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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Childe Cycle: Overview

Gordon Dickson's Childe Cycle was published over a period of 48 years, and includes nine novels and four shorter works. Originally, it was planned to include three historical novels, three contemporary novels, and six SF novels. (More of the last because Dickson didn't think there would be a market for SF novels as long as the others. If you're old enough, you might recall when an SF novel would fill only about 200 pages of a paperback.) The idea was to trace two main forces through human history and into the future: one that pushed for new challenges, and one that wanted to conserve the advances already made. Dickson's sympathies were with the former, and his usual method was to make the hero of each book embody expansion (usually called "creation") while the villain stands for stasis (often called "destruction').

The setting of almost all of the Cycle is the sixteen inhabited worlds of the galaxy. (Sometimes there are only fourteen. Dickson would often revise his plan, and small inconsistencies crop up with some frequency. But the final scheme included sixteen.) Except for Earth, almost all are monocultures, by design. The grand scheme is that mankind used space travel to try out many different approaches to dealing with the vastness of the universe, and people with similar ideas emigrated together. The result is the Splinter Cultures, of which the most notable are:

  1. The Dorsai, the name of both the people and their planet. They're a race of warriors, born and bred to be soldiers. They combine the military virtues of bravery, determination, and loyalty with an extraordinary athleticism. We never meet any evil Dorsai; they're pretty much all decent people, and many of them are heroic. So many of the stories feature them that the Childe Cycle is often called the Dorsai Saga. The Dorsai is a fairly poor planet; they survive mostly by hiring themselves out as high-priced mercenaries.
  2. The Exotics. They are a race of philosophers living on the two planets Mara and Kultis. (There's a famous typo in one of the books where a chapter about a character who's half-Maran is titled "Half-Moron"). The Exotics have developed psychology to the point where it's almost magic; they can do things like predict that a particular person will be at a particular place at a particular time, because the "ontological forces" insist on it. This sort of insight enables them to do very well in trade. They're also philosophical pacifists, so it's a good thing they can afford to hire the Dorsai to fight their battles. The Exotics' most important interest is human evolution. They understand a lot about the Splinter Cultures, and are constantly trying to discover what comes next.
  3. The Friendlies. They are religious fundamentalists living on the planets Harmony and Association. These feature many different Churches with differing beliefs, so there are constant low-level disagreements and battles on these worlds, though it rarely rises to the level of actual warfare. All the ones we see include strict discipline, simple ways of life, and a devotion to prayer and their church that makes them seem almost Amish. Like the Dorsai, the Friendly worlds are poor, and they also hire themselves as mercenaries, but where the Dorsai are elite troops, the Friendlies are cannon fodder. The Friendlies are the least sympathetic of the three, though Dickson goes to some effort to show the honor of their devotion to their faith.

There are other cultures (technologists on Newton and Cassida, planet-wide mines on Coby, capitalists on Ceta, etc.), but the term "Splinter Cultures" usually means just those three. (Threes come up a lot in the Cycle, just as they do in Celtic mythology; I'll try to note them when they do.)

There are four main time periods shown.
  1. Earth just before space travel:
  2. Necromancer (AKA No Room for Man)

  3. The early days of space travel, with the Younger Worlds newly settled:
  4. Tactics of Mistake, "Amanda Morgan"

  5. The height of the Splinter Cultures:
  6. Dorsai!, Soldier, Ask Not, "Warrior", "Lost Dorsai", "Brothers"

  7. The decay of the Splinter Cultures
  8. This is told from two points of view.

    The creative Hal Mayne: The Final Encyclopedia, Chantry Guild

    The static Bleys Ahrens: Young Bleys, Other, Antagonist

The Cycle is unfinished. The Hal Mayne books and Bleys Ahrens books end at almost the same point, just before the final battle between the two historical forces is about to be fought. Dickson had named the book in which it occurs (Childe) and discussed it often, but apparently never wrote any of it. This makes the whole thing a bit frustrating: there's a lot here to read, much of which is clearly leading up to the final stage of the conflict, yet we don't get the closure of seeing it resolved.

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