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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Discussing Published Hooks & Books » WBR: *DORSAI!* (Dickson 1959)

   
Author Topic: WBR: *DORSAI!* (Dickson 1959)
MattLeo
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WRITER'S BOOK REPORT: DORSAI! (Gordie Dickson, 1959)

INTRODUCTION

The story which eventually came to be known as DORSAI! was Gordon R. Dickson's third novel, and first big hit. It is one of a pair of landmark military science fiction novels serialized in 1959, the other being Heinlein's STARSHIP TROOPERS. DORSAI! follows the career of a young military cadet who is destined by genetics to become the greatest man in the galaxy -- in fact its original title was THE GENETIC GENERAL.

STRUCTURE

The novel is unconventionally structured; rather than a three act or similar phased structure, the novel's chapters each focus on a stage of Donal Graeme's career, from military cadet to military leader of known space:

DORSAI! Chapters:

1 Cadet (a prologue in which nothing actually happens -- more on this later)
2 Mercentary
3 Mercentary 2
4 Mercentary 3
5 Force-Leader
6 Force-Leader 2
7 Veteran
8 Aide-de-Campe
9 Staff Liason
10 Acting Captain
11 Sub-Patrol Chief
12 Hero
13 War-Chief
14 War-Chief 2
15 Part-Maran (A non-career chapter focus; "Maran" is his mother's ethnicity)
16 Protector (i.e. Planetary generalissimo)
17 Protector 2
18 Protector 3
19 Commander-in-Chief
20 Commander-in Chief 2
21 Secretary of Defense
22 Donal

These twenty-two chapter over what I estimate to be a bit more than 90,000 words, which works out to be about 4000 words per chapter. Chapters are meaty but not excessive. A lot happens, and then in the next moderate-sized chapter a lot happens again. Wash, rince and repeat twenty times or so and you've got a complete novel.

Structuring the novel this way does a lot to give the novel a feel of quick and steady pacing. Every time you read about 4K-10K words you're onto a later phase of Donal's career. What it does *not* do is provide any conflicts that develop over the course of the story. Dickson brings up the issue of rivalry between Donal and his brother -- in fact he needs that rivalry to make the climax of the story work -- but it never really gels because we never meet the brother; he doesn't fit into Donal's career. The main antagonist of the piece, William of Ceta, spends nearly the whole story off-stage, with Donal dealing with side problems and the occasional proxy, none of whom is remotely a match for Donal's brilliance. Which brings us to the issue of characterization.

CHARACTERIZATION

One of the hallmarks of Gordie Dickson's writing is that he doesn't beat around the bush much. He gets the story rolling quickly and keeps it rolling. So he makes a curious decision here by starting with a prologue in which *nothing* happens, but Donal thinks about himself and ruminates on things others have said about him. And what do they think? "The boy was odd," the book starts. "An odd boy," one of his teachers says, "you never know which way he'll jump." His courage is "unquestioned", he is "at the head of his class". He's tall, handsome, hard-trained, with the "murderous Dorsai temper" but unlike other Dorsai he can control and focus it. His elders don't understand them, because he's beyond their understanding (but note: presumably not beyond the readers' understanding).

And nobody Donal meets in the next 240-odd pages is remotely his match in intelligence, guile, or honor. He is a mercentary, true, but one who upholds humane values better than any other soldier. As a fresh schoolboy straight from a frontier planet he immediately and instinctively reads the hidden policies of galaxy's most cunning politicians. I say this with no condemnation of the novel intended: Donal is supposed to be, through no fault, action, or effort of his own, the greatest man in the galaxy.

Now I must raise a question which will raise the hackles of fans of this beloved story, but which as writers we *must* address: given all this, exactly *how* is Donal not a "Mary Sue"?

The whole "Mary Sue" concept is a controversial one, in part because "Mary Sue" is not really very well defined. Here is one of the earliest descriptions of a Mary Sue from a Star Trek fanzine:
quote:
Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship
(Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue)

But note that while this is a *description* of a Mary Sue, but not a definition.

It turns out that Donal has a lot to tell us about Mary Sues because the strong consensus is that he is a credible hero, even though he has just about every attribute you'd expect from a Mary Sue: youthful, gifted, virtuous and handsome. I'd say that Donal is about the most outrageously non-credible wish-fulfillment character who has ever escaped the "Mary Sue" label. He's a corner case, and that makes him interesting.

