In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Today, we’re going to look at Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, a seminal tale in his Childe Cycle series, focusing on his most famous creation, the Dorsai mercenaries. This book is full of action and adventure, but also full of musings on history, tactics and strategy, as well as a dollop of speculation on the evolution of human paranormal abilities. It is a quick read that gallops right along, with the scope of the story growing larger with every battle. Its protagonist, Colonel Cletus Grahame, is a fascinating creation, both compelling and infuriating—not only to the other characters in the book, but to the reader as well.
Imagine my surprise when I went to my first World Con and found the event guarded by an outfit called the Dorsai Irregulars. I had read about the Dorsai mercenaries in Galaxy and Analog, but never expected to see a version of them appear in real life. It turns out there had been problems at previous conventions due to regular security guards misunderstanding the culture of science fiction fandom. In 1974, author Robert Asprin created the Dorsai Irregulars, named in honor of Gordon Dickson’s preternaturally competent mercenary warriors (with Dickson’s permission, of course). And for decades, this uniformed, beret-wearing paramilitary group has provided security and support to many conventions. To me, their existence was a visible sign of the popularity and respect Dickson and his fictional creations garnered in the science fiction community.
About the Author
Gordon R. Dickson (1923-2001) was born in Canada but moved to Minnesota early in his life, and eventually became a U.S. citizen. After serving in the Army during World War II, he and Poul Anderson were members of the Minneapolis Fantasy Society, and the two occasionally collaborated on fiction, as well. Dickson published a story in a fanzine in 1942, but his first professional sale was a story co-written with Anderson in 1950. His short works were widely published in the 1950s and 1960s, covering a wide range of subjects. As mentioned above, his most famous creation was the Dorsai mercenaries, whose tales transcended the military science fiction genre with speculation on the future evolution of mankind. These stories were part of a larger story arc called the Childe Cycle, a project he was not able to complete during his lifetime. He wrote fantasy as well as science fiction, with his Dragon Knight novels about intelligent dragons being very popular. With Poul Anderson, he also wrote a series of humorous stories about teddy-bear-like aliens called Hokas.
By all accounts, Dickson was well liked by both peers and fans. He won three Hugo Awards during his career, in the short story, novelette, and novella categories, respectively. He won a Nebula Award in the novelette category. He served as President of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1969 to 1971, and he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in the year 2000. While most of Dickson’s work remains under copyright, you can find one of his stories on Project Gutenberg.
Military adventures have long been a staple of science fiction, and for a helpful overview of the sub-genre, you can read an excellent article here in the online Science Fiction Encyclopedia. In the late 20th century, however, a new type of military fiction became popular: stories which featured a specific element of warfare—the mercenary. Mercenaries do not fight for love of any country; instead, they fight professionally for whoever hires them. I suspect this development had something to do with the inconclusive nature of the Cold War, the stalemate that ended the Korean War, and then the failures in the Viet Nam War, which created a sense of disillusionment among American military personnel and veterans. The entire Viet Nam experience created a sense of “What are we fighting for?” among the U.S. Armed Forces, especially after the release of the Pentagon Papers revealed both calculated deception and mismanagement of the war effort at the highest level. It is no surprise that fiction began turning to military characters who fought not for country or glory, but simply for pay, and for the people fighting alongside them.
While there have been many stories featuring mercenaries since then, three writers stand out from the crowd. David Drake (see a review here) wrote stories of Hammer’s Slammers and other mercenary groups from the perspective of the front-line enlisted troops, focusing on the horrors of war. Jerry Pournelle (see a review here), in his tales of Falkenberg’s Legion, told stories that looked at the operational level of warfare, set in a rather grim future history that was strongly rooted in historical precedents. Gordon R. Dickson’s tales of the Dorsai did something else entirely. While there was plenty of action to keep things interesting, along with myriad examples of operational brilliance and grand strategy, it was clear that he had something grander in mind. He was looking to explore not just at warfare, but the nature of humanity itself, and the possibility of mankind evolving and transcending its previous limitations.
Dickson’s Childe Cycle, the larger narrative in which the Dorsai tales were set, looked at three different splinter cultures, each of which represented a different human archetype. The Dorsai personify warrior culture, the Exotics represent philosophers, and the Friendlies reflect faith and religious zealotry. While the Dorsai received more attention than the other archetypes and were certainly fan favorites, it is clear that Dickson was largely concerned with the overall evolution of superior mental, physical, and even paranormal abilities, and how this would shape humanity’s future.
The Dorsai novel Tactics of Mistake was first serialized in John Campbell’s Analog from October 1970 to January 1971. It is easy to see why it attracted attention from the editor, who had a fondness for both military action and explorations of paranormal abilities.
