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It’s in the Memes, er, Genes

When I resolved to read one of my favourite science fiction novels during each month of this year, I hadn’t realised quite how prevalent in the blogosphere was the idea of a themed year-long reading list. Admittedly, I saw it as more of a “resolution” than a “challenge”. After all, where’s the challenge in rereading your favourite books? Having said that, part of my intention was to determine if my list of favourites actually needed updating…

And the first update I made was to expand the list to twelve – so I could read a book for each month of the year. One of the two titles I added was Gordon R Dickson’s Soldier, Ask Not, the second book of the Dorsai trilogy. I remember the trilogy being a favourite during my teens, and I vaguely recalled that Soldier, Ask Not was the most interesting of the three. However, in a spirit of fairness, I decided to reread the entire trilogy…

Tactics of Mistake was the clearest of the three books in memory. Why this should be the case, I don’t know. It’s not as if I’d read the book more often than the other two in the trilogy. Perhaps it’s because it’s the most straightforward of the three; or perhaps it’s because, like Dune (another favourite), it features an ordinary young man who subsequently proves to be anything but. This young man is Cletus Grahame, a military officer and scholar. In the future of Tactics of Mistake, the Earth has settled into two mutually antagonistic blocs, the Western Alliance and the Eastern Coalition. These blocs manoeuvre for position and power, and occasionally fight, on the fourteen worlds so far settled by humanity. One such world is Kultis, where the settlement of Neuland is waging a guerrilla war against Bakhalla. The Western Alliance is supporting Bakhalla – a colony of Exotics, sort of Buddhist-like philosophers with arcane psychological skills; while the Eastern Coalition supports Neuland. (It’s odd how so many US sf novels of the mid-twentieth century attributed almost superhuman powers to psychologists – e.g., Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea, or Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon.) Grahame has had himself posted to Bakhalla in order to try out his tactical theories against the Neuland guerillas. He also makes an enemy of Dow deCastries, a rising star in the Eastern Coalition’s upper echelons. DeCastries intends to have the Eastern Coalition rule both Earth and the off-world colonies. Under himself, of course. Grahame plans to prevent him. And he does this, in part, by turning the Dorsai, a world of interstellar mercenaries, into the most effective fighting force ever seen.

Sadly, Tactics of Mistake did not match up to memory. Grahame is a little too competent to be entirely plausible – and his dodgy knee has a touch of characterisation-by-quirks to it. His love-interest, Melissa, acts like a teenager throughout the novel. And the chief hook on which the narrative hangs – Grahame’s genius at tactics – is, well, is unconvincing. His battle plans seem to rely on the enemy screwing up – in fact, they succeed because the enemy screws up exactly as Grahame had predicted. So much for “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy”… Ah well. Fond though my memories of the Dorsai trilogy may be, Tactics of Mistake is definitely not a contender for the favourites list…

But then it was Soldier, Ask Not that I actually added to the list. This is the second book in the trilogy. Unlike the other two, I’d actually reread it back in 1995 – after I’d found a copy in a remaindered book shop in Abu Dhabi I used to visit often when I lived in the UAE (the trilogy itself was in storage in the UK at the time). This may be why I remembered the book as the most interesting of the three – although the fact that it focused on the Friendlies, a pair of worlds settled by Christian fundamentalists, also contributed. What I’d forgotten, however, was that the novel is a first-person narrative. And that the narrator, Tam Olyn, is an Earth-born newsman (and we can tell this is science fiction: newsmen such as Olyn are renowned for their objectivity). He proves to be one of the very few people able to influence historical forces (Cletus Grahame, of course, was another). Olyn is a far from sympathetic character: selfishness and arrogant. When his one selfless act results in the death of his brother-in-law in a massacre of prisoners by a Friendly mercenary, Olyn sets out to destroy the Friendlies and their way of life.

Dickson appears to have tried for a more literary tone in Soldier, Ask Not than he had used in Tactics of Mistake. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. I suppose in some respects this is the book showing its age – many of the various turns of phrase have become cliched, or are used with a clumsiness modern readers will no longer accept. Dickson also appears to confuse himself with his astrography – if not flatly contradicting his earlier self. The uninhabited world of Oriente, for example, is described as orbiting both Procyon and Sirius. There is something curiously one-dimensional about Dickson’s future setting too. There are few, if any, mentions of cultures other than West European/American; and the Friendlies are, of course, Christian fundamentalists. Yet Dickson takes great care to describe his characters as having mixed ethnicity (Jamethon Black in Soldier, Ask Not, for instance, is partly of Berber ancestry). The novel’s resolution is entirely expected – in fact, Olyn’s rehabilitation is pretty much obvious from the first page. Given that it was the presence of the Friendlies that I remembered as most interesting about this book, I was disappointed to see how they were treated. At times there’s a clear envy of their faith in the prose; and yet they’re completely monstered when required by the plot. The aforementioned massacre, for example, doesn’t seem plausible for a culture with a rigorously-defined moral framework.

The final book in the trilogy, Dorsai!, was the first book published (as The Genetic General), but was then heavily rewritten. It’s set at the same time as Soldier, Ask Not – in fact, the events of Dorsai! are mentioned in Soldier, Ask Not. Like Tactics of Mistake, its protagonist is a tactical genius, Donal Graeme, although he is not recognised as such by his peers. At least not initially. They just think he’s “strange”. Also like Cletus Grahame, Graeme sets himself in opposition to a powerful politician, William of Ceta, who also intends to control all the colonised worlds. In fact, the plot of Dorsai! bears many resemblances to that of Tactics of Mistake (or vice versa, given that Dorsai! was written and published first). In a nutshell, Graeme, a Dorsai, heads out among the colonised worlds to make a name for himself. He proposes unorthodox battle plans to his masters, which subsequently prove to be exactly what’s needed for victory, and so is promoted to ever higher positions. All of which is necessary for him to effectively block William’s plans. There’s not much in the way of jeopardy in Dorsai! – at no point do we doubt Graeme’s eventual success. But then the novel, and by extension the trilogy, always seemed more of a platform for Dickson’s theories regarding the sweep of history and splintering of humanity into specialised cultures than it was a serious attempt at well-plotted fiction.

Sadly, Dorsai! is on a par with the preceding two books in the trilogy. There are some interesting ideas in there but the books read as little more than adventure stories with a side-helping of pie-in-the-sky historical and psychological theorising. But even that doesn’t work plausibly. We have historical forces at work… and yet they can be controlled by Great Men. I always thought the two concepts were mutually exclusive. The setting of the Dorsai trilogy, contradictions aside, is lightly sketched in, which sometimes works against it. The structure of the books, however, are heavily dependent on military tactics and strategy, and their use on the battlefield, and these are not at all convincing.

So, after all that, Soldier, Ask Not becomes the first book to be dropped from the favourites list. I can see why I liked the books in my teens but, well, I’m older now and they no longer hold the same appeal. Dickson’s central premise is mildly interesting, but the implementation is disappointing. Ah well. I suppose I’ll have to turn to the almost-rans list to find a novel to take Soldier, Ask Not‘s place. Um, I seem to recall really liking Time And Again by Clifford Simak when I was younger. I suppose I’ll have to reread it…

Incidentally, here’s something Dorsai-related that is really scary

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