If a "Mary Sue" is just *any* wish-fulfillment character, then nearly all of speculative fiction, indeed nearly all of *genre* fiction, is about her. But Donal shows us this is not the case. The essential quality of a Mary Sue is that we don't buy into her. This is why in the late 20th C spec-fiction authors had the label "Mary Sue" hung on their female protagonists. They were selling those characters to an audience with a large number of men who were used to male heroes and not prepared to accept a heroine as a protagonist. Had Donal been Donnette, he'd have been instantly slapped with the "Mary Sue" label. But readers were already primed for male supermen by Doc Smith's Lensman series, which came out as stand-alone novels around the time Dickson was writing DORSAI! The LENSMAN SERIES clearly had an enormous influence on DORSAI!, right down the opening portrait of the cadet about to graduate at the top of the academy (as in GALACTIC PATROL).

I think all the confusion and controversy over "Mary Sue" boils down to this: we're in the habit of talking about her like she's the *cause* of our dislike, when in fact she's the *result* of it. We can't boil Mary Sue down to her essential attributes because she's entirely the product of the bad writing she's embedded in.

In effect, Dickson's strengths as a writer de-toxify Donal's ridiculous wish-fulfillment attributes. I don't think DORSAI! is structurally representative of Dickson's mature style, but the hallmarks of his writing are there: clear, clean, readable prose that gets the story moving and keeps it moving. The problem with an obvious self-insert Mary Sue isn't her perfection, but the space in the manuscript the author wastes dwelling on his or her fantasy reflection -- something that Dickson never does. The longer you make someone look at something and the harder you make him work, the less likely he is to buy it. So don't dwell on things and don't make the reader work to hard when you're being unrealistic.

Once you realize that Donal is an implausible wish-fulfillment character, the way he wins the girl in the end becomes unintentionally funny. Keep in mind the stereotyhpe of the 1950s sci-fi fan: male, superior in his intellect but socially awkward. Donal doesn't have to woo the girl, he doesn't even really have to talk to her. She's genetically *pre-programmed* to be attracted to him, and him alone without any of that messy courtship business.


CONCLUSIONS

I've come late to the Childe cycle; I wasn't particularly interested in military science fiction as a young man. Now that I'm on the declining side of middle age stories about youths who outwit their elders because they're destined to take over have lost some of their charm. Still, I can admire a nice piece of writing.

Dorsai! is an early work, and it contains numerous flaws. The characterization is simplistic. The plot fails to develop any kind of tension or conflict -- it's basically a string of episodes in Donal's career. The science is dreadful -- I count this more as a fantasy than a science fiction work, although that is far from an insult in my book. The world-building has its interesting points, but by in large the descriptions of the world are flat and uninteresting. The action scenes are perfunctory and not very exciting. But readers lap it up because they've bought the Donal fantasy.

The shortcomings of DORSAI! are all things that Dickson improves on in his later works -- at least the ones I've read. But the thing that makes Gordie Dickson great is right there in DORSAI: clean, effortlessliy readable prose that always keeps things moving along. It's like I've always said: nobody can spin a tale like Gordie Dickson.

TAKE-AWAY LESSONS FROM DORSAI!

(1) Readable prose and confident pacing cover a multitude of sins.

(2) Don't shy away from fantastic or wish-fulfillment characters, but remember it's your responsibility to *sell* them.

(3) An episodic plot can work if you have some structuring framework that makes it feel like progress (e.g. following Donal's career).

(4) Unorthodox structuring devices can work if you keep the story moving, but don't forget to develop conflict over the entire arc of the story and beware of leaving things you'll need in the conclusion off-stage for too long.


BIBLIOGRAPHIC DATA

DORSAI! has a long publication history; it was originally serialized in 1959 in Astounding Science Fiction as THE GENETIC GENERAL, and a condensed version was published under the same name in 1959.

The version reviewed here is copyrighted 1988 and appears in a 2002 omnibus volume with another Childe Cycle novel called THE SPIRIT OF THE DORSAI. The title of the omnibus is DORSAI SPIRIT (ISBN 0-312-87764-1).

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Robert Nowall
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I can't see Donal Graeme as a Mary Sue character. Dickson was writing for the SF audience of 1959 / 1960. The "superman" theme had resonance for the SF reader of the day, and maybe Dickson himself, too. And writers---all of them---incorporate bits of their lives in their work, if they're any good. It's quite a hop-skip-and-jump to saying that Donal Graeme is just a standin for Dickson, or that he would want to be Donal Graeme.

