DorsaiGordon R. Dickson
Childe Cycle, Book 1
Gordon R. Dickson
Introduction By David Drake
Sub-Patrol Chief II
War Chief II
Commander In Chief
Commander In Chief II
Secretary For Defense
By David Drake
I don’t insist that you believe Dorsai! is the best novel of military SF ever written: one could make a pretty good case for Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. I will, however, insist that those two novels (first published within weeks of one another in 1959) are in combination the standard against which the subgenre of military SF must be judged.
Everybody who’s attempted a complex task knows that mere are more ways to go wrong than there are to do the job right. Dorsai! and Starship Troopers are a useful illustration of the diversity nonetheless possible between first-class works, even within a category as narrow as military SF. Heinlein’s novel focused on the individual soldier and the social forces that molded him. Dorsai! is an investigation of the problems of high command and the qualities that produce the ideal commander.
The differences in approach aren’t so much apples and oranges but rather the drive and driven plates of a clutch: both command and execution are necessary for a military system to work. In my opinion, Dickson and Heinlein have explored these segments of the system not only as well as anybody in the field has done, but as well as anybody is likely ever to do.
Dorsai! is an exposition of what Basil Liddell-Hart termed the Strategy of Indirection. (I do not imply a necessarily direct connection.) Instead of overwhelming one’s opponent by brute force, the exponent of indirection maneuvers so that his opponent has to attack or (better yet) is checkmated without a battle.
Liddell-Hart developed his theories as a reaction to the blood-drenched kilting grounds of World War (tee, a conflict that was as perfect an example of the brute force approach and its limitations as one could find. The brute force technique as refined to its quintessential form by Field Marshal Haig involved silencing hostile machine guns by attacking with more infantry than the machine gunners had bullets. (I wish I were exaggerating, but read the accounts.)
Liddell-Hart went further back in history and examined the campaigns of Hannibal, Sherman, and particularly the Byzantine general Belisarius to find an alternative strategy. To defeat an entrenched enemy, maneuver around him and force him to leave his fortifications in order to protect his rear areas. Instead of attacking an enemy, destroy his supplies so that he has to retreat. Move into a position that the enemy must take (ideally for reasons of perceived honor rather than pragmatic need) and let him waste his strength against your fortifications—until you move out and leave him with a useless shell.
These are the sorts of campaigns that Donal Graeme, the hero of DORSAI!, fights. Anyone who has had the fortune to be involved in the other sort of war will wish that more real-life officers had considered the responsibilities of command as clearly as Dickson did.
Dorsai! is and was conceived as a self-standing novel. Because of the strength of its conception, however, it has become the foundation of one of science fiction’s most ambitious and far-ranging constructs, the Childe Cycle. The Cycle is a vast structure, spanning a millennium from the historical 14th century to a fictional future in which the triune aspects of humanity will be united again in a form both superhuman and super-humane.
Much of the Cycle remains to be written still today, more than thirty years after the original publication of Dorsai!, but the pieces of the interlocking whole continue to appear—each excellent in its own right It is a tribute to the structure of the original novel that the conception shown here in microcosm remains valid despite the weight of detail accreting in the later novels.
I’ve discussed Dorsai! as paradigm: for fiction writers in general, for military professionals, and for Dickson himself in his later work. None of the above could have touched me when I first read the novel at age 15. (Well, I read The Genetic General; which is not quite the same thing, but almost.)
What struck me and caused me to reread the novel a number of times was that this is one heck of a good story. It’s a model of clean prose, seamless structure, and fast action, in this too, Dorsai! is a paradigm—for other writers. But that doesn’t have to matter to readers, whether first-timers or (like me the other day) for the umpteenth time.
Dive in and have fun!
Chatham Country, NC
The boy was odd.
This much he knew for himself. This much he had heard his seniors—his mother, his father, his uncles, the officers at the Academy—mention to each other, nodding their heads confidentially, not once but many times during his short eighteen years of life, leading up to this day. Now, apart, wandering the empty rec fields in this long, amber twilight before returning to his home and the graduation supper awaiting him there, he admitted to the oddness—whether truly in himself, or only in what others thought of him.
“An odd boy,” he had overheard the Commandant at the Academy saying once to the Mathematics Officer, “you never know which way he’ll jump.”
Back at home right now, the family would be waiting his return—unsure of which way he would jump. They would be half expecting him to refuse his Outgoing. Why? He had never given them any cause to doubt. He was Dorsai of the Dorsai, his mother a Kenwick, his father a Graeme, names so very old their origin was buried in the prehistory of the Mother Planet. His courage was unquestioned, his word unblemished. He had headed his class. His very blood and bones were the heritage of a long line of great professional soldiers. No blot of dishonor had ever marred that roll of warriors, no home had ever been burnt, its inhabitants scattered and hiding their family shame under new names, because of some failure on the part of one of the family’s sons. And yet, they doubted.
