Gordon R. Dickson's SF BestGordon R. Dickson
Gordon R. Dickson's
Edited by JAMES R. FRENKEL
* * *
The stories in this work have previously been published as follows:
"Hilifter" in Analog magazine: Copyright © 1963 by Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
"Brother Charlie" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: Copyright © 1958 by Mercury Press, Inc.
"Act of Creation" in Satellite Science Fiction magazine: Copyright © 1957 by Gordon R. Dickson.
"Idiot Solvant" in Analog Science Fiction – Science Fact magazine: Copyright © 1961 by Gordon R. Dickson.
"Call Him Lord" in Analog Science Fiction – Science Fact magazine: Copyright © 1962 Condé Nast Publications, Inc.
"Tiger Green" in Worlds of If Science Fiction magazine: Copyright © 1965 by Galaxy Publishing Corporation.
"Of the People" in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: Copyright © 1955 by Mercury Press, Inc.
"Dolphin's Way" in Analog Science Fiction – Science Fact magazine: Copyright © 1964 by Condé Nast Publications Inc.
"In the Bone" in Worlds of If Science Fiction magazine: Copyright © 1966 by Galaxy Publishing Corporation.
The Quiet Giant
by Spider Robinson
Consider the Great Pyramid of Cheops, dominating the vast plateau of Giza. There it has stood since at least 2200 B.C., magnificent and awe inspiring, thirteen acres at the base.
Start considering that pyramid at about the time of Christ, and after about eighteen hundred years all you'll have come up with is that it's the god-damnedest tomb ever built. Only on second look, after you have refined your tools of observation, will you discern that it is indisputably not a tomb, but an astronomical observatory of Palomar precision, as well as a perfect timepiece, calendar, theodolite for surveyors, and geodetic and geographic landmark for the known world of its time. In order to have built it as they did, the ancient "primitive" Egyptians had to have known the precise circumference and shape of the planet, its distance from the sun, the existence and period of the precession of the equinoxes, and the value of pi to four decimal places – not to mention a hell of a lot of trigonometry.
Yet you don't have to know any of that to enjoy the Great Pyramid. Just look at the thing – it's literally the oldest and most astounding tourist attraction in existence, awesomely beautiful.
If you're not careful, you may only enjoy this book. For Gordon R. Dickson is a quiet giant, and this collection of his best short works is like unto a pyramid: Their mere appearance is highly enjoyable. Oh, only a few of them are anything like pyramidally vast in scope – but taken together they provide a view of man and his place in the universe at least as striking as that from the top of a pyramid. Gordy is a consistently reliable entertainer.
But if you take a second, deeper look, you may observe the exquisite skill with which these stories were crafted, and realize that implicit in their construction is a knowledge and understanding that was not at first apparent.
Anybody can enjoy a Fred Astaire dance – but if you take a second look, with a dancer's eye, you become even more impressed with the insane difficulty of those apparently effortless moves. The thing about really good carpentry is that it at no time obtrudes itself upon your attention: It manifests itself (to a noncarpenter) mostly as an utter absence of flaws, which is a subtle thing to pick up on. If you're not a mechanic, you may fail to realize what a great car your Volvo is – until you notice that it's fifteen years old and still running.
In just this way Gordy Dickson has time and again made world-class storytelling look so easy that only once have the Science Fiction Writers of America awarded him their Nebula (for "Call Him Lord," herein included), and only once have you, the readers, awarded him a Hugo (for "Soldier, Ask Not," too long for inclusion). While the rest of us advertise our writing muscles with theatrical grunts and groans, Gordy spends his time quietly, unobtrusively, effortlessly toting around pyramid-sized blocks of stone.
His are the real muscles.
I happened to be familiar with many of these stories already. I enjoyed rereading them enormously. Some of these Volvos are fifteen years old or more, and they all still run like a top. And each and every one of them repays that second, closer look. Editor Jim Frenkel's careful selection and arrangement (a staggering job, when you consider that he had over a million words of prime fiction from which to choose) is designed not only to demonstrate that there is no such thing as a typical Dickson story, but to stir up your brain as well. Try reading the last four stories in this book in a single afternoon, after each one asking yourself the question: "What does it mean to be human?" I find it incredible that a single writer could give us four such profoundly disparate answers. But then pyramids face in four directions.
If you just came here to be entertained, if all you want is a good read, then you've come to the right window. But if you want something a little more subtle, if you're willing to invest just a bit more than surface attention . . . you're in Fat City.
A few words about Gordon R. Dickson the man:
He is a renegade Canadian, born in Alberta in 1923. He has lived since age thirteen in Minneapolis, where he is something of a local landmark. He has been president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. His first novel was published in 1956.
He is one of the few people I know in this benighted age who understand that alcohol is for being merry. His capacity for merriment is legendary in sf circles and elsewhere.
Indeed, Gordy's capacity for anything is legendary. The first time I met him, Ben Bova took us both out to a restaurant in Boston where the proprietress/cook was so telepathic that, when we all settled on spaghetti and meatballs, she brought us portions of distinctly different sizes, which uncannily turned out to be exactly as much as each of us felt like eating. Gordy's portion was bigger than Ben's and mine combined.