Forget the Childe Cycle for the moment, where Donal Graeme's ultimate fate is somewhat grim. (It wasn't conceived and plotted until after Dorsai! was written.) Consider the work on its own. Essentially the point of the novel is that Donal Graeme is a character whose difference from everyone else is that he uses intuition as others use logic, and that difference seems to make him a superman. (I gather, too, that John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding, had Dickson revise his work to bring that to the forefront of the story.) That this kind of story had appeal is hardly surprising, given the appeal of stories from the era like More Than Human or The Stars My Destination.

Also Dorsai! was serialized in Astounding as Dorsai! starting in May 1959: http://www.philsp.com/data/images/a/astounding_science_fiction_195905.jpg

The Genetic General was the name given it by Ace Books when they reprinted it in 1960:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Genetic_general.jpg

I first read it in its DAW Books reprinting from 1976, its first uncut appearance in paperback---oddly enough, the publisher of it in 1976 was also the editor of the cut 1960 Ace edition: Donald A. Wollheim.

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History
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I suspect DORSAI! was also influential for Orson Scott Card's work, particularly Ender's Game, The Worthing Saga, and Songbird/Songmaster.

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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MattLeo
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Well, I don't think a "Mary Sue" is necessarily an author self-insert. It's actually one of those vague, unhelpful criticisms that people sling around without thinking. So I thought this would be a good place to tackle that.

The "Mary Sue" accusation is frequently leveled at any character who is allegedly "too good to be believable". The problem with that is that there's no objective bar for what is "believable". A better writer can sell a character that a lesser writer couldn't. Belief also depends on the audience. I think you're absolutely right that the 50s were primed for protagonists who were supermen. That's part of the subjectivity of the whole "Mary Sue" meme.

But concentrating on *this* story, it's remarkable how weak the opposition to Donal is, how little real conflict there is in the story. The action scenes are vague and tepid at best, and the story world (as of *this* installment) is just a backdrop for Donal's cakewalk through the story.

So it behooves us to ask: why does *this* story work for so many people? Is it just that people in 1960 would swallow any competently penned superman story? Is THE GENETIC GENERAL just Percy Jackson to the LENSMAN SERIES' Harry Potter? Or is there something special about *this* story?

I do recognize that Dickson grew as a writer and made this book the start of a series that was his life's work, but this is by far the weakest Dickson book I've ever read (although it's still pretty good).

quote:
Essentially the point of the novel is that Donal Graeme is a character whose difference from everyone else is that he uses intuition as others use logic, and that difference seems to make him a superman.
I understand that, but the idea is pure storytelling poison. A character who doesn't need logic because his intuition is always right? That's not a great idea if you want a story with suspense and excitement. It's probably not an accident that Dickson didn't build the whole Dorsai series around Donal.

I've actually used the intuition vs. logic theme myself, in Quest for Norumbega. Intuition calls logical conclusions into doubt because logic is only as good as the propositions it has to work with. But intuition is limited too by the life experience of the person having the intuition (although in Norumbega they also have Aggadah to fall back on).

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extrinsic
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Mary Sue or Marty Stu are character type terms who represent author self-efficacy and self-idealization, maybe self-actualization. More precisely in the vernacular, they are author surrogates inserted into typically other writers' milieus without regard to the conventions of the milieu, the cultural and social rules of the world in which they are placed, so to speak.

Author surrogacy in a writer's own milieu is tougher to qualify. Certainly, believability matters and audience capacity for willing suspension of disbelief matters. A target audience might appreciate an efficacious and idealized or actualized central character. Or might not.

Dorsai! and The Childe Cycle's central characters have highly elaborate value systems that govern their ideologies. These values are akin to those imposed by parents and guardians upon pre-adolescents. However, the characters are not tangibly foregrounded as much as they are incidental to intangible qualities.

Dickson's Dorsai is more about the intangible qualities and complications of space colonization and inherent human traits causing problems than the tangible actions of Donal et al. Donal's rigid integrity and efficacy and idealization and actualization stand as an idealized counterpoint to the intangible forces causing complications to be coped with portrayed in the saga.

For that matter, the Dorsai saga more is a travelogue than a drama, though tangible drama to a degree keeps the action entertaining. Tangible action counterpoised to intangible action. I'd say, though, the tangible action could have been more in the foreground and the intangible action depicted more accessibly for the target audience.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

Dickson's Dorsai is more about the intangible qualities and complications of space colonization and inherent human traits causing problems than the tangible actions of Donal et al. Donal's rigid integrity and efficacy and idealization and actualization stand as an idealized counterpoint to the intangible forces causing complications to be coped with portrayed in the saga.

