I previously mentioned I ought to read more of Gordon R. Dickson’s work. This is probably his best-known novel, and I hadn’t read it before.
The story centers on Tam Olyn, an exceptionally talented young man who’s blessed (or cursed?) to be one of the exceptional individuals who makes his own way through history, rather than being pushed around by forces bigger than himself. He knows this explicitly because he’s told it by Padma, an Exotic from a human colony planet that has devoted itself to the study of the mind. Other colony planets are devoted to science, militarism (Dorsai, which gives its name to Dickson’s series of stories), and to religion. The religious planets of Harmony and Association, collectively known as the Friendlies, are in opposition to the Exotics, or at least Tam thinks they are, and for that and for their fanaticism (early in his career as a Newsman, he witnesses a battlefield atrocity perpetrated by Friendly soldiers against prisoners they regard as unbelievers) he sets himself to use his special place in history to destroy them.
Tam is an arrogant and self-centered person, and unlikable himself, even as the narrator of his story. For me, that made the first two thirds of the book somewhat hard going. In addition to an unsympathetic narrator, the book presents an unsubtle view of the role of individuals in history, and in a somewhat ponderous tone.
The saving grace of the book is the final third, where Tam Olyn comes to realize (at least partly) the limits of his powers, and the negative effects of his selfish actions; and even more so because of the final revelation about the Friendlies’ place in the human universe, and the value of their contribution to the human race. Unfortunately I was somewhat primed for these revelations by reading a much later short story set contemporaneously to this one (“Brother”?), and I’m not sure they’d come through clearly for someone reading this novel first.
Overall, the book is worth the read, but the first portion is definitely a price to be paid for the payoff of the final chapters.