Tactics of Mistake
A Western Alliance lieutenant-colonel and Academy military history instructor, Cletus Grahame, apparently drunk, joins a table of dignitaries having dinner on an outbound space liner. The people around the table include Mondar, a representative from the Exotic colony on Bakhallan; Eachan Khan, a mercenary Colonel from the Dorsai world under contract to the Exotics; his daughter Melissa Khan; Dow deCastries, the Secretary of Outworld Affairs from the Coalition of Eastern Nations (who is obviously interested in Melissa); and Pater Ten, deCastries’ aide. The Coalition’s Neuland colony (backed by the Coalition) and the Exotic colony (backed by the Alliance) that share Bakhallan are arming themselves and seem headed toward war (the setting, with its great powers and proxy states, is very much rooted in the last century’s Cold War).
Grahame discusses laws of historical development, mentions a fencing gambit called the “tactics of mistake,” where a fencer makes a series of apparent mistakes to draw their opponent into overreaching, leaving them open to an attack, and brags that his ideas could quickly end a war between Neuland and the Exotics. Grahame then plays a shell game with cups and sugar cubes that he has rigged to make deCastries look foolish. This apparently random scene actually introduces almost all the major characters in the book, and sets in motion the conflicts that will engulf nearly all humanity’s colony worlds in warfare.
Grahame appears eccentric, but his Medal of Honor and wounds suffered during an act of heroism, which left him with a partially prosthetic knee, lend him some credibility. When the liner reaches Bakhallan, he, Mondar, Colonel Khan, and Melissa are in a car heading toward the capitol where they are attacked by guerillas, and only decisive action by Khan and Grahame foils the attack. Grahame reports to General Traynor, who has been ordered to take Grahame’s advice, but barely tolerates his presence. Grahame warns of an impending incursion by Neuland troops through a mountain gap, eager to impress their patron deCastries. The General scorns his advice, but gives him a company of troops to defend the gap. Grahame takes that company, whose commander also resists his advice, and it turns out he is right in every one of his predictions—through his personal heroism, the Alliance is able to turn back the attack. Grahame ends up in the hospital, having further damaged his wounded knee. Grahame and his insistence that he is always right impresses some but alienates others…especially when it turns out that he is correct.
Once Grahame heals, he befriends an Alliance Navy officer who has giant underwater channel-clearing bulldozers at his disposal. With Colonel Khan’s approval, he takes Melissa on a date that turns out to be an underwater journey up the river, where, just as he predicted, they encounter and interdict a major incursion effort by the Neulander guerillas, capturing the entire flotilla. Melissa is impressed, but then Grahame infuriates her by talking about how deCastries is becoming obsessed with beating him, and then tells her what he expects her to do.
Then Grahame, convinced that another attack through the mountain gap is coming (this time with regular troops), convinces the General to give him a small group of Dorsai troops and the freedom to deploy them as he wishes. Sure enough, the attack occurs just as he predicted, and to keep the General from interfering, Grahame asks him to come to his office, which has been booby trapped to keep the General in so that he cannot countermand any of Grahame’s orders. With clever deployment of his limited troops and use of those Navy underwater dozers to cause convenient river flooding, the bulk of the Neulander regular army is captured. Grahame again pushes himself beyond his physical limits, to the point where doctors want to amputate his leg. The furious General finally escapes, only to find that Grahame has already resigned his commission and been accepted as a new citizen of the Dorsai world.
And at this point, having spun a tale that is already satisfying in itself, Dickson’s larger ambitions become clearer. There have been hints throughout the narrative that Grahame has innate abilities similar to those the Exotics work to develop—abilities that help him predict the actions of others, and the consequences of various alternative courses of action. He summons Mondar for assistance in an effort to regrow a new and healthy knee: an effort that not only succeeds, but helps Grahame develop control over his body, giving him superior strength and endurance. The defeated deCastries visits Grahame, who predicts they will meet again in battle, with deCastries leading combined Alliance/Coalition forces and Grahame leading forces from the colony worlds, who will be colonies no more. Grahame creates a program to allow the Dorsai to develop their own superior physical abilities. The rest of the book follows a series of campaigns where the Dorsai become virtual super-soldiers, individually and collectively superior to any army ever assembled. Along the way, the seemingly cold Grahame continues to either infuriate or delight those around him, absorbed in military matters to the point of obsession; he also has a relationship with Melissa which is alternately chilling and heartwarming. Tactics of Mistake is a relatively short novel by today’s standards; in order to cover all this ground, the narrative zips along at a lightning pace that grows ever more rapid as it builds to its conclusion.
Gordon Dickson was one of the great authors of science fiction in the post-WWII era, and had a long and productive career. His Dorsai were fan favorites, and he wrote many other popular books, full of adventure and philosophy in equal measures. There have been few writers as ambitious as he, and even fewer who achieved what he was able to accomplish. Tactics of Mistake is a strong example of his Dorsai tales, and while some of the attitudes are dated, it is a fast-paced tale that is well worth reading.
And since I’m done talking, it’s your turn to chime in with your thoughts on Tactics of Mistake and any other example of Gordon Dickson’s work. One of my favorite parts of writing this column is reading your responses, so I look forward to hearing from you.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.