Interesting. Do you think that this has something to do with the story's appeal? Perhaps readers saw William of Ceta's inhuman pragmatism as leading to alienation in a value-less moral wilderness, and Donal's rigid virtue as a humane alternative.

This particular story has the flavor of a fairy tale to me (again not a put-down in my book, just an observation).

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extrinsic
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I think the Dorsai milieu's strongest appeals are those of science fiction's Golden Age: awe and wonder curiosity about the potentials of space colonization and the dramatic complications of the milieu evoking fear and pity based on Earth's real-world milieu. So, yes, characters with moral-less compasses and depraved self-serving agendas are natural villains.

Many of the Golden Age's science fiction dramas have a fairytale gloss on them. Fairytale, as opposed to folktale, wish fulfillment participation mystiques is a Golden Age convention that John W. Campbell both fostered and limited to good effect. Orson Scott Card's era fiction has more of the folktale gloss and stronger character emphasis than Golden Age era's plot and milieu emphases.

Folktale characters and their dramatic complications tend to be more rounded and dimensional in the sense they are more real-world tangible and yet intangible in the sense they are specific individuals with larger-than-life representation for a group's folk culture.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Synergism may also be a factor here, in that the Dorsai saga, taken as a whole has become greater than the sum of its parts, or than any individual part (much the way STAR TREK has).

So the appeal of the first book can also be that it benefits from the more mature later books as Dorsai fans reread the whole saga.

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Owasm
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I've read most, if not all, of the Childe cycle and for me, the chief draw was the milieu as much as the character. Escapism. And in that vein, the reader rides on the back of the character, existing in Donal's world. A lot of the sci-fi in this era including a number of dashing space heroes, were much the same way, so the character actually becomes part of the milieu.

During the 70's and 80's when it was fashionable to write psychedelic SF (Heinlein was a major player in this with his later fiction), that kind of genre receded into the background. I consider Dune as psychedelic SF, especially its sequels.

So I don't look at Donal as a Mary Sue character, but part of the whole of a number of these and it's future variants (Timothy Zahn's Blackcollar and Cobra books, for example or Chris Bunch and Allan Cole's Sten series, although Sten was a more complex character) Now, I see series like the Honor Harrington books as a place where the character is of a piece with the era.

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MattLeo
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Well, my point is that Mary Sue is to a large degree in the eye of the beholder; when you've spotted a Mary Sue, your job as critic isn't done. You've still got to figure out what the writer did wrong, or why you're the wrong audience for the story.

The quality of the antagonist is a big deal in how we perceive the protagonist -- not the necessarily the threat level the antagonist present but the values he embodies. As extrinsic points out, it's about what Donal represents as much or more than about what happens. Seeing our values embodied in a character increases our investment in a character more than seeing ourselves in the character.

The strength of an idealized character's appeal is bound to be dependent upon the reader's era. I think the distinction between humane reason and utilitarian cunning is probably an eternal theme, but it may resonate more with people who remember living through WW2

As an aside, I'd like to say how pleased I am with the response to these Writer's Book Reports. My hope was to go beyond talking like fans, who are only interested in their reaction to books, and to start questioning why and how landmark stories work. I've learned a lot from your responses.

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Robert Nowall
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Oh, I've enjoyed it. Besides seeing what you think forces me to work through what I think, they're more coherent than what I could've put down if I'd started first. (I may give it a try someday, though.)

*****

Back to the argument. Donal Graeme and Dorsai! could also be taken as one of those fictionalized efforts to create a "good" dictator. Maybe an effort to emphasize that there might be some good behind the idea that created Napoleon on down to Hitler and Stalin and on to Hugo Chavez and beyond. (Pernicious idea, seems to me---I'm not sure there was any "good" in these guys, or the idea of a "good" dictator in itself---though I do think that Napoleon wouldn't have done many of the things that Hitler and Stalin did.)

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
To start questioning why and how landmark stories work.

This to me is the type of literary criticism most valuable to a writer. Its counterpart is the literary criticism known as Poetics, which, like most all secondary discourse, secondary to the primary discourse that is a narrative, is categorized within the discipline of rhetoric. However, ostensibly, according to close auditors of discourse, a primary discourse is the real-world experiences that inspired a narrative, the narrative the secondary discourse, and commentary about the narrative a tertiary discourse.

