Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Literary Demolition Of DORSAI!

Or how not to write a science fiction novel.

As part of my project to write a science fiction novel I am re-reading DORSAI! Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title. This is the first novel in a series of ubermensch fantasies by Gordon R. Dickson. I am reading it with the intent of deconstructing it as an example of military science fiction with mercenaries. My goal as a novelist is to create a depiction of a similar band of mercenaries and show how a rational nation would be deal with them.

Here’s the first paragraph from the chapter titled MERCENARY III:

Returning again up the corridor toward the bow of the ship, Donal allowed himself to wonder, a little wistfully, about this incubus of his own strange difference from other people. He had thought to leave it behind with his cadet uniform. Instead, it seemed, it continued to ride with him, still perched on his shoulders. Always it had been this way. What seemed so plain, and simple and straightforward to himself, had always struck others as veiled, tortuous, and involved. Always he had been like a stranger passing trough a town, the ways of whose people were different, and who looked on him with a lack of understanding amounting to suspicion. Their language failed on the doorstep of his motives and could not enter the lonely mansion of his mind. They said “enemy” and “friend”; they said “strong” and “weak”–“them” and “us”. They set up a thousand arbitrary classifications and distinctions which he could not comprehend, convinced as he was that all people were only people–and there was very little to choose between them. Only, you dealt with them as individuals, one by one; and always remembering to be patient. And if you did this successfully, then the larger, group things came out right.

Can you understand that? Was Dickson an English Literature major at the U of M?

ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, the periodical that published this serially in 1959 did pay a penny a word. But this amount of barely incomprehensible verbiage is simply absurd.

Dickson attempts to recreate the European political environment prior to the Treaty Of Westphalia (1648), a time when the use of specifically raised and organized mercenary units was commonplace. Civil wars within what should be sovereign nation states are commonplace. Dickson also creates a moral nightmare. A universe where the Right Of Life is legally negated. An individual may be conscripted by the state and forced to work on another world in trade for another worker with knowledge in another field. Or die as cannon fodder in a foreign war. And the penalty for an individual who broke this so-called contract is death.

Dickson may not have understood the concept of government. But then he was a graduate of the University Of Minnesota.

What is very apparent when reading this and the other works in the series is that Dickson adopted a Platonist metaphysics. What passes for philosophy is a gibberish of Eastern Mysticism and Racial Collectivism along with the open practice of magic. In fact the overall plot of the series, such it was, is completely dependent on the occurrence of magical events. It would more accurate to describe this series as a work of fantasy instead of science fiction. In THE FINAL ENCYCLOPEDIA, Dickson actually wrote a scene set on the Platonic World Of Forms. And at the end of the initial novel Dickson has his protagonist literally commanding the antagonist to suffer. And the antagonist magically does so.

If reality is unreal in a fictional universe, why bother to write about it?

3 comments: said...

DORSAI! is not the first in his "ubermensch fantasies," but a late comer to the Childe cycle. The first was the book "Necromancer." The first military related book was "Tactics of Mistake," followed by "Soldier, Ask Not." "DORSAI!" is a re-edited version of "The Genetic General," the fourth in the cycle.

I enjoy reading your blogs from time to time, but I am conflicted; I also enjoyed Dickson's Childe cycle, whereas subtleties in your blog indicate a dislike for the series. hope this does not taint your deconstruction.

Leslie Bates said...

In terms of publication history DORSAI was the first in 1959.

The fundamental problem with The Childe Cycle is the underlying philosophy. On the metaphysical level reality is treated as being unreal and malleable. This is very apparent in NECROMANCER.

raikenclw said...

I found the passage from the book understandable. Personally, I would have used a conversation with one or two other characters to relay this information, rather than a long internal monologue by the protagonist. But I think such monologues were a symptom of the times and the genre; readers more or less expected them.