Distal Muse Archives

Gordon R. Dickson

by Mark W. Tiedemann

     This one is going to be a somber one.  Gordon R. Dickson died this year, just recently as I write this, at age 77.  In an era wherein we grow accustomed to people hitting 80 and 90 plus, it's beginning to seem a bit unfair when someone we love goes "so soon."  But really 77 is not a bad run when you consider what life expectancies used to be and, in most of the rest of the world, still are.  It's just that when it comes to certain people, we really want them to stay around forever.  Especially those who meant something to us when we were growing up and beginning to embrace the cool things which would form the foundations of our life's aesthetics.
     I've been a diehard science fiction fan for as long as I can remember.  Before I became aware of my passion as a distinct--and often minority--interest, I was drawn to it.  If there was a movie with spaceships and aliens, a new tv series set in the future, comic books that indulged the particular kind of "real life" premise that superhero comics just didn't quite have, I homed in as if endowed with radar.  When I began buying books and magazines, most of them have always been science fiction, and for several years it seemed exclusively so.
     Gordon Dickson formed a substantial part of my Golden Age.  (David Hartwell, I believe, coined the phrase that "the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve."  Stretch that a bit and I agree with him completely.  You're becoming critical, you can begin to sort the b.s. from the substantive parts, but you're not so critical that a dazzling bit of speculation won't make you just sit there and go "Wow!", your reaction unspoiled by on-the-spot skepticism.  Your reading standards, the body of experience you bring to it, and your capacity to imagine the seemingly unimaginable all come into a kind of balance that allows for the full embrace of the so-called Sense of Wonder good science fiction is supposed to inspire.  Later, more worldly, more experience, more jaded, it gets harder to find.  Writers have to be on their toes to much higher degrees to get their visions past your ever-more-sophisticated censors and b.s. detectors.  You can still find it, that Sense of Wonder, but it gets harder and demands a considerable skill on the part of the writer.)  There are several writers I devoured back then that I simply cannot read now.  They were ideal for my Golden Age but fall short on current rereadings.  Gordon Dickson was not one of those.
     He won a Nebula Award for his short story "Call Him Lord" in 1966.  I remember having read it back then, somewhere, probably in Analog, and I remember feeling that there was something profound hidden in the otherwise strange mix of space opera and high fantasy.  A cynicism of the world and its woes underscored the surface prose, a trait the New Wave had been pumping intravenously into the field since about 1961 or '62.  In many ways, the New Wave was similar to the later, more flamboyant Cyberpunk movement--it tried to break down the old forms and explore fictive concerns from completely different and often outre perspectives, an odd goal for a genre that was already considered as "far out" as could be gotten.  What resulted, though, from both "movements" was a vital addition of new "colors" to the palette, which more conventional writers took and made fertile use of in seemingly more traditional work.  Hence a story that, ten years earlier, might have drawn no particularly great attention--a "field test" of a royal heir, a test to destruction, an assessment of a young man's worth to rule, a test he fails--with the addition of the more literary and in some sense "realpolitik" attitude incorporate ala the New Wave aesthetics became an incisive and profoundly affecting piece of work.  It seems to me in retrospect that Gordon Dickson was one of those writers who knew how to use new materials in his own work that allowed him to grow and change and remain edgy, even though in many ways he was writing perfectly recognizable classic science fiction.  It never _felt_ old in his hands.     There was always something fresh, something that kept one from reacting with ennui or disdain, and usually made one glad of the experience.
     In the larger critical world--still--science fiction is poorly regarded.  It's fun, but not something that ought be taken seriously, not in the way one takes Hemingway or Dostoevsky or Conrad seriously.  To a large extent, this is snobbery, a judgement that has been leveled at anything that seems to be "merely" adventure fiction.  Adventure fiction, of course, is usually always popular--one more reason for critical disdain.  It's interesting then to see the contortions of reassessment when a particular work refuses to go away or be ignored and becomes over time part of the so-called Canon of "great" work.  Dumas is a case in point.  When you reread the Musketeers novels, it is sometimes difficult to see where the "classic" appelation came from--this is sword play and horse chases, desperate romance and chivalry, dark politics and chicanery--in short, it's a potboiler.  How did this stuff become "classic"?  More to the point, how many people have missed a good read because they were put off by that classification?