Poetics, unlike How-tos, which tell how to write, shows writing principles. Poetics examines the aesthetics of writing overlapping to a degree with mechanical structure, at least how dramatic structure's aesthetics influence a work.

Another literary criticism type also valuable for writers evaluates and analyzes and interprets intent and meaning, paying no overt mind to whether a work or a part works or doesn't. This approach is useful to writers for its interpretive expression by a reader. If the writer missed the mark intent-wise and meaning-wise, an interpretive criticism shows who, when, where, what, why, or how. For example, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle missed the minds of its intended readers and viscerally struck them in the stomach.

The former, poetics, and the latter, analysis, both fall within the Textualism literary school of thought as cherished literary criticism. For example, Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint and How to Write: Science Fiction and Fantasy are both Poetics texts rather than How-tos.

[ March 16, 2013, 02:56 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Donal Graeme and Dorsai! could also be taken as one of those fictionalized efforts to create a "good" dictator. Maybe an effort to emphasize that there might be some good behind the idea that created Napoleon on down to Hitler and Stalin and on to Hugo Chavez and beyond. (Pernicious idea, seems to me---I'm not sure there was any "good" in these guys, or the idea of a "good" dictator in itself---though I do think that Napoleon wouldn't have done many of the things that Hitler and Stalin did.)

Perhaps Dickson's overall message for the Dorsai saga is Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without completing the saga's sweep of time before he passed into grace, we can never really know.

On the other hand, the underlying and intangible forces in opposition the saga portrays suggest to me Dickson was headed toward an exaltation of the human condition. Those forces are the opposing political movements of the late '50s era Progressivism and Classical Conservatism. The latter closely aligns with the Modernism literary movement, at its tail end culturally. The former has strong traces of the dawning Postmodernism literary movement's questioning and challenging presupposed notions of propriety.

Conservatism in the saga is the power elite vigorously holding on to the ideal that sovereignty is vested in the leadership of the state: dictators and tyrrants and monarchs. Progressivism, contrarily, espouses that sovereignty is vested within the individual. Donal as Dorsai!'s focal character adheres to the Progressivism ideal. Where Donal has a strongly moral value system, he recognizes the rights and privileges of his position as well as its responsibilities, obligations, and duties. Yet he compromises for the sake of cooperation.

[ March 16, 2013, 02:57 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Actually, if anything I think Dickson may have been attempting to *critique* the idea of engineering a benevolent dictator.

If you recall this novel, William of Ceta is genetically programmed to be a dominant businessman and eventually ruler of all humanity. The Exotics provide him with a woman who is genetically programmed to mate only with the dominant male in interstellar society, and who will channel his dictatorial tendencies in constructive directions. Their plan, however, is disrupted by Donal, who is even *more* genetically fit and thus wins the girl. What is more, when Donal becomes the supreme alpha male of the galaxy he does *not* parlay that into a dictatorship because he comes from a culture which values individuality and local autonomy.

It's almost impossible to believe Dickson could have concocted this situation without having the commonplace notion of making a benevolent superman as dictator in mind. DORSAI! is a novel that draws heavily on the LENSMAN books, and Doc Smith is quite explicit about the absolute authority that his gray lensmen have. They can take anything they want, and kill anyone they choose to without answering to anyone, because they're genetically incorruptible. You'd have to be living under a sci-fi rock in the 1950s not to be influenced by Doc Smith.

One thing that this discussion is opening my eyes to is how profoundly conservative Golden Age sci-fi is. Yes, it's about exploring new possibilitis and strange new worlds, but it's also about seeing cherished values such as individualism triumph on those worlds.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Actually, if anything I think Dickson may have been attempting to *critique* the idea of engineering a benevolent dictator.

If you recall this novel, William of Ceta is genetically programmed to be a dominant businessman and eventually ruler of all humanity. The Exotics provide him with a woman who is genetically programmed to mate only with the dominant male in interstellar society, and who will channel his dictatorial tendencies in constructive directions. Their plan, however, is disrupted by Donal, who is even *more* genetically fit and thus wins the girl. What is more, when Donal becomes the supreme alpha male of the galaxy he does *not* parlay that into a dictatorship because he comes from a culture which values individuality and local autonomy.

