Dickson, Gordon R

Tagged: Author

(1923-2001) Canadian-born author, resident in the USA since age 13 and who became 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. Through the Minneapolis Fantasy Society, which he re-established after World War Two, he became friends with Anderson, with whom he later collaborated on the Hoka series – Earthman's Burden (coll 1957), Star Prince Charlie (1975) and Hoka! (coll 1982) – and with Clifford D Simak. 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.

Dickson began publishing sf in Spring 1950 with "Trespass" for Fantastic Story Quarterly, written with Anderson, and he remained a prolific and consistent short-story author; much of this material was assembled in the 1980s 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 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), a Young Adult tale, 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 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, but these seem not 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 some of the "philosophical thematic argument" has been lost through the absence of the earlier volumes, and that the full integrity of Dickson's argument remains, therefore, 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 by-blows, for which see Checklist] comprises Necromancer (1962; vt No Room for Man 1963), Tactics of Mistake (August 1970-January 1971 Analog as "The Tactics of Mistake"; 1971), Soldier, Ask Not (October 1964 Galaxy; exp 1967), the short form of which won a Hugo for 1964, and The Genetic General (May-July 1959 Astounding as "Dorsai!"; cut 1960 dos; text restored vt Dorsai! 1976), all but Soldier, Ask Not being assembled as Three to Dorsai! (omni 1975) with the latter being included in Four to Dorsai! (omni 2002); The Spirit of Dorsai (coll of linked stories 1979) and Lost Dorsai (coll of linked stories 1980; rev 1988; vt Lost Dorsai: The New Dorsai Companion 1993), whose title story "Lost Dorsai" (February 1980 Destinies) won a 1981 Hugo, most of both volumes being reassembled with some material preceding The Genetic General as The Dorsai Companion (coll of linked stories 1986); and 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 – then 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.

As the sequence develops, human space is divided into four 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; the worlds (like 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 merge these variant strains (see Eugenics), and the philosophical burden of the sequence tends to be conveyed 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 central incarnation of a triune evolutionary superman whose earlier life is told in Necromancer, and who is reborn as Hal Mayne to climax the series – and the genetic elitism it promulgates – through its final (but apparently never written) volumes, though the enormous Slingshot Ending effect that now ends the series is perhaps rousing enough. The terms Dickson uses to describe his superman's capacities – Graeme, for instance, being capable of a potent sort of cognitive intuition – 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.

But 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 that humankind is inevitably driven to higher evolutionary states, a notion often expressed, however, in tales – like None But Man (1969; with 1 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 comparable élan makes them into straw horses for Homo sapiens to defeat. More serious presentations of material – from The Far Call (August-October 1973 Analog; 1978), an ambitious novel involving Politics on Mars, to the fine Time Storm (fixup 1977), and on to ponderous later tales like Way of the Pilgrim (August 1980 Analog as "The Cloak and the Staff"; much exp 1987) – do 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, 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; Evolution; 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




Robby Hoenig/Underseas


Dorsai/Childe Cycle

See entry text above for the internal chronology.

The Dragon and the George

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collections and stories

works as editor

about the author


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