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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Childe Cycle: Odds and Ends

  • The Childe Cycle was published over a period of 48 years (41 years during Dickson's life.) Given that, it's a bit astonishing how closely Dickson kept to the original conception of, at least, the SF portion of the Cycle: Donal Graeme, over multiple lives, shepherding the human race through the next phase of its evolution. The only major change was the decision (which, as I've earlier, I consider unfortunate) to give Bleys Ahrens his own sub-series of books, parallel with the Hal Mayne books. Otherwise it would have been possible to finish off the Cycle with one last book, for a total of seven rather than six. (Or even to finish in six by expanding The Chantry Guild to include the final struggle between Hal and Bleys.) Compared to many other series that bloated and got out of control over time, Dickson did an admirable job of sticking to his original conception.
  • Dickson used a variety of narrative styles for the thirteen Childe Cycle works, which include nine novels and four short stories.  (There are also two early stories, "Act of Creation" and "Lulungomeena", sometimes listed as part of the Cycle because they both feature soldiers from a world called "Dorsai".  They seem to me, other than the use of this name, completely unrelated, and in fact Dickson never placed them in any of the Childe Cycle collections.)  Each of the main characters has a characteristic style:
    •  Donal (Dorsai!)/Paul(Necromancer)/Hal(The Final Encyclopedia and The Chantry Guild)
      Third person.  With each lifetime, it's a closer third person, so that the reader sees Donal from the outside, is told about Paul's feelings, and experiences Hal's.  This helps portray the additional empathy he gains with each life.
    • Cletus (Tactics of Mistake)
      Cletus is like Donal, seen from a fairly distant third person.
    • Bleys (Young Bleys, Other, and Antagonist)
      Bleys is treated like Hal; the reader experiences his feelings (such as they are.)
    • Amanda Morgan the First ("Amanda Morgan")
      Amanda is also close third person. Her story is an illustration of the Dorsai character; either first person or close third would work. I don't know of any Dickson works written in female first-person.
    •  Ian ("Warrior" and "Brothers")
      Both of the stories in which Ian is the main character are told from the point of view of another character: "Warrior" in the third person and "Brothers" in the first. Ian, a cold and distant man, is most naturally seen from outside.
    • Tam Olyn (Soldier, Ask Not)
      Tam tells his story in first person. He undergoes the largest change of any of the characters, and first person allows the reader to experience it directly.
    • Corunna El Man ("Lost Dorsai")
      Corunna is the other first-person narrator, for the opposite reason.  "Lost Dorsai" is the only story that has several equally important main characters, and having Corunna (who isn't one of them) narrate it helps provide unity. (Though it does require the somewhat clumsy device of having Corunna overhear a number of conversations.)
  • In the Warrior/Philosopher/Faith-holder paradigm that informs the Childe Cycle, the Philosophers get the short end of thestick.  We meet many heroic Dorsai, and no evil ones.  (We're told of one evil one, at the beginning of Dorsai!, but he's been utterly defeated by the rest, his home burnt and none of the survivors even willing to admit being related to him.)  We see some evil Friendlies, like Amyth Barbage from The Final Encyclopedia and the fanatic who murders Dave Hall in Soldier, Ask Not, but we're often reminded that they're exceptions, and Barbage is redeemed by Rukh Tamani.  The Philosophers are represented by Walter Blunt, who is at best an equivocal character, and Sayona the Bond, who has spent his life looking for the next step in human evolution but can't see it in front of his nose.  The most sympathetic Exotic we meet is Padma, but he's an observer and a bystander, like a court wizard who explains the situation so that the hero can actually do something about it. We never meet an Exotic as impressive as Jamethon Black or Henry MacLean.
  • The Cycle contains a mixture of non-genre material (politics and military science), science fiction proper (spaceships and advanced technology), and mental powers that amount to magic (the Chantry Guild's Alternate Laws and Donal's ability to control space and time).  Each work is a different mix of the three. Dorsai! and Tactics of Mistake contain just one scene of magic each (respectively, Donal's ability to levitate and Cletus's to heal his wounded leg, and the latter could be viewed as merely self-hypnosis and biofeedback), while Necromancer has real, working magic in conflict with technology from beginning to send.  In the Cycle, magic is always done via the human mind's ability to draw power from a different sphere of reality (which is eventually called the Creative Universe), never by contacting supernatural spirits.  The Exotics have a non-theistic faith in the destiny of mankind, and the Dorsai a similar faith in their own strength and self-reliance.  While the Friendlies can accomplish great things through theistic faith, it's because their faith makes them stronger and braver, not because of any literal truth it might contain.  There's no sign that their God exists or has any effect on reality.  The Others seem to have no faith of any kind.  Dahno lives only to manipulate people and enjoy the wealth this brings him, while Bleys finds the universe cold, empty, hostile, and frightening.  What's ironic is that the Others' success at conquering the human worlds comes from Bleys's oratory about a great destiny for humanity that he himself has no faith in.
  • Resources:
    In addition to reading (and re-reading) the Childe Cycle books themselves, I found these two resources quite valuable:
    • "A Childe Cycle Concordance" by David W. Wixon (Dickson's assistant for many years and later the co-author of Antagonist), which can be found in the collection Lost Dorsai. It's an encyclopedia of the Cycle, with entries describing the worlds on which it takes place, the stars they orbit, the various human cultures, and the important characters. Published in 1993, it contains information about all the books though Young Bleys.
    • An interview with Gordon Dickson, which can be found here. It appears to have been recorded between the publication of The Final Encyclopedia and The Chantry Guild and discusses the Cycle in some detail.  Among the things it reveals is that the compression of the early novels, which many readers find preferable to the greater length of the later ones, wasn't Dickson's choice; his publisher at the time wouldn't allow anything longer.  Dickson would have preferred the books be longer, and indeed wrote longer ones once he was able to.
  • Triads:

    Triads, (e.g. lists of "the three XXX") are common in legends; in particular, the Mabinogion, a collection of Welsh legends which includes some of the earliest King Arthur tales, is chock-full of them. The Cycle also contains many triads, including:
    • The Cycle itself, originally planned to be a triad of triads: three books set in each of past, present, and future. (The list of books set in the future was later expanded to six because of publishing length restrictions.)
    • The three main Splinter Cultures

      • Warrior -- Dorsai
      • Philosopher -- Exotic
      • Faith Holder -- Friendly
    • The three Amanda Morgans
    • Donal's three lives:

      • Donal Graeme
      • Paul Formain
      • Hal Mayne
    • The women who love Hal:

      • Amanda Morgan (the Third) -- Dorsai
      • Ajela -- Exotic
      • Rukh Tamani -- Friendly
    • The three men whose death Tam caused, and who forgave him in The Chantry Guild:

      • Dave Hall
      • Jamethon Black
      • Kensie Graeme

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