It's almost impossible to believe Dickson could have concocted this situation without having the commonplace notion of making a benevolent superman as dictator in mind. DORSAI! is a novel that draws heavily on the LENSMAN books, and Doc Smith is quite explicit about the absolute authority that his gray lensmen have. They can take anything they want, and kill anyone they choose to without answering to anyone, because they're genetically incorruptible. You'd have to be living under a sci-fi rock in the 1950s not to be influenced by Doc Smith.

One thing that this discussion is opening my eyes to is how profoundly conservative Golden Age sci-fi is. Yes, it's about exploring new possibilitis and strange new worlds, but it's also about seeing cherished values such as individualism triumph on those worlds.

I feel the idea of a genetically programmed or natural uber human is borne of the Romanticism throwback that humans are born into grace because they are graced by the gods. Since they are graced, they can do no wrong or evil no matter how wrong or evil they are. And contrarily, humans who are born into misery and hardship are naturally wicked and deserve to be punished by their betters in order to keep them in their ordained place.
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Robert Nowall
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Haven't reread the Lensman saga since, oh, twenty-five or thirty years ago, though I don't remember that particular detail.

I wouldn't proclaim the idea of "benevolent dictator" as a conservative idea...the bulk of the Napoleon-and-onward dictatorships have emerged from the liberal end of the spectrum. (Someday I must do a head count and see for sure.)

Somewhere beyond Dorsai! in the Childe Cycle is the ultimate fate of Donal Graeme...I won't put a spoiler here, but at some point after the events of Dorsai! he comes to realize the situation and his position aren't right and won't work in the long term, and takes drastic steps to make them work.

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MattLeo
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The axis of politics for real world dictators (the rare Cincinnatus notwithstanding) doesn't run right to left in any fixed way, it only consistently runs self-to-everyone-else. Rightward and leftward ideology is adopted as expedience demands.

Other than to state that I won't touch your assertion about actual historical dictators, because no good can come of it. If I have anything to say on that subject it will be in a story and it won't be obvious to a casual reader.

In any case I wasn't referring to dictatorship, although that certainly exists as a theme in old science fiction; I was referring to a certain romantic view of "traditional values". Space as a kind of extension of the literary Old West.

Space in old science fiction is a stage for the expansion of certain values that could be described as "classical liberalism" (by which terminology Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher are all "liberals"). We don't go into space to learn from aliens, except in technology or science. Alien races are either socially "advanced", in which case they represent the values of classical liberalism even better than humans do, or they are depraved and marked for conquest. Sometimes a philosophically "advanced" race is less technologically advanced than humanity, in which case the hero may take up "white man's burden" and lead them.

All those imperialist and Euro-centric values make for cracking adventure stories. If anything science-fiction is the best place to tell such stories, because if you want to be honest with real history you have to show the the legitimate, alternative viewpoints of the people assigned the role of savages". In many ways 19th C Britain represented the best of European civilization at that time, but it was rather presumptuous of them to cast themselves as the civilizers of India or China, countries which had institutions of higher learning at a time when Britons were still practicing cannibalism.

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extrinsic
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Classical liberalism's signal principle is that an individual is sovereign before the state's sovereignty. State sovereignty before an individual's sovereignty is classical conservatism. Donal's form of government doesn't fall into those neat categories. He is a hegemon. He allows for individualism but also allows for majority rules domination and local subsidiarity and respects to a degree the sovereign rights of dissenters, subversives, and powerless minorities. His form of government is that of a democratic republic ruled by a monarchial head of state, not quite but perhaps close to a constitutional monarchy. Sovereignty is ultimately vested through and in Donal.

The treaty known as the Peace of Westphalia, 1648, established that sovereignty is vested in the state and not in the person who rules the state, a foundational principle in international law, and thus fixed the idea that a country's borders are inviolate, though borders continue to fluctuate.

Donal's form of government is a throwback to the era of kings and emperors, warlords and khans, and emirs and caliphs, yet a progressive institution owing to its republicanism leanings respecting to a degree individual sovereignty.

Not only is Donal posed as a potentially benevolent leader, the government culture is posed as benevolent; however, all the while plagued by the complications of a centralized government primacy attempting to control and dominate the wild and wicked hinterlands.

A straightfoward and neutral definition of savage used by social scientists is bone and stone tool and weapon users. Barbarian being metal tool and weapon users. Civilized meaning ostensibly participatory cooperation. That those terms have been used by turns to ostracize and dehumanize cultures and justify confrontation is a matter of propoganda.