     This is a thorny problem for science fiction.  The field is no more and no less than a playground for speculation, a great big "what if" game.  It's people at play, arranging diverse elements into arrangements never before seen, and having a damn good time at it.  We read it for the sheer thrill of going along with the conceits into places we think it might be fun to go to.  Along the way, we get a little science--sometimes very little--we get a little life wisdom, we get some lessons in logic, and we get an opportunity above all to ask why things should be as they are and why anyone should think they will remain so.
     Gordon Dickson was writer who overtly took on that question.  He espoused an interest in developing what he called the "consciously thematic novel", a novel in which the themes are not foundational, subtextual, hidden, and off-stage, but which are very much foregrounded.  His most ambitious work was the Childe Cycle, in which he explored the very questions I just mentioned: why are things as they are and why should they remain so?  His theme was the self-directed evolution of the human species.  Broad stuff.
     It's interesting that a work of this sort would come out of a man who wrote what many in the Sixties considered "traditional" sf.  One of the overriding aesthetic "essences" of the Sixties was the sense that we, the human race, were about to transform ourselves.  The old orders were dying, the way things had always been were about to fade into a history which one day might seem more myth than fact, and a new age was about to dawn.  We were going to remake the nature of the species.  I'm not at all sure how much science fiction was responsible for any of this attitude, but I'm sure some of it was there, and the New Wave Movement played off this very aggressively.  It felt as if we were on the brink, that no matter what things would never be the same again.  The Future loomed as a potential Golden Age, a reversal of the ancestor worship that dominated the Renaissance.  And it was going to come about by sheer will.
     In the collapse of this dream, it seemed to many that dark forces working behind the scenes had sabotaged it.  A general consensus pervaded the remnants of the counterculture that "They" had won, somehow, against all probability.  The assumption was that someone, somewhere actually had the control and the power to do that.  Ridiculous.
     But things did change.  Just not the way many people expected them to.  And in the literature you can see the speculations about the nature of that change.
     Gordon Dickson had already begun spinning the tales of those forces at work directing the future of the human race.  The transformative apprehensions of the Sixties dovetail in many ways with the Directive Forces of his Childe Cycle.
     Art anticipating nature or the other way around?
     That's material for another novel.
     But what Dickson wanted very much to do--the effect he sought in his "consciously thematic story"--was to involve readers directly in the kind of philosophical questions that would lead to exactly that kind of speculation.
     He was relentlessly optimistic about humanity, believing that we were evolutionarily set on a path to higher ethics.  In the aftermath of the New Wave, it seemed to me a lot of writers throughout the Seventies--perhaps as a result of Vietnam--had given up on humanity ever becoming "better" ethically and morally.  Not Gordon.  But he was also a practical historian who knew that advancement is not always either clearly evident or unmixed with the darker aspects of human passions.
     On a panel about the nature of the hero, I was once asked if, like the fantasy hero, the sf hero, _vis a vis_ a starship captain, has a Destiny.  Fate has laid out the path for the prince, the princess, or the warrior king and he/she can do no less than follow that path.  It is Destiny.  You will overcome, you will rise to power, you will be the new ruler, etc ad nauseum.  The drama of a lot of fantasy is in the struggle of the hero-designate to accept that Destiny.  But what about the SF hero?
     No, the starship captain does not have a Destiny--rather, he or she has Potential.  This opens the field more realistically and more ambiguously to the possibilities of different choices.  This requires on the part of the hero a perspicacity and self control and, ultimately, a strong ethical sense in order for things to turn out well.  The struggle then is to find a way in which to develop that ethical sense to best advantage, in the face of the chaos of shortterm passions and self-ignorant greed.
