Dickson, Gordon R

Tagged: Author

(1923-2001) Canadian-born author, resident in the USA since age 13, becoming a US citizen many decades before his death. He was educated (along with Poul Anderson) at the University of Minnesota, taking his BA in English in 1948, and remained in Minnesota. After World War Two he re-established the Minneapolis Fantasy Society, with Anderson a central participant. The two later collaborated on the Hoka series – Earthman's Burden (coll 1957), Star Prince Charlie (1975) and Hoka! (coll 1982); Clifford D Simak was also involved at some point in the Society. Along with these writers, Dickson showed a liking, often indulged, for hinterland settings peopled by solid farming or small-town stock whose ideologies, when expressed, violate any simple, conservative-liberal polarity, though urban readers and critics have sometimes responded to them as right-wing. As late as the Ruined Earth tale Wolf and Iron (October 1974 F&SF as "In Iron Years"; much exp 1990) – which embodies a Survivalist plot considerably deepened by the author's detailed and compassionate attachment to the kind of hero who understands and loves the physical world – he was still mining this fertile soil.

After "MacGregor" for the Fanzine Tycho in June 1942, Dickson began publishing sf professionally with "Trespass" in Fantastic Story Quarterly for Spring 1950, written with Anderson, and he was a prolific and consistent short-story author, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s; much of this material was assembled much later in volumes like The Man from Earth (coll 1983), Dickson! (coll 1984; rev vt Steel Brother 1985) and Forward! (coll 1985), the latter edited by Sandra Miesel, long an advocate of his works.

Dickson's first novel, Alien from Arcturus (1956 dos; rev vt Arcturus Landing 1979), established from an early date the tone of underlying and rather relentless seriousness which became so marked in later works, along with a tendency to displace emotional intensities from human relations between the sexes to the kind of relations that might obtain between student and mentor, or between human and dependent Alien, or, as in Wolf and Iron, Terran mammal. The aliens in Alien from Arcturus are decidedly cuddly, with shining black noses, and much resemble those who appear in Space Winners (1965), which is {JUVENILE SF}, and The Alien Way (1965), about an Earthman's Telepathic rapport with the representative of a species that may invade the home planet. But the strong narrative skills deployed in these comparatively rudimentary Space-Opera tales, along with an idiomatic capacity to write novel-length fiction, has ensured the survival of these relatively unambitious works. Some later singletons – like Sleepwalker's World (1971), a dystopian vision of Overpopulation, and The R-Master (1973; rev vt The Last Master 1983), in which a society is ambiguously guided by a saviour whose origins lie more in Pulp-magazine ideas than in philosophy – failed to maintain the elation of the earlier books.

While continuing to produce independent works prolifically in the 1950s and 1960s, Dickson simultaneously engaged upon the sequence of novels that would occupy much of his energy for decades. The Childe Cycle was planned to begin with novels set in historical times, though these seem never to have been drafted; the existing volumes, which are sf, make up the sustained and internally coherent Dorsai sub-series. The Childe Cycle as a whole was intended to present an Evolutionary blueprint, in highly dramatized fictional terms, for humanity's ultimate expansion through the Galaxy, as an inherently ethical species. "In order to make this type of story work effectively," Dickson said,

I developed by the late 1950s a new fictional pattern that I have called the "consciously thematic story". This was specifically designed to create an unconscious involvement of the reader with the philosophical thematic argument that the story action renders and demonstrates. Because this new type of story has represented a pattern hitherto unknown to readers and writers, my work has historically been criticized in terms that do not apply to it – primarily as if it were drama alone.

It may be that novels where theme and story are vertically organized are not that uncommon, but Dickson's intention was clear, though some of the "philosophical thematic argument" has been lost through the absence of the earlier volumes, so that the full claimed integrity of the Childe Cycle remains undemonstrated. But the vast torso that remains is both internally satisfying, and probably introduces as much naked philosophy as the author would have ever felt comfortable espousing in works of fiction.

In rough order of internal chronology, the Childe Cycle [leaving out most details, omnis and by-blows, for which see Checklist] comprises Necromancer (1962), rather overwhelmed by the not fully digested influence of A E van Vogt; Tactics of Mistake (1971); Soldier, Ask Not (1967), the magazine form of which won a Hugo for 1964; and The Genetic General (1960 dos); plus The Spirit of Dorsai (coll of linked stories 1979) and Lost Dorsai (coll of linked stories 1980), whose title story "Lost Dorsai" (February 1980 Destinies) won a 1981 Hugo. Usefully, the last two volumes were substantially reassembled with some material preceding The Genetic General as The Dorsai Companion (coll of linked stories 1986). Much later appeared a final grouping of texts, all set about 100 years further into the future: the overlong Young Bleys (1991), Other (1994) and Antagonist (2007) with David W Wixon, all focused on the Antihero Bleys – who has a disruptive effect on the flow of history, rather like the Mule in Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy. The series as it stands closes chronologically with The Final Encyclopedia (1984) and The Chantry Guild (1988), the last volume – Dickson claimed as early as 1983 – being hived off from a projected final volume to be called Childe.

