Dorsai! is a seminal military science fiction novel; one of the early works popularising the subgenre, Dickson's novel still feels fresh and original today, despite its fifty-odd year history, and it avoids being dated.  Whilst its politics are at times distasteful to a left-winger like myself (it's more of a libertarian utopia, a trait it holds in common with much of Heinlein's work, a fellow pioneer of milSF), Dorsai! does a fine job of world-building, calling back to the Spartans and ancient Greece on some levels, and simply being itself on others...

Dorsai! is a tale of Donal Graeme, indeed, it is the tale of Donal Graeme.  We see a series of moments in Donal's life as he moves from adolescent through to being the most powerful military and political man in the universe; his political maneuverings, never quite clear in their motivations, are shown to us in stages as each shift in allegiances of the mercenary (always fulfilling his contracts) take him closer to this pinnacle of his power - and to the ability to crush his enemy, Prince William of Ceta.  The way Dickson follows that military career is excellent; we see a mix of specific battles, political maneuvers and meetings between Donal and various figures throughout the universe, and each of these is seen in a way that highlights the way in which it advances Donal - and how Donal anticipated it.  Indeed, the plot of Dorsai! is helped by this clear writing style; conversations are reported simply and neatly, battles shown frenetically and powerfully, with the chaos and the effects of things like phasing demonstrated very well, and insights into the future really effectively shown through moments when asides, as of a historian or biographer, are included.

The characters of Dorsai! are well-crafted.  Dickson's hero is, of course, Donal Graeme himself; he's who we consistently follow, and his willingness to manipulate others to his advantage is combined with a certain long-sighted ruthlessness that really does work powerfully to give Donal a personality as an outsider but one who doesn't quite understand why.  He's brash and rude at times, but sympathetic, because he's understandable; he's not working purely for ambition's sake, but his motives are often deeply unclear, and occasionally his manipulation seems small-minded.  The rest of the cast do suffer from the extent to which the limelight is on Donal, becoming rather two-dimensional; but Dickson manages to wield this two-dimensionality and writing stylishly and well, to the point that Dorsai!'s rather flat cast are lent life and veracity by virtue of a powerful writing style.

The politics of Dickson's novel do deserve comment, however.  Dorsai! has a capitalist philosophy at heart, albeit not uncritically; capitalism has to have humanism in its makeup as well, in Dickson's eyes, and his transhumanist moments are also well put across.  The problem is the concern with libertarianism; whilst Dickson does acknowledge that it is unstable, he seems to suggest that the lighter the hand of government on humanity the better, occasionally in a rather heavy-handed way.  The other huge political problem, and the thing which dates this book (indeed, dates it more than is perhaps possible...) is the misogyny; Dorsai! doesn't treat women as evil, simply as less intelligent, less logical, and less capable than men, which really doesn't allow for complex female characterisation in a full and rounded way, whilst also influencing the rest of the novel in some odd ways.

In the end, Dorsai! more than earns its place in the canon of military science fiction, and Dickson's writing proves itself incredibly powerful.  The problems of the novel are not discountable, but they also aren't insurmountable; this is an enjoyable, thrilling and fast-paced novel, and I would recommend it, albeit with caveats, especially to the feminists among you.

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Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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