[ March 18, 2013, 03:42 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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I had in mind dictators from Napoleon to the present day, rather than Cincinnatus and the Caesars, or the "divine right of kings" bunch...after all, the modern-day concepts of "left" and "right" were firmed up in the French Revolution, and it's difficult-near-impossible to fit, say, Richard III or Ivan the Terrible into "liberal" or "conservative" categories. Things just don't match up.
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extrinsic
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Neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism in their contemporary forms bear little resemblence to their classical forms. Their political neo forms have flipped and flopped platforms and ideologies at least once a century since they came into being, too.

Sovereigns have exercised their sovereignty since neolithic cultures settled into city states. Liberalism too has been around for as long, being a natural right enjoyed by neolithic cultures. There was a dark time there in between way back when and recent, more enlightened times, when powerless individuals were entirely at the whim of sovereigns' selfishness rather than their own designs.

The dark times are never very far away. The three estates of feudalism are alive and well under different institutions today: the clergy, the nobility, and the freeborn commoner estates. The traditional fourth estate was the commoner peasant or serf population segment, virtual if not actual bonded servants. Today, though, the press is often cited as the fourth estate.

Dickson's Dorsai saga's milieus reflect that social stratification.

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Robert Nowall
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One aspect of the Childe Cycle I've always thought of as odd and somewhat unbelievable---the specialization of the worlds in certain professions. Would you want to put all your military trust in the Dorsai, even if they were the best, if you had other options? Wouldn't you try to get other options? Would those of religious faith provide all the cannon fodder, or would they let themselves be cannon fodder? Were export credits that important, when you had one whole world to exploit? Wouldn't aspects of the Friendlies and Exotics be present in both, not just one?

There was a parody in Analog many many years back..."The Didacticts of Mystique," I think it was called...making fun of a lot of the pecularities of the Childe Cycle and The Tactics of Mistake in particular. It pointed out a lot of the problems with the ideas behind the series...and, for those who had read the books, it was funny as hell...

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extrinsic
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Fiction tends to be focal and generalized at the same time because portraying entire milieus can be burdensome and overwhelm readers. The greater the scope and sweep of a milieu, the more generalized in a focal way the portrayal. Tolstoy's War and Peace is a classic example.

Percy Lubbock in the dense, obtuse, book-length critical essay The Craft of Fiction, 1921, "the official textbook of the Modernist aesthetics of indirection" (Lubbock, Wikipedia), examining narrative point of view, uses Tolstoy's tome as a central example for how this focal generalization principle might be proficiently managed. Ironically, Lubbuck's expression mannerisms demonstrate the opposite.

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Robert Nowall
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Also (since I've been rereading them more-or-less simultaneously), I'll compare the "heroic figure" that is Donal Graeme with the "somewhat-less-than-heroic figure" of Robinette Broadhead in Gateway. Change in attitudes between publication dates? Or just different parts of the practice of science fiction?
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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
Change in attitudes between publication dates? Or just different parts of the practice of science fiction?

Both, I'd say, and more, the differences in temperament between the two writers. Pohl is a frequent practitioner of satire. Dickson is primarily a writer of myth and fairytale. He wrote a considerable number of humorous works, but humor without a trace of bile.

DORSAI! is an early work, GATEWAY is a mature work. DORSAI! is a very old-fashioned work -- almost pulp sci-fi in its scientific inaccuracies and crude plotting, but with more restrained and tasteful prose. GATEWAY is a product of a decade in which more literary and experimental sci-fi was in vogue.

Speaking of prose, flipping through DORSAI!, one of the remarkable things is how dialogue seems to dominate nearly every page -- in some stretches almost every paragraph. I wonder if there's an objective way to quantify this. I suppose it's normal to have stretches with lots of dialog or stretches with little dialog, but there does seem to be an unusual amount of dialog in DORSAI! This is interesting to me because *I* tend to produce dialog-heavy first drafts, and have to go back and add other stuff in to give the MS balance.

I wonder whether this was a stylistic quirk that Dickson kept later in his career. I'm certain I've got several of his books somewhere in the house (*The Dragon and the George* and several of the Dilbia books for sure) but at the moment I can't put my hand on them.

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extrinsic
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Dickson and Pohl wrote from different milieus, ages, generations, cultures, technological and scientific know-hows.

My youngest sibling was giving me grief over the holidays last year about our relationships with Dad. My sibling and I are separated in age by a generational divide. I knew Dad when he was an early adult. My sibling didn't know him until Dad was in his late middle age. He is a different person to me than he is to my sibling. Dad's generation is akin to Dickson's. Mine is akin to Pohl's, though I'm more Jeffersonian Post Postmodernist. My sibling's is akin to, say, Suzanne Collin's.

