I read this one for a couple of reasons. First, it’s mentioned as a source for the Traveller role-playing game in Shannon Appelcline’s The Science Fiction in Traveller – the book that initiated my recent burst of H. Beam Piper’s works. Second, it’s listed in “The 5 Parsec Shelf” of 50 significant science fiction novels in A Reader’s Guide to Science Fiction. (After seeing it 40 years ago, I still haven’t read the entire list.)

Essay: Dorsai!, Gordon R. Dickson, 1960, 2013.

It’s an essay this time around because I had enough trouble writing this without the stricter structure of one of my reviews.

The gears of this novel did not easily engage my brain on a first reading.

There was the violation of expectations. For a novel cited, not only in David Drake’s introduction but elsewhere, as being, with Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the founding text of the military science fiction subgenre, only a very small portion of it has scenes of combat. (I could make an argument for including L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout as an ancestor of the subgenre too.)

There is a lot of talking including in the combat scenes.

The names were, for some reason, hard to remember.

Dickson’s universe is sketched in very broad terms only. Humans have spread to the stars and are undergoing speciation of a sort with “exotics” of a rather ill-defined sort.

The main driver of conflict – at least on the surface – in the novel is labor markets. Each planet producing its own needed specialists is difficult and expensive, so planets specialize in their specialists. The question is do the planetary governments get to sell labor contracts for their subjects or do the subjects get to sell their own labor directly. The so-called “free worlds” take their latter position.

One of them is Dorsai, a world of mercenaries and home of our hero, Donal Graeme. There’s been an air of oddness about him since birth, an air of calculation. And there’s the matter of his mother from a world of exotics.

The plot will follow Donal from his graduation from the Dorsai military academy to Secretary of Defense of a humanity wielded together into a single polity due to the scheming of Donal’s foe, William, Prince of the planet Ceta.

As Drake notes in his introduction, this is not the lowly enlisted infantryman’s view of war we get in Starship Troopers. This is a staff officer’s view of war in the several conflicts Donal serves in as a mercenary. In particular, it exemplifies strategist Basil Liddel-Hart’s Strategy of Indirection, a response to the failed frontal assaults that were such a feature of World War One combat on the Western Front. Or, as Donal says,

The essence of successful combat is to catch your enemy unawares in an unprotected spot—one where he is not expecting to be caught.

That journey up the ranks from cadet to war leader of humanity is signaled by the chapter titles using ranks. Significantly, the last title is simply “Donal”. That’s because the book’s primary theme is not military strategy but transcendence, the transcendence of humanity, a transcendence which is to be shepherded by Donal.

The novel is a mix of very characteristic 1950s science fiction: psychic powers, transcendence, and rigorous social science applied to directing humanity. Like a less extreme version of Gully Foyle in Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, crisis brings transformation to Donal. There’s also an interest in extreme psychology, notably the various psychological cripples Donal gathers about him as aides or is in conflict with. The later includes the self-hating “social dynamicist” ArDell Montor who serves William and for whom Donal is the same type of foil as the Mule is to Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

But the novel this book mostly reminded me of was Frank Herbert’s Dune published a few years later. After being serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1959, it was published in an abridged version as The Genetic General. Both novels are concerned with breeding projects to produce men for some political purpose. The heroes of both books end up as rulers of humanity and fully aware of their superhuman powers. It took me two readings to come to an understanding of the novel, but I certainly didn’t fall in love with it as so many did, and I have no plans to read any more works in Dickson’s series

8 thoughts on “Dorsai!

  1. Bookstooge July 20, 2022 / 5:19 pm

    I’d read enough other Dickson (and didn’t care for it) that by the time I’d heard Dorsai was supposedly foundational I had zero interest in finding out.
    Sounds like I made the right choice after this review…

    • marzaat July 20, 2022 / 5:22 pm

      You remind me I need to post a couple of reviews of Dickson-Poul Anderson’s Hoka series since I brought up both Dickson and H. Beam Piper’s cute Fuzzies.

      • Bookstooge July 20, 2022 / 7:48 pm

        I liked the Hoka series but that was despite Dickson 😀

  2. Joachim Boaz July 22, 2022 / 7:27 pm

    I tend to find Dickson deathly dull. I haven’t read Dorsai! (1960) yet though. There are a few exceptions — The Alien Way (1965) contained a weirdly effective alien society…

    His novel The Far Call, Gordon R. Dickson (serialized 1973, book form 1978) was the definition of overwritten.

    Looking through my reviews I apparently enjoyed (but no longer remember) a few stories in Ancient, My Enemy (1974): “In the Bone” (1966), “Tiger Green” (1965), and “Ancient, My Enemy” (1969).

    • marzaat July 22, 2022 / 7:34 pm

      Reading a bit of critical material on Dickson, it seems The Alien Way is well thought of as well as Wolf and Iron. The last features sort of a psychic bond between a wolf and man in a post-holocaust world.

      • Joachim Boaz July 22, 2022 / 7:35 pm

        I would have linked my review… but it’s from sooo early in my site’s history I am sort of embarrassed by it. Well, you know where to find it if you want to give it a read!

      • marzaat July 22, 2022 / 7:44 pm

        I will. Let’s just say I’m in no hurry to read more Dickson though I’m tempted to get his The Cloak and the Staff off the shelf since I read part of it in Analog when it was first published.

      • Joachim Boaz July 22, 2022 / 7:45 pm

        I don’t blame you! At this point I’m in the “will read a Dickson story if it’s in an anthology I’m reading” camp. I don’t seek out his work.

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