He came to the fence that marked off the high hurdles from the jump pits, and leaned on it with both elbows, the tunic of a Senior Cadet pulled tight across his shoulders. In what way was he odd? he wondered into the wide glow of the sunset. How was he different?
He put himself apart from him in his mind’s eye, and considered himself. A slim young man of eighteen years—tall, but not tall by Dorsai standards, strong, but not strong by Dorsai standards. His face was the face of his father, sharp and angular, straight-nosed; but without his father’s massiveness of bones. His coloring was the dark coloring of the Dorsai, hair straight and black and a little coarse. Only his eyes—those indeterminate eyes that were no definite color but went from gray to green to blue with his shifting moods—were not to be found elsewhere on his family trees. But surely eyes alone could not account for a reputation of oddness?
There was, of course, his temper. He had inherited, in full measure, those cold, sudden, utterly murderous Dorsai rages which had made his people such that no sane man cared to cross one of them without good reason. But that was a common trait; and if the Dorsai thought of Donal Graeme as odd, it could not be for that alone.
Was it, he wondered now, gazing into the sunset, that even in his rages he was a little too calculating—a little too controlled and remote? And as he thought t
hat thought, all his strangeness, all his oddness came on him with a rush, together with that weird sense of disembodiment that had afflicted him, now and again, ever since his birth.
It came always at moments like this, riding the shoulders of fatigue and some great emotion. He remembered it as a very young boy in the Academy chapel at evening service, half-faint with hunger after the long day of hard military exercises and harder lesson. The sunset, as now, came slanting in through the high windows on the bare, highly polished walls and the solidographs of famous battles inset in them. He stood among the rows of his classmates between the hard, low benches, the ranked male voices, from the youngest cadet to the deep man-voices of the officers in the rear, riding the deep, solemn notes of the Recessional—that which was known as the Dorsai Hymn now, wherever man had gone, and which a man named Kipling had written the words of, over four centuries before.
... Far called, our navies melt away,
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo! All our pomp of yesterday,
Is one with Nineveh, and Tyre ...
As he had remembered it being sung at the burial service when his youngest uncle’s ashes had been brought back from the slagged battlefield of Donneswort, on Freiland, third planet circling the star of Sirius.
... For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust, that builds on dust
And guarding, calls not thee to guard ...
And he had sung with the rest, feeling then, as now, the final words in the innermost recesses of his heart.
... For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!
A chill shiver ran down his back. The enchantment was complete. Far and wide about him the red and dying light flooded the level land. In the farther sky the black dot of a hawk circled. But here by the fence and the high hurdles, he stood removed and detached, enclosed by some clear, transparent wall that set him apart from all the universe, alone, untouchable and enraptured. The inhabited worlds and their suns sank and dwindled in his mind’s eye; and he felt the siren, deadly pull of that ocean of some great, hidden purpose that promised him at once fulfillment and a final dissolution. He stood on its brink and its waves lapped at his feet; and, as always, he strove to lift his foot and step forward into its depths and be lost forever; but some small part of him cried out against the self-destruction and held him back.
Then suddenly—as suddenly as it had come—the spell was broken. He turned toward the craft that would take him home.
As he came to the front entrance, he found his father waiting for him, in the half-shadow leaning with his wide shoulders spread above the slim metal shaft of his cane.
“Be welcome to this house,” said his father and straightened up. “You’d better get out of that uniform and into some man’s clothes. Dinner will be ready in half an hour.”
The men of the household of Eachan Khan Graeme sat around the long, shimmering slab of the dining board in the long and shadowy room, at their drinking after the women and children had retired. They were not all present, nor—short of a minor miracle—was it ever likely that they would be, in this life. Of sixteen adult males, nine were off at the wars among the stars, one was undergoing reconstructive surgery at the hospital in Omalu, and the eldest, Donal’s granduncle, Kamal, was quietly dying in his own room at the back of the household with an oxygen tube up his nose and the faint scent of the bay lilac to remind him of his Maran wife, now forty years dead. Sitting at the table were five—of which, since three o’clock this afternoon—Donal was one. Those others who were present to welcome him to his adulthood were Eachan, his father; Mor, his elder brother, who was home on leave from the Friendlies; and his twin uncles Ian and Kensie, who had been next in age above that James who had died at Donneswort. They sat grouped around the high end of the table, Eachan at its head, with his two sons on his right and his two younger twin brothers on his left.
“They had good officers when I was there,” Eachan was saying. He leaned over to till Donal’s glass, and Donal took it up automatically, listening with both ears.
“Freilanders all,” said Ian, the grimmer of the two dark twins. “They run to stiffness of organization without combat to shake them up. Kensie says Mara or Kultis, and I say why not?*’
“They have full companies of Dorsai there, I hear,” said Mor, at Donal’s right. The deep voice of Eachan answered from his left.
“They’re show guards. I know of those. Why make a cake of nothing but icing? The Bond of Kultis likes to think of having an unmatched bodyguard; but they’d be fanned out to the troops fast enough in case of real trouble between the stars.”
