Gordon R. Dickson’s 1967 Soldier, Ask Not is an expansion of his 1964 Hugo-winning novella of the same title. It is part of his Childe Cycle, a series also known as the Dorsai books.
Tam Olyn and his sister Eileen were orphaned as children, which left them in the dubious care of their abusive uncle Mathias. Tam grows up ambitious and lacking in empathy. His emotional damage is a flaw that will have some nasty consequences.
Setting: faster than light drives and terraforming technology have allowed humans to settle thirteen colony worlds. The worlds have developed their own Splinter Cultures, each of which embodies one element of human nature: Exotics, for example, embrace mysticism, Dorsai martial prowess, the Friendlies religious fanaticism, and so on. Men of Earth have no speciality, which Mathias took as an indication the generalists of Earth were outmoded, and doomed to fade away
More setting: Mark Torres heads the Final Encyclopedia project, based on Earth. The Final Encyclopedia is an immense computer that is being loaded with everything known to humankind. He believes the Final Encyclopedia in its final state will be key to Man’s evolution. Even in its unfinished state, it grants some visitors a mystical experience, a moment of contact with the minds of all humanity. Such visitors are few.
Now for plot: Tam is one of the few who have the mystical experience. Torres considers making Tam his heir, but is advised against doing so by Exotic Padma. Tam is one of those few people who can shape history rather than being shaped by it, but he is too emotionally stunted to be of use to the Final Encyclopedia project.
Tam becomes a newsman, an elite occupation open only to the few. The same positive attributes that interested Torres serve him well as a newsman: he has a knack for spotting decisive events to report on. His flaws also serve him well, as he does not much care about the greater cost so long as he ascends up through the ranks of the Guild.
Tam’s one weak spot is his sister, Eileen, to whom he would like to be a loving brother without having the essential tools to do so. When he discovers that her husband Mark has been drafted, Tam arranges to have Mark assigned to him as an assistant. The intention is to keep Mark safe and thereby earn Eileen’s gratitude. The actual result is that he drags Mark into a war-zone without the protection Tam’s newsman status grants Tam. Captured by Friendly forces, Mark is executed by a fanatical Friendly officer.
Tam cannot bring Mark back from the dead. He can, however, make the Friendlies as a whole pay for the crimes of a single officer. Tam uses his position as newsman and his skills at manipulating others to maneuver the Friendlies into a war they cannot win.
I re-read this novel in the 1975 DAW MMPB. I was interested to see this blurb:
This is the second of Gordon R. Dickson’s famed Dorsai novels. The first, entitled TACTICS OF MISTAKE, is available from DAW as book #UQ1009 (95¢). The third, entitled DORSAI!, will be published by DAW in 1975.
But … at the time this edition was published, there were four novels, not three, that were generally counted as part of the series: Dorsai! (1959), Necromancer (1962), Soldier, Ask Not (1967), and Tactics of Mistake (1971)1 Why did DAW omit Necromancer from their list of related novels? Was it just that in 1975 DAW hadn’t acquired the rights to reprint it?
Dickson envisioned the series as a grand meditation on Man’s Destiny, a series which would range from the past (a set of historicals that as far as I know were never written or at least never published2) to the future.
He wrote two more books that can be slotted into the main sequence: The Final Encyclopedia (1984) and The Chantry Guild (1988).
Works set in this universe but not part of the main sequence include “Warrior” (1965), “Brothers” (1973), Amanda Morgan (1979), and Lost Dorsai (1980). Associated novels include Young Bleys (1991), Other (1994), and Antagonist (with David W. Wixon) (2007).
For various reasons (having largely to do with the microscopic font size chosen for the MMPB of The Final Encyclopedia ), I did not read the later volumes (save for Antagonist ). However, I do believe that Dickson never finished the series3, a belief in which I am supported by the Wikipedia article on the Childe Cycle. If you have evidence to the contrary, post in comments! Correct Wikipedia!
Now about this particular book: it’s an old-time SF novel in which MAN! Has a Destiny and women exist only as wives and helpmeets. Tam has a long-suffering love interest, who tries to sway him to the forces of light. He spends a lot of the book avoiding her. A tepid Dickson romance; in its defense, the one in Tactics of Mistake is even less plausible.
The prose is pedestrian and the plot implausible. Tam easily manipulates others with blatant flattery and suggestive comments. Well, that’s plausible — but that he could start a war this way?
(Ritual acknowledgement that current events make it very hard to argue that fictional individuals or groups can be shown as implausibly gullible.)
Dickson’s ideas about human destiny, at least as they work out in the Dorsai books, are pure-quill orthogenesis, in which humans have a goal towards with they are (often unconsciously) progressing. It was (and may still be) a very popular idea in SF and while I find it implausible, I have to admit the conceit helped fuel a number of well-known SF series.
OK, but other than that, James, how did you like the book? Well, there were a few things I liked.
The Friendlies aren’t all that warm and fuzzy — in fact, they’re often homicidal maniacs — but Dickson nevertheless believes that it would be wrong to exterminate them because, as dickish as some of them are, the Friendlies as a whole are a valuable and irreplaceable aspect of humanity. Genocide BAD shouldn’t be all that remarkable a moral but oh, well.
Another like: there aren’t that many SF books from the 1960s in which emotionally numb men are shown as crippled by their inability to empathize. There are all too many books in which big strong manly men are in fact emotionally numb and all the better for it. Tam is described as stunted, disabled, even a danger to those around him, thanks to an abusive childhood. Now it would seem that “abusive childhoods have long term negative effects for the kids” is another unexceptionable moral but … I’m sure we could find some contemporary SF novels in which abuse just makes you tough.
- Judging by internal chronology, the order should be Necromancer , Tactics of Mistake , Soldier, Ask Not , and Dorsai!
- If the proposed historical novels had been written and published, Dickson might have pulled a John Jakes and departed SF for greener pastures.
- Nor does Dickson ever explain why, in a setting where there are two main sources of mercenaries (the Dorsai, who never lose, and the Friendlies, who never win), anyone would ever hire the grating, inflexible Friendlies. Sure, they’re cheap but they’re not really friendly and they are incompetent soldiers.