Gordon R. Dickson’s 1969 Wolfling is a standalone SF novel.
UN starships reached Alpha Centauri only to discover that humans already lived there. They are subjects of an immeasurably advanced hundred-thousand-year-old galactic empire.
The empire believes that Earth must be a lost colony. It might decide to act on that belief.
The UN must learn more about the empire. It sends James Keil off on a ship to the Throne World. He will pose as a bullfighter and entertain the imperial elite with barbaric spectacle. He will also gather intelligence.
His superior is having second thoughts about the plan, and the choice of agent, but it’s too late. Keil is en route.
Having caught the eye of Princess Afuan, Highborn aunt of the reigning All-Emperor, Keil spends his time en route to the galactic core making connections with the various Highborn on the ship. With some, like Ro, he makes friends. Some, like the arrogant Mekon, turn out to be hostile. Still others, like Slothiel, are amused by Keil’s boldness. He insists on seeing himself as a person and not as the genetically inferior wolfling that he is.
The Highborn believe that they are innately superior. They descend from the best of the best. They are taller, stronger, and smarter (or so they think). They have been given top-notch educations. But they are willing to allow promising individuals to join them. Someone from a colony world cannot hope to immediately win Highborn status, but they can earn provisional status. Eventually, one of their descendants might be welcomed as a Highborn.
It is a flawed meritocracy. The Highborn spend their time and energy on pointless status competitions and feuds. The court is a nightmare of intrigue. The All-Emperor, who should be the pinnacle of imperial breeding, is more than a little mad.
Even galactic empires are prone to ossification and entropy.
One thing soon becomes clear to Keil: the Empire will soon fall victim to a brutal coup, one whose outcome will not spare a wolfling world like Earth. He sees this, but his Highborn friends do not.
I purchased my copy of this book back in the 70s. It was one of three books I bought while visiting Connecticut to meet my late grandfather. He had died after WWII and then again, more permanently, in the 1980s. There’s not enough room in the margin for a more detailed explanation.
I think “A Hugo winner” refers to Dickson and not this novel.
It’s a pity that it is not a better book. What it is: Dune meets Foundation knock-off. It’s of its time.
I can’t say that I was fond to the Keil character, who is arrogantly sure that he is, like the Highborn, a genetically superior sort of person. He may well be but this is less because he is especially talented, and more because everyone around him seems to be a bit dim. I was reminded of Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, whose moral is that the key to being seen as a military genius is facing opponents who are all knuckleheads.
You might be wondering how much melanin the Highborn display. They are white. Extremely white.
(…) her skin also was white, but not in the sense that Jim’s skin was “white.”
Afuan’s skin was the color of white onyx (…)
Not at all surprising that SF first sold to John W. Campbell would have a super-race so white that humans would look dark next to them. And that all the subject races would be dark-skinned.
It’s also in character that an empire based on eugenics doesn’t spare much thought for civil liberties. If a colony-worlder annoys a Highborn, the Highborn can simply kill them out of hand.
Keil owes his superior insight into the empire to his reading of Earthian anthropology. As I recall, Dickson was fond of this trope. Other books featured anthro-savvy protagonists with keen insight into the weaknesses of alien cultures. The trope is central to 1965’s Mission to Universe, and 1972’s The Outposter.
Even as long ago as the 1960s, it was scientifically unjustifiable to claim that humans aren’t native to Earth. Dickson does some handwaving here, claiming that human-occupied worlds had been settled by forgotten forerunners who seeded each world with a whole assortment of animals related to humans. Hence the humans of each world believe that they evolved on that world1. [**Editor’s note: Dickson ignores the fossil evidence. He should have been reading biological anthropology as well as cultural anthropology.]
Dickson’s prose is serviceable. His characters are onion-skin thin and do not change noticeably over the course of the novel. The plot develops rapidly, in the blithe manner of the short novels of the time.
At some point, no doubt, I will reread a Dickson novel and find I still enjoy it. Today was not that day.
1: It would be even cooler if what actually happened is that all of the races really were indigenous to their home-worlds, and the forerunners simply fiddled evolution on a thousand planets over billions of years to force a convergent result.