also I keep skipping the, like, political parts.”
“Oh, heh. So, what happens in the end?”
“So, in the end, he finds a way to be a Dorsai and save his friends–and his world–and not use violence to do it.”
“So, like, the point is: you don’t have to use violence to win?”
“Well, if you’re willing to die to be a hero…”

Soldier, Ask Not – Gordon R. Dickson

0812504003Soldier, Ask Not

This story begins with a somewhat self-conscious “Sing, muses….” as Tam Olyn explains himself and his particular wrath. Tam Olyn is angry: at his psychologically abusive guardian, at the society that actually doesn’t but could potentially oppress him, at his lack of options and his tenuous grasp on freedom–but Tam Olyn is a rare and isolated kind of special human being–he can do something about it. Tam discovers that he is actually one of the few people who can stand apart from the herd and direct its actions. He can make people do as he wants. He can change the course of history. He is one of the elite brotherhood of Men whose power can be exerted to uplift mankind itself, to bring it to new heights of knowledge and understanding, unity, peace, prosperity!

He…promptly uses this newfound knowledge to manipulate his sister into not marrying the man she loves, and works up to starting a war, and attempts to commit genocide. (So, y’know, par for the course for a journalist.) Tam has been too twisted by his nihilistic uncle’s mental abuse–too turned towards destruction–to have a shred of empathy for his fellow human beings. On top of this, there is a matter of jealousy–and competition.
As humanity spread to the fourteen worlds, each world became specialized–and their populations diverged, first by selection, and then by genetics. Thus the Exotics have developed, as a race, parapsychic powers and strange scientific methods of seeing the future. Thus, the Newtonians and Venusians breed the best scientists and physicists. Thus, the Friendlies are Religious in a way that makes the Puritans look like poseurs. And thus the Dorsai are the ultimate Warriors, bred to it as well as born. Earth and Earth-men, however, does not have the benefit of these genetic developments. Earth is the seedstock; the colonists are the improvements.

–And Tam, in his rebellion against the cosmos, takes issue with the idea that any man might be better than him…

And at this point, I am done writing. I apologize. I’ve been pulling ten-hour shifts for the last week, all of it outdoor labor, and barely have the energy to read books, let alone review them. Please just know that this is a very good book, especially if you are or have ever been an angry teenager who wanted to Stand Apart from all Those Fools and be the wielder of the lightnings, rather than one of the little people who runs before the storm.

Rated: Have faith–and soldier on.

Tactics of Mistake – Gordon R. Dickson

tctcsfmstb1981Trouble not the scholar among his books, for if he also has a pulse rifle and access to jump troopers, Mark V underwater bulldozer tanks, favorable local terrain, and an incompetent commander, he can make things very hot for you indeed.

– Cletus Grahame, a new-bird Colonel with three months’ active duty under his belt–and a Medal of Honor–is testing out theories for the fourth volume of his series on tactical applications. He plans on writing twenty, and this book is about his arranging of the cosmos to provide both the material for the next sixteen and guarantee that they will be used and read–by creating a world full of people who can think the same thoughts as he can, fight the same way he fights, and plan the way he plans. A world of warrior-scholars, invincible. Yep, quite an ambition. No, no one else takes him seriously….until he starts winning.

– Cletus’ titular tactics are a way of applying tactical logic to a broader strategic goal. It’s pulled from the Scaramouche game-breaking fencing strategy–engage your enemy in a series of conflicts, not with the aim of scoring a kill on any of these, but simply to focus his mind on those engagements while simultaneously drawing him further and further out of his defenses–until you have prepared the strike.

Yeah, it takes a damn’ good fencer and a damn good general. You have one guess as to what Cletus is.

– The overwhelming question I am left with is: why? Why Cletus? Why Dow deCastries? What the heck is the Alliance or the Coalition? Or Earth? Why are the Neumann colonists attacking, anyway, that the Exotics need to hire mercenaries? I don’t think I’m being unfair to point out that the worldbuilding isn’t all that great. I got a better idea of the politics and history of the world from Kristine Smith’s Code of Conduct–which is a book with a similar amount of political and diplomatic personnel focus. So that’s a small mark against it. Mind you, most people aren’t reading the book for details on imaginary history or clever linguistics. They’re in it for the Mil-SF action, and this is one of the classics for a reason.

– I kinda want to read the crossover fanfic, terrible as it inevitably will be, of Cletus Grahame and Lelouch vi Britannia playing chess together. Or perhaps rock-paper-scissors (jumptrooper-mecha-dropship?)

– Oh, I wonder what havoc Miles Vorkosigan could wreak if he went up against Cletus. Or worse…if they joined forces….

– Cletus spends considerable time of this book passed out.

– Cletus is kind of a smug bastard, isn’t he?

– I may have mentioned this in the Necromancer review, but Gordon R. Dickson is one of my own personal Big Three SF authors. I read his stuff extensively and absorbed a lot of his characteristic tropes. The loner hero–who is not alone because of some personality quirk, but because he holds an identity or point of view entirely separate from the rest of humanity. The Leader who can impose his will on others because he combines the intelligence and erudition of a scholar, a warrior’s martial prowess, a poet’s eye, and a psychologist’s ability to understand and exploit of human nature. The Danger: Human attitude–that there is nothing in the cosmos so great as a human, and no force on Earth or among the stars that can can stop a Man who has accepted its challenge.

Rated: fal Morgan, fal Morgan, my home….

Necromancer – Gordon R. Dickson

e1fbd403ecfab8e7706e735dac3cdc15My apologies for the disjointed nature of this review. I’m really tired.

– this is a very talky book, with some dwelling upon metaphysics. It doesn’t contain any scifi blasting action.

