Soldier, Ask Not, Gordon R. Dickson

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.


5 Responses to “Soldier, Ask Not, Gordon R. Dickson”

  1. paul precure Says:

    I don’t know about best known work, my favorite is The Final Encyclopedia. I’d vote for it as the best book ever written (before that, I’d vote for Dune). I own a signed first edition of The Final Encyclopedia, the only such book I have bought.

    It brought a lot of books together. The Chantry Guild seemed a little esoteric, and the Bleys books had genius in them but I couldn’t really get in to the protaganist (and to a lesser extent Tam). I could see what drove Bleys, and his point of view, but like Tam I couldn’t help but say ‘you’re wrong’.

    I have to hand it to Mr. Dickson, I’ve never read anyone who understood or wrote about the bad guys as not caricatures but people. And his poetry wasn’t bad either.

  2. I do enjoy reading Dickson, but I have to be in the mood not just to step into his story, but to step into the moment when they were written. If I can’t get into that context, many of the themes are just too dated.

  3. Did you read Sleepwalkers’ World? The first Dickson novel I’ll have read…

    I’ve heard The Final Encyclopedia is amazing…

  4. Joachim, I haven’t read Sleepwalker’s World. From what I can gather trying to find online reviews, it might not be one of Dickson’s best or most memorable books. Which really just means, if you don’t like Sleepwalker’s World, don’t give up on Dickson. Definitely go on and read some of the Childe Cycle / Dorsai books too.

    But again, I’m not sure if Final Encyclopedia is the right place to start. One review on Amazon says the best order is Dorsaii, Necromancer, Final Encyclopedia, Young Bleys, Other, Chantry Guild; though I can’t confirm this since I’ve only read one or two of these.

  5. Well yes, I read somewhat compulsively so I’ll get around to those eventually.

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