But Gordy is a gentle giant; perhaps the gentlest man I know. He gives of his time prodigiously, and he may be the best-loved man in science fiction. A lot of us in this business have learned to rely on his unerring diagnostic skill as a story-doctor – we bring him stories we're stuck on, the plots that won't jell and the knots that won't untangle, and invariably he says a few words and we walk away smiting our foreheads and saying, "Of course!" (Last month Gordy said two sentences to me that changed a good novella into a better novel, which will sell for much more, too.) As I recollect he was one of the ad hoc committee who, at a cusp in my life, advised me to quit newspaper work and go freelance. When I needed an agent, he sensed it (long before I would have) and saw to it that I was introduced to an honest man. It just now comes to me that I have owed him twenty bucks for nearly four years.
He loves old ballads, the older the better, and he plays them on a guitar and sings them in a fine whisky-edged voice of fluctuating range. He's one of the few musicians I know who listens as well as he plays, and he never hogs the guitar.
I love him with my whole heart, and I'm happy and proud to find myself here in this book, the best collection available of Gordon R. Dickson's short work.
Editing this collection was an exhilarating bit of work. On one hand were the givens – over a hundred and sixty short pieces of science fiction written by Gordon R. Dickson over the last twenty-eight years. On the other hand was the book – a finite space to be filled with a small fraction of those stories. Not a small task.
Gordy, as Spider Robinson has noted in the Introduction, is one of the quiet giants of science fiction. He hasn't made himself a household name . . .
yet. He's had no Stranger in a Strange Land or Dune to which the man on the street may look for identification of the man's work. Rather, Gordy has toiled over the years in his own way, writing stories, novelettes, novellas, and full-length novels which form an enormous and most satisfying body of work (and he's not about to slow down for the benefit of historians or book editors who might want to summarize his entire body of work, which grows apace).
As I read his stories – and I read them all – I was struck first by the shocking fact of Gordon R. Dickson's high level of writing excellence. Some writers have a few stories that stand above all the rest of their work and shout at the top of their lungs, "I'm the greatest!" Make no mistake, Gordy has written great ones, and I won't spoil the joy of discovering them, but the general run of his short fiction is so good that it makes it hard to pick out a few as the best. Other stories keep leaping out of the stack, pleading for further consideration.
Perhaps the general excellence is in some measure due to the experimental nature of his writing. No, Gordy isn't one of the weird ones, but each time he arts a story, Gordy tries something he hasn't done before, whether it be a simple horror story, a trick ending, or a new approach to a stock topic. Given a basic concept, he explores for a new, perhaps hidden, idea. Just when you think you've got his range figured out he comes up with something that you'd never expect.
Most of the stories in this collection date from 1960 and later. It's a shame, because many of the earlier stories are terrifically entertaining. After all, it was in the fifties that he gained his reputation as a writer's writer. The hardest part of editing this book was eliminating stories that were good, even great, but not his best. To list those that almost made it would take up too much space. The stories that follow are the very best we could do within the limits of a single volume.
It was almost a year ago at the Minicon 12 convention in Minneapolis, near Gordy's suburban home, that I presented him with a copy of the recently reissued paperback edition of Wolfling. He knew then that I was reading all his short fiction for this collection, and in appreciation of that he wrote in my copy of Wolfling: To Jim, who is going to wear himself down to a nub!
The product of that work is here, and if it's worn me down to a nub, I can only say it was worth it. Besides, there are worse ways to go.
– JAMES R. FRENKEL
This is one of Gordy's most-requested stories, featuring one of his most engaging and enduring characters, Cully When (see None But Man and others). You could file it under Pure Fun – but it does serve to remind us that the distinction between a pirate and a privateer is more than letters of marque. It is essentially motivation, not the verdict of history, that decides who is a Hero and who a . . .
It was locked – from the outside.
Not only that, but the mechanical latch handle that would override the button lock on the tiny tourist cabin aboard the Star of the North was hidden by the very bed on which Cully When sat cross-legged, like some sinewy mountain man out of Cully's own pioneering ancestry. Cully grinned at the image in the mirror which went with the washstand now hidden by the bed beneath him. He would not have risked such an expression as that grin if there had been anyone around to see him. The grin, he knew, gave too much of him away to viewers. It was the hard, unconquerable humor of a man dealing for high stakes.
Here, in the privacy of this locked cabin, it was also a tribute to the skill of the steward who had imprisoned him. A dour and cautious individual with a long Scottish face, and no doubt the greater part of his back wages reinvested in the very spaceship line he worked for. Or had Cully done something to give himself away? No. Cully shook his head. If that had been the case, the steward would have done more than just lock the cabin. It occurred to Cully that his face, at last, might be becoming known.
"I'm sorry, sir," the steward had said, as he opened the cabin's sliding door and saw the unmade bed. "Off-watch steward's missed making it up." He clucked reprovingly. "I'll fix it for you, sir."