– the Reveal is simply this: that the entire book is just setup for the rest of the Childe Cycle. And as such….it feels like a cheat when read on its own.

– while some of the plot devices and twists are explained in the grand reveal at the end…they are explained without being put to good use.

– an off-putting protagonist–arrogant, sure; but someone with an instinctive sense of rightness needs to have that confirmed now and again. It is confirmed–but not until the end.

– Still, Formain is very identifiable, *cough* at least to *cough*:
“It was extremely difficult for him to add two and two and get four. It was exceedingly simple and natural for him to contemplate two by itself, as an isolated element, and find four as an implied, characteristic possibility of it.
He looked out on all existence through a window that revealed only unique elements. He approached everything in terms of isolates. Isolates and their implied possibilities of characteristics. All time, for example, was implied in any single moment that he might choose to examine. But the moment itself was unique and unalterably separated from any other moment, even though the other moment also implied all of time.”

– Plot: a man discovers himself…literally. And…um, that’s almost about all.

– Characters: meh. (OK, I typed that as “men,” twice. I think my subconscious identity may be trying to express an opinion)

– standout scenes: Formain’s journey from the cold locker where his new body was stored, to his place at the final confrontation–without thawing out first. The Reveal that Central Complex is real, is intelligent, and takes its position not as an enemy, but a guardian of humanity. An unimaginitive hack (James Cameron. Joss Whedon. Jar Jar Abrams.) would have made CenCom a one-dimensional computer who wants to destroy humanity-villain, because computer.

– I’ve read so much Dickson that it’s like hearing an old friend’s voice after a long time. And he’s a guy who can tell the best kind of stories, you know? He can tell funny ones, sad ones, scary ones, and ones that make you cry and think at the same time. And all the stories you tell have an echo of his voice in them, continuing on down.

Rated: Four for Dorsai!

Book Review: Beyond Another Sun – Tom Godwin

Pretty lame cover, too.

Beyond Another Sun is a 1971 novel by Tom Godwin–better known for his seminal Hard SF novella, The Cold Equations.

To save us all time right at the start: Beyond Another Sun lacks the gritty edge of the author’s better-known story, but it’s got some merits and a happy ending, not only for space scout hero and barbarian heroine, not only for the simple but rapidly-advancing natives, not only the nine million refugees on the fourteen colony ships trailing slowly behind the advance scout, but even also for the uncounted billions trapped on doomed Earth, hoping against hope for the discovery of a new world–in time.

And that’s pretty good work for a guy who spends most of his pagetime teaching the natives how to use kaolin filler in their paper mills and occasionally firing his blaster at things.

So, plot.

Earth is doomed. In less than twenty-five years, a rogue planet is going to enter the Solar System and collide with it. FTL travel exists, but is limited in range, and there are not–yet–any suitable host worlds to which the bulk of Earth’s population (billions, remember), can be evacuated. The refugee armadas have already embarked, with no idea about or sign of their final destination–only a hope. Advance scout Norman Gray flies ahead of the armada, searching. So far he has found only planets suitable as waypoints or harbors, such as the planet (uhhhh….Vala?), which has atmosphere, water, carbon-based plant life, and, oh yes, humans who look like us but have a lower technology level and whose religious sensibilities are prone to be impressed by flying machines from the sacred constellation.

I was actually kind of surprised to find this book was published in ’70s: that’s a Campbellian pulp-sciffy scenario on a platter, there. But there’s a measure of subtlety to this one, or at least, an unwillingness to engage with cliche.

The Vala are a preindustrial people who fight with knives, live in villages, and place high stock in the opinions of their priests…they are also highly pragmatic and also quite intelligent. Their world has been constrained to a single habitable valley, and their resources are running out. They are more than happy to accept the Earthman’s bargain: vaccines against the neurotoxic bloodsucker moths, flamethrowers to destroy them, diagrams and books for new technology and learning, locations of new ore deposits and the machines to mine them with–in return for allowing their world to become a way station for the aforementioned fourteen colony ships….and nine million Earth refugees aboard them.

Norman’s mission for Vala is a success–the ships are en route–and he should be preparing to leave. Only…there’s this girl, you see…and then, you see, the actual problem is: there’s this intensive system of mental conditioning that the Advance Scouts get put through that won’t allow them to stay homebound, that compels them to keep driving out, reaching for the unreachable stars…no matter how much they want to stay and no matter how hard they love.

The Cold Equations is cold, lean, ruthless. The problem with this book is that it’s not. Cutting down its length by a third or so–compressing the meandering and painstaking “teaching the natives” sequences in time-honored pulp-fiction fashion, to the bare essentials (“befriend native warrior. confront native witchdoctor/priest. defeat rival in knife fight. girl throws self at. what to do?”) would have been, yes, a bow to cliche, but a boon to the story. The meat of this story is the internal struggle of Norman Gray–a man who has been groomed to his starfaring role since boyhood, and who yet somehow has seen the chance for peace and a home. Will he continue, as duty and deep-ingrained compulsions require him to? Or will he stay with the simple yet beautiful native maiden? Spending more time brooding moodily over these questions, less time considering the logistics of printing and distributing copies of mining literature to the far-out villages, more time punching rival chieftains, and less time discussing history with the friendly priest, would have improved matters immensely.

On the subject of brooding: there is a certain amount of attention paid to the various psychological manipulations that went into the shaping of Norman Gray, Advance Space Scout….but comparatively speaking, it’s rather lifeless. Even when Norman gets into one of his Girl I Left Behind Me funks, it’s…kind of boring.

But it does have a happy ending.

So there’s that.

Rated: Gordon Dickson would have made this book so gritty you could use the pages for sandpaper.