“And meanwhile,” put in Kensie, with a sudden smile that split his dark face, “no action. Peacetime soldiering goes sour. The outfits split up into little cliques, the cake-fighters move in and an actual man—a Dorsai—becomes an ornament.”
“Good,” said Eachan, nodding.
Donal swallowed absently from his glass and the unaccustomed whiskey burned fiercely at the back of his nose and throat. Little pricklings of sweat popped out on his forehead; but he ignored them, concentrating on what was being said. This talk was all for his benefit, he knew. He was a man now, and could no longer be told what to do. The choice was his, about where he would go to take service, and they were helping him with what knowledge they had, of the eight systems and their ways.
“... I was never great for garrison duty myself,” Eachan was continuing. “A mercenary’s job is to train, maintain and fight; but when all’s said and done, the fighting’s the thing. Not that everyone’s of my mind. There are Dorsai and Dorsai—and not all Dorsai are Graemes.”
“The Friendlies, now—” said Mor, and stopped with a glance at his father, afraid that he had interrupted.
“Go on,” said Eachan, nodding.
“I was just about to point out,” said Mor, “there’s plenty of action on Association—and Harmony, too, I hear. The sects will always be fighting against each other. And there’s bodyguard work—”
“Catch us being personal gunmen,” said Ian, who—being closer in age to Mor than Mor’s father—did not feel the need to be quite so polite, “That’s no job for a soldier.”
“I didn’t mean to suggest it,” said Mor, turning to his uncle. “But the psalm-singers rate it high among themselves, and that takes some of their best talent. It leaves the field posts open for mercenaries,”
“True enough,” said Kensie, equably. “And if they had less fanatics and more officers, those two worlds would be putting strong forces out between the stars. But a priest-soldier is only troublesome when he’s more soldier than priest.”
“I’ll back that,” said Mor. “This last skirmish I was in on Association, an elder came down the line after we’d taken one little town and wanted five of my men for hangmen.”
“What did you do?” asked Kensie.
“Referred him to my Commandant—and then got to the old man first and told him that if he could find five men in my force who actually wanted such a job, he could transfer them out the next day.”
“Nothing spoils a man for battle like playing butcher,” he said.
“The old man got that,” said Mor. “They got their hangmen, I heard—but not from me.”
“The lusts are vampires,” said Eachan, heavily, from the head of the table. “Soldiering is a pure art. A man with a taste for blood, money or women was one I never trusted.”
“The women are fine on Mara and Kultis,” grinned Mor. “I hear.”
“I’ll not deny it,” said Kensie, merrily. “But you’ve got to come home, some day.”
“God grant that you all may,” said Eachan, somberly. “I am a Dorsai and a Graeme, but if this little world of ours had something else to trade for the contracts of out-world professionals besides the blood of our best fighting men, I’d be more pleased.”
“Would you have stayed home, Eachan,” said Mor, “when you were young and had two good legs?”
“No, Mor,” said Eachan, heavily. “But mere are other arts, beside the art of war—even for a Dorsai.” He looked at his eldest son. “When our forefathers settled this world less than a hundred and fifty years ago, it wasn’t with the intention of providing gun-fodder for the other eight systems. They only wanted a world where no man could bend the destinies of another man against that second man’s will.”
“And that we have,” said Ian, bleakly.
“And that we have,” echoed Eachan. “The Dorsai is a tree world where any man can do as he likes as long as he respects the rights of his neighbor. Not all the other eight systems combined would like to try their luck with this one world. But the price—the price—” He shook his head and refilled his glass.
“Now those are heavy words for a son who’s just going out,” said Kensie. “There’s a lot of good in life just the way she is now. Beside, it’s economic pressures we’re under today, not military. Who’d want the Dorsai, anyway, besides us? We’re all nut here, and very little kernel. Take one of the rich new worlds—like Ceta under Tau Ceti—or one of the richer, older worlds like Freiland, or Newton—or even old Venus herself. They’ve got cause to worry. They’re the ones that are at each other’s throats for the best scientists, the best technicians, the top artists and doctors. And the more work for us and the better life for us, because of it.”
“Eachan’s right though, Kensie,” growled Ian. “They still dream of squeezing our free people up into one lump and then negotiating with that lump for the force to get the whip hand over all the other worlds.” He leaned forward across the table toward Eachan and in the muted light of the dining room Donal saw the sudden white flash of the seared scar that coiled up his forearm like a snake and was lost in the loose sleeve of his short, undress tunic. “That’s the danger we’ll never be free of.”
“As long as the cantons remain independent of the Council,” said Eachan, “and the families remain independent of the cantons, there’ll be no success for them, Ian.” He nodded at all about the table. “That’s my end of the job here at home. You can go out to the wars with easy consciences. I promise you your children will grow up free in this house—free of any man’s will—or the house will no longer stand.”