Dorsai!: A badly dated affair

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSFF fantasy book reviews The Childe Cycle Gordon R. Dickson 1. Dorsai!Dorsai! by Gordon R. Dickson

Dickson‘s Childe Cycle future history series is one of SF’s most venerable, and is considered to be the most influential body of work in the sub-genre of military SF, whose most enthusiastic practitioners today include such familiar names as David Drake, David Weber, Rick Shelley, John Steakley, Simon R. Green, S.M. Stirling, John Ringo and many more. Yet this antique first novel in the cycle is a badly dated affair that, though readable, is hampered by an unlikable protagonist and some gender issues that are simply embarrassing in our more enlightened age. Some readers may yet enjoy it, even if it is a far cry from Dickson’s best.

The book’s episodic storyline follows the life of Donal Graeme, a Dorsai warlord characterized for us as the “perfect man of war.” This is a problem you’re going to have to get used to right away reading Dorsai!: Donal is superhuman to the point of near invincibility. His training, the process of which isn’t explained as well as one might like, has bestowed upon him such an ineluctably logical and intuitive mind that no problem is ever presented to him so challenging he can’t simply make it go away. (Except, of course, the opposite sex, which I’ll get to in a second.) The Dorsai hire themselves out to planetary governments, and Donal’s ambitions to advance are high. He effortlessly wangles alignments with high ranking military figures and politicians, though usually by being forceful and obnoxious rather than ingratiating and charming. Indeed, Donal is a true paradox as a character, as Dickson insists he is irresistible when he’s never the least bit appealing. Gorgeous women, whom Donal of course treats with utter contempt and disdain, throw themselves at him. What’s a manly man to do?

Hang out with other manly men, I suppose. One of the more surprising by-products of this novel’s misogyny (and I’m not being politically correct, kids — that’s what it is) is a weird, doubtlessly unintentional homoerotic subtext to Donal’s relationship with his personal servant, Lee. This comes to the fore most plainly in a scene halfway through the novel, right after Donal has viciously snubbed the most beautiful woman in the known universe, apparently, at a party thrown in his honor.

[Donal was] walking off the charge of adrenalin that had surged through him on the heels of his emotion, when the door opened. He turned like a wolf, but it was only Lee.

“You need me?” asked Lee.

The three words broke the spell. The tension in him snapped suddenly… “No, no, it’s all right,” he gasped at last. He had a fastidiousness about casually touching people; but now he clapped Lee on the shoulder to reassure him, so unhappy did the lean man look. “See if you can find me a drink — some Dorsai whiskey.”

Okay, I don’t mean to belabor that point, and I suspect it’s intended to be more homosocial than homoerotic. But it is interesting when set against the novel’s curt dismissal of the entire female gender as idiotic and pathetic nuisances. (Another passage talks about how Donal “found men so much easier to deal with than women — they were less prone to self-deception.”) Still, none of this changes the story’s most crippling problem, that the whole military super-genius thing is contrived all down the line. Granted, I’ve never served in the military myself. But I can’t really believe that the idea of, say, launching an attack on an enemy earlier than planned in order to surprise them is such an unheard of, visionary stroke of tactical genius that it occurs to no one but Donal. (Nor can I imagine an enemy so smug and stupid that it never occurs to them that attack plans might be changed, thus helpfully letting their guards down.) Donal seems as brilliant as he does only because everyone else in the book is an idiot.

Donal is such a superhero he never seems in any peril, thus erasing most of the conflict and tension from the book. (Hell, the guy can even walk on air when he wants to!) Dorsai! doesn’t really start delivering the goods until its last seventy-odd pages, when the interestingly crafted politics of the Childe Cycle universe are made clearer and you can feel like you finally have a stake in the tale. But other problems are always nibbling at you, such as prose that’s sometimes so pretentious it’s turgid. (“Their language failed on the doorstep of his motives and could not enter the lonely mansion of his mind.” The editor who let that one through shouldn’t only have been fired but shot.) Dorsai! may well plant the seed of an SF legend, but it would be another decade, with novels like Soldier, Ask Not and Tactics of Mistake, before the Childe Cycle would shift into gear.

This review by Thomas M. Wagner is reprinted from his website by special arrangement.

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THOMAS M. WAGNER, one of our guest bloggers, launched his science fiction and fantasy book review website SF in July 2001, and it now features about 700 titles. Thomas, who lives in Austin, TX and is a regular panelist at Armadillocon and other regional conventions, began reviewing in fanzines as far back as the 1980′s, and claims Roger Ebert as a main influence on his reviews today.

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  1. This just came out on audio a few weeks ago, so I’m sorry to hear that it’s not very good… it definitely sounds like I’d have the same problems with it that Thomas did. Is it worth trying later installments, or do they have similar problems, or is it necessary to read this book first? I’d like to give Dickson a try, but I’m pretty certain I won’t like this book.

  2. Thomas here (Martin’s the middle name)…I need to re-read the subsequent Childe Cycle volumes but IIRC they do improve. Generally speaking I wouldn’t consider Dickson a writer whose work would appeal to women, but I’d hate to marry myself to a blanket assumption like that. The Dragon series might be more your cuppa.

  3. Thanks, Thomas! You’d be surprised at how much guy-lit I like, but I don’t enjoy blatant misogyny or pretentious writing or superhero characters like you describe in your review. Male SFF writers whose heroes I do particularly like, who I think I’d consider guy-lit, include Jack Vance, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny, Harry Harrison, David Gemmell, and Fritz Leiber. Is Dickson out of this range?

  4. I cut my fantasy teeth on Dickson’s Dragon Knight series. I haven’t read them in a very long time, but I remember loving them immensely. Unfortunately I’ve not read anything else by Dickson.

  5. Justin, can you send a picture of your fantasy teeth?

  6. They’ve been chewing on zombie fiction lately so that wouldn’t be a good idea.

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