On dialogue, dialogue walls can be as tedious as text walls: blocks of long paragraphs.

A page should not only be meaningfully stimulating, it should also be pleasant to the eye. Eye-pleasing text layouts have varied formats that roughly resemble a generalized human face. That is the basis for every aspect of visual design and layout of text, based upon the Golden Ratio's influence in page dimension proportions, margins, header and footer design, the very proportions of individual glyphs, their stroke weights, and word spaces, indents, and line leading. And when graphical objects are incorporated, they too are best proportionally pleasing to the eye.

Dialogue (conversation) as a best practice should be timely, judiciously, and proportionally leavened with action, sensation, introspection, and emotion, so that it is both meaningfully stimulating and aesthetically pleasing to the eye.

An advice from my most recent writing mentor, more of a How I write scenes presentation than a how-to advice, said, Writing the conversation first captures the inspiration, Then reworking adds in the other writing modes and fills their fleshing of the meaning and bones.

[ March 21, 2013, 01:57 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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Extrinsic...your comments about Dickson and Pohl imply that Pohl is younger than Dickson. Pohl was born in 1919, Dickson in 1923.
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extrinsic
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I forget that literal meaning is often taken as the singular meaning. I don't mean age-wise. Generations have forebears and followers and holdouts. Postmodernism can be traced at least back to Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-1767, though the movement saw its strongest expression in the mid twentieth century. Pohl in my view was a more forward-looking writer than Dickson, who was more of a holdout of previous generational and literary ideologies. Pohl I place in the Silver Age of science fiction and Dickson in the Golden Age.
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MattLeo
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I got what you meant about "age" immediately. Pohl is more of a sophisticate; Dickson always retained a kind of pulp-story barbarian ruggedness to his storytelling. He never stopped selling us the "good old stuff".

Dickson was a prolific writer with a long career, churning out 1-2 novels a year for some forty years, although he wasn't shy about rehashing old stories, sometimes doing little more than renaming the protagonist and putting him through very similar paces (e.g. SPACIAL DELIVERY and SPACEPAW). Still, while most sci-fi fans have read several Gordie Dickson stories, I doubt many have read even half his output. I know I haven't. So I'm not really qualified to make generalizations about Dickson's work, but he does seem to have moved with the times. He was never avant-garde, but always ready to serve up marketable fiction.

I remember reading his novel THE R-MASTER shortly after it came out in 1975. It has a New Wave vibe to it even though by then New Wave had long ceased to be cutting edge. I no longer have my copy, but interestingly one of the complaints I've seen in several reviews is that THE R-MASTER is far too talky.

In the 90s he made a detour into fantasy; 8 of his final 12 novels were in the DRAGON KNIGHT series. This was at a time when fantasy began to crowd out actual science fiction in bookstore "science fiction" shelves.

Dickson is the paradigm of a commercially successful writer who turned out lots of stuff lots of people enjoyed reading. If he were a restaurant he'd serve burgers, fries and ice cream, never broccoli or escargot -- that is to say stuff you consume because it tastes good, not because it's good for you or shows other people how sophisticated you are.

Escargot by the way show that anything is good with garlic butter.

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Robert Nowall
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One of the things Dickson wanted to do with the Childe Cycle was make it his magnum opus---including historical and contemporary novels that were [apparently] never written. I read that he had long hoped that Hollywood would buy the rights to one of his other books for a hefty sum, and he'd go off to Florence, Italy and research the historical end of things on that money.

Unfortunately, I read that in his obituary---it never happened. Instead, he had to turn out all this "commercial" work, all of it SF or fantasy, just to keep his head above water. (Man, that sort of thing depresses me whenever I, a would-be writer, hear them.)

*****

Pohl always did tend towards the somewhat scuzzy lead characters---characters whose prominent features are their gigantic feet of clay, I guess. Take, oh, Mitch Courtenay, the selfish bastard (there's no other good way to put it) narrator of Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants. Predates Dorsai! by about seven years. So I wouldn't pigeonhole Pohl as a 1970s writer exclusively.

(Pohl himself did seem appreciative of Dickson's work. A quick glance through the Wikipedia bibliography of Dickson shows several sales to magazines Pohl edited in the 1960s---in particular, the award-winning short version of "Soldier, Ask Not.")

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