Necromancer, set in minimally changed Near Future, features Paul Formain, the first of a triad of quasi-mystically linked Supermen; he becomes a Necromancer in the Chantry Guild, an elitist group of crypto-Secret Masters whose leader, an unwitting inspirer of the triad to come, argues compellingly that the triumph of Technology – via a world-wide system of protection, which "keeps tabs on us through every purchase we make" under the central control of something like an AI – has stifled the human spirit. Paul's unexpected solution is, with the help of Matter Transmission, to spur humanity to develop differently across the galaxy. As the sequence develops, human space is divided into four main spheres plus Old Earth herself, with her vast genetic pool: Dorsai, whose inhabitants are bred as professional soldiers, stories featuring them closely resembling Military SF at its most cerebral; the Exotic worlds, whose inhabitants are bred to creative (sometimes sybaritic) mind-arts and have attained some Psi Powers; the worlds such as Newton which emphasize physical science; and the God-haunted Friendly worlds, where folk are bred for faith (see Religion). The task of mankind's genetic elite is somehow to co-ordinate without stifling these variant strains (see Eugenics), and the philosophical burden of the sequence tends to be conveyed, at times with an effect of strain, through plots whose origins lie unabashedly in the Superman tales of earlier sf.

The Genetic General, which in its restored form remains the most arousing title of the entire series, features Donal Graeme, the second and central incarnation of the triune evolutionary superman; Formain/Graeme are reborn as Hal Mayne to climax the series. The remote but explicit genetic elitism promulgated in the series is perhaps softened by the fact that the superman triad does not itself seem to breed, or does so invisibly, consistent with Dickson's uninterest in the mechanics or generative importance of Sex in his vision of controlled evolution. The enormous Slingshot Ending effect that now ends the series is perhaps rousing enough to forgive its incompletion. The terms Dickson uses to describe his superman's capacities – Formain says of himself "I never make mistakes" because of his unerring empathic grasp of human realities; Graeme boasts a potent sort of cognitive intuition that render his actions unerring – are perhaps best appreciated within the massive, ongoing rhythm of the series; for it is as a novelist, not as a philosopher, that Dickson reveals his strength. It has not been fortunate for his reputation that, seemingly shying from a final assault on the climax, he retrofitted several novels about Graeme's brother Bleys; nor that, because of its long gestation, the series as a whole failed to take into account late twentieth-century advances in Information Theory and Technology in general (though, see above, Necromancer hovered at the edge of genuine prescience).

Very little of Dickson's later fiction, however hastily written some of it may seem, fails to pose questions and arguments about humankind's fundamental nature. From 1960 much of his work specifically reflected his preoccupation with the concept, expanded upon in the Childe Cycle, that humankind is inevitably driven to higher evolutionary states, a notion often expressed, however, in singletons – like None But Man (1969; with one story added, as coll 1989) or Hour of the Horde (May 1969 Venture Science Fiction; 1970) – that contrast humankind's indomitable spirit with that of Aliens whose lack of "invincible" élan makes them into straw horses for Homo sapiens to defeat. More serious presentations of material include the fine Time Storm (fixup 1977), set initially in an America balkanized by Time Distortions into Archipelagos of contrasting realities, many of them visited by the superman protagonist as he learns how to correct the unbalanced universe he eventually, in the Far Future, bestrides; The Far Call (August-October 1973 Analog; 1978), an ambitious novel involving Politics on Mars; and the occasionally ponderous Way of the Pilgrim (August 1980 Analog as "The Cloak and the Staff"; much exp 1987). These tales generally avoid the graver pitfalls of pulp. Though his sometimes unremitting use of genre conventions to provide solutions to serious arguments undoubtedly retarded full recognition of his talent and seriousness, these novels, and the later volumes of the Childe Cycle series, increasingly enforce a more measured response to his life work.

Dickson won the Nebula for Best Novelette with "Call Him Lord" (May 1966 Analog). He was President of Science Fiction Writers of America 1969-1971. Besides the Hugos already noted above for the short "Soldier, Ask Not" (October 1964 Galaxy) in 1965 and the novella "Lost Dorsai" (February 1980 Destinies) in 1981, he won a further 1981 Hugo for his novelette "The Cloak and the Staff" (August 1980 Analog), which was later expanded as Way of the Pilgrim (1987). He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2000. [JC]

see also: Astounding Science-Fiction; Canada; Children's SF; Computers; Cyborgs; Ecology; Economics; Galactic Empires; Galaxy Science Fiction; Gamebook; Humour; Invasion; Linguistics; Mathematics; Paradox; Parallel Worlds; Robert Hale Limited; Skylark Award; Spaceships; Teleportation; Time Travel; Under the Sea; War; Weapons.

Gordon Rupert Dickson

born Edmonton, Alberta: 1 November 1923

died Richfield, Minnesota: 31 January 2001

works

series

Hoka

Robby Hoenig/Underseas

Dilbia

Dorsai/Childe Cycle

See entry text above for the internal chronology.

The Dragon and the George

individual titles

collections and stories

works as editor

about the author

links

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.