"No hurry," said Cully. "I just want to hang my clothes; and I can do that later."
"Oh, no, sir," The lean, dour face of the other – as primitive in a different way as Cully's own – looked shocked. "Regulations. Passengers' gear to be stowed and bunk made up before overdrive."
"Well, I can't just stand here in the corridor," said Cully. "I want to get rid of the stuff and get a drink." And indeed the corridor was so narrow, they were like two vehicles on a mountain road. One would have to back up to some wider spot to let the other past.
"Have the sheets in a moment, sir," said the steward. "Just a moment, sir. If you wouldn't mind sitting up on the bed, sir?"
"All right," said Cully. "But hurry. I want to step up for a drink in the lounge."
He hopped up on to the bed, which filled the little cabin in its down position; and drew his legs up tailor-fashion to clear them out of the corridor.
"Excuse me, sir," said the steward, closed the door, and went off. As soon as he heard the button lock latch, Cully had realized what the man was up to. But an unsuspecting man would have waited at least several minutes before hammering on the locked door and calling for someone to let him out. Cully had been forced to sit digesting the matter in silence.
At the thought of it now, however, he grinned again. That steward was a regular prize package. Cully must remember to think up something appropriate for him, afterward. At the moment, there were more pressing things to think of.
Cully looked in the mirror again and was relieved at the sight of himself without the betraying grin. The face that looked back at him at the moment was lean and angular. A little peroxide solution on his thick, straight brows had taken the sharp appearance off his high cheekbones and given his pale blue eyes a faintly innocent expression. When he really wanted to fail to impress sharply discerning eyes, he also made it a point to chew gum.
The present situation, he considered now, did not call for that extra touch. If the steward was already even vaguely suspicious of him, he could not wait around for an ideal opportunity. He would have to get busy now, while they were still working the spaceship out of the solar system to a safe distance where the overdrive could be engaged without risking a mass-proximity explosion.
And this, since he was imprisoned so neatly in own shoebox of a cabin, promised to be a problem right from the start.
He looked around the cabin. Unlike the salon cabins on the level overhead, where it was possible to pull down the bed and still have a tiny space to stand upright in – either beside the bed, in the case of single-bed cabins, or between them, in the case of doubles – in the tourist cabins once the bed was down, the room was completely divided into two spaces – the space above the bed and the space below. In the space above, with him, were the light and temperature and ventilation controls, controls to provide him with soft music or the latest adventure tape, food and drink dispensers and a host of other minor comforts.
There were also a phone and a signal button, both connected with the steward's office. Thoughtfully he tried both. There was, of course, no answer.
At that moment a red light flashed on the wall opposite him; and a voice came out of the grille that usually provided the soft music.
"We are about to maneuver. This is the Captain's Section, speaking. We are about to maneuver. Will all lounge passengers return to their cabins? Will all passengers remain in their cabins, and fasten seat belts. We are about to maneuver. This is the Captain's Section –"
Cully stopped listening. The steward would have known this announcement was coming. It meant that everybody but crew members would be in their cabins, and crew members would be up top in control level at maneuver posts. And that meant nobody was likely to happen along to let Cully out. If Cully could get out of this cabin, however, those abandoned corridors could be a break for him.
However, as he looked about him now, Cully was rapidly revising downward his first cheerful assumption that he – who had gotten out of so many much mo
re intentional prisons – would find this a relatively easy task. On the same principle that a pit with unclimbable walls and too deep to jump up from and catch an edge is one of the most perfect traps designable – the tourist room held Cully. He was on top of the bed; and he needed to be below it to operate the latch handle.
First question: How impenetrable was the bed itself? Cully dug down through the covers, pried up the mattress, peered through the springs, and saw a blank panel of metal. Well, he had not really expected much in that direction. He put the mattress and covers back and examined what he had to work with above-bed.
There were all the control switches and buttons on the wall, but nothing among them promised him any aid. The walls were the same metal paneling as the base of the bed. Cully began to turn out his pockets in the hope of finding something in them that would inspire him. And he did indeed turn out a number of interesting items, including a folded piece of notepaper which he looked at rather soberly before laying it aside, with a boy scout type of knife that just happened to have a set of lock picks among its other tools. The note would only take up valuable time at the moment, and – the lock being out of reach in the door – the lock picks were no good either.
There was nothing in what he produced to inspire him, however. Whistling a little mournfully, he began to make the next best use of his pile of property. He unscrewed the nib and cap of his long, gold fountain pen, took out the ink cartridge, and laid the tube remaining aside. He removed his belt, and the buckle from the belt. The buckle, it appeared, clipped on to the fountain pen tube in somewhat the manner of a pistol grip. He reached in his mouth, removed a bridge covering from the second premolar to the second molar, and combined this with a small metal throwaway dispenser of the sort designed to contain antacid tablets. The two together had a remarkable resemblance to the magazine and miniaturized trigger assembly of a small handgun; and when he attached them to the buckle-fountain-pen-tube combination the resemblance became so marked as to be practically inarguable.