     Science fiction does this very well--it lays out the elements of the situation and deploys them as a test.  Add them up one way and you save the future, the other way and all hell breaks lose.  But it puts that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the one who has the potential of solving the problem--and ultimately on us--as being the one(s) who have the ability to make those choices.  Most of the time, this is buried so far in the subtext that it's not really obvious except on deep reconsideration.    But Gordon Dickson put it right there on the surface.
     In one of my favorites, "The Tactics of Mistake", the protagonist is a mercenary who has developed a strategy for "ethical" warfare--it entails taking full advantage of the mistakes other people make and honing this skill to the point where wars can be won without bloodshed.  One of his lieutenants, after a few of these battles, quits in disgust, declaring that he is not interested in fighting wars wherein honor cannot be reified through conflict.  In other words, he likes it messy because he gets to be brave and heroic.  He very consciously rejects an ethical position for a passionate view of what is important to him.  The argument is clearly and elegantly laid out.
     It's interesting to apply such a perspective to real world situations.  The sensible, ethical thing to do gets rejected because of short term, passionate, illogical needs on the part of participants who might, themselves, benefit more from the reasonable approach.
     Gordon Dickson's thematically conscious explorations exhibited a kind of profound puzzlement with this aspect of human nature.
     To be sure, he never rejected passion.  That is clear in the quality of his work.  Dickson was one of our most literate practitioners.  He wrote well.
     It's odd to me to hear about the death of people like Dickson, because he was one of the giants of my Golden Age.  In the relatively brief history of modernday sf, he was part of a kind of Second Generation.  The so-called Golden Age giants came earlier: Heinlein, Van Vogt, Williamson, Asimov, Sturgeon, DeCamp.  (Of that list, only Jack Williamson is still with us and still working.)  After World War II, while these writers were certainly still productive and still dominant, their immediate heirs came up: Clarke, Anderson, Herbert, Simak, Dickson, Silverberg, others.  These were the writers I grew up reading, along with even newer writers who, while perhaps not Third Generation, were nonetheless a little way further along the developmental path--like Zelazny and Dick.  Gordon Dickson was one of my "early influences" if you will and continued to be there, publishing, exploring, all the while I was coming of age and trying to figure out how to do my own brand of sf.  In some bizarre sense, I feel that because his work ran parallel to my life and through it and entwined with my aesthetic development, I always had the feeling he'd always be there.  Oh, I knew better, of course, but you don't think about it in terms of your survival past the death of your heroes.  And then there's the question of fairness--and really fairness has nothing to do with it.  But a writer who had far and away more influence generally than Gordon Dickson and who produced a fraction of the quantity of work--J.D. Salinger--is still alive, famous more for being famous than for the merit of his novel, which I have found largely unreadable.  Salinger, alive and still in seclusion, his long-contracted-for "next novel" still undelivered, and this year marking the fiftieth aniversay of "Catcher In The Rye," which is still being printed.  Gordon Dickson's first story was published in 1950, a piece called "Trespass", which I doubt forms the base influence of very many people's literary tastes.
     I feel myself growing a bit maudlin.  I occasionally long for those days when I wasn't concerned with the world and its discontents, but only with the contents of the next issue of Galaxy Magazine and the new book by whoever was important to me that month.  I long for those days when I could, for minutes at a time, actually believe their visions were possible and that, if I could find the doorway, I could step through from this world to that and live in the more consciously thematic vistas of a clearly mind.
     Those doorways are there, though.  I just have to dig up my paperback edition of "Soldier, Ask Not" or the "Final Encyclopedia" and open them.  I advise you all to do the same.  He was a good writer.  He should not be forgotten.  Go buy some of his books before they are no longer in print.  Save some memories.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann